Unmasking “The Enemy:” Jack G. Shaheen’s “Reel Bad Arabs”

Over the course of this semester, I have been teaching a course entitled “Theological Crises and the Development of American Cinema.”  In it, we have been looking at, among other issues, the representation of race and ethnicity in the history of American film.  In preparation for the final series of classes, I am developing lectures and discussions on the emergence of the Hollywood blockbuster from the late ’70s until today.  A significant feature in several of these films is the stereotype of Arabs…Hollywood’s villain du jour.  To provide some background on this, I am using Jack G. Shaheen‘s book, Reel Bad Arabs:  How Hollywood Villifies a People.

In Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen provides a substantial history of Arabs in American film, highlighting the frequency of oppressive stereotypes that characterize this representation.  He notes 5 types:  villains, sheikhs, maidens, Egyptians, and Palestinians, all of which, he argues, involve extreme negative characterizations.  Shaheen argues that Hollywood, as usual, simply borrowed from larger cultural assumptions about Arabs, assumptions which existed long before 9/11.  However, the cinematic representations are more intense because of the power and influence of film, especially, Shaheen points out, on young viewers (both in that they are more impressionable and that they encounter these images over a lifetime of visual consumption).  A lifetime of exposure to these images…mistaking reel Arabs for real Arabs…no doubt influences real world perceptions.  Countering Hollywood’s simplistic portrayals of Arabs, Shaheen uses part of his introduction to reveal the complexity and diversity of Arabs.  He notes a common misunderstanding that Arab=Muslim, when in fact only 12% of the world’s Muslims are Arabs (10).  Unfortunately, according to Hollywood, the percentage seems to be much, much higher.  After an informative introduction, the meat of Shaheen’s text is his analysis of over 1,000 films that feature Arabs in lead or supporting roles.

A brief overview of the main stereotypes that Shaheen uncovers is helpful.  First, most Arabs are simply portrayed as villains, oily, greasy womanizers hell-bent on destruction and violence.  It often does not get more complicated than that.  Second, Shaheen notices a mis-representation of sheikhs in Hollywood films.  The word sheikh simply means a wise, elderly person.  Yet in Hollywood, they are often presented as “stooges-in-sheets, slovenly, hook-nosed potentates intent on capturing pale-faced blondes for their harem” (25).  They usually live in opulent palaces funded by oil-provided wealth.  Third, maidens.  Arab women experience a double dose of cinematic mis-representation given both their ethnicity and gender.  Shaheen notes that they are usually characterized as bosomy bellydancers, Beasts of Burden, shapeless bundles of black, serpents and vampires, or bombers.  Fourth, Palestinians.  Along with the fifth stereotype, Hollywood often draws on a particular group within the Arab community for villains in their narrative.  Shaheen shows how Palestinians always “appear as ‘terrorists,’ never as innocents who suffer under Israeli occupation [or as victims at all]” (2).  Finally, Egyptians.  Along with Palestinians, Egyptians are often portrayed negatively in Hollywood films, caricatured from mummies to Pharaohs.  Shaheen’s examples of villains and sheikhs also applies to most cinematic depictions of Egyptians.

The gift of Shaheen’s book is that it is the first scholarly text that examines Arab stereotypes in film.  This is a contribution that has come late to the works that examine, for example, the cinematic portrayal of Asians or African-Americans.  Shaheen provides an important clarification, “I am not saying an Arab should never be portrayed as the villain.  What I am saying is that almost all Hollywood depictions of Arabs are bad ones” (17).  We do not see ordinary Arab men, women, and children living ordinary lives (19).  All Shaheen asks of filmmakers is that they be “even-handed, to project Arabs as they do other people–no better, no worse” (41).

Yet stereotypes are likely to remain for several reasons.  They are self-perpetuating, easy, and comforting as they create group solidarity.  These images serve filmmakers’ greed by indulging the ignorance of mass audiences who buy into their “reality.”  These images are often intensified by real-world events such as wars, acts of terrorism, and news reports.  Shaheen laments the lack of a vibrant film criticism that is willing to point out and stand up to these stereotypes.  He argues that we as viewers, and critics who write about film, should be more aware of the role that these images play, not only in film, but in our day-to-day lives as well.  He writes, “Over a period of time, a steady stream of bigoted images does, in fact, tarnish our judgment of a people and their culture” (21).

Reel Bad Arabs has also been made into a film that includes numerous film clips and interviews with critics and scholars.  You can read more about the film project and see clips of it here, or you can watch it below.