martes, marzo 20, 2007

My friend and ELP classmate Omar Attum just published this excellent piece in Egypt Today:

Hollywood’s stereotypical Arab
March 2007
Reel Bad Arabs:How Hollywood Vilifies a People
A new film suggests it’s not just light-hearted fun whenHollywood blockbusters are part of the war machine
By Omar Attum

Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood — so says Dr. Jack Shaheen, noted media critic, author and host of the new documentary film produced by the Media Education Foundation, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

In Shaheen’s eyes, it is a given that Arabs will be showcased negatively in Hollywood. Of the more than 1,000 movies Shaheen watched that portrayed Arabs, he found that only a dismal six to seven percent could be considered positive or non-offensive towards Arabs.

It would be convenient to think that these negative portrayals became prevalent only after September 11, 2001, but this powerful documentary illustrates that degrading stereotypes of Arabs have been the norm since the first silent films in the 1880s.

The documentary starts with scenes from different Hollywood movies representing ‘Arabland’: an unwelcoming environment of harsh deserts, a few palm trees and a desert fortress. The movies use the generic ‘Ali Baba kit’ comprising lecherous, barbaric Arab men flanked by erotic belly dancers. The prize of every Sheikh’s harem is the abducted American woman who bravely fights off her sinister master’s sexual advances.

In Hollywood’s epic battles between good and evil, Arabs and Muslims make some of the best generic villains. These bad guys are one-dimensional killers, bloodthirsty and often fanatically religious or nationalistic terrorists. Hollywood especially reveres Palestinians as terrorists out to kill Americans. One Hollywood role you will never see is the Palestinian as the innocent civilian or suffering hardship under occupation.

When Arabs and Muslims are not terrorizing Americans or kidnapping their women, they are buying up the country and being the source of America’s economic troubles. The generic Arab can also provide comic relief by being the butt of jokes as a buffoon or rebuking his wife in a belligerent, gibberish-sounding language.

What alarms Shaheen is that Hollywood has been so effective in creating the generic Arab villain that it is normal to inject Arab slurs or villains into movies that have nothing to do with the Middle East, as seen in Back to the Future or Gladiator.

While the status of women has progressed in many parts of the Arab world, Hollywood still shows Arab and Muslim women as sex objects, unidentifiable black ‘bundles’ or terrorists. Shaheen laments, “The more Arab women advance, the more Hollywood keeps them in the past.”

Reel Bad Arabs poses serious questions about the repercussions of routine negative stereotypes on the silver screen. Shaheen is concerned that racist portrayals are so widespread in Hollywood that they are considered normal and invisible to American viewers who grow up with these stereotypes.

For example, instead of Hollywood depicting the 19 Arab and Muslim terrorists of September 11 as a lunatic fringe, movies regularly attribute these characteristics to the greater Arab and Muslim community. At the same time, Shaheen notes that the other fringe groups or individuals, such as the Ku Klux Klan or Timothy McVeigh, are not made to represent their larger community.

According to the documentary, the political ramifications are enormous. Shaheen makes the argument that these movies closely follow Washington’s foreign policy and that “politics and Hollywood’s images are linked and they reinforce one another.” He claims that some of the most offensive movies are created in cooperation with the Department of Defense, often showing US armed forces killing Arabs at random.

Arab and Islamophobia has been reinforced by movies vilifying all things Arab, which Shaheen believes made it psychologically easier for Americans, with little access to alternative media, to support their government invading Iraq. “When innocent Arabs are killed, are you surprised that there is no empathy?” he asks poignantly. He also worries about the impact of these portrayals on how people around the world perceive Americans: “What do Arabs think of us when they watch these movies?”

Is there a promising future for the portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood movies? Shaheen is optimistic, pointing to improved representation of other ethnic groups that were once vilified. Recent movies such as Kingdom of Heaven and Babel offer hope that Hollywood may start treating Arabs and Muslims as they treat other ethnic groups. This is exactly what Shaheen wants — for Arabs to be portrayed as real people with all their complexities. No better or and certainly no worse. et

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