“Talent has no race, has no face – but it has a skin colour”
I had thought that meeting Evin Ahmad, a Kurdish actress born and raised in Sweden, might add a powerful new perspective to my understanding of institutional racism in the film industry, and I was not wrong.
Evin Ahmad, now 30 years old, started her acting career when she was 15, in the role of a troubled migrant teenager. She is grateful that this allowed her to pursue her true passion of acting professionally, but also very critical of the fact that the role was representative of a stereotyped image of migrant communities in Europe.
Nominated twice for best actress in supporting roles at the Guldbagge Awards, the official annual Swedish film awards, she says that education, self-improvement and intellectual thinking brought her to a stage where she knew she should stay away from roles which employed stereotypes. This was especially the case as she is a Kurd, and therefore linked to honour killings, as Fadime Şahindal’s (1975-2002) case affected the whole of Kurdish-Swedish society in a very deep and detrimental way. What Şahindal’s father did was recorded as having been done in order to protect Kurdish traditions. Media organizations and the authorities all interpreted her father’s oppressive attitudes towards her daughter as being a consequence of Kurdish traditions rather than regarding him as an individual obsessively controlling father. This was not questioned much, and the identification of Şahindal’s murder in the name of honour with Kurdish society still resonates after almost 20 years. Evin deliberately refuses roles involving women linked to honour killings in order to subvert the identification of Kurds with such crimes.
My original intent with talking to Evin in my first meeting in 2019 was to understand her lived experiences as a second-generation migrant, a well-educated young woman in a creative industry. In contrast to common thinking about non-white actresses, not having a leading role has not been an issue for Evin. She has a different tale to tell us.
Before I move forward with her tale, I should explain that the concept of ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ here is not intended to reduce individuals in such a way that they are defined simply by race or the colour of their bodies. Although it seems to be used as a homogeneous concept, ‘whiteness’ here refers to those whose background is genealogically Swedish or Nordic. Likewise, in all my interviews Evin always used these concepts to differentiate ‘us’ (non-white) from ‘them’ (white). From time to time, she also adds blondeness to whiteness when she refers to Nordic actresses’ exclusivity or to white supremacy in the film industry. So, for me, how Evin depicts herself, which is ‘non-white’, counts rather than her actual ethnic category in the Swedish national registry.
Despite white privilege or racial segregation in the film industry, with her talent and determination, Evin has played several leading roles in Swedish (e.g. Ring Mamma, Beyond Dreams) and Danish (e.g. The Rain series) productions. I also had the honour to see her magnificent performance in a leading role alongside Alexander Salzberger at The Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre, in the play Determinism, written by well-known director and scriptwriter Mattias Andersson. Ahmad has also written a novel, One day I will build a castle of money (2017), which received very good reviews from literary critics and readers all over Sweden. Her problem went beyond whether or not she could obtain lead roles. I would not have been surprised to hear Evin giving examples of sexual harassment in the context of the ‘me too’ movement, especially following the sexual abuse allegations against the American film producer Harvey Weinstein, which led to the silence being broken and many hitherto supressed stories of sexual misconduct in the film industry coming to light.
However, her take on the ‘me too’ campaign was very different from those women who had revealed their experiences of sexual assault or harassment in the film industry in Europe and the States. Evin’s agitation was about the way her roles were ‘dexualised’ in relation to her ethnic background. She says: “In the scenes, my body gets desexualized. The characters that I play rarely fall in love or have sex or are involved in any kind of sex scenes.” After doing a little research and analysis on the roles non-Swedish, non-white, non-blonde actresses played, she saw the same pattern, which is ‘dexualisation’. She continues: “I am looking at all beautiful Indian, Black, Middle Eastern actresses in Sweden. None of them are considered attractive by film or TV standards. I come to the set, they say ‘you are so beautiful’, but you sit in a make-up room and they say, ‘your character does not wear make-up’. The clothes picked for us are not even proper dresses. Just very ugly outfits not even a dress. Our body can turn into any character that we portray. We have a complex body. We can be sexy, we can be romantic, we can be angry, and we can be frightened. But whenever I do a character, they are always one thing. They are not shot in either erotic or romantic scenes.”
