1. The condescending pairing of geography and culture often creates a stereotype, in this case, for the Inuit people.

5. The popular image of male-female relations in Arab society, first promulgated during the 19th century. Women are chattel, objects of sexual fascination. Men are lascivious and dehumanizing.

8. Decadence and violence.

9. Hollywood Orientalism.

10. Palatial splendor with magnificently embroidered carpets, bejeweled goblets, beautiful women, rich silk.

11. Disney’s Orientalism. Aladdin presents the highly sexualized belly-dancer as its one mode of representing Arab women. Even Princess Jasmine is sexualized in similar terms.

12. Disney animators gave a menacing palace guard stereotypical facial features including a heavy brow, hooked nose, thick lips, and missing teeth.

13. This stunningly violent image from Aladdin shows a hateful Arab merchant swinging a sword to cut off Princess Jasmine’s hand, since she doesn’t have money to pay for an apple she gave to a hungry boy.

14. The origin of Disney’s anti-Arab caricatures lies in its anti-Semitic cartoon The Small One (1978) directed by Don Bluth. The Jewish moneylenders here possess almost identical facial features to the Arabs in Aladdin and share a similar rapacious glee for accumulating wealth.

15. A love of money paired with a penchant for cruelty defines Disney’s depiction of Jewish merchants in The Small One, much like...

16. ... the greedy Arab trader who narrates the opening of Aladdin.

17. Ali Baba, The Mad Dog of the Desert is another cartoon depiction of Arabs, painting them as buffoons or fools.

18. A live-action feature-length cartoon is Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Spielberg’s attempt to make a joke out of a death, Jones casually shoots an Arab menacing him with scimitar.



Aladdin, Al-Qaeda, and Arabs in
U.S. film and TV

by Christian Blauvelt

  • Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001) 574 pages
  • Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, directed by Sut Jhally, DVD, 50 min., Media Education Foundation, 2006

 “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They are portrayed, basically, as sub-human untermenschen, a term used by Nazis to vilify Gypsies and Jews. These images have been with us for more than a century.”
— Jack Shaheen[1[open endnotes in new window]

Shaheen’s new documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, released in conjunction with his book of the same title, takes up the issue of Arab representation in U.S. media. His film effectively demonstrates the influence of Victorian-era Orientalist narratives on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood cinema, which presents them as backwards, violent, mystical, lascivious, hateful, prejudiced, and misogynistic.

2. Geography = culture: in fiction film the desert mise-en-scene becomes a reductive signifier of Arab culture.

3. Hollywood uses the harsh, forbidding quality of the desert to personify Arabs. The desert is harsh and violent; therefore Arab characters are harsh and violent.

Hollywood cinema has played into near-mythological stereotypes about Arabs, which imply that the Middle East is a land of cultural otherness, full of people who cannot be understood in Western terms and thus should not be thought of as human. From the early 1900s when Edison in the United States and Pathé and Gaumont in France were making films, film has used as a narrative convention that Arabs occupy a mystical land of harsh deserts, tropical oases, genies, magic carpets, thieving bandits, decadent sultans, conniving sheiks, and sensual harem girls. Today, such scripting survives in popular children’s films like Disney’s Aladdin, but it has been usurped in large part by the new popular myth: that of Arabs, or Muslims in general, as terrorists who may not only be plotting the destruction of the West from the Middle East but may even be plotting the United States destruction from the suburban townhouse next door (e.g., as in Fox TV’s 24).

4. Delacroix uses bright colors to emphasize the sensual opulence of Arab sultans and denote Arab culture as exotic.

These media stereotypes have a malleability that allows for their manipulation by politicians and policy makers to construct a narrative justifying U.S. imperialism. In these ideological narratives, Arab culture doesn’t matter; what matters is spreading “freedom” and “democracy,” which become nothing more than useful keywords justifying Western hegemony and U.S. cultural exportation and domination. Jean-Luc Godard once replied, when asked why U.S. films are the most popular in the world,

“Because Americans tell the best stories. They can invade a country and immediately construct a narrative justifying it.”

In fact, the WMDs for which the U.S. went to war with Iraq can almost be termed a MacGuffin, one of Hitchcock’s non-existent plot catalysts, which merely serves to launch the story and has no significance in and of itself. What has more consistently served to win U.S. public acceptance of the invasion of Iraq — begun March 19, 2003 — were the continually negative images of Arabs in Hollywood film and television, which gained new acceptance in the aftermath of 9/11.

Arabs, and Muslims in general, have been culturally coded as “others,” a dislocated social position which many politicians and media producers have used to position Arabs as phantom enemies, as scapegoats for latent U.S. xenophobic tendencies. In this regard, Hollywood filmmakers have often used Arabs in narratives in very much the same way as Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews in the 1930s and 40s.

6. The lascivious Arab man: note how the man has a darker skin color than the woman, pairing race with unbridled sexuality.

7. Delacroix’s "Death of Sardanapalus," the ultimate rendering of perceived Arab decadence: naked harem girls are about to be slaughtered as Sardanapalus’ kingdom falls. Such a pairing of Arab sexuality with violence still informs much of our contemporary understanding of gender relations in the Arab world.

