People have hailed ‘Ramy’ as “exciting” because it brings us “something new”. But when I consider the messages in the series, it’s clear that it isn’t true.
CW—ableism, misogyny, sexual assault, anti-Black racism
By Zeinab Khalil
Ramy has just been renewed for a second season on Hulu, and I honestly don’t know why.
I only just finished the show. It took me three months to get through ten 25-minute episodes. As a serial telenovela and online streaming junkie, this is unlike me.
When I talk to folks who tell me they like the show, I ask what they like about it. They murmur something about “representation” and “firsts” and “normal.” Ok, but besides being Muslim (there’s 2 billion of us out here so…), what is interesting about the main character? Besides not being a violent terrorist (show of hands if you fit this category!), what is supposed to draw us to him? Does this show amplify more complex or nuanced representations of Muslims in America? (Spoiler: it does not).
When I’m asked if I like the show, I say no. And my reasons are clear. The storyline is painfully vapid. The acting is mediocre and uninspired. The dialogue feels forced and pedantic.
But the PSA-style, sermonizing dialogue makes sense if we accept the show for what it is: an attempt to make Muslim Americans legible and palatable to the white gaze by distilling our complex identities, faith and lived experiences into a generic, lazy story about the exceptional “good Muslim man,” his boring “irreconcilable” identity crisis, his dull sexual encounters, and his righteous saviorism contrasted against a sea of “degenerates.”
People have hailed ‘Ramy’ as “exciting” because it brings us “something new”. But when I consider the messages in the series, it’s clear that it isn’t true. In an interview with Seth Meyers, the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef, shared how he takes offense to the concept of the “moderate Muslim”—but his show reproduces this archetype at every turn. Jack Shaheen and other scholars have long demonstrated how cultural productions have been used to cast Arabs and Muslims through a litany of lazy tropes: we are backward and in need of saving; simultaneously sexually repressive and sexually perverse; exceptionally misogynistic, antisemitic and homophobic; and we are terrorist-suspects unless we prove ourselves not to be through western liberal referents.
Because there’s no critical commentary or disruption of any of these tropes, we can add Ramy to the annals of centuries-old misinformed, reductive tales of Arab and Muslim lived experiences. All that is really “new” about Ramy is that its creator has a different name, his hair is darker, and he’s able to offer the much-desired stamp for authenticity.
The following are what I consider to be the top 11 worst moments in Ramy, a compilation of the most misogynistic, islamophobic, racist, ableist, orientalist, and just straight up corny moments in the show:
1. Women are Lollipops
Let’s start with Episode 1 where Ramy tells his parents he is serious about finding a wife and asks for help. His mom gets excited and asks, “covered or uncovered?” Without blinking an eye, he replies, “uncovered.” She tells him “good job” and happily begins her search. Uncovered? Is this Aladdin? National Geographic? Laura Bush? Here is strike one of Ramy depicting Muslim women, in all their complexity and glory, as objects given meaning based on what they do or don’t wear. While there could have been an opportunity here for the show to disrupt this trite understanding of Muslim women as lollipops, it doesn’t.
2. The Grand Unveiling
In the show, Ramy stands up as the quintessential strawman feminist for Muslim women which flattens us and exceptionalizes him. In Episode 5, he walks a woman home from the mosque, Salma, after catching her crying in the parking lot with her son. This damsel in distress scene coupled with the subsequent Unveiling Scene™ feels like the beginning of a bad, racist porno. At home, Salma takes off her hijab and then proceeds to profusely apologize to Ramy 12,000 times. “Oh shit I am so sorry, I, uh, I’m sorry, I take it off as soon as I get back. Would you judge me if I didn’t put it back on? Are you sure? Oh fuck you must be starving. Let me get you a snack before you go.”
This scene would’ve been odd enough on its own, but to make matters worse, we get this next dialogue where she talks about her husband: “Sometimes I really wish he was an old school misogynist—like our dads, just expect a hot meal at the end of the day, clean house, good kid. Sorry I’m venting. You seem like one of the good ones, so I’m sorry.” It’s not lost on me the irony of yearning for ‘old school misogynists’ when the portrayal of this character, in every sense, is misogynistic: she is insecure and apologetic, she wants to be saved by one man from another, she coddles and centers his comfort in her own home, and then she basically makes him a sandwich! You cannot make this up.
