Hollywood’s penchant for ugly stereotypes

Daily Star (Lebanon),  July 19, 2001

Hollywood’s penchant for ugly stereotypes

Amal Bouhabib reports on the documentation of the film industry’s prejudices

At his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Jack Shaheen can finally and at long last, relax.

The renowned author and media critic’s latest book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, published by Interlink Books, hit American bookstores two weeks ago .

And it only took 20 years to get there.

An off-shoot of Shaheen’s first project, TV Arabs, a ground-breaking book about television’s portrayal of Arabs published in 1984, Reel Bad Arabs chronicles a century of films that denigrate Arabs.

Beginning with motion pictures made in 1896 up to the present, Shaheen’s book looks at over 1,000 films in which the Arab people are subjected time and again to relentless stereotypes such as terrorists, oil-hoarding sheikhs, and American-hating Muslim fanatics.

“Brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, and abusers of women,” are only some of the other images Shaheen encounters.

“No other group has been more vilified than the Arabs,” said Shaheen.

“And the tragedy of it all is that as the perception of others ­ (African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, women) has changed dramatically toward a fairness and balance over the past years, the image of Arabs in film has only worsened.”

What Shaheen expected to be another two to three year project rolled into two decades. The films “just kept coming,” he said, with one worse than the next.

“And I still haven’t finished,” he insists. “I’ve already found 10 more following the publication of the book.”

With the help of his wife Bernice, Shaheen scoured computer databases for films depicting Arabs by typing in key words like “desert, camel, Egypt, Arab.” Some of the films were easy to find: Cable TV opened up a whole slew of new releases; movie guides and reviews proved invaluable resources.

Some were more difficult to come by: About 140 silent features were either destroyed or are now unavailable.

From the Library of Congress in Washington to the University of California’s research center, Shaheen’s search was relentless: “It was like being in a desert, and you’re standing on a sand dune and you think you see an oasis. So you walk towards it, but there’s no oasis.”

His conclusions are discouraging and the statistics speak for themselves: Over 900 films project Arabs as villains, with only a “handful of heroic Arabs” debuting in the 1980s and 90s. In “hundreds of movies,” Arabs are slandered as “rag-heads, towel heads, sons-of-she-camels, son-of-an-unnamed-goat, camel dicks,” to name just a few.

Arabs trying to rape or abduct Western heroines appear in more than 20 films; Arabs enslaving Africans feature in about 10; at least 11 Israeli-made films portray Americans and/or Israelis killing “evil Arabs.”

Anti-Christian Arabs star in more than 20, and noticeably, no Christian Arabs ever grace the scene ­ rather, and most often, Arabs are equated with Islam indiscriminately, despite the fact that only 12 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion Muslims are Arab, Shaheen points out.

Shaheen credits a Fulbright tenureship at the American University of Beirut in 1974 as the spark of his interest in the subject. Recalling the Israeli devastation of the South and the constant overhead airwar, he says his time here had an indelible impact.

“Being here, experiencing the reality of the region, prompted me to look at this issue,” said Shaheen who, at the time was working as a film reviewer for The Daily Star in addition to teaching a communications class at the university. That year, Shaheen, who has since delivered over 1,000 lectures world-wide, gave his first speech on Arab stereotypes at the AUB Alumni Center on Bliss Street.

Now, in light of the ongoing conflict in the region, the book gives an urgent message about the power of Hollywood. “Film is not just a form of propaganda, it is the most effective form,” Shaheen says. “These movies reach countries all over the world, they shape world views. A dirty Ay-rab in America is a dirty Ay-rab in Russia and China. These are not just frivolous messages we’re sending.”

In the past 30 years, films denigrating Arabs have only worsened, a phenomenon Shaheen sees as being linked to politics. Certainly the Israeli connection plays a large role, and in many cases, the author believes, there is “malicious intent. This can’t be taken in a vacuum.”

Shaheen’s research concurs. Of the 43 fiction films examined by Shaheen that involved Palestinians, more than half were filmed in Israel between 1983 and 1998, including the blockbusters True Lies, The Siege, and Delta Force, which all pit Palestinian terrorists against American heroes.

Cannon, an American Film company run by two Israeli producers, has produced over 26 “hate-and-terminate-the-Arabs” movie, including Hell Squad, The Delta Force (again) and Killing Streets.

Not one of the films portrays Palestinians as human beings. Also noticeably absent, Shaheen notes, is any attempt to depict Palestinians under occupation, as refugees or as victims of terrorism and colonialism.

Shaheen sees the perpetuation of such stereotypes as having highly severe consequences: “When you vilify a people, innocent people get hurt,” he repeats. Israel’s continued expropriation of the Occupied Territories, for example, is somehow perceived as acceptable because of the relentless dehumanization of the Palestinians, he suggests.

What makes these stereotypes so irresistible? Shaheen ventures to say it is a mix of image-making and political agenda: “The Arab stereotype is easy. It makes money,” he says. “Film-makers grow up with the stereotypes and so revert to them easily.”

Many of the film-makers Shaheen interviews for the book say they don’t want to be targeted as “Arab lovers.” Another producer put it bluntly: “You can hit an Arab free; they’re free enemies, free villains ­ where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore.”

The flippancy with which such confessions are made are frightening, but the question raised is why nothing is being done to stop it. Is Hollywood impenetrable, run by Jews, as so many Arabs like to conclude?

Shaheen doesn’t think so.

“That’s poppy-cock,” he spits. “Balderdash. That’s an excuse not to do anything and it needs to be dispelled.

“Hollywood is open, after all. Anyone can make a film.”

In the US, there are groups like the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee working for the cause, but it’s not enough. “It’s the basic law of physics,” he quips. “Nothing boils unless you apply heat. This hasn’t happened yet.”

Shaheen hopes the book will get the fire going, and that it will make its way into university libraries. From there, it is up to the community to act. “My goal has been to make the injustice visible. Now we have the evidence, don’t we? My job is done.”

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