Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reel Bad Arabs

Hollywood has contributed for decades to promoting the images of negative and demeaning stereotypes of Blacks, Native American Indians, Asians, and other ethnic groups, including Arabs. While taking aim at many of these groups may have become politically incorrect in today's society, the assault on the representation of Arabs in movies continues. Even Disney's Aladdin, which targets a younger audience, contains sordid and biased images, songs and dialogue that can effectively taint children's attitudes towards Arabs. The opening song of the movie Aladdin, sung by an Arab bad guy, includes these lyrics: "I come from a land, from a faraway 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." What's a child to assume when hearing this?

In the early days of Hollywood, as far back as the 1920s, Arabs have been portrayed as "thieves, charlatans, murderers, and brutes." Many movies often just throw in unseemly Arab characters or negative references to Arabs, despite the movies' plots or themes having anything at all to do with Arabs or the Middle East, such as 1985's film Back to the Future and 1995's Father of the Bride 2. Arabs are often depicted as heartless savages to fill the antagonists' roles when the plotline calls for bad guys.

"I think whenever we see anyone being villified on a regular basis, we have to speak up whether we are image makers or not. We have to take a stand and say this is morally and ethically wrong to demonize a people," says Dr. Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

Dr. Shaheen appears in the video below in this short synopsis of the film documentary based on his book.

If you are interested in seeing the full length documentary in its entirety, it has been broken down into several parts, each about 10 minutes long. Here are the links:

Part 1 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 2 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 3 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 4 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 5 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary

Hollywood and Washington are forever linked in the movies. It's natural for Hollywood to produce movies about certain historical events. But what about movies that are just for pure entertainment? Is there a correlation between the large percentage of Hollywood power players being Jewish and the consistently negative portrayals of Arabs in the movies? (Joel Stein wrote this interesting op-ed piece about this topic.) Have we just become so conditioned to seeing this type of thing in the movies that it has made us insensitive to the harm that these stereotypes can do? Is Hollywood being irresponsible with its continuous negative depictions of Arabs in the movies?

Reel Bad Arabs website.


  1. I babysit a little girl who is 4 years old. I cringe when she asks me to watch Aladdin...

    Most people just say something like "oh she is 4, she wont understand it anyway" but kids soak up this stuff... and then they propagate it. Like when I tell her that she is making a big mess then she goes home and tells her mom that she is so messy.

    I have noticed recently that almost every movie has at least one negative stereotype in it usually for the sake of "humor" but really it can be very demeaning, especially when this "humor" is directed against people people in a negative and painful way.

  2. As if! I was born in 1984 and have been watching back to the future since I was born, its one of my all time favourites. I can honestly say that the part about "the Lybians" has never effected me on my views of anybody in the middle east. Some people are so petty, as if white people are never displayed poorly in movies. Whites are portrayed as evil racists who think they are better then everyone else, and that may be true of some people but not of all. If peoples views are effected by small things in movies, then we should be really worried :)

  3. Totally Agree susie!!
    Aladdin used to be a fav disney film as a kid and it was only when I was a older and and heard the song again as an adult that I noticed the lyrics and the value-laden nature of the film. The baddies generally have accents and typically 'arab' features whereas the the good characters are more Americanised with little or no accent. Tom Cruise was the basis for Aladins look! Talk about orientalism.. still pervasive in modern western culture!
    And when I pointed it out to some people they thought I was being hypersensitive and too politically correct. Typical response to subtle racism.

  4. Before the Arabs the bad guys were the russian, before them were the germans....In die hard the bad guy was a german, in movie directed by far left directors the bad guys are americans. In sum of all fear movie the director changed the villians from Muslim terrorist to Neonazi terrorist (in the book the bad guys were muslim)...

    The nationality of the bad guys depends on what is happening around the world and nowadays it's arabs' turn.

    I don't see anything wrong in Alladin since EVERYONE is arab

  5. I cannot dispute anything in the videos (I have only seen parts 1 and 2) but I do ask what does anyone expect of Hollywood? Everyone is a portrayed as a stereotype. Just think of the French as portrayed in most Hollywood movies pre 1950, are those French any more real then the Arabs? I have watched the Law and Order shows on US television. Let me summarize how groups are treated: Russians are murderous mobsters, Columbians are murderous drug sellers, Serbians are murderous child traffickers, Catholic priests are all pedophiles, anyone in the fashion industry is a drug user, defense lawyers are crooked.

    The reason why the Arab stereotype is so persistent is that we no so little about them. There are precious few Arabs in the US.