In Episode 3, Ramy flirts with Sarah, the Jewish woman he meets through his uncle’s business and tries to get her number. She’s shocked when he reveals that he is not Jewish. He says, “I’m actually the other Middle Eastern thing. How about this, you guys get the land. We get the curl?” Cringe. This dude, who in no way is impacted by Israeli military occupation, is eager to trade off Palestinian land (lol we’ve seen Egypt do that before already) for some lackluster curls? How can one be simultaneously corny and trivialize the violence of a settler-colonial state? This scene answers this question.
4. Mr. Feminist™ Knows Best
In Episode 3 Ramy’s friends ask him if he’s sent a dick pic yet to Sarah. Mr. Feminist™ says that’s a ‘rapey’ thing to say. Throughout the show, we are supposed to see Ramy as the exceptional righteous man in a group of misogynists around him (Steve, Mo, Ahmed, his uncle, his father, etc.). Mo asks him, “She’s already sending you selfies? Wow that’s a blow job for sure bro. You sent her a dick pic right?” Ramy responds, “Dude no, I just met her yesterday. That’s crazy.” Mo insists, “Dicks are weird bro. I feel bad for women. You got to give her a chance to say no from afar. All right, it’s all about consent.” Ahmed, his other friend agrees, “Yeah, maybe it is rape-y not to send a dick pic.” Ramy shakes his head and tells them to stop. This scene is supposed to portray Ramy as more conscious than his sexist friends, which is wild because Ramy treats women as disposables throughout the series. We see plenty of women make appearances for just an episode (maybe two, if they’re lucky) and they are almost always sexually available to him. Then, suddenly, they disappear. Women are simply placed throughout the series for the protagonist’s pleasure, ego, and dick.
5. An Able-Bodied Savior
The show’s treatment of the only visibly disabled character is acutely violent. In Episode 3, when Ramy is high on edibles, he goes on a grossly ableist rant while talking to Steve and his mom, who is sorting out Steve’s medicine. “I’m gonna miss you so much man. Seriously dude, I know we’re always joking about it, but I feel like you’re going to die really soon.” This scene is supposed to be a moment where we see the sentimental, raw Ramy. But all we get is his raw ableism. “What about you, Ms. Russo, you spend your whole day taking care of Steve, right? Your life sucks.” When Steve’s mom tells him that every day with Steve is a blessing, he persists, “Is it a blessing? Because Steve feels kind of like a curse. He came out of your body, but you didn’t give him enough body, because he’s all—it doesn’t work. So do you ever feel like that’s your fault? I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry you’re gonna be at his funeral, right? Some people don’t know, they’re like, oh I’ll probably die before my kids. But you know. And you’re gonna have to get a coffin, probably like a baby coffin. It’ll be cheaper.” I really thought this scene was going somewhere, with some sort of profound intervention at the end. But, like most other cringe-worthy scenes in the show, I soon realized I was searching for depth where it does not exist. He goes so far as to joke about his disabled friend’s mortality just for shock and awe.
As if this scene with Ms. Russo was not bad enough, we later see Steve trying to get with a high school girl, Mikaela. Cue savior Mr. Feminist™ who tells him they should leave because she’s drinking and can’t consent (even if the NJ age of consent is 16, as Steve points out). Steve responds, “I can’t physically force myself onto anyone, I think that’s pretty fucking obvious. I’m #MeToo proof. Please let me have this one.” At the end of the episode Steve shares, “We made out. She tastes like piña coladas.” To say the obvious, the insinuation here that sexual assault does not happen among disabled communities is toxic and dangerous, especially when we consider that women with disabilities are three times more likely to be assaulted compared to able-bodied women. And representing the only visibly disabled character as more or less a sexual predator in contrast to the forthright Ramy (who let’s not forget, invited Mikaela’s younger friend, who looks 13, to take a drink together) is ableist, irresponsible writing completely saturated in the rape culture that it so horribly tries and fails to comment on.
6. Come into the Harem
Episode 6, focused on Ramy’s sister, Dena, had me wondering if there were any Egyptian women writers in the Ramy writing room. Any Arab, Southwest Asian, North African women writers? We know Dena is an anthropology graduate student, but we know nothing else about her, except that she’s always thinking about sex and is embarrassed to be a virgin and is figuring out how to get the white barista to like her. Dena’s scenes, whether alone or with others, are always about sex. We see her trying to secretly masturbate in the shower, and the topic of discussion with her friends is—you guessed it—sex! “I can’t fuck until I’m married. So really I’m just fucked until I’m married,” she tells them.
