Last Saturday, on the first full day of the new Trump administration, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari hosted Saturday Night Live. His opening monologue was not shy about the recent political climate. Ansari made funny and strangely apt comparisons between Trump and Chris Brown, lamented the beginning of a “lower-case KKK movement” in America, and brought up the historic Women’s March, saying, “Crazy couple of days, man. Yesterday Trump was inaugurated. Today, an entire gender protested against him. Wow.”
But the most interesting and poignant part of the set was tucked in the middle. After acknowledging the racism that the election has awakened, Ansari offered a solution to “solving” Islamophobia:
A lot of people are Islamophobic, which doesn’t make sense on paper because you know the God in Islam is the same God that was revealed to Abraham. Judaism, Christianity, same God. But people are scared. Why? Because any time they watch movies, and TV shows, and a character is Arabic, or they’re praying or something like that, that scary-ass music from “Homeland is underneath it, it’s terrifying! People are like “Aah! What are they saying?” Just “God is good!” Normal religion stuff! It’s O.K.! You want to end Islamophobia? Honestly, just change that music. Like, if the music was different–if it was just, like, [singing theme to “The Benny Hill Show”], people would be like, “Man, Islam is one whimsical religion, isn’t it?”
This “solution” to Islamophobia routes fundamentally through the representation of Arabic people in media. Though most know him from Parks and Recreation, Ansari has a long history in the world of television. Whether it’s in his comedy specials or his own show Master of None (which can be found on Neflix), he has never shied away from the knowledge of representation his work in TV has given him. For example, his own inspiration for acting turned out to be a white guy playing an Indian man in brownface. And after a conversation with a friend about how few Asian men get love interests on TV, Ansari dedicated himself to finding an Asian American actor to play his friend in Master of None even though it was harder than finding a white guy. Ansari knows from experience that authentically representing a group of people means showing them “eating nachos” and doing other “average American” things just as much as we show them doing anything else.
Since Trump has been elected, there’s been lot of attention on the so-called “average American.” Op-eds have sprouted from liberal and conservative news sources alike with the same message: clearly, the “elite liberal establishment” needs to listen to the “forgotten” Americans in the “flyover states.” In Trump’s narrative, it’s the out-of-touch city dwellers who need to recognize that it’s their fault that the backbone of America is rusting over in the countryside. It’s the liberal “coastal elite’s” blatant disregard for the (white) working men and women of the American suburbs that has caused their livelihood to go downhill.
Trump has disparaged Hollywood as part of this liberal establishment. It’s true that Los Angeles, and subsequently the world of movies, TV, and celebrities, is overwhelmingly liberal. At the Golden Globes Meryl Streep criticized him and his administration to applause from her associates. At the Women’s March, celebrities stood up one after the other to offer their support for the protest.
But even as these “coastal elites” are criticized for their political engagement (read: liberal political engagement; when was the last time we saw a conservative celebrity get told to “stick to acting” instead of speaking their mind?), we are in the Golden Age of TV. The demand for L.A.’s premier industry is huge all across America, from coast to coast and especially everything in between. We give the “flyover states” credit for voting Republicans into office, but we forget that those flyover states are just as much of a market for media as anywhere else in America. People watch TV, and TV tells them stories.
Growing up as a literature nerd, I knew more than one little girl like me who loved stories. As a kid we all had the favorite saying–“I read to escape.” Now I understand what I meant, which was really closer to “I read to learn.” All stories, whether big, small, in books or in TV, have messages that we learn from, even if they take place in far away fantasy lands. There’s a reason kids are taught through children’s books, and a reason modern news chooses to tell facts using a narrative nine times out of ten. A story helps because it’s a circular way to communicate a thought process or set of values.
Now, I live in Los Angeles with my boyfriend. We had both been those kids, hungry for a narrative we could learn from. At the time of the election, he had just finished his first full-length pilot script. We were despondent at the time; we threw ourselves into the pursuit of political knowledge, and his script lay forgotten for a while. But days later, his sister, who lives and works in Washington D.C., gave him some hope: “It’s people like you who are going to be needed.” She was talking, of course, about storytellers, about creators of culture who choose what narratives get broadcast out to all of America, Trump voters and otherwise.
In his SNL monologue, Aziz Ansari calls for storytellers, the most successful of whom work in TV right now, to actively portray Muslim-Americans as the average, funny, multi-faceted citizens that they are. Enough research has been done to back up his point: when viewers sympathize with characters of other ethnicities, colors, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds, they have an easier time sympathizing with the real people who look and act like those characters in real life. If all stories have a message, Ansari advocates for the a part of that message is just “I exist, same as you” to come to the forefront of writers and directors’ minds when they create media.
Representation is crucial, and at its core a political act. When we’re lucky, change can be as simple as changing the song.