When Hollywood Villifies a People: Interview with Prof. Jack Shaheen
“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA,” once said Jack Valenti, former Chairman of the Motion Pictures Association. US policy and the topics illustrated in Hollywood films both stem from the same root.
This, in sum, is the result of the research carried out by American author Jack G. Shaheen, former CBS consultant on Middle East affairs.
In his book, later turned into a documentary film, Reel Bad Arabs – How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Shaheen explains how the American film industry has for decades built an extremely negative stereotype of Arab people. Come imparare l’inglese has interviewed him.
Professor Shaheen, how did you become interested in this particular topic?
In 1969 I was teaching Media Studies, so standard mass media courses were my subjects of analysis. At that time, my children like many others watched TV and in many cartoons I saw that Arab characters were often beaten up, which stimulated my curiosity, so I started doing research and found many cartoons and other popular TV shows – dramas, comedies and so forth – that demonized Arabs. I wrote the results of my research in my book The TV Arab (1984), but I really struggled to get it published.
According to your studies in your Reel Bad Aarabs – How Hollywood Vilifies a People book (2001), the number of Hollywood films vilifying Arab characters is very high. Can you give us some more precise numbers so that we can have a clearer idea?
I found about twelve films in which Arab characters stood out for their qualities. Around 35 films are, I would say, even-handed, while over one thousand (!) are biased. In these films Arabs are presented as terrorists, ruthless criminals or obese sheikhs obsessed with white women and craving to have them locked up in their harems. The point is, these characters are monodimensional, they have no personality, and their role is only to embody what is Evil.
Why has Hollywood picked on Arabs to this extent? Has such bias influenced the run-of-the-mill American spectator’s perception of the Arab world?
It certainly had an impact on the average American who has been fed for years with mythology which is very far from reality. I mean, all nationalities have bad guys, but here a population is presented as if it has only cruel people. For instance, I know many Italians, and I love their generosity and their warmth, so imagine if Hollywood depicted them only as gangsters!
Talking about the reasons why Hollywood has always picked on Arabs, there are several: first of all there are political factors, as Washington has always been a staunch ally of Israel’s in its war against the Arab world and film producers have almost always taken the government’s side. There have also been economic reasons, with the 1973 oil crisis and the embargo proclaimed by the producing countries which sent prices skyrocketing in the West. In addition to this, there were not many Arabs in the USA, which, if it is added to the apathy and silence in the highest echelons of society, made it possible for these films to be produced.
Did the Arab film industry not try to provide a different portrait and defend its own culture?
The point is, Arab cinema could not be as productive or influence the audience’s opinion even though it presents the Arab world from a different, less stereotypical, perspective. But the good news is that in the last 10 years has a new generation of young Arab filmmakers of a very high level emerged. Now, this is really good news, from which the entire world in is going to benefit.
How does the Arab world see Americans and America? I imagine that stereotypes will be common even there.
Of course, but in a different way. The Arab world does not approve of the USA’s policy in the Middle East, but there is no anger against the American citizens. The Arab world separates government policies from the American people, whom they respect.
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