“Bodyguard adds to a long and damaging media trend of depicting brown people as terrorists.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Jed Mercurio 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Jed Mercurio 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Cameron 👨🏽🇬🇧
To describe Bodyguard would be to invoke 24 or Homeland, but with the added grittiness that British television does so well. This (potentially) one-off miniseries by Jed Mercurio, the writer of Line of Duty—a police procedural now into its 5th series in the UK—packs suspense, romance, and action into six dense episodes. It boasts the enviable title as the most watched BBC drama since 2008’s Dr. Who and has taken the nation by storm, praised by critics and audience members alike.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The female lead of this show is a woman who, for once, has more power than the male lead. Keeley Hawes plays Home Secretary Julia Montague and holds her own, at one point telling the main character, David Budd (Richard Madden), not to be “another man who can't handle that [she] has more power than [him]”. Her character is fantastic, complicated, and intriguing—which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she’s treated with major disrespect, two-thirds into the show. The trajectory of her story climbs and climbs, then takes a nosedive off a cliff.
In fact, plenty of women in Bodyguard are cast into roles that sound great at face value, but whose paths fall headfirst into unsatisfying tropes. At its core, the show does well by numbers: we see a gender-balanced cast with women as police officers, soldiers, and in positions of power. But underneath the surface, each of their storylines either tie back to a man or simply develop them into unethical and manipulative Sirens, or femme fatales. The plot twist at the finale, especially, feels less clever than it does a dull play on gender norms that do nothing to actually refute stereotypes.
The only opportunity we get to see a “positive” portrait of a woman is through David’s estranged wife, Vicky (Sophie Rundle). But showrunner Mercurio’s take on what constitutes a good woman feels outdated, as she finds herself bearing the brunt of David’s emotional trauma and takes on the role of a martyr. This toxic message of having women take on inordinate amounts of emotional labor, standing beside men struggling with mental health appears constantly in movies and television. Whether it’s A Star is Born or Creed II—two recent films that come to mind—the implicit message that it’s woman’s job to selflessly stand by a man, no matter what, is antithetical to female empowerment.
Overall, the sheer number of female characters in Bodyguard, with their impressive titles and surface-level power, helps keep this score afloat. But scratch beneath the service and—with the sole exception of D.S. Louise Rayburn (Nina Toussaint-White), who has a minor but actually positive role as a no-nonsense detective—you’ll otherwise find a tired storyline for nearly every woman.
Bodyguard is set in London, a global hub that’s known for its racial diversity. By its last census in 2011, just 60% of Londoners were white, and we see this diversity acknowledged through multiple characters of color. However, few of them are complex or hold as much significance as the two white leads. They generally show up as nameless extras in minor roles, who may see some running time in key scenes (such as an East Asian specialist helping to disarm a bomb), but who never exhibit any backstory or even personality.
The most egregious handling of race in Bodyguard, however, is its addition to a long and damaging trend of depicting brown people onscreen as terrorists. According to a recent study on Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors, fully 78% of MENA roles on TV are written as terrorists, soldiers, or tyrants. This number is especially devastating when you think about the fact that London is home to more than 1 million Muslims. I highly doubt that 78% of them are terrorists. Yet here we are.
This type of representation is dangerous considering how much it has already translated to reality. Without shows like Bodyguard reinforcing stereotypes, we wouldn’t have 14-year olds arrested for bringing a clock to school or UC Berkeley graduates getting asked to deplane for speaking Arabic with one’s uncle. These everyday citizens, who happen to be brown, are being done a massive disservice by shows like Bodyguard which stubbornly show a one-dimensional caricature of Middle Easterners.
Specifically, within the first scenes of Bodyguard, brown characters are introduced as bomb-making jihadists. It takes David, a straight, white, and male maverick to see through their plot as he single-handedly defuses the situation. Annoyingly, two of the three actors across the series who play characters associated with terrorism—Nadia, her husband, and political aide Tahir (Anjli Mohindra, Faraz Ayub, and Shubham Saraf)—aren’t even Middle Eastern. Mohindra and Saraf are Indian. This conflation of terrorism with brown skin is lazy and irresponsible.
I’ll say just this; YES, you can write about Middle Eastern terrorists. But if you do, know the history and understand the real life consequences of feeding into this stereotype. And finally, if you must write about brown terrorists, counteract those negative caricatures with deep and complex roles worthy of the millions of Londoners who call Islam their faith.
There is no LGBTQ representation in Bodyguard, but it does feel contextualized rather than an a glaring omission. The show mentions very few romantic relationships at all, save for two love interests for David, who is straight, plus a scant few other mentions such as Vicky’s boyfriend or the Home Secretary’s awkward, failed date with a male aide.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
David struggles with PTSD from his time in Afghanistan, and the wide-reaching effects of his trauma are an important piece to the show. It affects him throughout the series, in varying ways such as emotional instability during triggering moments or the deterioration of his relationship with ex-wife Vicky, even culminating in a suicide attempt at one point. This spotlight on a difficult yet pervasive problem, of men struggling with issues of mental health, is welcome. I only wish viewers got to see him deal with it in a healthy way, rather than striking off on his own as a damaged vigilante seeking refuge behind a suit, earpiece, and gun.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.81/5
People went wild for this show for a reason. The first half will leave you gasping for air, thanks to brilliantly crafted scenes of tension. However, the series does decline in the second half and the aspects that made it so binge-worthy suddenly vanish.
On inclusion, Bodyguard takes on a regressive worldview while donning the clothes of modernity. Women are shown in positions of power, but their story arcs are actually disempowering. People of color exist, but their characters are dangerously stereotyped or flat. And finally, its spotlight on mental health is truly redeeming, but it isn’t enough to only humanize a straight, white, male protagonist while simultaneously lumping underrepresented groups into bland roles or tropes.
All in all, Bodyguard presents an uneven experience, both at face value but especially in its messages of inclusion.