“Reel Bad Arabs”

Blog Post #3

Jenna Levandowski, Liz Miller

September 15, 2015


Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006); Jeremy Earp, Sut Jhally, Jack Shaheen

by Jenna Levandowski and Liz Miller

September 15, 2015


The documentary Reel Bad Arabs aims to exploit the myths and dehumanizing stereotypes that we have developed towards the Arab community and the Middle East as a result from watching their portrayal within television. Dr. Jack Shaheen dedicated over thirty years analyzing more than a thousand films starting from early Hollywood that depict how image makers project Arabs and how that correlates with societies inherited national attitudes towards the Arab culture. Shaheen watched and dissected both unknown films and major blockbusters to find that for decades the people behind the making of these films have reproduced the same demeaning stereotypes over and over again.

Within these movies you see that women and men are portrayed in not only a negative light but in a one dimensional manner, the complexities behind the culture and human beings are wiped away and replaced by an overarching Western hating motif. Women are portrayed as sultry, submissive, and sexualized beings. They illustrate women as sexualized entertainers for the men around them. The other side of this stereotype shows women Dr. Shaheen described as  “bundles in black”. If they are not going to be casted as beautiful seductresses then they are completely covered up and silenced. The final other depiction of Arab women is shown as being terrorists and bombers. Similarly, the Arab men within Hollywood films show the same type of violent and dangerous person recycled over and over again with different characters. The men are painted as incompetent villains who are extremely attracted to American women. These men are not shown as fathers or brothers, but kidnappers, terrorists and abusive people.     

What happens when these adverse depictions of Arabs are even injected into movies that have nothing to do with the culture or people, these negative stereotypes become deeply embedded into our perception of reality. The American population has grown up watching these stereotypes and making the connection to reflect these characterizations onto the whole Arab population. This has affected the way our society rushes to judgement and immediately blames and looks for an Arab to publicize as the villain. The Cultivation Theory implies the “idea that people’s ideas of themselves, their world, and their place in it are shaped and maintained primarily through television”. (p 323). As a result, the amount of time people are spending in front of their television screens directly correlates with our perception that these Arab people can in fact be generalized to their entire population. Similarly, the repetition of enforced stereotypes “make people feel superior to others”, the fact that we vilified an entire culture creates the inequality that our society is better, we have superior morals and customs, why should we attempt to understand the Arab culture if this is what it is like there? The American people have not been given the ability through television to be exposed to Arab characters that humanize and respect their culture. The lack of mutual respect in films excludes the majority of the Arab population that do not fit into the societal boxes we put them in. With only a miniscule amount of films to counter the negative way Arabs are shown in film, it is easy and disappointing to see why so many Americans are to believe these stereotypes as their social reality. “Stereotypes Do Reinforce the Status Quo.” Stanford Graduate School of Business. Jost, John.  Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

Shaheen’s asks in the film; “And if we cannot see Arab humanity, what’s left?” What he means by this, is if we cannot even seen Arabs as human beings depicted on the television how can we ever relate to them in real life? The media is where we are supposed to see the most glorified (yet often stereotypical or false) displays of people in society. Yet, the Arabs have a history of being displayed in media in a negative context, exemplified after the 9/11 attacks (presumably) to create “justification” for a war that has continued for many more years than the American public could’ve ever guessed. First, to reduce or remove these stereotypes from our present society, we must remove them from our  everyday media.

As aforementioned above, it is presumed that the continued negative portrayal of Arabs in modern media has some connection with politics or the government. It is no surprise that years into the War on Iraq and Afghanistan the American public began to wonder what started this war, and why it was continuing. One could speculate that the American government may have supported such efforts, possibly even funding to further support the negative stereotypes that emerged or were illuminated after it was revealed who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The government can play a big role in socially constructed definitions and norms and how they use that power can be extremely important to the future of the country and the world.  

The concept of social construction of reality in this film is present in how media has created a reality within our country based on definitions and stereotypes. We see Arabs in the United States as bad people because we assume that they are like those whose who killed thousands of Americans because those ideas are reinforced repeatedly in the media. For instance, in the movie Flight 93, the stereotypes of those who participated in the terrorist attacks, were brought to light through those who played the hijackers, the music during the “stressful” or “action-packed” part of the film is very middle eastern and reminds us of the origin (or socially constructed “origin”) these people inciting this violence are from.

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