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What a horny teen murder drama taught me about myself

staff note

Nadia Shanaa is a Palestinian, hijab-wearing, Virgo energy-radiating character from “Elite,” a show that Vulture aptly described as “Netflix’s best horny teen drama.” It’s the kind of edgy teen show that guarantees a hefty allotment of second-hand embarrassment, much in the vein of “Riverdale” or the cringe-classic “Glee.” It’s also where I least expected to encounter a narrative that centered a hijabi Muslim woman and her gay older brother. What was meant to be an idle, guilty-pleasure show for retaining my Spanish-language skills during off-semesters morphed into a Western treatise on the Muslim teen woman and all of trappings that come with her adolescence: identity, growing pains and, of course, sexuality. 

As much as I would like to, I am not merely providing a normative assessment of Nadia’s characterization, because its faults are the same obvious and tired ones you see in almost all media representation of Muslims, and identifying them is fairly easy with an application of the “Riz Test.” There’s a wealth of analysis that her narrative arc generates, from the dynamic with her tyrannical father to the conspicuous symbolism of her hijab, but what draws me to her character the most is her sexuality and its representation. 

Alongside Adena of “The Bold Type” and Dena of “Ramy,” Nadia’s one of the few Muslim women characters who’s had an on-screen sex scene — real or imagined. This leads me to ask: How do we go about representing sexualities that have never been represented before? Problematic as it may seem, the decidedly non-Muslim directors and writers of “Elite” are setting a precedent in their representation of Nadia. What is that precedent, and what does it reveal about Western views of Muslim women?

The dramaturgical approach is a sociological concept that, in its simplest terms, compares social interactions to following the script of a play. From small talk to sex acts, we follow “social scripts” that delineate how we must behave and what we must say when we are with other individuals. The dramaturgical approach helps us in understanding the concept of sexual pedagogy, a theory on pornography forwarded by the controversial yet important feminist writer Andrea Dworkin. 

According to sexual pedagogy, standard pornography — and I would extend the term to include the “soft porn” of mainstream media — consistently presents sexual relations in narrowly conceived, often gendered scripts, thereby establishing what is both “sexy” and “normal.” Pornography is an embodied practice because the user experiences it not as cerebral contemplation but as a pleasurable bodily experience. In short, depictions of sex tell us how to have sex, and what pleasure we should reap from it. 

Although I consider Dworkin’s views on sex work to be extremely limited, her theory of sexual pedagogy is immensely helpful in understanding how Muslim women in the West make sense of their own sexualities. It also impels us to critically evaluate “Elite”’s representation of teen sex as a calibrator of what’s “hot or not.” 

Because Muslim women are rarely, if ever, depicted engaging in sex acts, they lack the kind of sexual pedagogy that their Western peers likely take for granted. This dearth of knowledge is a double-edged sword: It’s freeing in that women themselves can set the terms of their sexuality, but it also engenders years of isolation and confusion. In “The Real Sex Lives of Muslim Women,” an article that I highly recommend reading in full, Bangladeshi writer Fariha Rousin and Pakistani-American artist Ayqa Khan discuss how they navigated, without oar or compass, their burgeoning and tumultuous sexualities as queer Muslim women. They delve into a lot, including religion, internalized shame and cultivating self-sufficiency, but what defines both of their experiences is a profound sense of being alone. “I wanted advice and guidance — navigating a sex life as a Muslim is difficult! — but I ended up having to figure out my body and sexuality on my own,” Khan laments.  

It is here where shows like “Elite” do work — whether good or bad — in filling this gap. Since Nadia was written by a largely white, male and Spanish staff (though Abril Zamora, one of the second season’s screenwriters, identifies as a trans woman), a reading of her character reveals Western conceptualizations of Muslim women’s sexuality. Like the other female characters on the show, Nadia initiates sex when she wants it, and she has it on her own terms. She also does not express guilt or shame after having sex. 

However, the writers make a special point of noting that Nadia has sexual fantasies — something they never once acknowledge with any of the other characters. This indicates that Nadia’s assumptive default is “desexed,” which is not the case for her classmates. Before Nadia can have sex, she first has to “prove” that she is a sexual being, too; meanwhile, other characters can have sex without having to set a precedent for their sexuality. Even while participating in sexual activity, her sexuality is corralled by her being what feminist scholar Miriam Cooke calls a Muslimwoman, or one who is expected to correctly perform the assumptions of what a Muslim woman is. One of those assumptions, of course, is being sexless. 

It’s also worth noting that in every sexual act that Nadia’s involved in, whether it be a seductive glance, flirting, kissing, foreplay or sex itself, you will never see her wearing her hijab. Before sexual desire can be expressed, her hijab must be removed. This indicates that her hijab holds her back from what she truly wants; in other words, it restricts and burdens her sexuality and corporal desires. It oppresses her.

While the hijab signifies in a diversity of ways for a multitude of Muslim women — some of whom do associate it with coercion — it is important to recognize that the oppression narrative is the dominant one in western/liberal discourses, and it was historically used to justify colonialism and later the War on Terror. It is only one limited narrative of the many that exist.

Says writer Mahdia Lynn, “Taking on hijab was a way for me to reclaim my body as my own — as a facet of my personal relationship with the divine, as a rejection of the female body as public property. The great irony is that while taking on hijab was, for me, a fiercely independent assertion of ownership over my body, the western/liberal feminist cultural narrative was the exact opposite. When I took on hijab the story immediately became: 1) I was coerced into an oppressive religion, 2) by a man, 3) who was doubtlessly abusive towards me.” Meanwhile, when Nadia takes her hijab off, she is suddenly more “free.”

The fact that I identify with Nadia as a Muslim woman myself makes the implications of her reading both personal and painful. She’s a reminder that my sexuality, while completely belonging to me, must continually combat the forces of what others think it is or should be. But in the context of Dworkin, Rousin and Khan’s work, Nadia’s characterization also reminds us that lack of precedence also means the freedom to determine the representations that will come forth. And given the role of media in shaping our sexualities, we cannot mishandle it. We have the opportunity to acknowledge a diversity of experiences beyond the Muslimwoman stereotype. Are we going to take it?

Alizeh Sheikh is a Trinity junior and Recess campus arts editor.

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