Case Study- How Hollywood portrays Arabs An Overview of the portrayal Introduction Hollywood has for several decades, set an agenda as well played a propagandist role in showcasing the Arab world and the Middle East in general. This depiction has been greatly impacted by several major political events from the last few decades to a century. Political events such as the creation of the State of Israel, the revolution of the Islamic State of Iran, and the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in the United States have gone a long way to influence Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs, very often in stereotypical and negative facets.
Issues concerning the Middle East have been omnipresent in American society for several decades. There is daily news coverage of Arabs and the Middle East in all forms of media in the United States, including on television and in movies. Hollywood, for many years has depicted Arabs in stereotypical images, villain roles opposite American heroes who tend to save the day.
Since the early days of Hollywood, Arabs and Muslims have been depicted overwhelmingly as villains, barbaric, inept, sinister, and incompetent and cowards. How and Why have Arabs been vilified in Hollywood?
Ronald Adler and Russell Proctor II, assert that stereotyping can have a harmful effect on interracial communication, hindering professional and personal relationships (86). They also explain that “stereotyping does not always arise from bad intentions…in some cases, careless generalizations can grow from good intentions…” (87). However, Dr. Jack Shaheen, a world renowned author, media critic and university professor, describes Arabs, as “the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood, they are portrayed as sub human…” (21).
In his much acclaimed book, Reel Bad Arabs (2001), and film by the same name, Shaheen breaks down the Arab stereotypes as depicted in close to 1,000 movies. In his extensive projects of both the book and the movie, Shaneen explores the American cinematic landscape from the early days of Hollywood to 2001, and shows a grim stereotyping of Arabs. Shaheen’s work provides a similarity to a few other seemingly racist depictions through past history.
His work featured Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs as a dangerous epidemic and writes that, “Muslims and Arabs continue to surface as the threatening culture…”(23). Shaheen asserts that Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs varies with the climate of current world politics. He documents that Arabs and Muslims are consistently depicted as, “bearded Mullahs, billionaire sheiks, terrorist bombers, black Bedouins, and noisy bargainers…women surface as gun tooters or bumbling subservient, or belly dancers bouncing voluptuously in palaces and erotically oscillating in slave markets.
More recently, image-makers are offering other caricatures of Muslim women: covered in black from head to toe, they appear as uneducated, unattractive and enslaved beings, slowly attending to men, as they follow behind abusive sheiks” (23). Some of the movies explored in Reel Bad Arabs include: The Black Stallion (1979)- Movie begins with Arabs mistreating a horse aboard a ship, then attacking a boy with a knife and stealing his life jacket. Cannonball Run 2(1981)- Showcasing the buffoonery of rich and stupid Arabs not knowing the worth of money.
Never say never again (1983) Showcasing dirty and sleazy Arabs salivating over a blond American girl. Jewel of the Nile (1985) Showcasing ominous Arabs songs, sleazy and inept men outsmarted by Americans. Black Sunday (1977) Showcasing concerns about Arab terrorists planning to bomb an American stadium. Back to the future (1985) Antagonists in the film are referred to as inept and incompetent Libyan nationalists Iron Eagle (1986) American teenager bombs an Arab country after learning to fly a fighter jet overnight.
Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987) Arab terrorists plan to bomb Los Angeles, killing millions. Delta Force (1986) American special forces save Jews from Palestinian terrorists. Navy Seals (1990) Showcasing inept, dangerous, and incompetent Arab terrorists wiped out by a handful of US special forces. Rules of engagement (2000) A movie that justifies US Marines killing Arab women and children in Yemen. Executive Decision (1996) Showcasing Arab terrorists hijacking an American plane and US special forces saving the day.
Gladiator (2000) Showcasing barbaric Arab slave traders in a movie with no Middle East connection. True Lies (1994) Showcasing inept, dangerous, and incompetent Arab terrorist and suicide bombers in Washington DC. The Kingdom (2005) Showcasing a small unit of FBI agents who track down and kill Arab terrorists in Saudi Arabia. These movies represent just a handful from the past 3 decades alone which depict and stereotype Arabs.
Hollywood images are closely related to matters in politics and do operate side by side. It is an image, which has been shaped in large part by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging for the past several decades, in which the United States has overwhelmingly supported Israel. Other events which influenced the portrayal include, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, which incensed Arab-American relations when radical Iranian students took American diplomats hostage for over a year.
Washington’s connection to Hollywood if further intensified by the fact that several movies featuring US Armed Forces, were made in cooperation with the Defense Department; with movies such as Iron Eagle, The Delta Force, and Rules of Engagement, which was written and produced by former Secretary of the Navy and current Virginia Senator, Jim Webb. I certainly believe that the solutions for this problem are right at the finger tips of Hollywood directors, producers and movie writers, many of whom are Jewish and sometimes may hold personal biases towards the input of these movies.
It is quite a challenge, in my view to find a TV show or movie; at least here in the United States that shows Arabs and Muslims in a positive light. In the same way that many movie stereotypes have progressed from others, such as “the job stealing and illegal Mexicans” and the “liquor store robbing Black” movies to more current positive images of some minorities, so do I advocate for more positive and humanizing images on the small and big screens alike for Arabs in this respect.
It also greatly falls on us, as viewers and consumers to demand it because it is clear that not all Muslims and Arabs are terrorists and need not be portrayed as that. In conclusion, It is poignant now, that the United States is currently involved in two wars, and countless other conflicts against Arab and Muslim opposition in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and persistent threats of more from places such as Iran. Our various wars, may have come after the tragic terrorist attacks on 9/11, when 19 Arabs, mostly from Saudi Arabia attacked the United States.
However, mentally and visually Hollywood had already introduced us, the United States to wars in the Middle East by persistently vilifying everything about the Arab and Muslim world in their movies. Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs, albeit often based on historical and political events has not been useful to building and improving the relationship between the Western world and the Arab world, but it does now provide.
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