We’re barely 5 months into 2019, and it’s already been something of a banner year for groundbreaking and diverse new comedies, with standout shows like Shrill and Special leading the charge.
Thankfully, that streak remains unbroken with Hulu’s newest show Ramy, a comedy loosely based on the experiences of comedian Ramy Youssef, who writes and stars in the series.
In the show, we follow Ramy, an Egyptian-American Muslim man in his late 20s, as he struggles to deal with family, dating, finding a job, and figuring out his identity while also remaining connected to his Muslim faith. Throughout the series, we also get the chance to spend some time with the other characters in his life, most notably his headstrong younger sister Dena and his somewhat overbearing parents.
The premise alone breaks important new ground in terms of storytelling. Ramy offers a very rare depiction of a Muslim family at the center of a narrative, dealing with the everyday struggles of life. In today’s world, where Islamophobia continues to be rampant, and Islamic faith is generally misunderstood and misrepresented, the existence of a show like Ramy is incredibly important for representation.
What’s more, Ramy is unapologetic about specifically dealing with issues that are unique to the Muslim community. The opening scene of episode one involves Ramy and his mother arguing about the merits of trying to chat up women at the local mosque.
Later episodes deal with issues such as Ramy’s internalized feelings about the difficulties of dating Muslim women (should he date a woman who chooses to wear a hijab?) and having to make the split-second decision between praying or being on time for a meeting at work.
One of the most surreal and ambitious episodes of the series takes place entirely in the past and deals with a young Ramy’s experience during and immediately after 9/11. In doing so, Ramy engages with the many facets of Muslim identity in ways that so few shows have been able to in the past.
Beyond the depiction of Muslim identity, Ramy also tackles both the modern first-generation experience and the struggle of navigating religious beliefs in a way that I found deeply affecting. While I’m not Muslim, there were so many moments in the series that felt so familiar, they could have been taken straight from my own life.
Bear with me while I get personal for a moment.
Like Ramy, I’m also a first generation American who grew up in Northern New Jersey, not far from the neighborhood where the show takes place. My parents were also traditional, a little overbearing, and deeply rooted in both their culture and their faith. I own the exact same university sweatshirt that Dena wears in episode 6. And like both Dena and Ramy, I’ve found myself constantly at the crossroads between faith and the modern world. For me, Ramy is one of the first shows that I’ve seen that deals with these issues in a way that feels substantive and real.
In an interview with NPR, Youssef explained why he felt it was important to portray a more nuanced take on the first-generation narrative:
“[…] Presenting a character that isn’t trying to erase this part of his life, isn’t trying to erase his parents’ culture and the tradition that he comes from, was what we really tried to do with this show. And I think … most of the [first-generation] stories that we’ve seen is somebody fighting to have the ability to just be not like their family, or like everyone that’s in front of them. There’s almost this subtext of, like, ‘Hey, I want to be white too, and I have the right to do that, mom.’ And that feels like every narrative that’s been jammed down my throat as a viewer.
“And so what I wanted to show was something that felt [like] more of an internal look at the character being introspective — who is actually struggling to keep his faith in his life, while also take some of the opportunities that are presented to him in the place that he grew up in. ‘Cause that’s closer to my life.”
In Ramy, the characters’ relationships with culture and religion are realistically complex. Ramy has sex but refuses to drink alcohol or take drugs, although all of these actions technically go against the tenants of his faith. Dena and her female Muslim friends debate over how comfortable they feel with the idea of sex before marriage and come to varying conclusions.
While I admire and deeply relate to how the show deals with identity and culture in a number of sensitive ways, I’m still a little undecided about how I feel about its overall portrayal of women. On the one hand, while the show mostly follows Ramy, it did make a considerable effort to spotlight the women in his life, with his sister Dena and his mother Maysa each getting their own episode.
Dena’s episode deals heavily with her desire to explore her own sexuality and her distaste with the way her parents seem to give her brother far more freedom than they give her. In Maysa’s episode (one of my favorites), we learn more about how she struggles to find meaning while stuck in a boring, lifeless marriage.
Although Dena, Maysa, and the other women that we meet in the series are compelling, my main issue is that their central struggles all seem to center around the idea of lacking romantic and sexual agency.
While that is certainly a compelling story to tell, I would have liked to see more examples of women dealing with issues beyond sexuality, much like the wider range of issues that Ramy and other male characters experience on the show. For a series that gets so much right, it would have been nice to see it push just a little bit harder in its portrayal of women.
Overall, Ramy is a funny, thoughtful, and thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of culture and identity, as well as a serious win for Muslim representation. Let’s hope that 2019 TV keeps doing what it’s doing.