You name it and Donald Trump has fought it. From Mitch McConnell to “fake news” to even his Holiness Pope Francis. But come Tuesday night Trump has a new opponent the likes of which he has never seen: Zari Adrianna Tomaz.
In fact, no one has ever seen a person like Zari before, at least not on American television. You see, Zari is a Muslim superhero. And beginning Tuesday night, Zari will become part of the cast of the CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
Add to that, Zari will be played by Iranian-American actress Tala Ashe. So Trump can decertify the Iranian deal all he wants, but he can’t stop Zari.
As the show’s executive producer Marc Guggenheim made clear at a press conference when discussing Zari joining Season 3 of the series, it’s not a coincidence that the newest addition to the cast is Muslim in the time of Trump. Guggenheim joked, “You might have heard there was this election.” He added, “Not to get political, but something that we all gravitated toward in the writer’s room was making this character Muslim.”
But Guggenheim mentioned something else that says so much about why Zari and why now. Guggenheim’s sister-in-law is Muslim and as a result he has heard first hand of what it’s like to be a person in the faith group Trump openly demonized for political gain: “She was talking about how difficult it is to be a Muslim-American in the current political climate.”
Just so it’s clear, Zari will not have Muslim-esque super hero skills like the ability to haggle endlessly over prices. Zari actress Tala Ashe—whom I’ve been friends with for several years—told me that Zari can fly and wears an ancient amulet that gives her the “power to blast and manipulate the wind.” (I wish she had the power to stop Trump from tweeting!)
I met Ashe when she was part of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival that I’ve co-produced for the past 14 years. Even though she isn’t of Arab heritage (Iranians aren’t Arab), she still wanted to be a part of it because the goal of the festival was to showcase Americans of Middle Eastern heritage in a positive, funny light.
And that’s the same reason she’s so excited about playing Zari. “Representation is a very powerful thing and I know what it would have meant to me as a Middle Eastern American growing up in the Midwest to have seen someone who looked like me or my family on television,” Ashe explained. Her hope is that other young Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans can be empowered and inspired by seeing a positive depiction of a Muslim on U.S. television, “especially in our current political climate.”
But as Ashe notes, the character is not defined by simply being Muslim. Rather Zari is a hybrid American—just like so many of us in this country. Ashe explained, “I love that Zari is just as American as she is Muslim.”
Ashe’s comment reminded me of the words of President Obama when he made his first ever visit to a U.S. mosque last year. (It feels like 10 years ago!) There, Obama said to the American Muslim audience, “You aren’t Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American.”
Does it really matter that there will finally a be Muslim on American television who is saving people instead of blowing them up? In a word: Yes! Every member of a minority group will tell you how big a role the media plays in defining our respective communities.
That’s why years ago Katie Couric remarked in an effort to help Muslims, “Maybe we need a Muslim version of The Cosby Show.” Now, of course, a Muslim Cosby show would not help us at all. But Couric’s point was dead on.
The Cosby Show was credited by many cultural experts as contributing to changing norms in how African Americans were viewed by white Americans who had no black friends. As the BBC noted years ago, The Cosby Show was groundbreaking in that it was the first time white America had “a regular opportunity to see black life portrayed in a ‘responsible’ manner.” In fact, some even argued that The Cosby Show helped Barack Obama get elected president of the United States, as a New York Times TV critic noted within days of the 2008 election.
That’s right, America: Today it’s a Muslim superhero, tomorrow it’s a Muslim president!
As Ashe correctly pointed out, “So much of the media paints Muslims as the ‘other.’ I think it will be refreshing and important to meet a woman who is nuanced, complicated, and ‘just like us.’” And if you don’t think a TV show that portrays Muslim Americans just like every other American is a form of resistance to Trump, then you simply don’t get the power of entertainment media.
So come Tuesday’s episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, you won’t see the cliché American TV depiction of a Muslim woman in a burka and silent. Instead, you will see Zari—a person who is proud to be both Muslim and American. And that is big step for both American television and for American Muslims.