How Arabs Are Being Represented in Entertainment: Are Orientalist Tropes Still Pervasive?


How Arabs Are Represented in Entertainment: Are Orientalist Tropes Still Pervasive?

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“Oh, you party in Egypt? Women, too?” it’s a question I’ve had time and time again when I’ve been abroad. “Your English is so good! Why?” is another one of my favorites. These retorts, however, were never spoken with malice or condescension. But, they highlighted a recurring point of contention: how are Arabs represented in the media?

The West’s inaccurate portrayal of Arabs in literature (and media) has, for many years, been dominated by inaccurate representations that have reduced an entire region to a series of one-dimensional characteristics that lack nuance.

How the Orient was defined in relation to the Occient was intensively studied in 1978 when the Palestinian-American professor and author, Edward Said, coined the term Orientalism. Orientalism sought to define the framework for the Event’s representation of the East. He argued that the Occident created its own image of the Middle East in the post-enlightenment era, placing people from that region in the position of “the Other”. The skewed representation of Arabs by the West – which continues to this day to varying degrees – is historically embedded in “colonial discourse”; it is one that has deep-seated tropes and stereotypes present in literature, art, film, and media.

These tropes, which show that the Orient is less than the Occident, have defined the region through film, arguably to this day. Reducing an entire region to a set of restricted and condescending minds, Arabs continue to be portrayed as barbaric, lazy and reclusive due to the inaccurate stereotypes that find their roots in the colonial mindset.

Where the Occident is superior and educated, the Orient is ignorant and violent.

In addition, variations of these clichés have greatly influenced the media of the 21st century and Arabs are constantly portrayed on screen.

Ignorance and extremism are, to a large extent, some of the characteristics that have come to codify the Middle East through the lens of the Western film industry, especially Hollywood. Writer Jack Shaheen, who studied over 900 films released between the years 1896 and 2000, found that Arabs were consistently portrayed as “the enemy,” often as extremists and uncivilized. The consequences of this misinformation have reached the media and the streets. When the war between Russia and Ukraine started, Western journalists and philosophers took to the podium to make comparisons between Arab refugees and their counterparts in Ukraine, indirectly describing the former as uncivilized.

This type of coverage may be a byproduct of Arab representation, or lack thereof, in the entertainment industry. Cases were recorded where films influenced or shaped public opinion towards an ethnic group, according to a study on the influence of films on the attitudes of young people, published in 2020 by the National Library of Medicine (NHI). Several studies in the field, over the past decades, have reached similar conclusions regarding the ability of film and the media to reinforce preconceived ideas. What is not clear is the extent to which it does so.

When it comes to the representation of the Middle East in films, it has been lacking or standing up to native Arab typologies. In a study conducted by the MENA Arts Advocacy Alliance (MAAC) in 2016, it was found that between 2015 and 2016, 70 percent of MENA characters in series were portrayed as terrorists, soldiers or tyrants, and 67 percent spoke with an exaggerated foreign accent. .

Arab and Muslim compromise

In the case of films in question, the representation of the Middle East, especially in action and drama but not limited to them, is intertwined with oriental tropes. The plot of the 2008 action film, Iron Man, which grossed USD 201 million in total within the first few days of its release, sees the main character kidnapped by (Arab) Afghan terrorists. Either from a lack of knowledge of the region, or whether it was to refer to a group identified as Afghan-Arabs, the villains, who are described as Afghani in the film’s synopsis, spoke Arabic.

Still from Iron Man (2008)

Because of the portrayal of Arabs in films and series, an entire culture is linked to one religion, Islam: “All Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs.” The industry has reduced a diverse region to one narrow representation, completely ignoring the nuances and complexities of its people. He failed to make the distinction between Arab and Muslim in a region where there are all three religions as well as a kaleidoscope of different traditions and beliefs. This persistent mindset has harmful real-life effects.

Reporting during the Russia-Ukraine war was a reflection of the long-standing (racist) perception of the Middle East (promoted by the entertainment industry), as journalists declared the conflict to be simply one of dire proportions. because it was happening at home in Europe – a region that has experienced stability compared to the Middle East which is now synonymous with conflict, oppression and violence.

The Arab Woman Under Pressure?

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In the 2018 Spanish-language Netflix series, Minority, one of the main Muslim-Arab characters falls in love with a European from her high school. Finally, she will remove her veil and finally stand up to her parents asking for her independence. However, this notion of the oppressed Arab woman being liberated by her European knight in shining armor, her “white savior”, is a theme embedded in oriental ideas. Historically, Arab women have been portrayed as oppressed in Western films and series, and the veil – another way with other Arabs – has been used as a tool to create that implication.

Progress has been made, however, with a concerted effort to make films more inclusive. Hulu’s series Ramy, which aired in 2019, has been nominated for several awards since its release. The show follows a young Egyptian-American man as he tries to reconcile the dualities of East and West within his personality. The show involved many people throughout the Arab diaspora who eventually became involved with a character in a Western production; He was praised for his portrayal of an “underrepresented perspective”.

However, it is still a drop in the ocean that is the entertainment industry biased narrative of the Arabs. For every Ramy, there are 10 elite and Iron Mans.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Streets of Egypt editorial team. To submit an opinion piece, please send an email [email protected]

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