Embedded in this portrayal is an age-old fixation on Muslim women as sexually repressed, entirely desexualized, or hypersexed objects. Her friend Sahar tells her she should just have sex like their friend Fatima, who is sexually active (curiously, Fatima is the only Black Muslim character in the show, and this depiction hyper-sexualizing Black women should also give us pause). Later, Dena finally gets in bed with the barista, Kyle, who exposes himself as a fetishizing racist. After the first racist thing he says, she looks at him and tells him “let’s just have normal sex.” After strike two, she asks, “Can we just roleplay that I’m, like, a white girl?” Imagine being told things like “Are you sure you want to have sex with me, a white infidel?” and “I can just stick it in your ass and you can still be a virgin” and “I accept you, you don’t have to wear a fucking headscarf” and then still trying to negotiate sex with an obviously racist sexual predator! There were so many opportunities to disrupt this racist nonsense (especially as a student of anthropology!!!!) and show Dena as someone who loves herself enough to walk away from this creepy, violent dude, but instead we watch her fold and accommodate and ask to be treated like a “white girl” so that they can continue. Phew.
This writing truly is ripped out of a colonial traveler’s fantasy chronicles. In the 19th and 20th century, European male colonizers were obsessed with penetrating Muslim women’s private spaces, positioning their colonized subjects in particular ways, and then taking photographs of them to use as exotic postcards and circulate back home for the pleasure of European voyeurs and to display “how they live.” In 2019, Ramy manages to do the same with the added help of native informants who are happy to confirm authenticity, when really they are projecting a colonial fantasy.
7. Hysterical Women and Casual Racists
While Ramy is positioned to show women of multiple generations in their multitudes and contradictions, it instead opts to show them as vacuous and insecure for comedic shock value. In Episode 7, Ramy’s mother, like all other women characters in the show, is sorely flat. She is bored, has no real interests, and is undesired by her husband. When driving with Lyft, she meets a white man who she thinks, after a 15-minute conversation, has taken an interest in her. Later, she dresses up and goes to pick him up for a ride at his request, and when she sees him with his wife, she has a mental breakdown in her car and then again at Whitecastle over a burger. Dear lord, why are all these women always frenzied and hysterical? Also, who turns their life upside down for a random dude you met during your shift and have known for half a day?
In the same episode, we see the mother molded through a racist interaction with a passenger. She glances at the young Black woman sitting in the backseat, and says, “You have nice straight hair. Better than afro. You know I think if you add some extensions to your hair, you will be perfect. Nice long wavy hair like Beyonce.” This is just one of the many anti-Black scenes in the show that are not addressed or disrupted. The show’s writers are comfortable using anti-Black dialogue just to build up the mother’s persona as an unprofessional Lyft driver, even though this unprofessionalism comes out in the previous scene with the white woman passenger, who she awkwardly offers baklava to. The mother makes no comments about the looks of any of the other passengers who ride with her. This fungible and disposable use of Blackness to underscore a trivial point is thoughtless and unsettling, and all the more gross when there are no Black main characters in the show.
8. The Only Time Ramy Apologizes…is to a Racist
Episode 9 The anti-Black saga continues across borders. In Egypt, we hear Cousin Shadi say the n-word, not once, not twice, but three times before finally Ramy tells him to stop. Shadi spews some more racist nonsense and then says, “I didn’t know you were so judgey. I thought you were my n-word, but I guess I was wrong.” A few minutes later, after Ramy has taken a moment to breathe and reflect, he returns to Shadi and says, “Dude, I’m sorry, I was being really selfish.” Yikes. Talk about being a strawman. Not only does Ramy allow his cousin to keep saying the n-word, but he also goes and apologizes for having called him out. The levels of racist violence is incomputable. This is deeply unsettling as it exposes the unvarnished anti-Black racism this show wants to peddle to audiences as comedy.
9. A Snowflake in the Desert
In Episode 10, Ramy is out with his cousin Amani (on whom he has a crush), and he tells her, “I’ve dated women who think it’s crazy that I believe in God. Like god God, not yoga. I feel like the problem is that I don’t know what kind of Muslim I am. I wanna go to Friday prayer and Friday night. I’m at both. I wanna pray. I wanna go to the party. I’m breaking some rules, I’m following others. I thought coming here would give me some clarity.”
*Yawn* Dude, go to the club, pray, and move on. You’re not special. The “spiritually conflicted” trope desperately seeks to reduce Muslim American experiences to a set of restrictions, rules, and performances familiar to white audiences. It defines American Muslimhood through cannots (like when Chloe in the first episode tells us “Muslims don’t drink”), much in the same way that the white liberal imagination does (i.e. not having sex, not drinking, not partying, not jerking off, and all the other reductive images strewn throughout the show). Muslims occupy the place of the negative. We are told that we are the sum of everything we do not do (or do through “transgression”). In reality, Muslims are constantly doing all the things between prayers and, shockingly enough, we live layered, whole lives.
