The True Heroes of Elite
Elite Review 1 – Sabera Ahsan: Writer, Children’s author
Elite – the Spanish teen drama, like La Casa de Papel, is one of the most-watched non-English language streamed Netflix series.
That is the magic and the wonderful phenomenon of Netflix; It has brought the world and its diversity into our living rooms. The online streaming platform has bred a generation of new writers. It brings stories, characters and their struggles to our screen. These are stories that typically would never have entered our lives across the ocean and particularly to the English-speaking world. Spain is a fascinating country who has suddenly found this incredibly rich international voice. Pedro Alonso AKA Berlin from the hit Netflix series; La Casa de Papel received the best actor award in Turkey. He thanked the audience in Arabic and Turkish, acknowledging how much the series and its universal array of messages about social justice has united audiences from across the globe. It has even influenced young people in Turkey to learn Spanish.
There is a divided view on how the writers portrayed Nadia, the Palestinian student who wins a scholarship study at the posh school Las Encinas. I see young people from across the globe, celebrating and rooting for her and the troubled rich bad boy Guzman like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Nadia’s critics focus too much on her representation of a Muslim rather than the vital function her character plays, as the understated, heroine of the series.
Mina El Hammani is of Moroccan heritage born in Madrid. In an interview with YouTube influencer Saufeeya Bint Goodson, Mina explains that she didn’t have role models on Spanish TV to aspire to while growing up. The first time she saw a Muslim female character she could identify with, was on the Spanish TV series El Príncipe. She was inspired by Spanish actress Hiba Abouk (of Libyan and Tunisian heritage) who played the main female lead in the series. Mina El Hammani went on to play Nur in 15 episodes of season two of the series based in Ceuta. Nevertheless, Mina describes her experience as a third culture child as amazing and counts herself as blessed to be able to fuse the best from both her Spanish and Moroccan culture.
Élite is about teenagers and their inner demons and struggles, whether they are rich and privileged or poor and working class. Just like its equally successful counterpart, La Casa de Papel, Elite makes a strong statement about Spain and its current calamitous socio-economic impact on society, especially young people. The class differences between the decadent rich kids and the underprivileged local kids, drive much of the narrative in Elite.
The series heroes consist of Nadia, focused and academic, with traditional, conservative parents and Samuel a sensitive poor boy who’s yet to experience true love and waits tables in a local restaurant.
Considering the love-hate relationship Spain has had with 700 years of Iberian Islamic history, the portrayal of a Muslim female lead and a character we are all rooting for, is revolutionary.
Nadia follows a focused path in the safe but traditional culture of her parents. She believes it’s the cocoon of her family unit, traditions and faith that will enable her to excel as one of the most promising students at the school and to one day become a UN diplomat. Nadia values her family unit and her love for her parents. Throw into the mix Nadia’s ever-growing first-time love for Guzman, and there you have her dilemma. Because without conflict, there is no drama.
Until Nadia joins the affluent, privileged students in Las Encinas, education and conformity is the tried and tested route Nadia chooses to take. Criticism and comments about Nadia taking her headscarf off to experiment with “western” life are way too simplistic and mean that those critics don’t get this drama. If anything, whether Nadia is wearing hijab or not, she is consistently focused, moral and a persuasive muse and saviour to Guzman. I refuse to believe this storyline is about a rich white Christian boy rescues Muslim damsel in distress from her evil strict, unreasonable, stuck in the 15th Century parents. Nadia without Guzman is still going places no matter what choices she makes in life.
But like many teenagers who come from traditional, conservative families where social codes and etiquette impact on life decisions, Nadia takes the opportunity to deviate from following her tried and tested rule book, by allowing herself to fall in love without restriction. Nadia’s journey from virtuous, academic, occasionally judgy, ice queen; to experimenting with, love, sex and alcohol is just one of many teen stories in this incredibly binge-worthy drama relating to teen angst.
Critics have asked why there were no Muslim women writers on this series. Diversity, in dramas written by diverse storytellers, would be a dream come true. To accuse the series of not having any Muslim women writers is somewhat naive and shows the lack of knowledge about where Spain is in its diversity journey. Spain is a nation that has changed considerably over the last 30 years because of immigration and economic crisis. Nadia is a second-generation Muslim daughter of an immigrant. She is living the culture clashes many of us second generation Brits faced in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Expecting Spain to be in a place, where the UK should be, but where the UK still shamefully isn’t, is equivalent to placing British Asian second-generation values and beliefs on a different country and culture. If we address the diversity in Spain, then why not also demand Latina women in the writer’s room. Mexican mean girl Lucrecia might also be viewed as a Latina cliché as she plays the ” mala de la telenovela” or the evil femme fatale. Diversity in Élite is not about Muslims; it’s about all diversity.