  6. As far as Palestinians go, the author is stretching the truth. Every US administration did not give support to Israel. Certainly Eisenhower didn't give absolute support to Israel. In fact the US opposed Israel, France and the UK during the Suez crisis. The US only gave complete support with from the time of the 1967 War onward. It is certainly not stereotyping to write fiction in which Palestinian terrorists target Americans who are Jewish. The Achile Lauro hijacking was a real event. If Palestinians wonder why they get bad press, perhaps they ought to read their own history. Like it or not Palestinians terrorist have chosen to attack target who are not combatants. So they chose to target the Israeli Olympic team in 1972.

    Are Arabs chosen as easy enemies in Hollywood movies? Of course. Is that bad writing? Yes. Does that have much to do with how Arabs are viewed in the US? I doubt it. Tell me all the good stories about Libya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon. We don't have enough Arabs or Muslim in the US to set a counter example. During the cold war the stereotype of Russians, if there was one, was countered by all the Eastern Europeans many of us knew. We simply don't have much contact with Arabs, especially not Muslim Arabs (all the 'Arabs' I knew when I was growing up were Syrian Christians).

    Just think of how Japanese were portrayed in the 1940's or Germans. Think of how foolish Hindus were portrayed in movies about the British Empire (think Gunga Din). We still see careless portrayals, this is Hollywood afterall, but we do see mostly a much fairer job. If Arabs want better press they need to create a better reality.

  7. I think this is much-a-do about nothing. And trying to pin it all on the "Jooooooos" is nothing more than sterotyping from the other side. Oh wouldn't it be truely grand if Jews ran the entire world!

    How about the negative rap Italians get from Hollywood? How about the Soviet era Russian villians? And the evil Germans?

  8. Well... What can we do if in those countries they really flog, hang and behead people? And worse, it is part of their judicial system...

  9. A Canadian ReaderJul 22, 2011, 6:50:00 AM

    I feel very uncomfortable with this post. I agree with Janice that you decry Arab stereotyping and then proceed to blame it on the "JOOOS". Even Joel Stein's article can be deftly used to continue the blame game.

    I'm against stereotyping of any kind, but in my opinion, you've embarked upon a slippery slope, my dear.

  10. @ Canadian Reader - I am not blaming the JOOOOS - I am merely asking a question that has been asked many times before by others and opening up discussion on the matter.

  11. Very few people get off not being stereotyped as many have mentioned. There is always a grain of truth in stereotypes. Still, this post is really grasping at straws for political correctness. There are quite a few stereotypes of Jews and nonMuslims in Islamic scripture.

    Have you read the comments in Arab News lately, Susie? Have you seen the articles of the horrible things happening in Saudi and the Arab world—all of which get justified under sharia?

    Do you not see the hateful comments that the Arabs make about all other people, especially the Jews, Westerners, non-Muslims and other non-Saudi Muslims? According to them, everything that goes wrong in the Arab/Muslim world is the fault of the Jews and the West.

    A number of people have already pointed out in so many words—if the shoe fits.

    The problem is that Arabs get bad press because there are few things that they can point to that are not negative. Take a look at the current Arab Spring—nothing but mayhem, rape and slaughter. Where are the Arabs helping their brothers? Where are any people even commenting on the slaughter other than trying to blame everything on the West and the Joos?

    Not a day goes by without Islamist terror, most of which is aimed at fellow Muslims. Where are millions of Arabs protesting against terror ? Polls show that they approve.

    Then there is the issue of hypocrisy. The Arabs decry and denigrate everything Western and nonIslamic, yet, they are not ashamed to use everything that the West provides with impunity including technology, medicine, education, luxury goods, food products, you name it they buy it without producing much of their own. The rest of the world innovates, discovers and develops. The Arabs go shopping.

    How about the stereotyping that Arabs do of Westerners, especially the women, who they claim all walk about in bikinis and are whores? Still, many Arab men dream of having a blonde, blue-eyed Western woman of their own.

    Human rights, women’s rights, non-Arab’s rights, corruption, slavery, support for terror, the plan to make Islam the religion of all of humanity— all of those and more are in plain view and documented every single day of the week. As a result, the Arab world does not look good! Then, there is Arab history of Islamic imperialism for hundreds of years; which is some pretty grim and bloody stuff. The Arabs, especially the Saudis, are dreaming of and working toward another Islamic Khilafah.

    What do you find positive in the Arab world, Susie? Hospitality just doesn’t seem like enough.

  12. "There are quite a few stereotypes of Jews and nonMuslims in Islamic scripture."

    Dear Marianne maybe you forgot that you have just said "There is always a grain of truth in stereotypes."

