A new BBC2 skit called “Real Housewives of ISIS” has caused quite some controversy. While some see it as harmless fun that brings to light how ridiculous Islamophobic views are, others see it as tacky, dangerous, and as further strengthening those very stereotypes. (For a great piece by Shafik Mandhai on the diverging views, check out this link.) The topic of race and comedy is a tough one, particularly when the audience is largely British and the topic is ISIS. Setting aside the very problematic decision to use ISIS as the subject through which to employ long-lasting and much-used tropes about Muslim women, suicide bombing, and so on, there is another point to be made about humour being used without context, and how this ultimately does not do anything about the very stereotypes it aims to make fun of.
This skit reminded me of something that happened to me over 5 years ago. An Iranian friend of mine was at my house, and he found a book on my bookshelf called “Burka Babes.”
I had found the cartoons inside hilarious, and thought he would too. After flipping through it, he put it down and told me that it was a horrible book. He sounded so serious that I felt my heart fall. I asked him why, since they were just jokes that showed how stereotypes about women in burkas are wrong. He told me that all this book did was dehumanize women who wear burkas and turn it into a subject to be laughed at by Dutch people. I started to think about how this book, written by a white Dutch man, presented nothing but a series of cartoons making fun of women who wear burkas. While some people, like myself, may have seen how they shed light on how ridiculous Dutch stereotypes about burkas are, I knew that the majority of Dutch people would see these cartoons as nothing more than a few minutes of laughter and comedy. There was nothing in it that showed the long history of Orientalism and in particular gendered Orientalism. There was nothing in it that touched on why white/liberal feminism is not the only lens through which we can understand how women relate to their bodies. And there was nothing in it about how the Netherlands has become one of the most Islamophobic and racist countries in Europe by reproducing these types of views over and over. Instead, it probably made Peter lots of money, made lots of Dutch people laugh, and is now lying forgotten on many Dutch bookshelves.
But I don’t think that means there is no place for comedy that tackles race and racism. One of my favourite shows, Black-ish, actually does it very well, and I think the reason for that is because it does an amazing job of contextualizing the many jokes about race in each episode. At the start there is usually a few minutes about real historical and contemporary American events that explain why we have particular stereotypes about Black people and why the jokes in the show are not just jokes or a few seconds of laughter; they touch on issues that are deep-rooted and serious. I wasn’t surprised to recently read a piece that said many white American viewers were “uncomfortable” when they watched Black-ish. What made people uncomfortable was the “continued discussion of race” on the show. It isn’t just a series of jokes that people can laugh at and then forget. The way the show frames these jokes is what turns it into a discussion about race, and what ultimately makes white people uncomfortable. The episode about police shootings, which was uncharacteristically serious, made a strong point with its sombre tone. And the fact that the show has covered so many controversial and contemporary issues in current debates about racism shows how and why context is key. I recently rewatched all 3 seasons with my best friend, who also kept noting how each episode touches on issues that are so serious without making them seem less serious than they really are. Sadly, Real Housewives of ISIS didn’t even come close to that.
It would be nice to think that when we produce something, we don’t have to think about the audience or about the effect it will have. But when you make a comedy about ISIS using Muslim stereotypes, it does matter that your audience will be largely British, and it does matter that nothing in your skit provides any sort of context for the jokes being made. Making people laugh at Muslim stereotypes ultimately just reproduces them without getting most people to think deeper.