It’s Time to talk about Arab and Middle Eastern Representation in American Film & TV

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

In the intense industry of film and TV, historical stereotypes and tropes play an influential role in storytelling. While harmless in some cases, they can be seriously damaging in others, in the way they influence public perception. One obvious example lies in Western interpretations of the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims that adopted a prejudiced stance of harmful and offensive stereotyping. Although the phenomenon is hundreds of years old, we still see its effects today.

The years following 9/11 saw a strong emergence of the ‘Middle Eastern terrorist’ as a cinematic trope within Hollywood. As such storylines proved well-received with audiences the trope grew. It quickly became almost a given that if an Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim character appeared on the screen they would have some association or connection with terror or violence, even if there was some attempt made to look deeper and humanise them beyond that. Even if Arabs and Muslims weren’t depicted as terrorists they were either misogynistic or severely traditionalist brutes with backward and ‘mysterious’ customs that were blatantly presented as different and ‘wrong’ compared to the Western characters starring alongside them.

Such ‘othering’ and prejudiced portrayals were not consequences exclusive to post-9/11 anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attitudes in the U.S. The attacks unfortunately and unjustly created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear towards Muslims and Arabs, but such negative portrayals had been commonplace for decades. In his study and documentary film Reel Bad Arabs, author Jack Shaheen analyses over 1000 films featuring Arab characters made between 1896 and 2000. Shaheen finds that only 12 representations were positive, 53 were neutral and 935 were negative. It’s clear that negative interpretations were not synonymous with 9/11 but were actually based on historical interactions and perceptions of the Middle East and its people, originating from as early as the Crusades.

Hollywood films from the 1900s provide many apt case studies in examining the way Arabs and the Middle East were commonly perceived. Arab and Middle Eastern actors typically found themselves portraying the character of a terrorist, as depicted in one instance in the 1994 blockbuster True Lies. The film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a spy for a secret American government agency fighting against a fictional terrorist group called the “Crimson Jihad”. Arab Americans complained profusely at the time that the members of the fictional group were portrayed in a sinister one-dimensional manner where their encompassing motives revolved around the anti-American sentiment and racist villainization of Middle Easterners. The film caused so much discontent to the point that Arab American advocacy groups staged protests in major cities such as New York, LA and San Francisco.  

Disney’s Aladdin evoked similar protest two years prior as Arab characters were depicted in an incriminating manner. The introductory theme song’s lyrics explained that Aladdin hailed from “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,” and presented a generalised perception of Arab people and their supposed association with disproportionate violence.

While Disney changed the lyrics in the home video release after criticism, the animated film remained littered with scenes that portrayed a false tendency of Arabs to resort to brutish violence. Issues continued to manifest: Arab characters were animated caricature-like with “huge noses and sinister eyes'', as The Seattle Times noted in 1993 in the wake of the film’s release. The publication dubbed the award-winning animation as “emblematic of U.S prejudices” whereby its impact on the Arab American and Muslim community was worsened because it was such a high-profile Disney release that catered to impressionable children. Such criticism can also be applied directly to modern Hollywood releases. Evidently, such releases continue to apply offensive assumptions that cater to U.S prejudices - such as the American TV show Homeland that first aired in October 2011.

The winner of 6 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, the show’s plot includes Americans being radicalised by al-Qaeda, terrorist attacks on American soil and one female CIA agent at the heart of it all. The Washington Post’s Larua Drukay issued an extremely critical article in 2014, classing the 9-year running show as the “most bigoted show on television” because of its one-dimensional portrayal of Arabs as violent religious fanatics and Islam as a threatening ideology. This is seen with a white ex-soldier praying secretly to foreboding, anxiety-inducing music and, when being ‘outed’ by his wife as a ‘secret Muslim’, the Koran was waved in his face while she shouted: “These are the people who tortured you!”. Portrayed simply as an emotional exchange, it can be interpreted as so much more - the show’s core philosophy.

The 9/11 attacks acted as an unspoken justification for the resurgence of negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in film. There’s no question that the events of September 11th altered the attitudes and behaviour of modern America towards countries and regions outside the West. Stereotyping in film and TV only fueled the promotion of fear and produced a societal misunderstanding of Arabs and Muslims due to the exclusive association to corruption and terrorism.

