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Reel Bad Arabs

January 31st, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren Bowie, Sam Foster, Becca Sears, Nick Farr
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2004)
Dir. Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally
1 February, 2012

Perpetuating Stereotypes

The Power of Film and Media

Stanley J. Baran defines stereotyping as, “the application of a standardized image or concept to members of certain groups, usually based on limited information.  Because media cannot show all realities of all things, the choices media practitioners make when presenting specific people and groups may well facilitate or encourage stereotyping” (382).  It is easy to see in the short documentary, Reel Bad Arabs, how the media and Hollywood work together to define and create an image and shape the perception of Middle Eastern culture.

We can begin by discussing the portrayal of Arab women as constructed by Hollywood producers.  Images of eroticized female belly dancers appeared in early films within the realm of “Arab-land.”  These films started with a barren desert, foreshadowing music, a palace dungeon, and a pasha surrounded by women (Reel Bad Arabs).  Jack Shaheen noted, “When we visit Arab-Land we must be aware of the instant Ali-Baba kit” (Reel Bad Arabs).  Shaheen delves further into the issue of the eroticism and disturbing depictions of Arab women citing films, primarily made during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, such as the 1962 film “Samson Against the Sheik” (Reel Bad Arabs).  In his article “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”, Shaheen notes, “Not only do the reel Arab women never speak, but they are never in the workplace, functioning as doctors, computer specialists, school teachers, print and broadcast journalists, or as successful, well-rounded electric or domestic engineers” (Shaheen, 2003, 184).  This depiction of Arab women falls in line with the idea of the domesticated U.S. housewife, the “politically correct” representation portrayed by the media industry prior to the 1960s.

In contrast and reflective of the changing role of women in America, the film “Black Sunday” (1977) depicts an Arab woman taking on a more assertive role.  However, the role is that of a female Palestinian terrorist who kills anyone in her way and tries to blow up a football stadium (Reel Bad Arabs). This illustration further develops the negative image of ‘Arabs’ as the ‘other’ while conforming with the changing role of American women in the 1970s as active, self sufficient role models.  Shaheen (2003) notes that Hollywood hasn’t pondered Arab women in more civil roles such as the blind fencing athlete De’Al-Mohammad (184).

By the beginning of the 21st century, the representation of the “Arab” and particularly Arab women as the insidious “other” further reflected the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.  In Rules of Engagement (2000), U.S. troops are shown shooting at innocent women and children in Yemen.  However, in a sudden twist, viewers learn that the Yemenese crowd fired on the soldiers first.  The little Yemenese girl, originally depicted as innocent and walking on crutches, is later shown to have fired a pistol (Reel Bad Arabs).   Shaheen (2003) notes, “Rules of Engagement not only reinforces historically damaging stereotypes, but promotes a dangerously generalized portrayal of Arabs as rabidly Anti-American” (177).   These representations of Arabs and Arab women in particular precede the 9/11/01 attacks.  As a result, the actual attacks further cemented the representation of all “Arabs” as evil and insidious as portrayed by the American media, a confirmation of sorts of the power of the media.

All of these findings can be supported by the idea of Islamohpobia, a term coined to describe the evolution of Arab and Muslim into threatening words.  As Shaheen says during the documentary, “if even the words are threatening, what, then, are the images?…This perpetuating stereotype has become so widespread that it has become invisible” (2003).  As previously stated, this constructed image can be observed in old, black and white films, all the way through to the 21st century, even including children’s films like Aladdin, where the lyrics of the introductory song described a barbaric  and violent place.
Shaheen continues, however, to describe how some films are starting to humanize Arabs, which will hopefully decrease stereotyping and profiling that we see outside of movies that Hollywood creates.  In movies such as Three Kings, Shaheen tells us there is mutual respect for the different cultures shown.  In her critique of the film, Lila Kitaeff writes, “according to the film, the United States is mistaken not because it intervened in the Middle East but rather because it did not follow through in its mission to save the good Arabs and crush the bad Arabs, a mission perpetuating neo-colonial ideals” (Kitaeff).  This supports the idea that movies are being produced depicting the Arab as human, and not as a collective group of people who have the same ideological views.

Hollywood and the media continuously perpetuate these concepts and stereotypes through the production of film, and with events like 9/11, people have become even more absorbed by these preconceived ideas of a people.  Although hate crimes and preaching of words such as, “Islam teaches violent subjugation of all non-Muslims,” “terrorists are offered an oasis,” and “violence is beautiful in the eyes of Allah” (Shaheen) we can be hopeful that these generalizations of the Arab, and Middle Eastern people on a wider scale, will eventually become nonexistent. This concept of Islamophobia mentioned by Shaheen would then remain something of the past, and the United States would then be more credible in its claim of being a “united” nation.
Important Quotes

  1. “25% of all Hollywood movies degrade the Arab.”
  2. “Hollywood defines and secures certain stereotypes through the Media and Mass Communication”
  3. “The Arab is created as a one dimensional character, as comic relief.  They are portrayed as incompetent.”
  4. “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA” (Note: Important for understanding that movies reflect Washington’s policies, and that policy effects opinion)
  5. “This stereotype is so widespread that it has become invisible.  We have grown up with it.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Hollywood continue to produce movies that support and reiterate stereotypes of groups of people, when we as a country want to be seen and portrayed as an accepting group ourselves? What does this say about the power of film and audience approval or acceptance of such atrocities? Why wouldn’t the media and Hollywood use that power of media more effectively to diminish these stereotypes that have been passed down generation after generation?
  2. How can we relate the words of Shaheen in the film and article Reel Bad Arabs with other stereotypes? Why and how is the image of an Arab different than other stereotypes formed?
  3. As stated by Shaheen and reiterated in our short essay, the attacks on September 11th increased hate crimes on Middle Eastern people and profiling became extremely controversial.  Besides humanizing the Arab and comedic relief, what are other ways we can break these stereotypes?  Do you believe comedy actually works to eventually rid society of a stereotype? What was done in the past to rid ourselves of other stereotypes? Are these stereotypes ever truly fizzled out, or are they still used in defining people by our culture?

Works Cited

Kitaeff, Lila. “”Three Kings”” JCsplash. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <>.

Shaheen, Jack G. “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 177,184.

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