Orientalism in Film

Hollywood is nothing if not reactionary. Of course, all storytelling, no matter the medium, tends to be a reaction to experiences, a way of transforming the personal into the broadly intelligible. Yet Hollywood stands out from literature, music, and most television for its insistence on reacting to the same political and social stimuli for decades. However, no group provides more fodder for Hollywood’s regressive stereotyping machine than Muslims, and recent media representations has shown that this is unlikely to change any time soon.

It has been nearly thirteen years since 9/11 and more than thirty years since the Iranian hostage crisis, but two of the most lauded films from 2012, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo displayed little, if any, new perspective on either event. Rather, both films explain the antagonism between the Western and Muslim world with the same ignorant mentality; “they hate our freedoms.”

While it may make for an easy catchphrase, it obviates the West’s history of imperialism, political subversion, and exploitation throughout the Middle East. In Zero Dark Thirty, for example, Muslim characters are presented as an undifferentiated mass of enemies, bearded or burqa’d objects to be mined — through torture — for information about Osama Bin Laden. Their reasons for fighting are unimportant; they have no agency.

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Even the highly esteemed children’s media conglomerate Disney is guilty of employing lazy Arab and Muslim stereotypes. In the first minute of the 1992 film Aladdin, the theme song declared that Aladdin hailed “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.” Disney changed the lyrics to the opening song of “Aladdin” in the home video release of the film after Arab-American groups blasted the original version as stereotypical. But the theme song wasn’t the only problem Arab advocacy groups had with the film. There was also the scene in which an Arab merchant intended to hack off the hand of a woman for stealing food for her starving child. To boot, Arab-American groups took issue with the rendering of Middle Easterners in the film, as many were drawn grotesquely, “with huge noses and sinister eyes,” the Seattle Times noted in 1993.

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Through all forms of media Westerners have stereotyped Arabs as barbaric since the days of the Crusades. “These are the terrible people who captured Jerusalem and who had to be thrown out of the Holy City.” The stereotype of the barbaric Arab has seeped into Western culture over hundreds of years and can even be found in the works of Shakespeare. This creates the impression that the entire Muslim world is barbaric, and is barbaric because of Islam.

In general, Muslims in Hollywood cinema exist as one-dimensional characters: ignorant menaces hell-bent on kidnapping or killing as many Westerners in service of their exotic, violent god. Edward Said famously coined the term “Orientalism” to describe the cultural practice of transforming those from eastern cultures — both Asian and Middle Eastern — into the “Other”. Orientalism in film presents exotic characters created from a Western political and social bias to simultaneously elicit a strong reaction against Eastern culture while reaffirming American and European values. Simply put: white hero defeats a nameless horde of copper-skinned bad guys, and white audience feels better about themselves.

Movies have always been, and will always be, about wish fulfillment. The most successful movies transform our fears into fantasies, and remind us that at our best the human experience can be a collective one, unencumbered by nationality, ethnicity, politics or religion. But before a film can deliver that wish, it must be unencumbered by stereotype, Muslim or otherwise. Such a film must not react, but instead predict.

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