The monologue in this episode has me wondering how often Ramy actually talks to other Muslims. If he surrounded himself with other Muslims, especially Arab Muslim American bros from New Jersey like him, he would realize that they all live this lifestyle. But Ramy doesn’t do that, because doing so would reveal that he’s not a snowflake. Instead, the character is desperate to stand out. He wants to be tokenized and desired for being “different.” In fact, in Episode 9, before he leaves for Egypt, he tells his friend, “I wanna be somewhere where I’m surrounded by Muslims. You know, none of this confusion we have around here.” Ramy is very plainly and openly telling us that he is not used to being around Muslims, and he literally has to go to a different country to find Muslim community.
10. We Love a Sufi Muslim
Any story about the “good Muslims” would not be complete without mention of The Sufis™. When Ramy tells Amani ‘he doesn’t know what kind of Muslim he is” because the white girls think he’s too Muslim (for not drinking), and Muslim women think he’s not Muslim enough (like Farida, who is upset he can’t recite Qur’an), she takes him to a small mosque. Episode 10 lets us in on a meditative dhikr circle to comfort the white gaze and arrive at an idea of what kind of Islam is non-threatening (although, historically, Sufi orders terrified the colonizers because of their freedom-fighting revolts) and the right choice for Ramy. “I can’t stop thinking about that prayer. It made me think, you know, maybe that’s why I came here,” he tells her.
Far from romanticized or exceptional, Sufi circles are common in Egypt, and they’re private because these are intimate experiences with the Divine. This show really does a good job of having Ramy, the native informant, let the audience in on intentionally private spaces and experiences among Muslims. Not everything is meant to be shared with the white gaze, but Ramy is eager to offer all of that as a way of saying “We are not that different. Come see it all.” Sacred prayer circles? Come right in. Women wearing hijab? Let’s do an unveiling. The subtle sex lives of our parents? Let me show you how freaky the roleplaying can get!
11. Terrorists & Sexual Others
Episode 4 probably displays the worst scene in Ramy (though it’s hard with all of the above competitors). In a hallucination, a young Ramy encounters a man with a very bad spray tan who we are told is Osama bin Laden (did they really think casting a white person in brownface for an OBL role would be subversive?). He tells younger Ramy, “You’re just like me.” Ramy is susceptible at first, then starts to distance himself after OBL’s violence jumps out. Ramy moves back and says, “No, I’m not like you. I don’t want to kill people. I’m not a terrorist.” OBL asks him, “How do you know? You already lied about so many things. You never jerked off, have you?” This is in reference to a lie Ramy told his friends earlier when they cornered him about not jerking off enough. Ramy then runs upstairs to his room and pulls out the torn page from a home magazine with an image of an older white woman displaying some cleavage—his go-to visual for jerking off.
Suddenly the woman from the magazine manifests inside his room and sits on his bed. In a very creepy scene, she tells him, “You don’t have to worry anymore. You shouldn’t listen to that man. He’s wrong about many things. You know, American women, they aren’t so bad,” she pulls down her shirt to show him some cleavage. “And you do fit in Ramy Hassan. You fit in just fine. You can jerk off six times in a row. You can do anything.” Young Ramy wakes up the next day and smiles as he realizes he’s finally jerked off for the first time. And just like that, Ramy has crossed over into “good Muslim” territory by desiring white cis women and successfully jerking off at the request of his white friends who are suspicious of him. And so Ramy’s coming of age comes through an embattled choice between Bin Laden and an older pedophilic white woman. He inexplicably needs this white woman’s confirmation to know that he is not a terrorist like Bin Laden, and the act of jerking off is somehow what sets him apart from terrorists.
Someone, please send the Ramy team a copy of Terrorist Assemblages. Jasbir Puar and other political thinkers have long ago analyzed racist interpretations of Muslim sexuality and the failed masculinity of the male terrorist. These meanings are used by the US imperial war machine to harp on the “Islam and the West” chasm that casts Western sexual awakenings as enlightened and Muslim sexualities as repressive, deviant, and lewd.
Zeinab Khalil is a muslim egyptian femme originally from Paterson, NJ and now spends her time between NYC and the Midwest. She works at a human rights philanthropy where she supports community-based organizations and activists who are building viable alternatives to criminalization and carceral systems. She has written for Jadaliyya, Muslim Girl, Amaliah, the Michigan Daily, and other publications. She has a master’s in public policy and is currently in law school.