Tedious ‘non-whiteness’ versus pretty white ‘exclusivity’
‘Appropriate Femininity’ is being white or, in other words, being Swedish, or Nordic, or even European if pushed a little further. More importantly, although Evin met the socially accepted standards of ‘beauty’ in the context of thinness, youth, heterosexuality and ability (Bordo 1993, 2003; Tiggemann and Lewis 2004), to be able to tick all the beauty standards of ‘internalised racism’ (Speight 2007), the production of defective or disliked femininity for non-blonde and non-white actresses in the film industry in Sweden is to sustain the institutional dominance of ‘appropriate femininity’ for the sake of the white ‘male gaze’. Evin, being Middle Eastern, even a second-generation migrant born or raised in Sweden, is still considered non-Swedish due to her skin colour. In a way she is just an “anthropological model of other” (Ahmed 1996). In this context, being a white actress on the screen results in one becoming the legitimate object of the ‘male gaze’. Evin does not carry the appropriate traits for the ‘male gaze’, which is not just being pretty or attractive anymore, but related to racial origin, related to being white or otherwise. Evin’s case shows the trajectory of racism and sexism in the film and media industry in Sweden. This trajectory enforces a set of behaviours and attitudes from Evin or, more generally, ‘anthropological model of other’ women on the screen, by controlling their images. ‘Controlling images’, as in Hill Collins’ term (1998), dictates how a woman’s body should look on the screen, appropriate to assumed/biased cultural norms, while also creating ‘docile bodies’ (Foucault 1991) framed as passive entities subjected to multiple sources of intrusion, control and discipline. For instance, the managing film crew (producer, writer, director) not only dictates appropriate (lack of) make-up or clothes for Evin but also requires specific mimicry and gestures from her, just like other non-white or non-Swedish actresses. For instance, actresses of Middle Eastern origin in Nordic productions are expected not to look confident, carefree, free spirited or outgoing. This is in order to be considered culturally appropriate for the region that her non-white skin is representing. So Evin’s ‘deficient’ or ‘defective’ femininity should also correspond to the cultural and patriarchal appropriateness of the ‘assumed’ gender roles in the context of her origins. ‘Sexism’ and ‘racism’ intersect, while framing Evin as ‘undesirable’ within her ‘defective femininity’, which is also aesthetically appropriate in the framework of an essentialised image of whiteness in the Swedish/Nordic context, “whiteness as racial categories and lived identity” (Sunderland: 1997:33) also produces/assumes a so-called ‘real identity’ for her, as a ‘non-white’, who comes from a ‘conservative’ culture.
Through oppressive erasure of her femininity and sexuality in the roles she takes and the expectations about the nature of her performance (e.g. shy, reserved, conservative) in a Nordic context she becomes the product of a particular cultural–political context and of the specific social dynamics within an assumed culture that she is associated with. The ‘defective femininity’ of non-white actresses like Evin reflected on the screens is related to a variety of stereotypical identity categories drawn for those with migrant history. For instance, being of Middle Eastern origin, even though second generation, she is expected to be well informed about any political changes in the Middle East, an expectation which comes at the expense of attention being focused on her as a talented actress. “The journalists or media presenters constantly ask questions about ISIS when I meet them to speak about my films or acting career, just because I am a Syrian Kurd. When they look at me, they see a documentary”, she states. Her Syrian Kurdish background, attracting more attention than her acting, not only overshadows her career, it also leads to a stigmatized and marginalized portrayal by film critics and journalists. Evin tells of one of her experiences with a journalist who put together a review on her which gave the impression that she was desperately waiting for her turn to get lead roles. She says: “One day I did an interview, a big interview for a big magazine. She came to the theatre and I showed all my pictures, big pictures with my face on them. I had done mostly leading roles at that time. I talked about my philosophy and my life in the interview. But she put it in her article as if ‘Evin is also dreaming about the big roles’. I called her afterwards and asked her, ‘did you miss that my face was all over? Why do you want to victimize me?’ She said ‘it is not interesting to talk about an actress who has got all. I wanted to write about a girl who is very moving and emotional’. I said ‘you cannot do this. If you want to do an emotional or a moving story, go and write about war or sexual assault or something like that. I am here as an actress. I am here to be on exactly the same terms as my colleagues”. Here, in media discourse in a receiving country context, migrant child or non-white identifiers are linked to certain inherent values (e.g. unfulfilled dreams, disappointment), which do not change even when the reality clearly shows that the opposite is the case.
