HOLLYWOOD HAREMS Hollywood has not been kind to Arabs. Their negative portrayal has existed from the advent of filmmaking. From the beginning, American cinema has been intertwined with stereotypos of Arabs, typically those of buffoons, villains, sexual predators, and more recently, terrorists. "From harem girls, lusty sheiks, and flying carpeteers through mummy lovers, greedy oll billionaires and sinister terrorists, films have reenforced misconceptions and stereotypos of the Arab people.'' (1)
In my project, I will examine Hollywood's portrayal of women in films with Orientalist themes and characters.
Orientalism-- "a Western style for daminating, restruaturing, and having authority over the Orient" (2) - emanated from and in turn influenced the historical circumstances in which Arab and Islamic culture was regarded with fear and fascination by western Europe.
"The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiqulty a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapos, remarkable experiences." (3)
From its inception, American cinema has been caught up with the mystique of the Orient. It adopted the narrative and visual conventions, as well as the cultural assumptions, on which Orientalism was basod.
I compiled an extensive filmegraphy of over a hundred titles of Hollywood productions, historically until the present. The criteria in selecting these feature films, as well as animations, is that they all contain Orientalist themes involving female characters.
I intend to make an hour long documentary - a montage - assembling clips from as many of these films I am able to procure. The sequence of the montage will be arranged by juxtaposing images according to categories (specified below), along with their audio track; that is, without an outside narrative "voice".
I have decided to group images according to the following categories, all of which involve women or girls in the following situations: seduced, abduated, and sexually harassed; groomed and socialized for wifehood and motherhood; veiled; dancing; sold as slaves or concubines; concorned with finding a man and/or "love and happiness for ever after"; objectiffed sexually through the male gaze; covetous of material possessions and wealth; jealous or competitive for male attention; temptresses, bitches, or vamps.
Historically, the Arab world was a familiar cinematic backdrop for romance and adventure. From feur to six romantic and action produations set in North Africa were distributed annually between 1910 and 1920. In the 1920s, there were at least 87 American films produced with "Arab" themes. (4)
Hollywood fabricated an eroticized and exoticized Orient, titillating audiences with adventure and lust in the untamed desert landscape. The Arab stereotype in films in the 20s was mostly an unsavory concoction of exoticism, abduation, banditry, revenge, and slavery. The plots invariably made Arabs the adversaries, pitting them against Western good guys.
The most famous of the early "Arab" films was "The Sheik" (1921) which catapulted Rudolph Valentino into stardom. The blockbuster hit is a prime example of miscegenation (sex relations between whites and non-whites) where Valentino as the lusty sheik sets out seduee a young, fair woman.
A New York Times reviewer reasseures readers that, "You wan't be offended by having a white girl marry an Arab, for the Sheik really isn't a native of the desert at all." (5) At the end of the film, the sheik is revealed to be the son of an English lord, so miscegenation is averted and consummation is OK.
So successful was the film that it inaugurated more hobblooded, swashbuckling melodramas and prompted reviewers' claims that "The Sheik"'s primary "machinery of excitation...was that delicious masochistic appeal of the fair girl in the strong hands of the ruthless desert tyrant." (6)
Seduction and abduction are common motifs in these films. Typically, women are chased around, often in tents, or hoisted on shoulders, flung on horseback and taken off to be sexually harassed.
"The Sheik" managed to lump Arabs - Egyptians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Algerians, Saudi Arabians, and others - together. Thus, a collective Arab emerged, undifferentiated by location or cultural plurality. This blurred delineation of an ethnic group is conducive to separating "them" from "us", consequently, making them the quintessential "Other."
In the early 1900s, the orientalized "vamp" made an appearance on the screen. Fashion, opera, and dance lay the Oriental iconographic groundwork for Hollywood's vamps who came to represent the "New Woman." On screen, the archetype was represented by Salome who used her sexuality to dominate men.
"Associating the moral disorder of the East with female power was resonant with cultural fears that men were on the verge of capitulating to the sexual and social demands of women. To many conservatives, modern women were the metaphorical daughters of Salome because they were increasingly destructive and dominating in their sexuality." (7)
No actress better epitomized the orientalized vamp than Theda Bara who starred in "A Fool There Was" (1915). Born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio, she wore Arabian robes, pretended not to speak English, and was driven around in a white limousine with Nubian footmen. Her hotel suites were draped in black and smelled of incense and perfume. In an interview, Bara exonerated the vamp's actions:
"believe me, for every woman vamp there are ten men of the samemen who take everything from women---love, devotion, beauty, youth and give nothing in return! The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters." (8)
Other films featuring orientalized vamps were "Cleopatra", "The Ten Commandments", and in "Blood and Sand".
