A range of typecasts and stereotypes exist regarding the Middle East, specifically in respect to the Arabic culture. Indeed, the media comprises a considerable factor that shapes the perspectives and viewpoints of the society on numerous issues of different degrees. Nonetheless, the coverage imposed by disparate forms of media on the Middle East, specifically the Arab population, raises controversial deductions. The respective discourse concentrates on the images that characterize Arabs within Western media and the implications that result from such labeling especially on the wider social framework. In several occasions, stereotypes possess a negative meaning since they presume that each person belonging to a certain group has similar characteristics and qualities. Stereotypes homogenize individuals, which leads to prejudicial and partial depictions. Even though a typecast can be positive and beneficial, the concerns of negative labeling are more challenging. Furthermore, cultural typecasts normally influence the derivation of varied prejudices and biases against an affected group. Arguably, stereotypes offer a shorthand approach that can be implemented in the identification of groups. As a fact, several groups have encountered stereotyping as well as the prejudices associated with the respective notion. This is especially evidenced in the way the Arab populace undergoes stereotyping across Western media, particularly in cartoons and motion pictures. It is arguable that cartoons and motion pictures produced by Western media consistently depict Arabs in a negative light, which eventually generates bias and discrimination against the respective individuals among Western populations.
Currently, in the United States of America, the typecasting of the Arab people is unavoidably prevalent. In fact, a generic American perspective on Arabs disregards the Arab man by establishing him as a dirty, oversexed, fraudulent, backward, scheming, and dishonest individual with a fanatical predisposition towards terrorist assaults aimed at the destruction of America and the dissemination of an anti-American Islamic agenda. In addition to this, the Arab man has materialized in Western media as a person that exhibits different attitudes and behaviors from the preferable white protagonist. The Arabic setting is further depicted as an environment that largely contains bearded mullahs, untrustworthy and corrupt sheikhs indulging in “belly-dancer” harems, bombers, harem maidens, irrationally conservative Bedouins, and sycophantic domestics. Most of the stereotypical ideas that are raised about Arabs are often based on Orientalist paradigms (Irwin 22). The inclination towards Orientalist thoughts interestingly raises contentious arguments that adequately the historical and consistent control that the West has always imposed over the depiction of the Orient. Accordingly, Said (2) asserts that the subjects and objects that are derived from the Orient are exotic and disparate but simultaneously disruptive and savage. Such competing prejudices and notions establish the structure that facilitates the perspectives and opinions that the West poses on the Arab populace (Said 5).
Overtime, the West has incorporated different forms of media in order to assert a prejudicial and partial depiction of the subjects in question. A fine illustration of this involves the production and distribution of Islamic and Arabic-based art in the early 19th century. Artists based in impressionist societies such as France largely explored Islamic art in an effort to represent it from a Eurocentric perspective. In the painting, “The Snake Charmer and His Audience”, French impressionist, Jean-Léon Gérôme presents a naked young person holding a snake as an elderly emaciated man charms the snake and the audience, which is largely comprised of Berbers via the flute (Benjamin 77). In the scene, the artist is capable of creating a scene that comprises a significantly naturalistic and refined style and pattern hence suggesting that he observed the depicted event. By asserting this, Gérôme presumes that such nudity constituted a public and usual occurrence within the ‘East’ (Benjamin 81). Contrary to this, artists such as Osman Hamdi Bey and Henriette Browne developed artworks that offer a counter-story concerning the depiction of the ‘East’ as licentious, infirm, and passive. In the composition, “A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople”, Browne depicts fully clad women within harem scenes (Benjamin 101). Similarly, the Ottoman artist, Bey, presents learnedness and Islamic scholarship in his artwork, “A Young Emir Studying” (Benjamin 103).
