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Photo: Donna Grayson. Rudolph Valentino's character from "The Sheik" portraysArabs in an unflattering light.
Originally published in Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies podcast.
ORIENTALISM IN FILM & TELEVISION by Filiz Cicek, November 24, 2008
For as long as there has been film, there have been Muslim bad guys. Whether they are Rudolph Valentino’s swarthy sheikh or the countless Arabs scattered throughout the Indiana Jones movies, Muslims have been treated as boogeymen, and it’s not just films that have done this. Television shows like 24 or The Unit also perpetuate the stereotype of the Muslim villain.
After the fall of Communism, religion has been on the rise, and Hollywood has a new boogeyman –the Middle Eastern Muslim terrorist. The mere mention of the Middle East and Islam, simultaneously, conjures up fear and fascination, but Hollywood’s depiction of oriental characters as backward, barbaric, yet exotic, is nothing new.
Over the decades, Muslims have been used as, in the words of Gregory Burses, “a blank canvas to project fears and repressed emotions of western audiences and the silver screen in such films like Sheik, Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones.”
In Lawrence of Arabia, for example, the audience cheers for an Englishman. He saves the Arabs, who cannot save themselves from the terrible Turks. And the audience laughs when annoyed Indiana Jones kills an older Arab man with a sword in the market place with a single gunshot, as a joke.
Women As Objects
There are also the oriental women, who do not have agency in these films. However, when they do, they are oppressed, overtly sexualized, or worse. In recent films, oriental women have become terrorists, like their male counterparts, and must die. As always, the western male heroes eventually save them and possibly the world from the oppressive, lustful, eastern male villains. This is usually done by physically and metaphorically penetrating the land and culture in such films as The Road to Morocco with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
Thousand and One Nights fantasy depiction in Hollywood has changed little over five decades. And now, after 9/11, TV shows like 24 regularly feature Islamic terrorists in their plot lines.
Heroes like Jack Bauer have to save the world, and Americans, over and over again by any means necessary, which usually means capturing, torturing and killing terrorists. The ticking bomb scenario and the evilness of terrorists justify such quasi-lawful actions. Liberals, as well as human rights workers, women and homosexuals are depicted as weak and misguided individuals. Jack Bauer, who represents a present-day John Wayne, knows best and he will save the world.
Of course, these shows are fiction, and they heighten reality to create more excitement and draw bigger audiences. However, such fiction has the power to shape perceptions about regions, religions and cultures. Those perceptions come to stand for reality at times, especially when people are unfamiliar with cultures in question. Some tend to accept fiction as fact. The result is this: those who watch such shows could equate Islam with terrorism and nothing else.
This is not to say that the 9/11 terrorists were not from Middle Eastern countries, nor to deny the fact that Islam and women’s rights issues are in conflict in some parts of the present-day Muslim world. There is much to be improved. For example, women still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, and honored killings are rampant in Pakistan and Turkey.
The problem is when an entire region and a religion are reduced to terrorism and sexism, a civilization is robbed of its humanity, and therefore, the chance of creating progressive dialogue about the topics are undermined.
People must begin to ask themselves if it is really pragmatic to subscribe to the old colonialist view of the Orient, and continue to believe, as Kipling did, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Today’s global communication relates what people say and do to be heard and responded to around the world within seconds.
Filiz Cicek, Indiana University, Bloomington. November 24, 2008 ©