Moon Knight and the Importance of Representation
By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America contributing writer
WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead!
“Enti superhero masriya?” (Are you an Egyptian Superhero?) a young girl asked, after being saved by the lead female role, Layla el Fouly, in the newest marvel series Moon Knight. This line immediately gave me chills! I recognized the important role of this series in changing the portrayal of both Arabs and Egyptians, in the cinematic world. Disney’s March 30th release of a six-episode series, set in the Marvel Universe, has done an outstanding job with its accurate depiction of both Egyptians and Egyptian society.
“A big part of our pitch was avoiding the orientalist look, which always dehumanizes us…It shows us as exotic, where women are submissive, and men are evil. And it wasn’t only about representation of the people, but of the place itself”(Diab, 2022)
Media and Orientalism
A very orientalist trope in Western Media exists which displays Egyptian men as uncivilized, dirty, barbaric, and violent. The Egyptian women then displayed as subservient and in need of saving. Just look at the Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Homeland, and Aladdin for examples of the typical depiction of Arabs in Hollywood.
With the heightened rise of Islamophobia in the West, following the tragedy of 9-11, the media portrayal of Middle Easterners and Muslims has been nothing, but negative. The damage done by improper representation impacts more than the self-image and mental degradation of the people. It also incites discrimination and violence against them. This depiction can have real physical consequences, and historically it has. Sadly, this is not a new trend and unfortunately, it predates the events of 9-11.
Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs”, analyzed 1000+ movies between 1986 and 2000 featuring Arab characters for his book. The results of this research was truly appalling, only twelve movies highlighted positive depictions of Arab characters. I really recommend this book for those interested.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Thankfully, these views have been shattered by Moon Knight! Hopefully, it will be a catalyst within the industry toward the proper representation of minorities as a whole. Marvel has successfully forged a determined Egyptian lead role and superhero, who displays the strength and boldness of the Egyptian woman! Layla el Fouly, played by May Calamawy, truly is a breath of fresh air!
She is capable of handling every situation thrown at her. Despite not having superpowers, she was able to survive crazy supernatural events and villains. Layla is far from the stereotypical subservient character. When her husband Mark Specter or Moon Knight falls short in the series, Layla is there to pull things back together. She is observed throughout the series as a headstrong and capable character. Layla holds important knowledge of archeology and ancient Egyptian mythology essential to saving the world. At the end of the season she transforms into the Scarlet Scarab, a legendary hero from the Marvel comic book world. Her character is monumental in the representation of not only Arabs, but women across the globe.
One other notable feature to the series is its incorporation of real Arabic in the series. During the scenes in Cairo the people are seen speaking real Egyptian Arabic. This is in contrast to the film industries typical insertion of gibberish that has an Arab-esque sounds. In a way it makes the series more culturally correct and admirable, in my opinion.
Umm el Duniya
Media, in all its shapes, has the power to create lasting ideas about people and places. Historically, Egypt has been portrayed in U.S. and Western media as a desert, devoid of civilized life. There is a lot of focus on the small area, where the pyramids exist and the desert appearance of Giza. However, if you pan the camera just a little to the left or right you see one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world. Cairo is certainly more than a desert devoid of life! As you can see from the photographs, it is thriving with skyscrapers, towers, and all else that comes with being a modern city.
Marvel is really shaking things by challenging the orientalist norm and allowing the world to see Egypt, Umm el Dunyia, for the beauty and magnificent place that it is. Moon knight really gets the feel of Cairo, from the colorful Falukahs on the Nile to the pigeon houses on the roofs.
It is so cool to see Cairo portrayed accurately on screen! The scenes shot throughout the heart of Cairo, emphasized the average Egyptian citizen, daily life, and the city as they exist in reality.
“It was very important to make sure that it looks like Egypt and it depicts everything,” Diab says of Moon Knight. “Not just one side of Egypt, which is like the desert or whatever, or the ‘primitive’ side. Egypt is such a complex place.”(Diab, 2022)
Mohamed Diab: The Director
Mohamad Diab, the director of this new Marvel venture and a native Egyptian, was insistent on the importance of representation in the series. Diab is the first Arab filmmaker to lead a Marvel Cinematic Universe project. He did not disappoint either!
Not only did he do a fantastic job balancing the Ancient Egyptian mythology with Modern Cairo culture, but he incorporated a phenomenal soundtrack. The series showcased Egyptian art culture through music. The Moon Knight soundtrack features Egyptian classical music and contemporary Arabic Trap Music. Of course there is a blend of old school and modern English songs included in the soundtrack too. A few notable artists included on the soundtrack include Warda, Abdel Halim Hafez, Wegz, Ahmed Saad feat. 3enba and Double Zuksh, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, and Kid Cudi.
The use of Egyptian music in the soundtrack displayed the thriving art scene within the country. It is yet another way Diab managed to truly encapsulate the diversity and beauty of Egyptian culture. Here is a playlist of songs that were included in the series!
Accurate and authentic representation breaks down barriers, opens us to new ideas, creates powerful role models, and can even be a source of inspiration to those who are typically discriminated against. It is important for people to feel represented in the media and film industry, especially for growing children that will one day lead the world. Disney has been doing a great job lately of correcting its historic failures and I truly hope that the trend continues. Overall, I give Moon Knight a 9 out of 10 and highly recommend the series if you haven’t seen it!
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