Perils of Misrepresentation: The False Progressivity of Netflix's 'Élite'
Netflix productions have become notorious in their inability to frame minority narratives in a way that does not typecast, and Élite’s attempt at representation falls victim to this pattern.
Two steps back and one step forward for Arab-Muslim representation on screen. Élite’s choice in including two Arab-Muslim leads does not grant it the pat on the back it seeks. Truly, the Spanish Netflix Original highlights an inability to move past the regressive, one-dimensional depictions that continue to plague screened representations of the Arab and Muslim individual.
Eager to indulge in another mind-numbing Netflix series, I went ahead and binged all three seasons of Elite — a truly guilty pleasure that keeps to Netflix’s now-cementing approach to teen dramas. The thriller-drama explores a multitude of themes ranging from queerness, sexuality, class differences and health battles, all calculated to hit as many diversity targets as possible.
The plot centres on three scholarship students who attend Las Encinas, a preppy, private school. Now heading towards its fourth season, the mystery-thriller storyline has allowed for its melodramatic plot and themes to blossom through the ensemble cast. In its attempt at fair representation, two of the series’ main characters siblings Nadia (Mina El Hammani) and Omar Shanaa (Omar Ayuso) are second-generation Palestinian-Muslim immigrants. Élite’s portrayal of the Shanaas is no exception – and indeed furthers insidiously – the historical Western manipulation of Arab characters on screen. Time and again, the latter serve simply as representation of a demeaned and dangerous other.
“I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep” wrote bell hooks in her 1992 essay collection Black Looks: Race and Representation. With representation, though, comes responsibility — a proprietorship over the images being projected. Misrepresentation is still representation. What Élite gets right is that Western television and film ostensibly can only portray Arab Muslims positively if they fit their version of normality. A negligence of their individuality stems from a history of recycled stereotypes still ever-present in contemporary images.
As a young Arab Muslim woman living in Europe, watching Élite’s writers perspective of Arab-Muslim’s play out over the three seasons was candidly painful. Presented with an opportunity to illustrate the modern Arab in a normative manner, it seems the show’s writers cannot fathom a world where Nadia and Omar do not exist in cyclical turmoil all related to their culture and religion. It seems that marginalised characters on screen must always illustrate tired tropes of alterity.
Our first introduction to Nadia involves her falling victim to pure (quotidian) discrimination. A strict, studious girl who wears the hijab, she is forced to remove it or be expelled. Her veil is a symbol of resistance, a threat penetrating to the glossy modern lives of this high-school. Nadia does not exist on screen for long with her veil, although she resists its removal at first; her character in season two rejects the veil entirely, though not permanently. She struts out of the bathroom onto a club floor, followed by rock music and dropped jaws everywhere. Now, she is beautiful. Now she is appealing. She is free — to assimilate.
What comes across as discriminatory and xenophobic harassment by Nadia’s classmates (and the school’s staff), in fact foreshadows the littering of such language that will dominate her discourse with friends, enemies, and family. Faced with such instances, Nadia’s character could ordinarily illustrate the challenging reality of such an individual. Yet the depiction of Nadia’s family ensures against all virtue in representation. A family dynamic centred around fear, intolerance, misogyny, and pain, all falling under the umbrella of the inevitable duo: a traditional-religious silent mother and a tyrant father.
Nadia’s ‘freedom’ is dictated by her father, highlighting — or rather hammering — her supervision by another male figure, either a brother or a trusted friend. The dynamics she develops with the characters Guzmán, who serves as her tormentor and then morphs, unfortunately but not surprisingly, into her prime love interest; and Malick, another friend-turned-lover for purely advantageous reasons, all continue to frame her character under the umbrella that is repression. As the show progresses, we see Nadia in a cyclical turmoil about how she is perceived by her family and peers, but rarely does she engage in any self-perception, and rarely, if ever, is this uplifting or doing justice to the complexity of character.
Sombre, tormented, and determined — that’s your Arab-Muslim male in a nutshell per mainstream Western imagination — Omar’s character is illustrated as less optimistic or committed to his culture than Nadia. Our first introduction to Omar involves a conversation with his best friend Samuel, where, at the mention of football, he immediately takes the liberty to engage in self-deprecating language regarding his origins. His true thoughts or those projected onto him? Serving as comic relief, such cowering achieves the opposite effect with an audience that identifies with such a depiction. Tormented by his sexuality and his family (again, the twin Achilles’ heel of the Arab male according to such familiar vistas), Omar deals drugs (of course) throughout the first season in order to gain enough money to escape.
