23 August 2011

Orientalism and Gender in American Cinema

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 stereotypes of Arabs, typically those of buffoons, villains, sexual predators, and more recently, terrorists. Abdeen Jabara, writing in 1989 in the journal Cineaste (vol. 17, no. 1, p. 1), put it this way: 'From harem girls, lusty sheiks, and flying carpeteers through mummy lovers, greedy oil billionaires and sinister terrorists, films have reinforced misconceptions and stereotypes of the Arab people.'

In my 1995 film Hollywood Harems, I examine Hollywood's portrayal of women in films with Orientalist themes and characters. Orientalism, defined by Edward Said as 'a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient' (Orientalism, 1979, p. 3), emanated from and in turn influenced the historical circumstances in which Arab and Islamic culture was regarded with fear and fascination by western Europe. Said continues: 'The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences' (1979, p. 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 based. I compiled an extensive filmography 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 made the hour long documentary as a montage, assembling clips from as many of these films as I was able to procure. The sequence of the montage is 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, abducted, and sexually harassed; groomed and socialized for wifehood and motherhood; veiled; dancing; sold as slaves or concubines; concerned with finding a man and/or 'love and happiness for ever after'; objectified 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 four to six romantic and action productions 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, according to Lawrence Michalak's 1989 article 'The Arab in American Cinema' (Cineaste, vol. 17, no. 1, p. 3).

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 1920s was mostly an unsavory concoction of exoticism, abduction, 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 to seduce a young, fair woman. A New York Times reviewer reassures readers that, 'You won't be offended by having a white girl marry an Arab, for the sheik really isn't a native of the desert at all' (cited by Michalak, p.4). 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 Sheik that it inaugurated more hotblooded, swashbuckling melodramas and prompted reviewers' claims that the film's primary 'machinery of excitation... was that delicious masochistic appeal of the fair girl in the strong hands of the ruthless desert tyrant,' as noted by Bernstein and Studlar in Visions of the East (Rutgers University Press, 1997, p. 102). 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. As Bernstein and Studlar (1997, p. 116) observe: '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.' 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 same men 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' (as quoted by Sumiko Higashi in Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers, Eden Press Women's Publications, 1978, p.61). Other films featuring orientalized vamps were Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and 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 what Shohat and Stam refer to as 'exposed, barren land and blazing sands, which metaphorized the exposed, unrepressed 'hot' passion and and uncensored emotions of the Orient...' (Unthinking Eurocentrism, Routledge, 1994, p.148).

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 broader 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 attractive--ruler. 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 Cecil B. de Mille's Cleopatra (1934). In Intolerance, Babylon symbolizes sexual excess and similarly, and in Cleopatra, Egypt is a site of carnal delights.

In the thirties, the initial Mummy film made its debut followed by several incarnations. Abduction and attempted miscegenation were prevalent in this enduring genre. And in the forties, the screen adaptation of Arabian Nights garnered millions of box office dollars. It spawned several movies including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Sinbad series, and Cobra Woman, all featuring the predictable fare of harems, dancing girls, and odious tyrannical characters. Hollywood studios reproduced this successful formula and mutated it into biblical epics such as Solomon and Sheba. The raunchier renditions of these productions were even 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 harem-like nightclubs. The rock star sang: 'I'm gonna go where the 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' (Quoted in Shohat and Stam, 1994, p. 161). In the early sixties, Exodus and Cast A Giant Shadow started a new cinema genre generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The good Israelis were seen pitted against the bad Arabs, who were depicted 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. As noted  by Michalak (1989, p. 6), in the sixties, murder escalated from twenty-seventh place to second place. Slavery, theft, and abduction all moved into the top ten, and new negative characteristics appear: explosion, prostitution, treason. Hollywood's portrayal of Arabs does not appear to be improving. Black Sunday, Rollover, Protocol, Ashanti, Father of the Bride Part II, Aladdin, and Paradise are examples of recent productions that 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 the mass media, it is ironic that Arabs continue to be disparaged without impunity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hollywood films. Through re-contextualization and juxtaposition of footage taken from Hollywood films, I hope to induce viewers to reassess the representation of Arabs in American cinema; and thus make them aware of the existence of disparaging stereotypes and their insidious repercussions.

[This essay was written by Tania Kamal-Eldin, director of Hollywood Harems, and has been edited for inclusion on TV Multiversity. The original version is at Microsillons. Further information is on her website and she has a similar article here. The film is available on VHS and DVD (although only for institutional rental or purchase) from Women Make Movies.]



  2. This is actually a brilliant post, you've clearly done your research and it's really well written which makes for easy reading. Plus your content is accurate and interesting, keep up the good work!