Channel 4 aired a documentary where they dressed a white British woman with ill informed opinions as a Muslim and performed ‘brown face’ in order to show us what racism in our society looks like. But I feel like they missed the mark and instead created a programme that just shows us what we already know. Britain is uncomfortable in its own identity – it doesn’t know where to stand with a divided population.
“Channel 4 was an interesting channel when it first started out, stating that it would provide alternative programming as a way of engaging with minority groups.”
Launched on the 2nd November 1986, Channel 4 was the second independent television network in the United Kingdom following after ITV in 1955. It was designed with its own counterpart S4C, a network that was solely dedicated to airing programmes that were produced in Welsh after Welsh citizens demanded the government that they should have television content created in their native tongue.
Channel 4 was an interesting channel when it first started out, stating that it would provide alternative programming as a way of engaging with minority groups. From this decision, in the early years of the channel, it was accepted by both minorities as well as arts and cultural groups – Channel 4 was the first British television network to broadcast an operatic piece, entitled Perfect Lives.
There was a shift in ownership in 1993 and the network passed from Channel Four Television Company to the Channel Four Television Corporation. The ripples of this change were felt across the board with the network now airing more US shows than ever before, giving Friends and ER their UK television premieres. It moved from the fringes of society to the lower levels of the mainstream, cashing in on the ideas that were still out of reach for the BBC and that the ITV did not have space for. This change in ownership meant that while the content may have occasionally focused on the same groups, the context in which the shows found themselves was completely different.
“How do we document these events in the 21st Century? Do we regard them with a sense of survival and togetherness or do we grant them with a level of warning and fearfulness of what may be next?”
The Communications Act of 2003 saw the channel being demanded to become innovative as well as experimental and creative in the content that was produced in house. Throughout the years it has changed face, always trailing its past with it – the promise to educate and inform on the lesser documented events and parts of society.
On Monday 23rd October, Channel 4 aired a television programme called My Week As A Muslim which was met with mixed reviews and quite an amount of backlash.
With terrorism being a part of everyday life since, at least, 2001 our culture and society has been forced to change, as has the type and methods of terrorist groups. Between terrorists, lone wolf attackers and people who use violence to push a personal agenda there has been thirteen attacks in the UK from 2001 until March 2017, all citing help or inspiration from a range of organisations from the IRA to al-Qaeda to the so-called Islamic State. But how do we document these events in the 21st Century? Do we regard them with a sense of survival and togetherness or do we grant them with a level of warning and fearfulness of what may be next?
‘When a terrorist atrocity happens, people always point the finger negatively towards Muslims…’
My Week As A Muslim followed Katie Freeman, an NHS worker who had openly explained that she felt uncomfortable with Muslim women covering their faces in public, as she was made to look like a Muslim woman by applying latex facial features and ‘brown facing’ her.
Appearing on This Morning, after the documentary aired, Freeman explained that seeing Muslims in her local area with headscarves on, having not known any Muslims within her community, made her ‘uncomfortable’ before her experiences on the show. She went on to explain that, ‘If I was in a shop and saw someone in a burka I’d straight away feel on my guard’. When pressed to identify where these ideologies came from Freeman admitted that it came from being fed information from within the media she consumed. ‘When a terrorist atrocity happens, people always point the finger negatively towards Muslims…’. She also admits that her opinions were perpetuated through her own ignorance, something that many people do not admit so publicly.
In a sense of cruel irony, the filming of the documentary took place the same week as the Manchester bombings. Through Freeman, we see the reaction of Saima Alvi and her family, who Freeman is staying with for the week. This opens up part of the narrative of the Islamophobia that is alive in our society as they sit in the living room watching the news unfold. A short downfall of the documentary is we don’t get to see how Saima, a secondary school teacher, deals professionally with these events having to teach a predominantly white class of children.
Producer of the show, Fozia Khan, spoke to the Guardian about the controversy caused by the documentary. Khan explained that the idea for the documentary came during the filming of another documentary by Channel 4, Extremely British Muslims. Nearing the end of filming this first documentary when the Brexit vote result came in, which focused on a mosque in central Birmingham and the local Muslim community, the film makers and the Muslims within the community all noticed a sudden change in attitudes from others in the area toward them. Tensions were starting to build with hate crimes to ‘non-native British people’ increasing by 500%, according to findings collated by the Guardian. The English Defence League (the EDL) protested outside of a mosque elsewhere in central Birmingham, demanding to ‘Make Britain British again’ as written on one placard. ‘We only managed to capture a small part of this, but in the coming weeks there were reports seemingly every day about hate crime, and articles on Britain’s diverse but divided communities’ writes Fozia Khan.
Several of the criticisms faced by the show result are from Muslim women who are angry that their narrative is being handed to people in positions of privilege. One side of this argument is that by having Katie Freeman go through a physical transition and living in a Muslim household for the week, she is the ‘gate-way for the viewer’. This logic indicates that ‘the viewer’ is from outside that minority group – in this instance, that the viewer is of a non-Muslim background.
One alternative suggested by viewers was that Muslim women should have been given hidden cameras in order to document the sort of the interactions they have with people inside their communities. Fozia Khan indicated that she thought of this.
This is not the first show to have caused controversy. Excluding Bake Off, despite complaints from viewers to Ofcom as well, shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (2010-2015) and The Undateables (2012-present) have gained the network bad press in the past.
“‘It’s posing as a documentary, the voiceover is saying we’re going to let you into the secrets of the traveller community – and it [sic] just not true.”‘
In the case of The Undateables it was slated before even airing as ‘offensive’ and ‘cruel’ regarding the title of the series, implying that people with physical or mental disabilites are ‘undateable’. A spokesperson for the show replied to these claims saying that they were not held by the show but rather by society. Therefore, the show’s aim was supposedly to turn this around, hold up a mirror to the face of society and tell it to go do one. However, The Undateables falls short of this by pairing largely only people with disabilities with other people with disabilities, an action that in itself holds a somewhat eerie and terrifying familiarity to the concepts of blood quantum in outdated halls of eugenics.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was a ‘documentary’ disguised as an exposé about life within the traveller community. Given the traditional documentary conventions like a formal voice-over to relay information to the viewers, we were led through the ‘rites’ and ‘traditions’ of this often misunderstood and misrepresented group within the media.
Jane Jackson, who works for the Rural Media Company, said of the series; ‘It’s posing as a documentary, the voiceover is saying we’re going to let you into the secrets of the traveller community – and it [sic] just not true. It might be true of the particular families in front of the camera, but it’s not generally true. They’re made to look totally feckless, not really to be taken seriously as an ethnic group.’ The Rural Media Company prints the Travellers’ Times, a publication dedicated to Gypsy and Roma travellers.
“They seemed to have fallen short in representing the very community that they are trying to document.”
One scene showed men participating in a practise referred to ‘grabbing’, where men literally grab women and carry them off, using an amount of restrictive force to make the women compliant. The narrator informs us that this practice is normal among the traveller community, something that has been disproved and openly critiqued by the community depicted and those close to them since the series aired.
Channel 4 are not above creating a stir, it is a clever way to get your ratings. But they seemed to have fallen short in representing the very community that they are trying to document. By handing the prejudice that Muslim women suffer from to a ‘white gaze’, the documentary makes it all seem so false. Under a layer of makeup and a headscarf is only just another privileged woman who can leave that world of violence and hate crimes once the week is done – but not everyone is that lucky.
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