The Bodyguard and the problem of Muslim stereotyping
A view from Shelina Janmohamed

The Bodyguard and the problem of Muslim stereotyping

The Bodyguard thought it was being clever with Muslim stereotyping, but it just ended up reinforcing prejudices

Eleven million people tuned in to watch the finale of BBC One’s The Bodyguard, which some described as a revival of the days when television really was a live national event. But the real cultural lesson to take away is how to avoid lazy stereotypes that alienate audiences and diminish your brand by making it look outdated and irrelevant.

Fill me in on what’s been happening…

The Bodyguard’s opening scene featured South Asian female Muslim suicide bomber Nadia. Dressed in a black scarf, black cloak and suicide vest, she appeared to have been brainwashed by her husband into killing herself, but was talked down and rescued by hunky Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) in what was later called a "white saviour moment". Turns out (spoiler alert!) that she was the terrorist mastermind behind all subsequent attacks that unfolded during the series.

So, what went wrong?

The portrayal of Nadia as an oppressed female Muslim victim hit every stereotypical dud note that almost every film, newspaper article and politician has recycled previously. Patronised and typecast, Muslim women were upset and alarmed at being depicted once again as weak and infantile. Such occasions typically lead to a spike in abuse and assaults of Muslim women.

A wider audience also switched off, predicting that the series would add nothing new to the conversation. Writer Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) said viewers should wait for the finale and they’d change their minds. But when Nadia revealed she was the terrorist behind the attacks, viewers pointed out that he simply replaced one stereotype for another while assuming he was being clever. That’s both lazy, and anti-climactic, failing to deliver on his (brand) promise. The lack of imagination and recycling of tropes turned off a wide range of audiences and led to a passionate outcry for richer, more insightful and culturally relevant stories.

Were they right, or was this just a fuss about nothing?

The outcry was justified. According to a study by Miss Representation, 91% of news stories about Muslims are negative. And the three key issues in the way Muslim women are depicted is as victims, about the way they dress, and that they are all the same. Bodyguard: tick, tick, tick.

This failure stretches across all cultural sectors, including advertising and communications. Studies show that Muslim consumers are consistently disappointed with how brands engage with them, with around 2/3 feeling unserved. With the constant heated debate about Muslims, they are looking to brands that can truly recognise and connect with them, and take a leadership role in the cultural conversation.

This is important because Muslims in the UK spend around £20bn every year, and globally in excess of $2.6tn.

More broadly, millennial consumers are seeking cultural leadership from brands. One study by Forbes flagged up that 75% of millennials expect the brands they buy to give back. That can include taking an active role in cultural conversations that consumers see as socially damaging. Stereotypes, lack of representation and brands that avoid difficult social conversations are a turn-off.

What does this mean for my brand?

There’s an entire audience of both Muslims and broader consumers who are seeking leadership from brands in the cultural conversation, and for whom a brand that plays a part in the social storytelling becomes iconic. There’s no getting round that fact that Muslims, people of colour, race and religion are at the heart of some of our most heated debates.

So, ensure your brand is including Muslim characters and stories as appropriate. Avoid the stereotypes of victim or terrorist or any allusions to such portrayals.

More importantly, focus on producing cutting-edge creative work that consumers find fresh and meaningful, built on real insights, not lazy recycling and assumptions. Talk to real people to build it.

As 11 million people watching live in the UK demonstrated this month, people want great stories. Such narratives can add value to your brand and keep the audience glued to you. Just ditch the stereotypes.

Shelina Janmohamed is the vice-president of Islamic marketing at Ogilvy and was named as one of Campaign’s Trailblazers