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The Evolution of Arab Characters in Hollywood Movies Over The Last Century

Politics plays a huge role.

Religious extremist, violent, misogynistic, and every possible repellent trait are all part of the stereotypical image of Arab men in Hollywood. The industry's biggest studios take advantage of the general ignorance Americans have of other nations to create an evil enemy of the white American hero. A tactic which aims to feed overly nationalistic notions and sometimes even serve the American government's agenda. The stereotypical image of Arabs has appeared in different shapes and forms in Hollywood productions throughout the 20th century.

Portraying Arab men as barbaric womanisers began in the age of silent movies in the 1920s, with the first of them being the 1921 production The Sheikh. The plot of the movie revolves around a British woman who gets kidnapped and taken to Morocco by a local sheikh who wants to marry her. He enforces a strict Muslim dress code on her, but she rejects his attempts to solidify his control over her. Upon finding out that he's in fact a British man, not an Arab, she finally surrenders and admits her love to him. The movie witnessed massive success that prompted the release of its sequel, The Son of the Sheikh (1926), in which the same Arab stereotypes endured.

 

Similarly, the 1984 Hollywood movie Protocol, tells the story of an American girl who coincidentally saves an Arab prince from certain death. The prince falls deeply in love with her and makes an offer to the American government to force her to marry him in exchange for building an American military base in his country.

Arabs being pushed to the background, which is another popular negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood, is a phenomena found in many Hollywood classics, such as Casablanca. The 1942 motion picture takes place in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, with this being the only Arab component of the film. The script, plot, and main characters are all Westerners, with Arabic conversation and street noise serving as a background soundtrack to showcase authenticity.

Released in 1962, the historical epic Lawrence of Arabia portrays the Arab who is thunderstruck by the ethics, morals, and achievements of the Western hero. Despite the fact that Omar Al Sharif's role had almost equal scenes as the movie's lead character, the portryal mostly served to magnify the fundamental differences between the 'weak and desperate Arab', and the strong and courageous white man.

 

The most prevalent of stereotypes, the Arab terrorist, made it to Hollywood studios in the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s made the Arab the number one on-screen enemy of the American heroes.  The only similarity between the Arabs and Russians in Hollywood is that they both don't stand a chance when facing an American.

The 1994 action comedy True Lies remains the one with the most insulting portrayal of the era. In this movie, Arabs hit women, were overly sexual, extremely stupid, and also smelled horrible. The movie's main character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, killed over 52 Arabs throughout the movie's hectic scenes, with not even a little scratch to show for it. The 1998 action thriller The Siege was the first of Hollywood's productions to link terrorism to Muslim's worshipping practices, such as praying and fasting. The Arab terrorists in the movie would perform wudu', an Islamic purification ritual, right before blowing themselves up and killing innocent people. The movie was a commercial failure.

The tragic 9/11 attacks didn't help to better the image of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood. However, after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, Hollywood's liberal movie makers, who fiercely opposed the war, began portraying Arabs in a more non-stereotypical fashion, mainly due to their newfound sympathy towards Arabs in the aftermath of the war.

The hit TV show Lost signaled the first wave of change in Hollywood's attitude towards Arabs. The show's Arab character, Saeed Al-Garah, was a balanced portrayal of the Arab man. The character gets emotionally involved with an American girl's character. Surprisingly, Al-Garah was not a lustful animal who just wanted to hit and rape white women. He was actually one of the show's most popular characters.

As the global geo-political map went through another drastic change after the emergence of ISIS, the 2014 American Sniper by Clint Eastwood captured Arabs in the worst way possible. The movie's main character is an American soldier who takes pride in blowing up the heads of 'nasty and barbaric Arabs'. The movie became a huge commercial success.

With the surprising victory of nationalistic president Donald Trump earlier this year, it's only reasonable to expect the anti-Arab trend to gain momentum in Hollywood, causing immeasurable damage to the lives of peaceful Arabs and creating fertile ground for extremism.

Originally published on AlFasla.

Translation: Moustafa Daly.


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