Throw in the “Towel Head”
Measuring true lies, media profiling and false stereotypes.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Jack G. Shaheen is the leading scourge of anti-Arab media bias. A professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, he has for many years conducted what might be called a crusade against odious stereotypes of his people as lecherous, avaricious and violent. In 2001’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Shaheen examined more than 950 Hollywood feature films and concluded that only 12 portrayed Arabs positively.
His new book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 (Olive Branch Press, 222 pages, $18), is a sequel, an analysis of the same topic after Sept. 11, 2001, when Arab terrorists attacked the United States. To update his study, Shaheen viewed films produced since 9/11. Although 29 present favorable images of Arabs, he concludes: “The total number of films that defile Arabs now exceeds 1,150.”
Since movies shape perceptions, and perceptions influence actions, it is not unreasonable to charge Hollywood with complicity in the Bush administration’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. It was easy for American moviegoers to acquiesce in assaults against people who had already been dehumanized. Repeated representation of Arabs as the treacherous “other” made the grotesque images generated in Abu Ghraib seem inevitable. It is as if movies such as True Lies and Rules of Engagement, in which valiant Americans mow down evil Arabs, gave license to prison guards to photograph their own transgressions against Iraqis. Within the United States, celluloid bigotry also created an environment in which malicious rhetoric, discriminatory behavior and hate crimes can flourish. Filmmakers now think twice before maligning blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians and gays, but Arabs remain convenient fiends. Those who create monsters feel obliged to slay them.
Guilty begins inauspiciously, with the dubious assertion that “Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood.” Ranking victims by extent of injury is a mugger’s game, and Shaheen underestimates the damage done to communities other than his own. At the least, he ignores a popular genre, the Western, that for most of the 20th century was stocked with indigenous foils to triumphant cowboys and cavalries.
Six years into a costly war fought on Arab soil, one might expect American media to demonize the enemy, rationalizing the necessity of killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But perhaps because of popular revulsion at the war, Shaheen finds cause for hope. “Even though the majority of post-9/11 films do, in fact, vilify a people,” he writes, “I am somewhat encouraged to report that since 9/11, silver screens have displayed, at times, more complex, evenhanded Arab portraits than I have seen in the past. Some producers did not dehumanize Arabs, and instead presented decent, heroic characters – champions, even, in several films. Not all women were displayed as submissive clad-in-black objects. Nor were all Palestinians and Egyptians uniformly depicted as crazed radicals.”
Among more familiar films that Shaheen recommends are Babel, Kingdom of Heaven, Paradise Now, Rendition and Syriana.
Shaheen pronounces Borat “repulsive,” faulting Sacha Baron Cohen for failing to counter the “damaging, hurtful and unacceptable” slurs scattered throughout that brilliantly mordant exposé of American bigotry.
Placing both Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Team America: World Police on his list of worsts, Shaheen betrays a blindness to comedy and context, as if the mere presence of racist characters or comments automatically makes a film racist. Shaheen’s single-minded campaign against “films that bear a single-minded vitriol” sometimes bears more piss than vinegar, as when he complains that studios ignore his offers to serve as consultant. Though he did advise George Clooney on Syriana, which he praises for its “evenhanded images of Arabs and Muslims,” few filmmakers would welcome a commissar in residence demanding Arab heroes. “Your rights will not be lost, as long as you continue asking for them,” according to an Arab proverb Shaheen quotes.
What can be lost by too narrow an understanding of “rights” is Shaheen’s larger goal: “To help crush the lunatic fringe, we should cease demonizing a whole people and a whole religion, and focus on uniting freedom-loving people of all backgrounds and faiths.” Film should enlighten and inspire, not incite.