    I want to tell that the Quran contains more than a grain of truth. Regarding this issue the Quran told real stories of some jews and christians in the hope that the others will not repeat their faults.

  13. Anonymous‬ said...”Dear Marianne maybe you forgot that you have just said "There is always a grain of truth in stereotypes."

I want to tell that the Quran contains more than a grain of truth. Regarding this issue the Quran told real stories of some jews and christians in the hope that the others will not repeat their faults.

    Anonymous (do you not have a name?). There are a number of Anons posting.

    One man’s truth is another’s fairytale. Scholars have shown that Meccan passages in the Qur’an come from the Bible while those “revealed” in Medina are a history of Islamic warfare and how those who reject the ideology should be killed and then tortured eternally in Hell. What other holy book has a whole chapter on warfare? Surat Al-'Anfāl (The Spoils of War) http://quran.com/8

    Faults? Yes, there are many stories of “evil” Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and what Muhammad and his companions did to the People of the Book and the polytheists who rejected his Arab-totalitarian-tribal ideology. In fact, there are many more stories of warfare, slaughter and enslavement than almost anything else and the truthful Qur’an. Islam is the only religion that is historically documented. Muslim historians, such as the revered Al-Tabari are very proud of the battles that furthered the ideology. He describes the slaughter and enslavement in graphic detail: http://www.amazon.com/History-Al-Tabari-Victory-Eastern-Studies/dp/0791431509

    Of course, you appear to be insinuating that just because the Jews and the Christians rejected the new religion that this is a “fault”? I would remind you that Islam is a minority religion in the world. Billions of people reject it because they either have their own religion or they are free to have no religion. Still many Muslims want to force Islam, their brand of Islam, unto others. Sunnis hate Shia, both hate any other sect of Islam and the infidel religions of nonMuslim world. Arab News and other Gulf papers are filled with DAILY wishes from certain believers that the coming Islamic Caliphate will be just perfect; just as perfect as it was in the days when Islam was in power.

    ”Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture - [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.” Qur’an 9:29 http://quran.com/9/29

    Jizyah, in effect a protection tax. Those who do not pay are subject to attack.

    Islamic hegemonic imperialism is considered superior to the imperialism of other cultures. The Ottomans ruled over the Arabs for over 400 years. The Arabs did not like it! The East Indians were not fond of Mughal rule because about 80 million Indians were slaughtered by the imperialists. Spain chafed under Islamic rule and finally drove the Muslims out in 1492. Of course there are countless more examples of the violent spread of the ideology. You should read the history of Islam. The Jewish controlled Hollywood movie-machine could make one stereotypical, endless war movie out of that history. Then true believers could riot (again) and threaten violence because the stereotypical-truth offends them.

    Where is: “There is no compulsion in religion”? Abrogated! Because the prophet noted when he was driven to Medina, that the only way to spread his ideology was via warfare because the Meccans rejected him.

    Every religion and ideology has its extremists. The problem is that Islam seems to have more than its share, as noted by its history and the daily blood-bath.

    As time permits, I plan to explore every stereotype in the videos to further the conversation. In the meantime, can someone please post some positive Arab stereotypes?

  14. Tbe crux of the video is that there is some kind of conspiracy that has created the negative image of Arabs in the US, and that image is created by Hollywood. I think that is almost completely false. If one thinks of the image of Serbians (a people without much history in the US), I would get that many people in the US have a negative image. That image is based mostly on events in the last 20 years. If all images of Arabs vanished magically but we had the last 40 years of history, the image of Arabs would be no different.

  15. How about Koran telling Muslims not to befriend Christians or Jews...

    Will Muslims, change that portrayal about others, ...in their holy text..

  16. A Canadian ReaderJul 24, 2011, 6:59:00 PM

    Susie, Sad to say, but it is very hard to "merely ask a question". I've been reading you for over a year now and I usually appreciate your thoughts and reflections though you sometimes leave me bemused in your simultaneous defence and criticism of the KSA.

    Today, I am bemused and disturbed by your "mere" question, which, to my mind, is extremely leading. You "innocently" ask if the Jews are controlling Hollywood. The subtext of the question is that they *do* control Hollywood. An equally leading and ugly question would be the following:are Muslims simply a murderous group of savages due to their religion? I think both questions are leading and ultimately useless if our true goal is peace and co-existence.

  17. @ Canadian Reader - I'm the first one to admit that I find things to do with KSA, Islam, and the Arab world in general, confusing and contradictory. I get nasty hate mail from people who think I pander to Arabs too much and hate mail from those who feel I am too critical of KSA and/or Islam.
    There is no denying who is in control of Hollywood. I could name you dozens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood movie executives, producers, directors, writers, and agents who are Jewish - and the list would be far longer than that of any other religious persuasion who are in the business. As distasteful and leading as it is, I still think it's a fair question, in view of the topic of this post.

