Photo courtesy of Wajahat Syed/Flickr.
The controversy surrounding the recent Mipsterz video “Somewhere in America” can be summarized as a problem of representation. It is a problem that other minority communities have undergone and continue to grapple with.
There are simply not enough representations of Muslims, and specifically American Muslim women, in popular media today.
So what happens when a group of Muslims get together and produce a representation of themselves? The Muslim blogosphere goes crazy and demands a better, more accurate representation.
To paint with a broad brush for a moment: conservative-minded Muslims have once again sent out their modesty police in the comments sections; a leftist Muslim claims that the video supports consumerist attitudes; a secular liberal has found a place for herself in the work, a Muslim feminist questions the male gaze of the video, its reinforcement of normative, assimilationist standards of beauty, and its failure to grapple with the difficulties many American Muslim hijabis face daily; and another Muslim feminist critiques the shaming of the women who participated in the video.
We are demanding the impossible. No representation can speak to all parts of a community’s experience. No representation can speak to all parts of a single self.
The video simply displays a group of young, self-confident, and fashionable American Muslim hijabi women hanging out in public space. It’s nothing too political or subversive or challenging, save the sole fact that these are images we don’t encounter often in media. The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not this music video is an accurate representation of hijabis, but whether or not it is a good piece of American Muslim art.
In increasing numbers, American Muslims are representing themselves and their communities in a number of different and creative ways. We have fictional and real punk rockers, a lawyer grappling with self-hate, white female hijabi converts, queer black Muslims in love, a female comic book superhero, a portrait of a West Coast immigrant living room, men and women on love and sex, and much more.
But it’s still not enough.
The reaction to “Somewhere in America” is an effect of a community that still hasn’t seen enough of itself in popular media. And so we demand perfection, especially when it comes to Muslim women. We demand to see Muslim women who are fashionable and unfashionable, rich and poor, with and without headscarves, immigrant and native-born, and more.
The critiques are not unwarranted.
But we as a community need to invest in not only critiquing the artistic and cultural productions of other members of our community, but offering up our own. Making art is hard work. American Muslim artists and writers don’t get nearly enough of the support they need from their communities. They need not only critique, but also love and affirmation for work that is radically uncommon and unpopular for American Muslims to embark upon. Instead, they find themselves with the unique burden of having a community that wants every single representation done with perfection.
Other minority communities have struggled with this as well. It took a while for Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and others to resist white stereotypes and create honest art of their own. The intimate, risqué portraits of a hyphenated American life depicted in the writings of Philip Roth, James Baldwin, and Junot Diaz did not arise out of nowhere. They came out of long struggles within their respective communities to create both representative and individualized art that challenged assumptions within and outside their communities.
Baldwin called this condition the “burden of representation.” Carrying this burden is a responsibility, removing it is creative freedom. Reject being a spokesperson; tell one story at a time.
Islam doesn’t need more Mipsterz. It needs more artists.
American Muslims should continue encouraging our brothers and sisters to represent themselves and their communities in various genres so that both our art and our sense of the diversity and complexity of ourselves continues to grow.