Hollywood’s Influence on a Negative Stereotype of Arabs and Middle Easterns

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006)
Director: Sut Jhally
Star: Jack Shaheen

By Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Rebecca Doser

Fig. 1 This documentary analyzes various Hollywood films and how they specifically vilify Arab and Middle Eastern people

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Fig. 1) is a documentary that is based off of a book written by the movie’s narrator, Jack Shaheen. Both the book and the movie serve to analyze how Hollywood corrupts the image of Arabs in society through discussion of a series of films that create stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Eastern culture. An in-depth analysis of multiple Hollywood films clearly shows how they are portrayed as villains, terrorists and evil individuals.

Shaheen mainly studies hundreds of Hollywood movies, which contain stereotypical images about Arabs that further portray racial prejudice of Arabs, such as True Lies or Father of the Bride 2. Since Hollywood has a history of producing films for lengthy time frames not only in the United States but also worldwide, they do great job as a platform of mass communication, in both appointment consumption and consumption-on-demand sides. He suggests how American (directors) implant the “real” bad Arab images to the audience, who are mainly Americans, through their films. Also, he addresses political influence by introducing the connection between Washington and Hollywood.

The main point of this movie is to not simply just analyze various films vilifying Arabs, but to understand that this type of mass communication, through the means of a documentary, is pointing to a larger problem with Western society. This problem is that various films such as Aladdin and shows such as Family Guy and Modern Family, have the strength and tendency to ingrain skewed images of an entire race or culture. They represent certain people, such as Arabs, not as an individuals of a group of real people but rather as negative images that are portrayed in media to push stereotypes into Americans’ minds.

Fig. 2: The hijackers aboard flight United 93

The largest issue with the stereotypes placed on a certain group of individuals, is when these stereotypical viewpoints are enacted into real life. Shaheen describes Arabs in Hollywood movies as “subhuman” or as “stock villains.” The problem with this is that these “classifications” are being played out in today’s politics. After watching this movie and discussing it further in class, I (Rebecca) decided to watch United 93 last Thursday evening on September 10, 2015. Afterwards, I will admit myself that the damaging images of Arabs as fearless hijackers (Fig. 2) and terrorists taking the lives of innocent Americans as well as their own lives is extremely terrorizing. Many viewers will allow movies such as this to completely construct their viewpoints on the entire culture of those people, while these evil individuals are only part of this group.

How does this play into real world politics and what is the effect that Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs has on today’s politics? First off, it touches on the basic tenets of the Cultivation Theory, which is the idea that television cultivates or constructs a reality of the world that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the accepted reality simply because we as a culture believe it to be the reality (Baran, 2015, p. G-3). As Americans, we interpret the world “outside” through the lenses of our own culture- it’s norms, values and symbols.  Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs as villains and harmful individuals pushes Americans to view an entire culture in this unjust limelight. This negative stereotyping is a result of increased globalization, a term used to describe the concentration of media ownership (Baran, 2015, p. 36) because defenders of this concept point to a need to reach a fragmented and widespread audience to encourage such a trend or viewpoint.

epa03615072  A group of Palestinian men, waving the Palestian flag and holding up posters, protest against the closer of the main south-west entrance to Hebron, as Israeli soldiers look on, West Bank,  08 March 2013. The entrance was closed by Israeli troops due to its proximity to the Jewish settlement Beit Hagay.  EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN
Fig.3: A group of Palestinian men, waving the Palestian flag and holding up posters, protest against the closer of the main south-west entrance to Hebron, as Israeli soldiers look on.

In the middle of the movie, The Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen puts forth a significant question: “If we cannot see Arab humanity, what’s left?” Afterwards, he continues that, “If we feel nothing, if we feel that Arabs are not like us or not like anyone else, then let’s kill them all. They deserve to die” as a sort of interpretation of his own question.  He takes Arab humanity as if it were a last stronghold. Why? It is probably because Arabs are seriously suffering from hunger, refugee, and  thousands of deaths of innocent people in real life (Fig.3), while they are still portrayed as a bad and dangerous group of people in the movies.  As a means of illustration, if we cannot find humanity in people who are truly in need and struggling with living, where can we find? If they are not like us, who are they? Rather, who are we? They are the real people as well as us. If we ignore the humanity of Arabs, who are nothing but human beings, and destroy everything as though it were justice, there is nothing but ciaos as shown in the movie from The Rush Limbaugh Show. Then, if the ciaos is all that is left, where do we turn next?

In America, the term “axis of evil” first emerged in George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002. This term in American culture is often repeated throughout many presidencies to describe the Middle Eastern/Arab governments that are accused of terrorism, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and impacting our relations with Iran and Iraq due to their stance as common enemies during the War on Terror. This clearly links current political viewpoints on Arabs with Shaheen’s statement that, “Politics and Hollywood’s images are linked; they reinforce one another. Policy enforces mythical images, mythical images help enforce policy.” The fear we hold against Arabs in watching films such as United 93 construct a reality of the world that all Arabs should be seen through a lens of evil and indoctrination. The strength of the ability of politics and Hollywood to work simultaneous to cultivate this social construction of reality is evident in that America’s leaders continue to use the term “the axis of evil” and show children videos such as Aladdin, which vilify Arabs in every way possible to a young generation who will ultimately guide Americans views in years to come.

The stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners have been shaped and altered by the medium that mainly portrays bad Arab images to the public: Hollywood movies. In contrast, however, here are some examples of movies that contain neutral or positive portrayals of Arabs: A Perfect Murder (1998), Three Kings (1999), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Syriana (2005), and Hideous Kinky (1998). These movies describe a romance involving an Arab man or employee decent Arab characters in their plots, though some of these neutral/positive films regarding Arab characters still involve fights, weapons, and some suspicious atmospheres. Thus, Shaheen is hopeful that the situation can change and that the negative stereotype of Arabs will be turned around because of some new-aged movie directors.


Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 1.” Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. 4-27. Print.