The usual setting for Hollywood's Orient is the desert. In addition to being "undeveloped" and "primitive" and therefore in need of "Western civilization," the desert provides an erotic dimension, that of "exposed, barren land and blazing sands, which metaphorized the exposed, unrepressed "hot'' passion and and uncensored emotions of the Orient...." (9)
In "King Solomon's Mines", the topography is blatantly compared to a woman's body. The camera tilts down a nude female sculpture - supposedly a map leading to the legendary twin mountains - the Breasts of Sheba; below is the cave hiding King Solomon's diamond mine The female body becomes the object of the Western male gaze, in this case specifically of the archeologist and antique dealer, and on a breader vicarious level, of the movie audience.
We can now see that Orientalism is a praxis of the same sort, albeit in different territories, as male gender dominance, or patriarchy, in metropolitan societies: the Orient was routinely described as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem and the despotic - but curiously attraative - ruler. (10)
The tendency to project the East as feminine can be seen in the depiction of ancient Babylonia and Egypt, in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) and Ceeil B. de Mille's "Cleopatra" (1934). In "Intolerance", Babylon symbolizes sexual excess and similarly, in "Cleopatra", Egypt is a site of carnal delights.
In the thirties, the initial Mummy film made its debut followed by soveral incarnations. Abduction and attempted miscegenation were prevalent in this enduring genre.
In the forties, the screen adaptation of Arabian Nights garnered millions of box office dollars. It spawned soveral movies including "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", the "Sinbad" series, and "Cobra Woman", all featuring the prediatable fare of harems, dancing girls, and odious tyrannical characters.
Hollywood studios reproduced this successful formula and mutated it into biblical epics such as "Solemon and Sheba". The raunchier renditions of these productions were referred to as "t and s" (tits and sand) movies at the studios.
After World War II Hollywood continued to produce comedies and musicals with Oriental settings. In 1965, Elvis Presley starred in "Harum Scarum" which had haremlike nightclubs. The rock star sang:
"I'm ganna go where desert sun is; where the fun is ; go where the harem girls dance; go where there's love and romance-out on the burning sands, in some caravan." (ll)
In the early sixties, "Exodus", and "Cast A Giant Shadow", started a new cinema genre generated by the Arab-Israeli confliat. The good Israelis were seen pitted against the bad Arabs who were depiated primarily as kidnappers, terrorists, and murderers.
According to the American Film Institute, if the most frequent themes in the 87 Middle East films from the 1920s and the 118 Middle East films of the 60s, are tallied it becomes apparent that Hollywood's Middle East had become a more sinister place.
In the sixties, murder escalated from twentyseventh place to second place. Slavery, theft, and abduation all moved into the top ten, and new negative characteristics appear, explosion, prostitution, treason. (12)
Hollywood's portrayal of Arabs does not appear to be improving. "Black Sunday", "Rollover", "Protocol", "Ashanti", "Father of the Bride II", "Aladdin", and "Paradise" are examples of recent produations which continue to denigrate Arabs.
The persistence of the negative Arab image in American cinema, as in other popular culture, fuels racism. In addition, this negative stereotyping helps foster the United State's domestic and foreign policy against the Arabs.
In the current climate of political correctness in which deliberate efforts are being made in representing multiculturalism in mass media, it is ironic that Arabs continue to be disparaged without impunity. No where is this more evident than in Hollywood films.
Through recontextualization and juxtaposition of footage taken from Hollywood films, I hope to induce viewers to reassess the representation of Arabs in American cinema; and this make them aware of the existence of disparaging stereotypos and their insidiaus reperaussions.
1) Abdeen Jabara, "Time for a Change," Cineaste, vol. 17, no.1 (1989), p.1.
2) Edward Sald, Orientalism (New York, Vintage, 1979),p. 3.
4) Lawrence Michalak, "The Arab in American Cinema: A Century of Otherness" Cineaste, vol. 17, no. 1 (1989), p.3.
5) Ibid., 4.
6) Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar, Visions of the East (New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1997), p. 102.
7) Ibid., 116.
8) Sumiko Higashi, Virqins, Vamps, and Flappers (S1 Albans, Eden Press Women's Publications, 1978), p.61
9) Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinkinq Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York, Routledge, 1994), p.148
10) Edward Said, "Orientalism Reconsidered", Cultural Critique (fall 1985): p.103.
11) Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinkinq Eurocentrism: Multiaulturalism and the Media (New York, Routledge, 1994), p.161.
12) Lawrence Michalak, "The Arab in American Cinema: A Century of Otherness" Cineaste, vol. 17, no. 1 (1989), p.6.