Religion, representation and 'Ramy'

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 8:02pm

AP

NOSELL

Despite the countless positives associated with the recent surge in representation within our media landscape, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. The mere presence of diverse faces does not mean that the seemingly never-ending journey toward parity has been completed.

That’s right, whites. Put your pussy hats back on, this party’s far from being over. Currently, to be a person of color with a platform in the media, your visibility comes at the cost of your individualism. The beast of fame is indiscriminate in its scrutiny of those in the public eye, but only those from marginalized groups know the fatiguing extent to which their identities amplify this magnification. In the same way that the only Black kid in class is expected to retain a doctorate in American slavery by middle school, creators of color are expected to use their projects to speak for an entire community.

Part of this stems from a longstanding legacy of underrepresentation. When a people has been deprived of representation for — well — forever, each starved member has ample time to dream up their own unique expectations that one show cannot possibly satisfy. This pattern also stems from the long-established normalization of the privileged, and the resultant “othering” of everyone who does not meet a certain criterion. Even shows featuring niche sects within privileged groups, take Irish Catholics for instance, avoid the expectation to speak for all members of the community. This is because, as Ramy Youssef (“Mr. Robot”), creator of a new, self-titled Hulu show,  pointed out in his group interview with The Michigan Daily, privileged groups have historically been afforded the right to nuance. Marginalized groups? Not so much.

Ramy Youssef is out to combat this norm.

To the untrained eye, “Ramy” appears to be yet another vehicle for a stand-up comedian too lazy to think up a title for a show loosely based on themselves. There’s been “Seinfeld,” “Roseanne,” “Ellen” and even (yes, I’m bringing it up) “Mulaney.” Only this time, the old trick comes with a layer of complexity unfounded in its predecessors: “I think it’s really important to have people authentically being themselves. And I think, for me, my approach in calling the show ‘Ramy’ was to highlight from the beginning that this is just one Arab-Muslim story.”

In developing “Ramy,” Youssef made it his mission to create a show with subtleties usually only reserved for white, presumably Christian characters. In doing so, he has forged a path for future creators of color who dream of a day when their identities can be present in their work without overshadowing the actual story, or at the very least, express themselves in their work without the constant anxiety of appeasing everyone within a community.

Produced by A24, “Ramy” is now kin to some of the most talked-about coming-of-age stories of recent years: “Lady Bird,” “mid90s,” “Eighth Grade,” the list goes on. Although this is exceptional company to be in, I had to wonder, in addition to centering on an Arab-American man, how else does “Ramy” distinguish itself as a narrative from the seemingly never-ending stream of projects falling under the category of Confused Millennial Finding Him/Her/Their selves™? Youssef’s answer was unexpected to say the least. And not just because genteel women never discuss it during dinner.

Religion.

Make no mistake — Youssef, dressed as though he could have just clocked out from a long day at VICE News, is not out to convert the masses or spread the word of how “cool” religion can be like a cargo short-clad youth group leader. His aim in emphasizing religion in his passion project is merely to shed a light on the crossroads he has been met with throughout his life in attempting to own his faith while willingly participating in aspects of secularity.

While most comedies geared towards the coveted 18-34 demographic evade discussing religion in an earnest way and feature characters either ambivalent toward or outwardly disinterested in any element of faith, “Ramy” attempts to bridge this divide by crafting a nuanced depiction of a man who is not attempting to escape his religion and culture, but, on the contrary, to “be his best spiritual self.” A distinction that is on display from the onset of the series, in the first episode alone, fictional Ramy Hassan must have an awkward conversation with his hookup regarding her misconceptions about his faith. She assumed he was “culturally Muslim” in the same way that she was “culturally Jewish.” She was incorrect. I couldn’t help but picture the scene as a meta exchange between Youssef himself and other popular coming-of-age comedies of today.

Comedy and religion are an odd couple of sorts — with their only successful merger to date being the archaic setup for jokes about a rabbi and a priest inexplicably sharing a drink at Applebee’s. Youssef is not blind to this reality, reasoning that, “church, the mosque, the temple … whatever are almost always the punchline.” As much as I like to perceive millennials and Generation Z as a hold-no-punches bunch, shying away from no topic too taboo, I had to wrangle with the possibility that maybe we did avoid religion like Christmas Eve mass. Just because I am a disillusioned Catholic (read: only stuck around for the wine, then bounced), does that mean that I cannot appreciate a show about someone else’s relationship to their faith? My fear in beginning Youssef’s series with this in mind was that it would be akin to the Christian movies they showed at my Catholic middle school: preachy, poorly acted and (maybe?) with an arc related to high school football.

It would be an understatement to say that this is not “Ramy” in the slightest. No spoilers: There’s a condom full of water, a cringe-inducing car makeout and hookah. There are clearer traces of “Atlanta” inherent in “Ramy” than the Catholic school staple, “Facing the Giants.”

Rather than being a hindrance to my enjoyment, Youssef’s exploration of religion provided for a compelling internal struggle that was refreshing to see. In discussing the possibility of renewal by Hulu, Ramy and co-star Dave Merheje (“Mr. D”) both expressed high hopes for a second season. With commercial and critical praise continuing to pour in for the show, this appears to be a very plausible matter. And for Youssef, who was credited with penning about half of the first season’s episodes, he shows no signs of writer’s block: “The importance [of “Ramy”] lies in that we get to highlight that you can be very specific and do ten episodes in a season and there’s still so much that hasn’t been touched. And I think if there’s anything that is important about (this), it’s that. We get to highlight how hyperspecificity is a wealth of story and probably profitable too.”