  18. Susie, you claimed to want a discussion. However, if you do not post people’s legitimate comments, that they have taken the time to write, and do not respond to those you do post, then you must ask yourself if you are really interested in a discussion or merely trying to use the victim card for Arabs by blaming their stereotypical, negative reputation on the Jews and others?

    ‪Susie of Arabia‬ said...”…There is no denying who is in control of Hollywood. I could name you dozens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood movie executives, producers, directors, writers, and agents who are Jewish - and the list would be far longer than that of any other religious persuasion who are in the business. As distasteful and leading as it is, I still think it's a fair question, in view of the topic of this post.”

    A much more fair question might be why Arabs and other Muslims are not in control of much of anything, Susie? The Jews have intelligence, talent and drive. Each time, throughout history that they were persecuted and driven toward annihilation, the Jews have come back stronger and better than ever. Cream rises to the top! I could name thousands of Jewish scientists, media moguls, business people, musicians, composers, mathematicians and others who “run” the world. Thank god that they do, has always been my position, considering the alternative. What would the world look like if all of the talented, skilled, intelligent Jewish leaders and intellectuals throughout history never existed? The Jews have done a lot for humanity. Can the Arabs say the same? I and others have repeatedly asked you to post the positives in Arab culture. That would be an excellent exercise; a reality check.

    What would the world look like if Arabs were in charge? What if they actually controlled the world according to the Qur’an and in the manner in which the prophet, his companions and followers controlled their empire? What if every Arab/Muslim carried out the instructions in Islamic scripture against the unbelievers, against women, against polytheists?

    Consider, while the Iranian regime has a terrible reputation, still the Iranian people, the Persians, in general have a very good reputation as intelligent, cultured, educated, civilized people. Why is the same not true of Arabs? You must be aware of the enmity that Arabs and Persians have for each other? I have had (moderate, educated, worldly) Saudis tell me that Iran and all Shiites should be wiped off the face of the earth.

    You regularly post about the massive restrictions, misogyny, misanthropy and bigotry in KSA against women, foreigners and nonMuslims. Would you want everyone to live as you are forced to live in Saudi? Would you want the rest of the world’s nations to function as do Arab countries? Are indolism, nihilism and blaming others the way forward for humanity?

    Perhaps you should consider that many of the stereotypes have a great deal of truth in them? Those most responsible for eternally refreshing the stereotypical reputation of Arabs is — Arabs themselves.

    If Arabs, especially Saudis, want a better image the responsible thing to do would be to consider behaving differently! Then they could make their own, more positive movies about Arabs.

    (FYI, I am not Jewish.)

    1. Marianne,

      I totally agree with you.
      You have my sword.

      No offence, Susie, I admire your blog.

      Ania from Poland


  19. Nice post Susie! I don't know if you were inspired by the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) July month long special on Arab themed films featuring commentary by Dr Jack Shaheen who also participated in the film selection and explicates his tenets in Reel Bad Arabs.

    I was going to post on the series, but the end of the month has come all too soon. Still there are a few days and a few films left to see. Those who wish to should consult their local schedule for TCM.

    I have done a series of posts titled "Reel Arabs and Real Arabs" starting from Shaheen's work and that of others.

    Part I--Western Cinema
    Part II--Arab Cinema(s)
    Reel Arabs and Real Arabs At the 2011 Oscars: Revolution, Independence, and History
    بلديون Indigènes: le cinéma comme agent social/ Days of Glory: cinema as social agent

    Another post (too long in draft!) should be up during Ramadan.

    Hope you are doing well in the States, and that you caught/will catch some of the TCM lineup of Arab themed films.

  20. Difficult to know what kids will pick up on. As a Saudi Girl said some kids aren't affected (perhaps because their home environment isn't racist at all, perhaps because they don't pay attention to the songs) and some are.

    It isn't because some aren't affected that the movie industry shouldn't be aware and cautious about this issue.

    Having said that you also need to be wary of excessive political correctness: if no French, Arab, gay, communist, cowboy or banker is ever to be portrayed negatively, we're heading for a desperately supra-clean world that I would deam unhealthy.There are baddies in all communities, we need to make room for that.

  21. As a former service member, Arabs don't really need any help vilifying themselves.

  22. If you aren´t a man, blond, tall, full of hair, christian, with blue eyes and heterosexual, you will be portrayed in a bad way.