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.
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).
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.]