Omar’s character actually presented an exciting take on the Arab man through his romance with the character Ander (a student at Las Encinas), that develops throughout the three seasons. His navigation of the complexities of his sexuality and his family are all facilitated and framed around Ander, and evidently Nadia. Still, as their relationship progresses, it becomes evident that Omar’s sexuality and escapism is another device to villainise and other his culture through his family. Ander’s family becomes our point of reference, as Omar seeks refuge and acceptance through his relationship. They embrace him as an open, freethinking, liberal and Western family, juxtaposed with the oppressive, backwards oriental other that is Omar’s family. Oh no, another attempt at progressiveness rendered a failure.
Of course, yet again the token chiselled white boy and his cookie-cutter family seemingly saves the day. He assures you that through his friendship and/or love he can rescue you from the myopia and frustration that dominates your life. Ander and Guzmán embody the Lothario White saviour role, a trope that follows a majority of brown characters. In their own significant ways, these characters’ free, rescue and care-take Nadia and Omar. Serving essentially as a device to highlight the fragility and longing to assimilate, they ‘build the bridges’ to facilitate this transition.
I should explain my frustration, and why it stems past yet another fatigued trope. Nadia and Omar represent another misinterpretation of a marginalised group; they are characters failed by writers that deem their culture and religion as a burden, and a negative. Their narratives weave in a looming pressure and perplexity that is ultimately tied to their nationality, culture, and religion. As Anne Friedberg confirms in A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification: “Identification can only be made through recognition, and all recognition is itself an implicit confirmation of the ideology of the status quo”. Streamed to a global audience, Nadia and Omar offer insight into what is understood as the modern day Arab living in the West. The two characters exist in a narrative that highlights their strength, resilience and difference, but that character is plagued by its fixation on their otherness.
In recent years, Netflix productions have become increasingly notorious in their inability to frame minority narratives in a way that does not typecast, and Élite’s attempt at representation falls victim to this very pattern. Take Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, and the character Devi Vishwakumar. A fresh take on South Asian representation, Devi too falls victim to the very stereotypes that plague her as an Indian teenager: sexual frustration, a first-generation strict parent, and internal turmoil at her Indian identity emphasised by her peers. The way this otherness is tackled on screen is usually depicted by way of the White Writer ‘tackling’ the Black/Brown individual tricks of the (new-old) trade: convincing intimidation, white saviorism, let your hair down, and first-generation loss.
What raises concerns is the harm that exists in and is perpetuated by these narratives. These stereotypes blend into the meta-narrative of the series, so much so that it is difficult to actually pinpoint exactly what is wrong. The stealth representations find their way into the lives of these characters, in Élite or in general, and cloud any normality or individuality, much less any genuine agency. In that respect, absence as much as presence stems from such directive representation. One cannot conflate absence with misunderstanding in the case of Western depictions of the Arab Muslim, assuming they are inaccurate, as it is a deliberate decision to illustrate individuals that have been reduced to their stereotypes and stripped of their very culture and realities. Representation is predicated on more than just a fundamental notion of acknowledging a presence. It requires understanding, and hopefully a team of (more) non-white writers.
There will always exist an inability for the Arab-Muslim spectator to fully identify with the stories being told due to the neglect of individuality. Representation is necessary, and that is where Élite’s strength lies – in its attempt. If, however, the stories and images being distributed pertain to a shallow and misinformed reflection, that ultimately amounts to little. One can only hope that through Nadia’s journey to New York to study at Columbia University and Omar’s scholarship to Las Encinas, season four of Élite will bring a sense of stability and ‘true’ personal growth for our two Palestinian-Muslim characters.
Bahiya is an avid television binger turned film student. After recently graduating with an MPhil in Film and Screen Studies, she is currently in Barcelona trying to live out her (tragic) Covidesque Cheetah Girls dream. She usually spends her days writing, or rather talking about what she’s going to write. A current MUBIaholic, she hopes to progress past Superbad being her favourite film.