From ‘defective femininity’ to ‘appropriate femininity’: Mimicry or a transgression?
One year later, in February 2020, when I met her again, she was much keener on resisting desexualised roles and challenging the essentialized understanding of ‘beauty’ and expected attitudes from a non-white migrant actress. Accordingly, a few months after, she took the lead female role in Snabba Cash (Easy Cash) to be released in April 2021 – the new Swedish Netflix original series from screenwriter Oskar Söderlund and bestselling author Jens Lapidus, who wrote the Stockholm Noir trilogy of which Snabba Cash is the first book, adapted into three feature films. Snabba Cash is produced by SF Studios, the original producer of the hugely successful and critically acclaimed Snabba Cash film trilogy. Evin Ahmad, in the lead role of Leya, plays a single mother who is determined to take what she wants regardless of the danger in a male-dominated criminal world. Evin herself considers Leya to be her dream role, with a powerful, modern outlook, whose dark skin is not seen as a veil to cover her femininity as had been the case in previous films. Through this Netflix series, Evin transgresses fixed boundaries for non-white actresses by carrying white actress identifiers (desirable, cis-white woman, attractive, confident, outgoing, feminine, brave). It is a sexy and dazzling lead role where her femininity and strong, smart characterization constitutes resistance, which engenders a transformative impact on the way non-white, non-native and migrant actresses are presented as having defective femininity. This thinking may bring up debates about ‘passing’ (Ahmed for white, or “mimicry” (Bhabba 1994)) the role of colonizer, although these concepts are used in the context of colonial power and colonialist relations, but in adopting a cultural approach, they can be applied to the context of a film industry in a Nordic country, with its white dominance and exclusivity, in which Evin takes a lead role which portrays an attractive and feminine cis-woman as a ‘non-white’ (colonial subject), a role usually given to ‘white’ actresses (colonizer) as the attributes of an attractive and feminine cis-womanhood are associated with whiteness. I reckon in taking the role of Leya, Evin “transgress [es] racial boundaries” (Young: 1996: 91) placed on her as a default, and all the stigmatized attributes of the characters she had played. To Bhabba, when the colonial subject ‘mimics’ the colonizer’s cultural habits, assumptions, institutions and values, the result is not reproduction of those traits but a “blurred copy” of the colonizer (Bill Ashcroft et al., 1990: 139). So, for Bhabba, ‘mimicry’ is not a representation of resistance although it undermines the powerful systems enacted by the colonizer, or can even be seen as a subversive tool.
However, here, I argue that Evin, through the role of Leya, neither takes on white identity to escape ‘racial oppression’ (Kennedy 2001) nor mimics the colonizer by adopting white traits. Instead, she challenges and even attempts to change the default privileges of whiteness that native Swedish actresses already possess without actually acting on it, because the privileges (or ‘appropriate femininity’ mentioned above) were already structured by institutional white dominance and the values where white bodies became somatic norms (Puwar 2004). With this role, Evin does not feel ‘out of place’ in ‘white spaces’ with her non-white body, instead opening up the space for equality with her colleagues of Swedish origin by crossing the stigmatized racial, gender and sexual boundaries imposed on her as an actress due to her ethnicity.
Evin’s case shows that her natural body colour conflates with whiteness even if her first language is Swedish; she has embraced Swedish culture and society with a full heart. Within the framework of the naturalization of binaries and hierarchies between certain racial types in the television and film industries, it would not be surprising to find out that non-white men actors would also have supporting roles rather than leading ones, but one also wonders if male bodies are framed or portrayed in a form to correspond to ‘appropriate masculinity’, consenting to maintain the ideology of white exclusivity.
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