Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The Media Education Foundation movies that analyze popular culture, like Reel Bad Arabs, introduce people to the important work of deconstructing the hegemonic assumptions that American culture presents about other peoples. This documentary specifically considers the meta-narratives about Arab peoples (as well as Muslims and those living in the Middle East generally), to determine how Hollywood has chosen for decades to depict such people. Unsurprisingly, offensive and racist themes have appeared since the earliest silent films. Reel Bad Arabs focuses on Jack Sheenan’s research (including a book of the same name) that considered over 1,000 Hollywood films and discovered repeated stereotypical representations that reflect what Edward Said described as “Orientalism”: the West’s inaccurate depiction of the Middle East, which helps to justify European domination and colonialism. Once these depictions are placed back-to-back in a focused documentary like this one, the patterns are hard to ignore, deny, or excuse.

Sheenan identifies one of the first themes as “Arab Land”. Movies regularly include gross generalizations of this region, including flying carpets, snake charmers, wealthy and ignorant sheiks, harems full of women (including white women held hostage), desolate desert, violent culture, castles with torture dungeons, and belly-dancers. The part here that surprise audiences the most (I have shown this in Race classes before) is how subliminal the lyrics are in the opening song of the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The lyrics are crude and offensive, but many people never think about how problematic they are until they are highlighted in Reel Bad Arabs. Also, Sheenan points out how Arabs are often inserted into films that have little to nothing to do with the Middle East, often for a cheap laugh or to provide random script direction (e.g. Back to the Future, Father of the Bride 2, Network).

Other themes center around the perceived violence and irrationality of Arab peoples, especially Palestinians. Thus, the shtick of PLO freedom fighter, airline hijacker, suicide bomber, barbaric mercenary, and murderer of innocent people appears regularly. Sheenan notes that the “packaging” of these characters has evolved beyond the typical stereotypes to include Western-looking Arabs and even Arab women, who are both are presented as violent and deadly as those older stereotypes. While the “threat” faced by Americans coming from Arab peoples is no more than anywhere else in the world, there is an over-representation of such imagery, and it seems intended to frighten audiences and to generalize these expectations to all Arab peoples. Films like Trues Lies, Delta Force, and Rules of Engagement all present these images.

Sheenan states that three key things seemed to exaggerate these depictions: the foundation of the state of Israel (and the subsequent Palestine-Israel conflict), the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution (and American hostage crisis). These events seemed to have further soured American culture to people from this region and has led to a proliferation of these stereotypes. It’s important to note that these hegemonic stereotypes about Arab peoples reinforce American political, economic, and military domination of the Middle East. It is not surprising that many “war movies” now get approval and cooperation from the US State Department.

A more modern extension of these themes has included Islamophobia (or the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims). The prejudicial association of Islam with terrorism is key here. Even TV shows like Sleeper Cell or 24 involve stereotypes that center in on the incredibly narrow demographic of Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, skeptical viewers could claim that Muslims in general support the actions of such fundamentalists, but this is a red herring, since they do not support violence any more than the average American Christian supports violence—such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (although most such Americans do not fall into the category of politicized, Christian fundamentalists). In all of these depictions of violent Arabs and Muslims, film audiences are regularly treated to dead Arabs and Muslims who are killed, or as Sheenan puts it, “slaughtered”, but via “a righteous slaughter”.

A further contribution of Reel Bad Arabs is to contextualize what the real Middle East is like, asking film audiences to “get real”. Sheenan does a great job debunking stereotypical representations, by showing that much of the Middle East is educated, secular, family-oriented, and includes empowered women (who often constitute the majority of college students)—just like in the United States! Sheenan also points to new(ish) films that break the mold and provide better, more accurate, and complete representations of Arab peoples. He highlights A Perfect Murder and Hideous Kinky, in which Arabs and non-Arabs relate to each other peacefully and respectfully. Or Kingdom of Heaven, whose ending shows the Muslim ruler Saladin respect Christianity by placing a Cross back on a church alter. Finally, Syriana, Three Kings, and Paradise Now include very real, nuanced depictions of Arab peoples, who are not sugar-coated, but are shown to be real, three-dimensional people. These final films help audiences to understand that even when Arab peoples may do things that others dislike or disapprove of, that there are reasons for it and that the application of broad generalizations and stereotypes is a mistake.

It would be hard to not recommend Reel Bad Arabs to American audiences, since it targets some of the deeply-rooted prejudices that American culture has taught for generations. In deconstructing these stereotypes, the objectives of Hollywood (and its closely-tied interests with American state-power) are revealed. Additionally, the documentary points a way forward; as Sheenan states, stereotypes will change because young filmmakers and image-makers will make it change. Reel Bad Arabs provides those people and others with the analytical ammunition to understand how it can change and why it must change.

Topics: race, Orientalism, racism, mass media

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