Ramy Youssef's Hulu comedy centers on a straight, male Muslim. But in season two, it's the women who are driving the plots—and social conversations.
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In the midst of mass chaos, devastation, and rebellion, Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical comedy, Ramy, so beautifully pushes necessary conversations about race, mental health, Muslims in America, gender, sexuality, disability, and relationships without the specific goal of educating a mainstream audience on “wokeness.”
The show follows Youssef’s millennial first-generation Muslim-American Egyptian immigrant in New Jersey on his journey towards self-discovery. One criticism of Ramy’s first season, which features a majority male cast, points out its inaccurate depiction of Muslim women as unidimensional stereotyped characters — stating “he seems to reserve a particular strain of pity for the Muslim women in his life.” This critique, while on point for Season 1, falls flat as Season 2 brings dimension to not only women characters individually, but strong and complex women relationships as well. And through this, their intersectionality shines through authentically and organically.
Many recent highly acclaimed and enjoyable shows have featured “diverse” casts, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Never Have I Ever, This Is Us, all lauded for representation — reflecting a more accurate picture of America and intentionally themed around societal injustices. And while many shows now mirror the “melting pot” of America by casting characters from each minority group — or rather, trying to provide the viewer what they want — this ultimately becomes a well-intended formulaic and superficial construction that doesn’t do justice to reality. In fact, it is not Youssef himself but rather the media who calls it “the Muslim show.” In truth, it’s a show that acts as character biography, telling one, specific story each episode, allowing us to experience each character’s multiple identities, perspectives, and relationships as they interplay with the universal human condition. And this season, it’s the women’s time to shine.
Ramy’s younger sister is initially portrayed as a put-together woman juxtaposed with her lost, unaware, and self-destructive older brother. The media’s depiction of a strong, complex, and human female character has historically and typically gone one of two ways: gorgeous, obedient housewife, or “badass” CEO, superhero, or super mom. Both of these tropes are objectifying. Ramy makes space for Dena’s humanness this season by highlighting her complex relationship with religion, authority, her parents, and her identity.
Towards the start of an episode shot from her perspective, Dena’s parents scold her for making her acceptance to law school public, warning her that this will be the impetus for something bad to happen—the “evil eye.” A believer in fact and logic, she pushes back, but when a new struggle, outside of her control, looms over her, Dena finds herself turning back to aspects of a religion that she isn’t quite sure she believes in. During this episode, Dena faces a multitude of microaggressions—from the way others point out that she smells of garlic, to a racist and sexist driver, who tells her that she is lucky she can drive in America as opposed to where she is from—hinting that she is from Saudi Arabia. He tops this off with a judgemental comment about her headscarf. And with this, Dena finally explodes, screaming, as her vulnerability spills into the world.
Ramy, despite being a male-dominated show, depicts women as humans—humans with weakness, with strengths, and with complicated identities that lead to growth. In a world founded on racism and sexism, it is vital that it’s men, and not only women, who give voice to our experience. As the show follows Dena’s life, viewers get a glimpse and understanding of what it is like to navigate an intersectional female experience—through her eyes. The psychological concept of “mentalization” translates to the ability to think from another’s perspective—and Youssef himself models this very act.
In Season 2, we begin to understand the meaning behind the at first, seemingly “stereotypical” “immigrant-Mom”-esque statements Maysa makes. In the first season, she is portrayed quite comically – the “bored” Mom looking to have a purpose, who ultimately drives Lyft, and runs into many awkward encounters chauffeuring strangers around. A perfect laugh for the millennial viewer. In Season 2, Maysa makes the decision to obtain citizenship so she can vote against Donald Trump; when an anonymous Lyft rider files a complaint about her, she becomes fearful this will get in the way. In her quest to undo the complaint, she retraces her steps to apologize to a transgender female who she repeatedly misgendered, after both her husband and her daughter, Dena, reject her cries for help.
It is clear she has attempted to re-learn these concepts as she uses the pronouns “they” and “their” intentionally in a descriptive sentence. Ultimately, Maysa, given her superficial understanding of gender identity, continues to be offensive. The cops are called, and Dena comes to the rescue, and Maysa blurts out another racist comment about another Lyft rider. Here, Ramy reminds us that people who have experienced oppression are not immune to oppressing others themselves, intentionally or not.
Privilege is a nonbinary concept, and dismantling oppressive structures very much involves marginalized populations not only reflecting on and changing their own behaviors, but using this ultimately to stand up for oppressed groups outside of their own. Youssef does this in several ways: by naturally bringing to the forefront very realistic scenarios that happen in his communities, by being a first-generation immigrant himself who is bringing complex topics to the dinner tables of many first-generation immigrant viewers across generations
The Sheikh’s daughter, Fatima, a Black Muslim woman, carefully distinguishes her own beliefs from her idealized father’s. She knows what she wants and goes about it with at least an external calmness the viewer may long to emulate. She expresses a distaste for her father’s idealistic ways of consuming the world, recognizing that business and strategy are also important when running a large mosque. Due to her instincts, lack of naivety, and less impulsive pace, she disapproves of allowing a new male friend of Ramy’s into the mosque, and ultimately he kills another character due to what appear to be untreated PTSD symptoms. While Ramy’s awkward and endearing way of being – almost as if he is a boy, lost in a carnival at times – give him permission to stumble, superficially, through the world, Fatima, as a Black Muslim woman, has not and does not have this choice as she navigates being a leader in her mosque while being objectified by potential Sheikhs at wealthier boutique-y mosques. When Ramy uses his male privilege to secure money for the mosque, Fatima changes directions and shows interest in marrying Ramy, a quicker decision than the audience may have expected.
When their families meet, the anti-Black racism – presented in an unfortunately realistic and cringe-worthy manner is evident. Each time the viewer feels Ramy’s uncle has made an inappropriate comment, it gets worse — it’s the exact scene many people would avoid watching because it’s too uncomfortable, as one hears hip-hop and prison mentioned randomly, and Uncle Naseem expresses complete shock that a Black person could speak Arabic. All the while, Maysa, has learned to introduce herself with her pronouns.
The awkward conversations we all need to have are so authentically, and literally, brought to the dinner table. It feels real. There are characters— minorities with privilege—who we have grown attached to, who do not understand anti-Black racism (at one point with Maysa tells Ramy his matrimonial candidate looks like Beyoncé in a failed attempt to be more accepting). This scene is so poignant as it brings to light the many ways in which discrimination can occur concurrently and the many layers that can be peeled; so much happens at once that it can be overwhelming, like reality. And ultimately, it is not anti-Blackness that separates Ramy and Fatima, but Ramy’s lack of clear or integrated identity, that one could argue is related to place as a man in the world.
Ramy’s authentic portrayal of complex issues that inevitably come up in everyday life models the types of conversations all of us should be having. The unfortunate truth is that if women are the only ones to make shows about women, we may never see a slow change in the way we think, interact, take in the world, and act.
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