If many politicians have capitalized on negative media representations of Arabs for imperialist ambitions, then we have a causation paradox. Which came first? Is it the neoconservative desire to construct a phantom enemy against whom U.S. values become defined in a mythological battle between good vs. evil, east vs. west, and, yes, Christian vs. Muslim?[2] Or is it that the stereotypical narratives came first and policy makers used available stereotypes for political ends? We cannot answer that with certainty.

Nevertheless, we can trace shifts in patterns in media stereotyping. Now, while discerning viewers may shudder at the idea of African American actors relegated to playing main servants in Hollywood films through the 1950s, condemn Westerns for glorifying genocide of Native Americans, and loathe a frequently appearing Jewish pawnbroker stereotype — most disgusting in Alec Guinness’ Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) — viewers easily accept as justifiable that Jack Bauer hang the Muslim terrorist who nuked Los Angeles in Season 6 of 24 or marvel at the lush visuals, catchy show tunes, and indeed casual racism of Disney’s Aladdin.[3] As Shaheen describes the easy cultural reduction to stereotype,

“All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain. These are stereotypes which rob an entire people of their humanity.”[3]

My essay offers an analysis and critique of Shaheen’s documentary and the particular aspects of that prejudice on which he focuses in order to survey the history of Hollywood’s racist portrayals of Arabs and Muslims.

Myths of Arabland

Cultural identity partly derives from geography so that landscape often points to patterns of economic and social activity. Rivers, such as the Huang and the Nile, have fostered the agrarian economies as well as transportation networks. An island country like Japan often becomes a prime hub of sea-bound trade networks, with fishing playing a large role in local food production. However, topographic-ethnic associations can also lead to reductive connotations. The Inuit people traditionally have lived within the Arctic Circle in frigid, ice-filled tundra environments, but when such an association leads mainly to imagery of Inuits living in igloos and ice fishing, the complexity of a great people’s culture gets reduced to what is little more than Rankin Bass imagery. (Image 1) Worse yet, geography may be used metaphorically to take on a personified quality that translates into attitudes toward that part of the world. When Africa means the “Jungle,” that’s not just a landscape but a state of mind. Thus Conrad’s Heart of Darknes, links cultural “backwardness” to geographic “backwardness” and finds Western morality impossible in a realm of incessant Darwinian struggle.

Such pejorative association between topography and cultural identity shapes the mise-en-scene and is the initial locus of much of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Arabs. As Shaheen puts it,

“The depiction of Arabs always begins with the desert.”

As with depictions of Africa where the jungle connotes both danger and cultural “backwardness,” the “hostility” of the desert environment often translates into attitudes about the people who live there. (Image 2) Certainly many parts of the Arab world do feature desert landscapes. However, any uniform marriage of people and place in terms of the connotations of "desert" would ignore both physical and cultural variety, including the modern urban environments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Mediterranean climate of Tunisia, Libya, and Lebanon, the fertile fields of the Nile Valley, the rugged plateaus of Kurdistan, and the mountains of Morocco.

Looking at this kind of reductionism in more cultural terms, Hollywood not only gives Arabs a Muslim identity but all-too-often gives Muslims an Arab identity, when in reality Arabs make up only about 1/3 of the total worldwide Muslim population of over one billion people. Narratively linking Muslims with the desert sets in place an even more sweeping misperception of the great faith’s cultural diversity and complexity. How could tying Islam to those living in the desert relate to the experience of Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or Indonesia — regions that don’t feature deserts as prominent topographical features? For example, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, is primarily tropical in its climate, with mountains, the rainforest, and the sea as the most prominent geographical landmarks. For Hollywood films to create a link between landscape and religion shows a profound ignorance of the world. (Image 3)

“We inherited the Arab image primarily from Europeans.”

Shaheen is referring here to 19th century Orientalism, a movement inspired in part by British and French  acquisition of lands in the Middle East and North Africa. European cultural production, both artistic and popular culture, included a plethora of fantastical travel writing which emphasized the exoticism of the Middle East through mythopoetic stereotypes that revealed little about the actual local culture but attracted rich European tourists. In the visual arts, Eugene Delacroix’s Orientalist paintings portrayed Arab culture as beyond decadent, with lascivious sultans wearing vibrant colors and sensual silk while surrounded by scantily clad harem girls. (Images 4-6) Delacroix also frequently depicted Arab sexuality as paired with death as in "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1827). (Images 7-8) These exotic stereotypes were transmitted to United States where they found a parallel cultural foothold, especially in the early 20th century when dime novels promoted ethnocentric adventure narratives about the “superior” Western culture taming the U.S. West and its Native American inhabitants. The dimestore novelists attached a similar xenophobic sense of “otherness” to the Middle East, to Native Americans, and to Asians, especially the Chinese. And Columbia University Professor Edward Saïd demonstrated the ways that these stereotypes persist today, even in academic analysis:

“All academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged with, impressed with, and violated by 19th century Orientalism.”[4]

Characterizing this “otherness” is the sense that Arabs are “backwards.” As a character relates about her fictional Middle East-inspired country in the Elvis Presley movie Harum Scarum (1965):

“When you cross the mountains of the moon into our country, you will be stepping back 2,000 years.”

