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Orientalism in Hollywood: Rethinking Arab Stereotypes in Film

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Utah chapter.

As a child, I used to watch Aladdin on repeat without ever realizing the subversive stereotypes of Arab people that the movie targets. In the first version of the film, an Arab merchant opens the movie in song about Arabian Nights with the lyrics “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.” As many Disney enthusiasts might realize, Disney changed the lyrics after Aladdin’s release but kept the “it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home” in the final cut of the movie. Initially, the lyrics don’t strike the listener as offensive, but its implications are deeply rooted in orientalist thinking that is increasingly prevalent in the Hollywood industry.

Orientalism has been a part of Western society since the days of colonialization. It is the belief of Western superiority over other societies, especially the East. It acts as a way to view Arab societies from a Western point of view that imagines and distorts the way the people really are, and sets them out to be savages, uncivilized, exotic, and, especially today, dangerous.

Despite how progressive we portray the West in terms of social activism, Orientalism is still dominant in the pop culture industry. No longer are viewers surprised when a terrorist or oppressive character is of Middle Eastern descent, nor are people surprised with the portrayal of exotic Arab women as sexual objects or “oppressed” by their head coverings. While orientalist depictions can be seen from social to political conversations, Hollywood is the most aggressive in propagating these perspectives. An unaccountable number of films reinforce and perpetuate the image that Arabs are terrorists, backward, and oppressed.

Arabs as Terrorists

Recently, I saw a commercial for the new movie American Assassin about a young man who, after watching his girlfriend killed by fanatical terrorists, decides to become an assassin to hunt down the extremists that murdered his girlfriend. The trailer shows a dramatic voiceover of someone saying, “so you want to kill terrorists?” Time and time again, Hollywood and other mediums of entertainment portray Arabs as the backward enemy, and Westerns as the superior civilization bent on saving the world from the aggressors. The list of films that degrade Arabs to these stereotypes is too numerous to list. Some of the most well-known films are True Lies, Iron Man, American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Air Force One, 24, The Dictator, Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This is by far the most common stereotype that Hollywood employs in many of their movies. For the most part, the movies listed above tend to be action and war-orientated films that focus on themes of violent action and counter-terrorism tactics. Due to the genre, one expects (or does one?) the perpetrators to be destructive terrorists, but that does not excuse the exclusivity that film producers use to single out Arabs as a very specific and derogatory stereotype.  

These films tend to only show the orientalist perspectives of the Arab population. Because Western societies see the East as dominated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, film industries paint with a board brush, and only show the bad characteristics of a population that do not accurately represent the majority of the region.  

Where are the loving Arab parents who sacrifice everything for a brighter tomorrow? Where are the stories of trial and triumph? Where are the movies of the communal bonds in Arab society and the importance of family? Where is the purity of Islam instead of the misinterpreted violence of it? Where are the independent women and the caring men, the heroes and the adventurers, the liberated and the victorious?

Instead of focusing on violence and oppression as the only representation for Arabs, producers and their industries should focus on the humane and real parts of Arabs and their lives.

Arab Women as Exotic or Oppressed

From Europe to the United States, Arab-Muslim women are seen as oppressed by their society. While women’s rights in the Middle East are not yet up to Western standards (whatever that is), in recent years, Arab women have been making major gains with their social movements.

Yet, in films across the board, Arab women are portrayed as oppressed, belly dancers, and objects of exotic sexualization. Sex in the City 2 blatantly disregards and appropriates the “oppressive” nature of women in the Middle East by sporting niqabs and making uncalled for sex jokes. Iron Man 3 has the same sort of scene which shows the character Iron Patriot “freeing” oppressed, niqab-wearing women from a sweatshop.

All these mentioned visualizations stem from the orientalist thinking that still inhabits western thought. According to Arab Stereotypes, “On the one hand, belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available. Portrayals of Arab women as sexually available position them as existing for male pleasure. On the other hand, the veil has figured both as a site of intrigue and as the ultimate symbol of oppression.”

We all can picture exotic belly dancers from the Arabian Nights or women in need to be liberated from their oppressive society, but this backward, stereotypical thinking is not an accurate representation. In fact, it represents the colonial “craze” of the Middle East from a Western perspective.

The “Arabian Nights-mania” that is built into Hollywood and the pop culture industry is detrimental to the Arab people. It relies on an outdated, and frankly racist, mindset that poses the East and its population into derogatory stereotypes that do not accurately represent the people or their society. Orientalism and any type of western superiority train of thought need to be reevaluated in order to correct the injustice done to the Arab people.


Common Muslim and Arab Stereotypes in TV and Film

Veils, Harems, & Belly Dancers

Arab Portrayals in Film: A History of Stereotypes

7 Movies You Love That Are Offensive Towards Arabs and Muslims

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Her Campus Utah Chapter Contributor