The magic of this Netflix drama is that it brings a fresh new voice from an underestimated, under-explored Spanish culture and society, and it’s a message that speaks to audiences across the world.
There have been comparisons between the characterising of Muslim women like Nadiya in Elite to the Nadia in the BBC hit series The Bodyguard. The character of Nadiya in the Bodyguard was shamefully the lowest British TV commissioners could ever fall in terms of portraying Muslim, Asian, BAME women on British TV. Anjli Mohindra who played Nadiya on the Bodyguard called the character empowering, most Muslim women who watched her character unfold on the TV were just frankly disheartened and disgusted. The BBC addresses the issue by commissioning more female writers, not because they want more diverse stories and dramas to reflect our lives and stories, but so that they can rival Netflix. The BBC has had three generations and fifty plus years to get its diversity right. There are still no notable BAME or Muslim female writers, and despite Riz Ahmed’s warning that others fill in the narrative for us, the BBC and other drama commissioners still refuse to address this.
Other comments include why does Nadia have to suffer the typical strict parental storyline why not show Nadia leading a happy life with liberal parents. Would we be rooting so passionately for her relationship with Guzman to succeed against the odds if there were no barriers in her way? Furthermore, Elite is about a diverse mix of conflicted teens, the social class divide, the impact of Spain’s economic crisis on the young and what happens when the greedy adult world fails them.
Nadia’s storyline in Elite unlike Nadiya in the Bodyguard is not a few lines caricature of a victim come, evil heartless terror commander, it’s a warm well-executed story about teen conflict. Nadia’s storyline happens to be about her struggle between her traditional family values and love for Guzman. It’s no secret that many second and third-generation British young people have had to fight their parents for the right to date, fall in love and choose their partners. At no point is Nadia conflicted about her faith, nor does she stop believing, she merely decides to follow her heart and experiment with being a teen.
Maybe Spanish TV should be in a better place when it comes to their diversity but what excuse do our UK TV channels have. No matter how much you challenge the BBC they do not get the case for diversity. They follow a business model that speaks to an ageing population and not the young. Worst of all our licence fee pays for the lack of representation and diversity on what should be a high quality, impartial, independent, public service TV platform. So, for me give me Nadia from Elite anytime, she’s my superhero. She’s the one who saves the falling, troubled, hero Guzman – not Lucrecia the glamourous mean girl. How the writers of Elite represented Nadia and kept her integrity, her sexual emotional journey both compelling and passionate should be applauded not chastised. We are talking about a country that has only had one or two generation of experience in terms of immigration, different religions and cultures. What’s our excuse here in the UK?
My final testament to Nadia is that her character continues to be steadfast and influential even when she’s experimenting in the troubled world around her. Nadia connects with her polar opposite Valerio, the fictitious embodiment of immorality in Elite whose behaviour at the end of the day is driven by a profound sense of pain and abandonment.
The portrayal of Nadia’s parents has also been criticised, I agree the mother could do with a few more lines, nevertheless, I see so much of my own Muslim Asian heritage parents mirrored in these two characters. My own parents could be anything from traditional, controlling to liberal, wise and prophetic. As the actress Mina El Hammani explains, the mother and father in the series do not reflect all Muslim families but just one particular family. When Nadia must deal with the fall out of the online video, her father doesn’t disown her, he doesn’t beat her or lock her up, nor is there any honour-based violence committed (popular topics for the BBC). Nadia’s father and mother catch her when she falls, which enables her to come back to the haven of her home, her values and her beliefs. Despite all this, I’m still rooting for Nadia and Guzman to find their happy ending. And by the way, I think this drama completely passes the Riz Ahmed test.
Sabera Ahsan is of Bangladeshi heritage and was born in the Midlands in the late 1960s and grew up in Manchester in the 1970s. She studied a BA Hons in Spanish and Politics and a Masters in screenwriting. Sabera trained as a primary school teacher and left teaching in 2002 after spending five years in Spain as a primary English specialist for the Spanish Ministry of Education and the British Council. Sabera is a fluent Spanish speaker. After many years as an equality, crime, policy officer and advisor, Sabera dedicates her time to writing, blogging, campaigning and running online magazines for women. She has written a debut novel and children’s stories about diversity and belonging.
Link to Netflix’s TV Show Elite: