Oh I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear,
If they don’t like your face,
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
The movie met with some protest. In June of 1993, Disney executives were pressured to delete the lines about the ear and face in the video version, but kept the last line. A New York Times editorial wrote “To characterize an entire region with this sort of tongue-in-cheek bigotry, especially in a movie aimed at children, borders on the barbaric.”5 Yousef Salem, former spokesman for California’s South Bay Islamic Association sums it up nicely: “All the bad guys have beards and large bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they’re wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn’t have a big nose; he has a small nose. He doesn’t have a beard or a turban. He doesn’t have an accent. What makes him nice is they’ve given him this American character…. I have a daughter who says she’s ashamed to call herself an Arab, and it’s because of things like this.” 6 The widespread negative publicity taught Disney that they needed to be more culturally aware for their next film, Pocahontas. The director of that film, Mike Gabriel, said the Native American image “was a clear concern since we had been blasted by Arab American groups for defamatory song lyrics in 1992’s Aladdin.” 7 In June of 1993, six months after Arab Americans protested the negative images of Arabs in Aladdin, Disney management under Jeffrey Katzenberg offered to submit future projects involving anything Arabic to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for review. Disney broke its promise when it released Father of the Bride 2 (1995) starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, which features unappealing Arab Americans as disagreeable homebuyers. The source material didn’t have Muslims or Arabs in it at all, but in the film they are basically the antagonists. The unkempt Habib (Eugene Levy) is a rich Arab-American who smokes and talks with a heavy accent. When his wife tries to speak up, Habib barks gibberish at her that imitates Arabic. Mrs. Habib cowers like a scolded pet and becomes silent, perpetuating Hollywood's image of the Mideast woman as a submissive. While Habib is purchasing the house, he is demanding and rude to Martin’s character George, and then he crushes his cigarette on the perfectly clean walkway, suggesting that he’s unrefined and thoughtless. Habib owns the house for a day, then sells back the house to George and profits $100,000, suggesting that Arabs are greedy extortioners who have no compassion. Critic Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly explained that "the caricature of a cold, rich . . . [Habib] amounts to a glaring ethnic slur." 8 Washington Post critic Jane Horowitz admitted that, although Disney "exploit [ed] Arab . . . stereotypes," the Habibs "provide much of the film's uneven comic energy." 9 No one who worked on the film denounced the Arab stereotypes. Laila Lalami's Los Angeles Times wrote a " Counterpunch" essay criticizing Bride II. 10 Her criticism was answered a week later in the Times by actor Terrence Beasor. Beasor told Ms. Lalami, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Southern California, to "cheer up," adding that stereotypes are a "time-honored tradition," and "not based on racial or gender bias." 11 Radio personality Casey Kasem in a Times letter responded to this with: "That's exactly what such slurs are based on. It's the thoughtless dismissal of the consequences that allows the practice of slurring to continue doing its harm." The Times, however, eliminated Kasem's last sentence, which reads: "Perhaps if everyone named Beasor had been the target of negative stereotyping for the past 75 years, the writer might have had some small idea what it's like to grow up on the receiving end of dehumanizing prejudice." 12 Despite all this, the film went on to gross around $80 million, an impressive feat for a sequel. Aladdin, even more impressively, grossed $217 million, becoming one of the most successful animated features of all time (at one point it was Disney’s second biggest moneymaker ever). The widespread success of the film sparked two direct-to-video sequels, Return Of Jafar (1994) and Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996). Return of Jafar was just as bad as the original in terms of negative Arab stereotyping: Arabs are grotesque palace goons and buck toothed thieves who slice at their enemies with knives and are referred to as “desert skunks.” There was also a song that referred to Arabian life: “You won’t ever get bored, though beaten and gored, you might.” Once again Disney received numerous phone calls and letters complaining about the film’s negative portrayals of Arabs. For the direct-to-video Aladdin and the King of Thieves, the filmmakers finally consulted Arab-American specialists. Consequently, the songs’ themes are very different than the ones in prior films (“There’s a party here in Agrabah…What could possibly go wrong?”). Aladdin and Jasmine are animated with dark complexions, citizens appear as decent folk as opposed to caricatures, and the sultan is a compassionate, wise man. Arabs are even shown to be caring family members. There’s a scene where Aladdin’s father tells his son “We never hurt the innocent” and he refers to his son as his “ultimate treasure.” All is not well, however. Palace guards are still portrayed as goons, and thieves are still “worse than demons” who are bad-natured. Looking at the evolution of the Aladdin trilogy, we see a microcosm of society’s progressive acceptance of Muslim and Arab culture.
The parallels between the Vietnamese and Muslim Arab portrayals are quite clear. Unless stood up to, Hollywood will always vilify and demonize a people. Look at the Cold War. When it was no longer PC to portray American Indians as villains, Hollywood turned to the Soviets. For forty years they were in every antagonist role imaginable. They were the perfect movie bad guys because they had no organized domestic representation and would never see the movies in their homeland. The Commies could be as evil as Hollywood wanted. When that got old, the target shifted to Arabs. Now, with the events of September 11th, the need for cultural and religious tolerance of Muslim Arabs is at an all time high. People have realized this, and that is why groups such as the Hollywood 9/11 International Messaging Group have formed. Hollywood 9/11, as it is nicknamed, is a group of studio executives and filmmakers organized by Carl Rove, a senior Bush adviser. The group, funded by the charitable Entertainment Industry Foundation, is in charge of making sure that, on an international level, the United States is positively portrayed as tolerant of Muslims. Basically, their goals are to advocate tolerance of Muslims in American cinema, as well as to improve the international image of the U.S. through movies. Groups such as the Council On American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee are also doing their part to make Muslim and Arab voices heard by Hollywood. For example, The Sum of All Fears (2002) starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman was originally to be about Islamic terrorists who blow up a football stadium full of people (as it was written that way in Tom Clancy’s book). But the filmmakers and studio executives decided against that, after consulting with Muslim and Arab groups. They felt that it was unnecessary to portray Arabs as such heartless and cruel antagonists in the post 9/11 climate. Instead, the bad guys in the film were Neo Nazis. The NBC TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch that recently came out on November 9th, 2003 focuses on the Iraqi lawyer who rescued her. The filmmakers consulted the Arab community during its production, and the film was the second highest in ratings that night. Disney is currently filming the 19th century historical epic Hidalgo, based on the true story of a celebrated mustang of the same name. One of Hidalgo’s greatest long-distance races pitted him against much larger horses in a desert race in Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt, the filmmakers are wondering: how will American audiences view Arabs when the film is released less than a year from now? Will the historical competition be viewed as a modern-day metaphor of Us versus Them? Or will moviegoers remember that Hidalgo is a story about the vanishing of the American West? Based on past response patterns and the recent Iraq conflict, I’d say the American public won’t be too interested in the movie unless it portrays Arabs as humans, and not stock caricatures.
1 George Donelson Moss, Vietnam: An American Ordeal (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990). 272.
2 Adair, Gilbert. “God Bless America: Patriotism and The Deer Hunter.” Vietnam on film. New York. Proteus Publ. 1981. 131-42.
3 Langman, Larry/ Borg, Ed. “Deer Hunter, The.” Encyclopedia of American war films. Garland reference library of the humanities. New York. Garland. 1989. 150.
4 Handy, Bruce. “The Force is Back.” Time 10 February 1997.
5 "It's Racist, but Hey, It's Disney," editorial, New York Times, July 14, 1993.
6 Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (New York, 1999). 104.
7 “Romance is Inevitable,” Kuwait Times 31 October 1995. 21.
8 Tucker, Ken. Review of "Father of the Bride: Part II," Entertainment Weekly, December 15, 1995, p. 50.
9 Horowitz, Jane. Review of "Father of the Bride: Part II," Washington Post December 14, 1996, p. C7
10 Lalami, Laila. "'Bride' Walks Down the Aisle of Stereotyping," Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1996.
11 Beasor, Terrence. "Stereotypes: A Time Honored Tradition," Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1996.
12 Kasem, Casey. Letter to Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1996.
13 Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs (New York, NY: Olive Branch Press, 2001). 364.
Box office figures from IMDB