Irrespective of the efforts of unbiased artists, Orientalist compositions and alternative types of material culture were observed and incorporated considerably as representatives of the Arabic culture. Foremost, the paintings in question portrayed a supposedly foreign and thus feminized, racial, and overly sexualized cultural setting from a remote terrain. Consequently, Orientalist compositions and aspects of material culture claimed to comprise an authentic and genuine glimpse of a specific location and the persons that occupied it as evidenced by the naturalistic and detailed style incorporated by Gérôme in his works. For example, in “The Snake Charmer and His Audience”, Gérôme integrates unreadable, unreal Arab-based tilework within the background for the aim of constructing a layer of foreign authenticity (Benjamin 85). Surprisingly, the introduction of photography in the early 1800s contributed little to a more significant authenticity of photographic and painted depictions of the Orient by Western military officers, artists, travelers, and technocrats (MacKenzie 122). Instead, photographic materials were staged recurrently and exaggerated in order to gratify Western imagination. For example, the French members of the Bonfils Family placed sitters in different poses with props against elaborate backgrounds to establish a fictitious environment developed by the photographer as evidenced in the photograph, “Young Woman from Lebanon in Party Dress” (MacKenzie 130).
Secular paintings that provided a historical narrative within the Orientalist setting also comprised further illustrations of the extent to which the West was involved in asserting stereotypical and biased depictions of Arabs, particularly as backward and savage Islam sycophants. In stories based on history, Western artists and painters depicted chaotic and generically violent battle situations hence developing an idea of an Orient that was entrenched in incivility and savagery. The locations and figures of Orientalist paintings, despite being inauthentic depictions of the Arab society, evolved further into scenes that apparently exhibited everyday life for individuals within the Arabic culture. Such scenes largely comprised licentious harem, the furious autocrat, a disorderly medina, the slave market, and the debauched palace (Irwin 56). These portrayals illustrated a mixture of false ethnographic observations that were ingrained in descriptions amounting from complete invention rather than actual first-hand information gathering (Irwin 56). The Orientalist paintings and illustrations developed visions of a putrefying mythic ‘East’ that was occupied by a controllable population of Arabs without any form of concern towards geographic and societal specificity (Benjamin 34). Furthermore, the illustrations were capable of constructing visual, cultural, and spatial stereotypes and labels regularly related to the geo-political beliefs and principles of Western institutions and governments (Irwin 60).
The Orientalist representations of the past are undeniably evidenced in the contemporary portrayal of Arabs and the Arabic culture in modern forms of media. In a manner similar to Orientalist paintings and photographs, sophisticated types of media such as cartoons and motion pictures have become significantly involved in the assertion of stereotypical connotations regarding the subjects in question. Interestingly, it is possible to assume that the typecasting of Arabs in contemporary society relates to the geo-political convictions of Western governments such as the United States of America and its hegemonic institutions (McAlister 130). Similar to the implications that the invasion of Ottoman Turks on different areas of Europe contributed to the development of Orientalist conceptions, the stereotypical representation of Arabs in today’s culture has been largely facilitated by events such as the September 11Attacks in 2001 and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (McAlister 139). Such events have influenced the portrayal of the Arabic culture in the form of typecasts for the aim of establishing ‘rational’ reasons that the West can utilize against Arabic states in the Middle East (McAlister 139).
Indeed, forms of entertainment such as cartoons and movies have become prevalent sources of established stereotypes against the Arab populace in the Western world. An illustration of a cartoon that represents Arabs in a typecast involves Disney’s Aladdin. Released in 1992 worldwide, Aladdin was one of the most successful animations based on earnings that amounted to $217 million in local box offices only (Shaheen 6). Even though the animation was popular among children, Aladdin contains a series of typecasts that stereotypically depict Arabs, their culture, and the society that they occupy. Foremost, the opening song to the animation portrays the Arabian society as a savage and barbaric place that the protagonist has to inhabit nonetheless (Shaheen 6). Additionally, the narrator is depicted as a dishonest, disgraceful Arab male apart from other typecasts that comprise dishonorable sword-wielding scoundrels that attempt to cut off the maidens’ hands, and a depraved dewan that exhibits barbaric actions (Shaheen 6). Another stereotype represented in the cartoon involves the portrayal of all Arabs as Muslims or followers of Islam (Omidvar and Richards 77). Even though Arabs and Muslims constitute an ethnic group and a follower of Islam, the terms are used interchangeably as evidenced by Princess Jasmine’s father who is represented as an Arab and a staunch Muslim (Omidvar and Richards 77).