Fox’s 24 first aired in the U.S in November 2001. The show appealed to audiences at the time as it centred entirely around threatening terrorists who desired to destroy all things American and the heroic Americans who put themselves in harm’s way to stop them. A classic  ‘good guy’ vs. ‘bad guy’ storyline, as IMDb’s summarises with its description of the show’s protagonist as subverting terrorist plots to “save his nation from the ultimate disaster”.

In airing so soon after the attacks, 24 seemed to purposefully utilise the nation’s overwhelming fear towards terrorists and Muslims at the time. 24’s issues lie primarily in their generalised perception of Muslims swinging drastically between two extremes: good Muslim, bad Muslim. Season two sees one subplot revolve around a white woman’s fear that her sister’s fiancé had secret ties to radical Islam. While he’s later proven ‘innocent’ (after the audience spends hours watching the show’s efforts to make them believe he definitely was a terrorist) it’s extremely troubling in that it forces the idea that one has to instinctively assume that a “good” Muslim could be a bad one, hiding in plain sight, instigating paranoia amongst America’s wholly impressionable audience. Particularly in light of 9/11, as many white Americans were already veering towards anti-Muslim sentiments and simply accepting such harsh and dehumanising behaviour towards Muslims in a kind of ‘terror prevention’ mentality, it’s clear the writers of 24 were purposeful in their utilisation of such negative tropes and stereotypes.

One question that can be disputed is whether such misrepresentation and harmful stereotyping can be explained by ignorance or indifference. Shows like 24 would have only helped in reinforcing the negative anti-Muslim and Arab attitudes in American society, as Middle Eastern people became unilaterally equated with terrorists. It can be argued that mainstream society has become ignorant towards the negative way in which Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are portrayed in their media, aided by poisonous narratives that can be equated to subtle propaganda.

But are they solely to blame? They have been told that everything and everyone from the Middle East (the people, the culture, the Muslim population, the languages) is dangerous or volatile, so much so that a subconscious failure to pay attention to blatant falsehoods allowed for a collective acceptance of it. Strikingly, such automatic acceptance was in fact an acceptance to inaccuracy. Do the majority of white Americans know that there are vast populations of Christians and Jews in the Middle East? That the region holds a plethora of different cultures and is made up of 17 countries each with their own traditions and histories? Failure by the U.S to portray and appreciate the food, music, clothing and other treasures and positives within the Middle East only emphasizes how blinding and censoring prejudice can be.

So, does America have a problem?

Clearly. Their tendency to stereotype and villainize ‘enemies’ is historically explicitly evident. Inaccuracies regarding Islam and the Middle East are nurtured deliberately and happily. On a whole, prejudice representation in film and TV is often based on outdated information and beliefs, fueled by a lack of understanding (or lack of desire to understand) that other societies and cultures are capable of evolving and modernising and are incredibly multidimensional, not just the West.

While it’s clear Arab and Muslim representation is a problem, it is key to not lose sight of why. The impact of the above, and millions of other negative and prejudiced representations, sees itself in the way Muslims and Arabs feel the need to change themselves to protect themselves from the everyday verbal and physical abuse and ‘otherness’ that comes with the way societal narrative portrays them.

In February 2017, the Pew Research Center released the results of a new survey which showed that while American attitudes towards Muslims had improved since the last survey in 2014 they remained the least popular of all religious groups in the survey, which included groups such as Jews, and Catholics, Buddhists, and even Atheists.

When sources of entertainment that reach numerous people constantly equate an individual to evil, destruction, corruption and terrorism, it can have severely damaging consequences. One’s self-perception, self-esteem, comfortability and belonging in society is affected, devastating one’s desire to even associate themselves with their own culture and religion through name changes and the abandonment of cultural and/or religious clothing. There’s strong reason to assume that the perception of Muslims and Middle Eastern people in film and TV could’ve incentivized such desire to hide their true self, catalysing the beginning of a forced Americanisation of Arabs and Middle Easterners.

Stories we see on the big and small screen reflect what society at the time wanted to see. The television dramas discussed above are no exception - they reflect and demonstrate the cultural and social anxieties of those times and also serve to reinforce and evolve them. Stereotypes about Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims were perpetuated, encouraged and justified on TV and in film. In a climate where political discourse and elitist rhetoric can only fuel such anxieties (such as Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ in 2017), and at a time where we welcome the withdrawal of U.S and British troops from Afghanistan, it allows us to reflect - how would you feel if you were constantly portrayed as deadly, criminal and corrupt? All as a result of misconceptions, an attack and a conflict you had no involvement in.