As an Arab and a Muslim, watching the puppeteering of Nadia by the writers of Elite continues to be a triggering, disappointing and predictable experience.
Season two of Elite picks up after the murderer of a fellow classmate is revealed, and the wrong person is imprisoned for it. Last season, Nadia was forced to remove her hijab to attend an elite Spanish school, faced incessant Islamophobia, was drugged at a party, and was subjected to overbearing control at the hands of her angry father. Her continuing love interest, Guzman, intended to make her fall in love with him in order to take her virginity and shame her publicly.
All change, except the stereotypes
Nadia’s Palestinian father is still controlling, angry and a bad parent. How is it that in a school that is rife with drug-taking, binge drinking, theft, blackmail, missing children and murder, it is only the Arab father who makes any attempt to limit the actions of his children? Half the parents at this school should be charged with neglect, but all we are focused on is the backward, power-hungry “dictator”.
While it may seem that Nadia’s brother, Omar, has moved on – he has been kicked out, is out of the closet and living with his boyfriend – he is still oppressed by his father and believes “the only way to [have a life] is to leave that house.” His father is too regressive to deserve children, is the lesson. But don’t worry, Nadia, Spain will liberate you.
Because this is the false dichotomy at play in Elite: moros versus Spain, backward versus liberated; plotlines that justify the colonial narrative are even more ubiquitous that in the previous season.
Enter a new-look Nadia, with a turban hijab and make-up. In episode one, she professes that “I’m not a princess who needs to be rescued, and you’re certainly no prince,” and tells Guzman that knights aren’t heroic because they killed Arabs in the crusades. Finally, we dare to hope, Nadia has seen through Guzman. Alas, she spends the next season compromising the convictions (that were so strong that they survived constant attack by her school and classmates) by removing her hijab, taking drugs, and drinking, just to get Guzman’s attention.
When she is drunk and flirting with Guzman, she says “I’ve drunk too much.” “No,” corrects Guzman, “just enough to do what you’ve been wanting to do for some time.”
Only when Nadia abandons her beliefs, when she assimilates, can she be civilised and liberated.
The problem with Nadia
Nadia does not make sense. The creators want her to be principled but then strip her of her convictions to mould her into an acceptable, ‘integrated’ Muslim. They want her to be empowered but then she removes her hijab in a club to impress the man who – I repeat – manipulated her and planned to sleep with her to shame her.
Nadia is a white middle-aged man’s impression of how a Muslim teenage girl would react. Or, more accurately, how they wish she would. She is, puzzlingly, interested in Guzman, and removes her hijab on an impulse to reveal (perplexingly, perfectly coiffed) beautiful hair. “Oh,” we’re supposed to gasp, “but she’s so beautiful under all that.” She drinks and takes cocaine (or at least attempts to), and then she has sex with Guzman in the very public boys’ locker room.
It’s not that Muslim girls don’t do each of these things, but the actions of Nadia do not tally with the character that had been created. Teens rebel, but there are plenty of ways that Muslims rebel that don’t involve being a white fantasy. Nadia was forced unwillingly out of her hijab by her school, how is submitting to that oppression an act of rebellion?
Elite wants so desperately to be edgy in its portrayal of Muslims, but has zero motivation to actually execute this. Nadia’s story is one we’ve been subjected to over and again: Muslim girl is oppressed by her backward family and only feels free when she rejects her Muslim identity. But the creators aren’t concerned with creating a believable Muslim character – that’s not the point of Nadia.
An outlet for the writers’ racism
This is a Muslim character created for non-Muslims, and nowhere is this more clear than in the constant racism that she faces. Just as in season one, none of the prejudice Nadia faces is resolved, addressed or vindicated. Poor Nadia is subjected to episode upon episode of “Palestinian reconquista,”“Muslim infidel,” “Bedouin girl,” “fundamentalist.”Her scarf is deliberately stroked as she is threatened with slut-shaming, and even her ‘open-minded’ friend, Rebeca, calls her brother a “Sultan.” But not to worry, because, Rebeca says,“I get on fine with moros; I’ve slept with all the ones in my neighbourhood.” The closest we get to understanding Muslims is ‘Some of my friends are Muslims.’
When Nadia is called a morita, it is translated to “little raghead,” which is doubly disturbing – it normalises the ‘raghead’ slur and the determines that the use of the word moro (moor) is, as I have long-believed, inherently pejorative.
This is a script that is demonstrably written by people who have never encountered racism. A person does not face such prejudice for two years and do nothing, feel nothing, say nothing about it. A person – and one as supposedly principled as Nadia – doesn’t face this level of Islamophobia and then rebel against it by erasing her identity. Frankly, it would be more believable that she fulfilled the other of the two Muslim storylines on telly and became a terrorist.
No, I am not advocating for yet another terrorist-Muslim plotline, but Nadia’s story is just as horrendous, lazy and tired as that overdone stereotype.
When your only storyline is being Muslim
As a show continues, there is an expectation for characters to develop, for complexity to deepen. But Nadia's only storyline is her Muslimness, our only interest in her is her rejection of her religion. Her relationships are about being Muslim, her education is about being Muslim, her rebellion is about being Muslim. All her free time, all her thoughts, all her actions are reduced to one singular part of her identity, because that is all the writers see her as.
She is the exotic flavour made palatable, and an outlet for the writers’ fantasies and racism, and, as such, she is rewarded no arc or resolution.
The teen who disappears returns; his actions are vindicated. Guzman finally finds out who killed his sister, the man wrongly imprisoned is released. Those who have harmed others make amends, and new alliances are formed. Every other character has resolution, and development.
But not Nadia. She is only happy when she is colonized, changing her actions and clothes to mirror those who most oppress her.
Nadia’s behaviour and choices are unbelievable, and that is what is most unforgivable. It’s one thing to be ill-informed. It’s another to brand yourself as experienced and knowledgeable enough to represent a Muslim character to the whole world without deigning to do research or to hire a Muslim writer or consultant. For the record, no, Muslim’s don’t believe that Halloween is “the devil’s work.”
Elite is a show about Muslims, not for Muslims. More accurately, it is about the stereotypes and misconceptions that Spaniards have towards Muslims and Arabs. Whether this is consciously done or not is impossible to judge, since the end result is one that participates and perpetuates the marginalisation and stereotyping of Muslims.
Elite receives three bloodied swords for it's exotification of Nadia, it's lack of research, and for falsely perceiving itself as complex and nuanced in its portrayal of Muslims.
Soy hispanohablante. This film was watched in Spanish, with Netflix's English subtitles used for quotations.