Shaheen argues that the mythopoetic trappings of Arab culture as depicted in Hollywood films have become so rigidly codified that they have an amusement park-like uniformity:

“We have this fictional setting called Arabland, a mythical theme park. And in Arabland, you have the ominous music, you have the desert as a threatening place, we add an oasis, palm trees, a palace that has a torture chamber in the basement.”

In a common mise-en-scene, opulent, palatial interiors reveal a cruel, bloated pasha reclining on cushions and surrounded by harem maidens. The pasha possesses an unquenchable appetite for the flesh and requires sensual handmaidens and harem girls to appeal to his lascivious desires. (Images 9-10) However, as in the movie Samson Against the Sheik (1962), the Arab harem maidens don’t attract the pasha’s attention as much as the blonde European girl does, so he must abduct and ravish her against her will.

The codified trappings of Arabland which Shaheen identifies as the “Instant Ali Baba Kit” include costuming women in belly-dancing outfits and transparent pantaloons, while giving the male villains long, curved, scimitars. Since Arabland is clearly a mystical land, its inhabitants ride on magic carpets, and snake charmers hypnotize deadly cobras with eerie flute music. These trappings are not merely found in Classical Hollywood films that demonstrate an Orientalist influence like The Thief of Baghdad (1924 and 1940) or The Garden of Allah (1936), or films featuring Jamie Farr, but in even more recent fare including the 1992 Disney blockbuster Aladdin. Aladdin, in fact, continues the stale Orientalist fantasy, portraying all Arab men as either street thugs, pickpockets, emasculated palace guards, beggars, sultans, or sorcerers. (Image 11) A male character early in the film even declares to his master upon stealing a jewel,

“I had to slit a few throats, but I got it.”

The men are short and stocky with thick lips, missing teeth, heavy, menacing brows, and hooked noses, while the hero Aladdin and heroine Jasmine look like suburban, white, U.S. teenagers. (Image 12) Arabs are shown as gratuitously cruel, with characters making several references to beheading. One Arab merchant even tries to cut off Jasmine’s hand when she doesn’t have money to pay for an apple she gave to a hungry boy. (Image 13) Few U.S. film critics mentioned the visual stereotyping in the villains' the heroes' facial characteristics except for Roger Ebert who asked,

“Wouldn't it be reasonable that if all the characters in this movie come from the same genetic stock, they should resemble one another?”[5]

Shaheen argues,

"The film recycled every old degrading stereotype from Hollywood’s silent, black and white past.”

In this vein, Aladdin opens with the expository song “Arabian Nights” which includes the lyrics"

“Oh, I come from a land
From a far away place where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.”

The stereotypes in Aladdin also draw upon anti-Semitic imagery for inspiration, most notably those from the anti-Semitic Disney animated short The Small One (1978), a children’s Biblical tale, about the donkey who would carry The Virgin Mary to Bethlehem to give birth. That film features a musical number called “Clink-Clink, Clank-Clank,” about Jewish moneylenders’ fetishistic “love of money.” Over and over, three dancing moneylenders sing the lyrics “Clink-Clink, Clank-Clank/ Put the money in the bank,” while cruelly humiliating the young boy who is trying to sell his donkey. (Image 14) Almost impossible to watch and despicable for its stereotypes, The Small One has been covered up by Disney executives. In that film, in particular, Jewish merchants are portrayed with almost exactly the same facial characteristics as the Arab villains have in Aladdin and similarly possess both a love of money and penchant for cruelty. (Image 15). (Image 16).

Of course, cartoonish anti-Arab stereotypes like those in Aladdin have long found a home in animated cartoons. The Warner Brothers’ cartoon Ali Baba Bunny (1957, Chuck Jones) begins with buffoonish "villain music" playing over a shot of a bearded, mustache-twirling Ali Baba looking through beer bottles as if they were binoculars while palm trees wave in the background and a subtitle declares him to be “The Mad Dog of the Desert.” (Image 17)

“The Arab is a one-dimensional caricature, cartoon cutouts used by filmmakers as stock villains and as comic relief…and so over and over, we see Arabs in movies portrayed as buffoons, their only purpose being to deliver cheap laughs.”

Shaheen says this while discussing feature fiction. He points to the cartoonish deployment of Arabs in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg), especially the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the menacing Arab wielding a scimatar, a death meant to be a joke. (Image 18) The Joey Heatherton film The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) also features a cartoonish Arab character, Sheik Ali played by Jerry Fischer, who admits that he has had sex with both dogs and sheep, taking the lascivious Arab stereotype to new depths of depravity. James Cameron’s live-action cartoon True Lies (1994) also features Arabs cast in the role of villain/buffoon, this time in their modern iteration as terrorists. Not only does True Lies subject the audience to Jamie Lee Curtis' pole-dancing, but it features Arab terrorists who are not only dangerous, but also incompetent, bungling fools. One scene features a terrorist who is prepared to detonate a nuclear bomb in Miami with one turn of a key…but has forgotten the key.

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