Additionally, the context that Aladdin is set in constitutes another illustration of typecasting inclined specifically to the Arabic culture. In the animated movie, all of the characters inhabit an imagined Arabian city called Agrabah. In this respect, viewers are bound to think of the respective characters as Arabs. Such perceptions will further progress into the real world whereby persons that have watched the movie will associate Arabs with the characters in Aladdin (Shaheen and Greider 23). The sexualization of the main female character, Princess Jasmine, in the animation is a formidable illustration of negative stereotyping by Western media (Shaheen and Greider 23). In Aladdin, the respective character is clad in attire that are revealing. This is in contrast to Eurocentric animations such as Cinderella and Snow White whereby the female protagonists are represented in a conservative and respectable manner. The portrayal of Princess Jasmine in such revealing attire is a significant prejudicial representation of the lust projected by Arab men (Benshoff and Griffin 132). This is because the character is depicted as a harem maiden despite being born of noble heritage. Undeniably, the portrayal of Jasmine in Aladdin corresponds to the predetermined perception in most Western artists concerning Islamic harem, concentrating significantly on the character’s sexual fascination in order to attract male lust and sexual indecency (Benshoff and Griffin 132).
Apart from cartoons, Western media has released a number of motion pictures that openly represent Arabs in a negative typecast. Illustrations of such movies comprise flicks such as G. I. Jane and Operation Condor (Shaheen and Greider 56-82). In G. I. Jane, the protagonist, a female macho officer of the Navy Seal takes part in ‘heroic’ activities that result in the aggressive murder of Arabs (Shaheen and Greider 56). Throughout the film, Arabs are represented as terrorists with an agenda to utilize a nuclear-based satellite based off the coast of Libya for sycophantic purposes that involve America’s destruction (Shaheen and Greider 56). Despite this, the protagonist, played by Demi Moore, manages to stall the operation by saving the life of her drill sergeant and blasting Arabs that were in pursuit (Shaheen and Greider 58). Operation Condor further extends to negative Arab-inclined stereotypes by focusing on the protagonist’s battle against numerous malevolent Arabs (Shaheen and Greider 82). With the Arabian Desert as the context, the protagonist, Jackie Chan, engages in a scuffle against Bedouin white slave masters and a corrupt innkeeper (Shaheen and Greider 83). Additionally, Chan squares off against two Arabs ironically dubbed ‘Soldiers of the Faith” who talk in a heavy fractured accent and spot turbans that resemble tablecloths taken from pizza parlors (Shaheen and Greider 83). The respective individuals mock Islam by asserting that they will never surrender from taking part in the ‘Holy Battle’ and that Allah should be praised for giving Chan to them (Shaheen and Greider 84).
To this end, it is imperative to understand that the negative stereotyping of Arabs and the Arabic culture imposes challenges and drawbacks that affect the populace in question. A key illustration of this involves the imposition of blame on Arabs and Muslims on terrorist attacks that occur in Western environments such as the United States and other countries in the European region (Brown, Brown, and Richards 50). Indeed, the typecasting of Arabs as Islamic sycophants with barbaric qualities and backward thinking has subjected many of them to open prejudice and discrimination. The Oklahoma City Bombing that occurred in 1995 on April 19 is an example of the extent to which negative stereotypes affect the lives of Arabs considerably (Brown, Brown, and Richards 52). After the local attack took place, the media irrationally blamed the incident on Arabs by asserting that a Middle-Eastern faction was involved in the incident despite the lack of evidence to facilitate their claims (Brown, Brown, and Richards 53). In addition to this, the media utilized supposed terrorist experts such as Steven Emerson who asserted that Islamic groups should be condemned even if they denied any involvement (Brown, Brown, and Richards 53). However, after investigations were carried out, it was determined that the accused group was not involved in the attack hence forcing the media to retract their prejudiced claims.
Benjamin, Roger. Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa 1880-1930. University of California Press, 2005.
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Brown, Lorraine, Joanne Brown, and Barry Richards. “Media Representations of Islam and International Muslim Student Well-Being.” International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 69 (2015): pp. 50-58.
Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Overlook Press, 2008.
MacKenzie, J. M. Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts. Manchester University Press, 2000.
McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture Media and U. S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000. University of California Press, 2001.
Omidvar, Iraj, and Anne R. Richards. Muslims and American Popular Culture. Praeger, 2014.
Said, Edward A. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Race & Class, vol. 27, no. 2, (1985): pp. 1-15.
Shaheen, Jack G, and William Greider. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Olive Branch Press, 2001.
Shaheen, Jack G. “Hollywood’s Muslim Arabs.” The Muslim World, vol. 90 (2000): pp. 22-42.
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