Posted by Shadi Matar on March 20, 2015 in Blog

Jack ShaheenIn the original version of the classic Disney Movie “Aladdin” (1992) the opening scene has a song lyric sang by an Arab character in the film that sings, “Where they cut off your ear, If they don't like your face, It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.” In a rare move, Disney changed the line a year after its release, under pressure by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, but kept the “barbaric” lyric within the song. Aladdin was not the first example of Arabs or the Middle East being shown in a negative or stereotypical light in film but is just one widely watched example over the last century in the history of film.

Dr. Jack Shaheen, the author of “Reel Bad Arabs” and “A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in US Popular Culture”, has spent his career analyzing the way Arabs have been portrayed in American film and television over the last century. In 2006, his book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People” was adapted into a documentary and shown across the United States and to global audiences. In his book Shaheen asks “What is an Arab? In countless films, Hollywood alleges the answer: Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women.” Shaheen’s book and documentary highlight the many examples in the American media that portray Arabs and the Middle East with the same repetitive negative stereotypes over the last century.

Orientalist tropes such as endless desserts, harem girls, and belly dancers were used to depict Arabs and the Middle East as an entity that never changes and is incompatible with Western morals. A dichotomy of East vs. West and normal vs. the other is portrayed in these films to personify Arabs as an unchanging oddity in the world. One notable example of this is in film is “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) which depicts the films modern protagonist going through a bazaar in Egypt and encountering a scimitar-swinging villain as a crowd of Arabs circle around the two characters.

The modern depiction of Arabs in film shifted to depict them not just as backwards desert dwellers, but on vilifying them as violent, angry, and obsessed with destroying the west. Shaheen cites films that portray Arabs as cold money hungry oil sheiks or inept villainous terrorists that seek to destroy Western society. In the popular movie “Back to the Future” (1985) the antagonists who shoot the main character are described as Libyan terrorists who shout Arabic gibberish as they ruthlessly gun down the protagonist.

Shaheen’s research into the film and media industry has helped in identifying the dehumanizing personifications that Hollywood has given to Arabs as well as the underlying factors for these personifications. With well over 1000 films depicting Arabs, Shaheen finds that 932 depict Arabs in a stereotypical or negative light and only 12 have a positive depiction.

“Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People” will be screened at Pepperdine University on March 23, 2015 with an introduction by Dr. Jack Shaheen and followed by a panel discussion of Arab stereotyping in film. Tickets for the event can be reserved here

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