Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

By Suleiman, Michael W. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People


Suleiman, Michael W., The Middle East Journal


Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, by Jack G. Shaheen. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001. viii + 537 pages. Notes to p. 545. Appendices to p. 564. Index of films to p. 574. $25 paper.

Reviewed by Michael W. Suleiman

While Arabs, Muslims, and their communities in the United States have repeatedly complained about their negative portrayal in American movies, and while their complaints have been echoed and reported by various scholars, only now, with the publication of Reel Bad Arabs, is there a comprehensive documentation of Hollywood's vilification of these people. And for that effort, we are greatly indebted to Jack Shaheen, who has undertaken the monumental task of reviewing over 900 films produced over a period of a century in which Arabs, Islam or the Middle East are featured in some way.

The results of this huge survey reinforce earlier sketchy impressions, namely that, apart from very few exceptions duly noted by Shaheen, Hollywood films, starting in 1896, have portrayed Arabs in the most negative light, presenting them as uncivilized, fanatic, anti-Western, and anti-Jewish. Hollywood, as Shaheen concludes, has "indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1" (p. 2). This is in great contrast to the real Arabs Shaheen details, who are good, decent people, like any others.

While the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims (Hollywood normally does not distinguishbetween the two groups) is predominantly negative, Shaheen discovers variations on the main theme. He concludes that there are five basic Arab types in these movies: Villains, Shaykhs, Maidens, Egyptians, and Palestinians. As villains, Arabs are seen as lecherous, slavers, and generally as people who are hostile to the West, especially the United States. Arab shaykhs were at first presented as lazy and fat pleasure-- seekers. More recently, they are seen as oily, fabulously wealthy, militant, and generally offensive in their character.

The "Maidens" type presents Arab women as subservient and dumb, but also as conniving vamps. In either case, they are never seen as worthy of marrying a Westerner. The "Egyptians" type focuses on mummies, vilifying the people in the process; alternatively, sometimes Egyptians are presented as pro-Nazi. Movies about the Palestinians dehumanize them and disassociate them from their homeland. They are also presented as terrorists.

Shaheen offers several reasons for this pervasive and negative stereotyping.

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