“You straightened your hair. Cool.” That should be a compliment. Or at least a harmless observation. Instead, coming out of Jake Lacy’s mouth as MFA student Kyle in Ramy season 1’s “Refugees,” those five words should be a red alert. Kyle actually doesn’t think it’s chill at all that Dena Hassan (May Calamawy), sister to the Hulu comedy’s leading man Ramy (Ramy Youssef) and a Muslim woman, changed up her usual curls for a blown-out look. He’s distinctly disappointed. As a woman of color with ringlets just a tad tighter than Dena’s, it was impossible for me to miss the way the atmosphere changes the second Kyle starts talking about his date’s hair.
Clearly, Dena’s surprise ‘do doesn’t fit into the very specific evening Kyle had planned out. This unexpected tension is “Refugees’” first real signal that the worst date on TV of 2019 is ahead. Because that’s the only way to categorize a hookup that involves the very inexplicable use of the word “infidels,” right?
Unfortunately for Dena, she has no idea how dark her first hangout with Kyle is destined to become. Ahead of her trip to the art student's apartment, “Refugees” does a lot of work to make Kyle seem like a freeing possibility outside of her family’s more conservative tendencies.
The episode opens on a scene that will be familiar to Jane The Virgin fans: An older parental figure of color, in this case Hassan dad Farouk (Amr Waked), instilling a fear-based virginity obsession in a young girl, little Dena (Caroline Basu). Farouk tells his daughter that the devil exists in every interaction between men and women until marriage, and premarital sex is the “greatest sin in the entire world.” If she commits that transgression, she’ll get pregnant and eventually end up homeless, forsaken by God, and addicted to cocaine. There is also a threat of a terrible white husband.
Rather than a crumpled white flower à la Alba Villanueva (Ivonne Coll), Farouk uses a Coca-Cola bottle as a virginity allegory. Once it's popped open, it's immediately spoiled. Understandably, Dena is left wide-eyed and terrified by this horrific sexual future.
So we jump years into the future, and 25-year-old Dena remains a virgin whose parents demand to know her exact whereabouts at all times. She can’t even quietly get off in the privacy of the shower without someone yelling at her to get out of the bathroom. Ramy tells his sister to behave with the same level of entitlement he does, but you know that simply wouldn’t work. Dena got the Coke bottle sex talk. Ramy is very obviously sleeping with random white women throughout the tri-state area. Still, when one of Dena’s fellow Muslim friends has sex for the first time, she decides it’s time to explore her own sexuality.
This is what brings Dena to barista-artist Kyle’s apartment after a campus coffee shop flirtation we’re meant to understand has been going on for, at a minimum, a few weeks (he knows her latte order!). After a nightmarish sex dream, she's hoping to lose her virginity with the cute world traveler. The idea becomes even more appealing when Kyle uses the date to prove he can cook — legitimate Egyptian food, no less — and paint.
Then, they head to the bedroom. While Kyle pops his shirt off within seconds, he repeatedly urges Dena to keep her clothing on, no matter how much she wants to take it off. Then he makes her speak and translate Arabic. “Will you say my name?,” he asks, not realizing Kyle is simply “Kyle” in the language. All of this Arabic prodding takes Dena out of the moment. Quickly, you realize Kyle just might br fetishizing her heritage. “You’re so sexy with this olive skin," he says. “You sure you wanna have sex with me? Even though I’m a white infidel?” He then makes a disturbingly graphic offer of anal sex to preserve Dena’s assumed virginity. A minute later, a nonexistent head scarf is mentioned.
This is hell, fetishizing hell.
When Dena calls Kyle out on his offensive behavior, he reveals himself to be a man who is bummed out by all of his privilege. He explains Dena is “interesting” because she's an Egyptian woman — an “unknown.” The word “exotic” is hovering over the situation, but never said. Kyle, as a conventionally attractive cis, straight white man, apparently isn’t interesting, especially in the art world, he complains. “Nobody gives a shit because I’m not Indian, or trans, I would fucking kill…” he starts before Dena mercifully cuts him off and runs out of his apartment. It seems Kyle hasn’t considered the possibility that his art is just bad — no matter his identity.
Now we know: Beware handsome men bearing beautifully scribbled upon coffee cups. They may just be sad art boys who are shockingly terrible at foreplay.