Characterisation vs discrimination: Where do we draw the line in TV and Cinema?

Ashley Manning /
Oct 24, 2018 / Film & TV

The nation sat on the edge of its seat as the plot of BBC thriller, Bodyguard, unravelled. It took a look at a handful of socially relevant topics from PTSD to political corruption and terrorism.

Soon after the final episode aired, Tasnim Nazeer, journalist for The Guardian, claimed that the show was inherently Islamophobic towards it’s female villain who was revealed as being the mastermind behind several bombings in the series.

Nazeer suggested that the BBC drama was pandering to dangerous stereotypes highlighting that ‘Muslim women are more than victims or terrorists.’ In many ways, Nazeer is absolutely correct in pointing out that in the past, the media’s portrayal of some communities has encouraged ignorance and hateful attitudes within the public. And in this instance, was the BBC wrong to cast a Muslim woman for the role of an oppressed female who finds her empowerment from enabling terrorist acts? The debate remains inconclusive.

What Nazeer’s article does highlight, though, is that those who create both tv series and films simply cannot get it right.

Hollywood has had its fair share of upheaval in the past year as critics and campaigners alike have pushed for more diversity for its roles. Now, upon almost every release, critics are heavily scrutinising both dialogues and casting to try and find an argument that supports there being some sort of discrimination present. On most occasions, the critics hit the nail on the head when there’s discrimination particularly towards women and ethnic communities.

By persisting in trying to find discrimination, are we making creative limitations for writers and directors? Cinema, at its best, mirrors real life, shining a spotlight on people from all walks of life. Sometimes, cinema tries to show exactly what life is like, which unfortunately casts aspersions on some people it talks about. There are times when the only people who can fill a role are those whose communities have lived those lives. Would it make sense for an agent to cast a woman as the main character for a film about three men who fought on the frontline of WW1? Probably not. Does this mean the film is anti-feminist? No, not really.

Cinema can be a great instrument through which many silenced people can find a voice. But if we are also seeking to find the ‘voice misheard’ are we effectively silencing all the other voices in the film or series?

Granted, Bodyguard did play into a well-known stereotype about Muslims which, during a time of Islamophobia, really isn’t helpful. But the show also gave the female character a voice. Up until the final episode she was portrayed as a meek, afraid, domestically oppressed victim. But in the big reveal, she showed that she was a strong-minded woman capable of impacting hundreds of civilians and disrupting a corruptive government. And arguably, the show playing into this stereotype shone a light on its existence provoking its audience to question their own prejudices.

By all means, critics should continue to look for moments when cinema and tv get it completely wrong as we push for everyone to be represented correctly and fairly. But let’s also give cinema and tv the space to explore stories, people and communities. There probably will never be a time when film and tv pleases everyone, ticking every critical box, passing every social test. But then, we don’t live in a society that ticks every critical box or passes every social test and so until society does, let’s cut tv and cinema a bit of slack for trying and more often than not, failing.

Photo Credit: BBC

Words by Ashley Manning

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