Hollywood’s Paradox: The Illusion of Progress in ‘Special Ops: Lioness’

For several weeks now, ads for Taylor Sheridan’s espionage thriller series, Special Ops: Lioness, have been almost ubiquitous. This new drama features Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana, along with esteemed actors such as Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman. Although the show assembles a mostly female and minority cast in a seemingly progressive move, its narrative grotesquely misrepresents Arab Muslim men—vilifying them while simultaneously singing paeans to the valor of the United States military.

Within the first five minutes of the show’s pilot episode, the audience meets Joe, portrayed by Saldana, who spearheads a spy mission in an unnamed Arab country. Shortly thereafter, another character, Isabel, a spy feigning to be a Muslim woman, has her cover cruelly blown. An Islamist extremist identifies her cross tattoo, which quickly leads to a horrifying scene where she is violently assaulted. Not so subtly, the show implies that Isabel is raped and killed by her assailants. Meanwhile, Joe and her team encounter their own set of challenges—ambushed by a group of Islamist militants, they’re forced to pull the plug on their mission.

The series then introduces us to Cruz Manuelos, played by Laysla De Oliveira. Manuelos is a former stripper who has transitioned into a fry cook and is grappling with domestic abuse. After a confrontation with her abuser, she seeks refuge by joining the Marines. Her physical prowess is immediately evident: she completes fifteen pushups in record time, impressing her recruiter. Soon, she becomes a member of the CIA Lioness program—an elite, all-female unit designed to befriend and gather intelligence from the female relatives of suspected terrorists. Her first assignment focuses on Aaliyah Amrohi, portrayed by Stephanie Nur, the daughter of an affluent financier believed to have terrorist ties.

In its second episode, the series indulges in unsettling visual rhetoric. It revels in scenes of torture, underscoring Cruz’s growing doubts about the CIA Lioness program’s objectives. It further perpetuates the stereotype of the Middle East as a monolithic landscape of danger and malevolence. Saldana’s character, Joe, in a pontificating moment, claims that Middle Eastern rulers scapegoat America and Israel to deflect from their own corruption. Meanwhile, in a domestic subplot, Joe displays a troubling form of parental control, threatening to destroy her daughter’s electronics as a form of discipline.

Faced with these troubling tropes and exaggerations, I decided I could not continue watching the series. As someone who has actually set foot in the Middle East, it was blatantly clear to me that Sheridan has not experienced the region first-hand. Had he done so, he might have known that Middle Eastern governments are battling terrorism, not nurturing it, that the majority of individuals in the region do not endorse terrorism, that their hospitality is unparalleled, and that each Middle Eastern country has its own unique characteristics and challenges.

Taylor Sheridan is not new to peddling xenophobic narratives. His filmography includes the 2018 feature Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which imagines a convoluted plot involving Mexican cartels smuggling ISIS terrorists into the United States. The narrative feels plucked right from the rhetoric of populist demagogues, sowing seeds of paranoia that resonate with the divisive narratives of politicians like former President Donald Trump.

In a similar vein, Special Ops: Lioness joins a longstanding Hollywood tradition of misrepresenting Muslims. Virtually every Muslim male character is rendered as either a terrorist or an oil baron, and Muslim women appear solely as oppressed victims or informants for the CIA. What is more disturbing is the fact that the series attempts to cloak its Islamophobic content with a patina of progressivism by featuring a cast that is diverse both in gender and ethnicity.

I had nourished some hope that Hollywood was on the cusp of a new era, particularly after the launch of Ms. Marvel on Disney+ in 2022. Unfortunately, Special Ops: Lioness, like other productions before it, confirms that the insidious roots of Islamophobia continue to thrive in Hollywood. The industry’s executives and producers must confront the reality that Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion and recognize their responsibility to portray Muslims more authentically. The coming decades offer an opportunity to break with over a century of negative stereotypes; it’s high time Hollywood took it.