Misrepresentation of various ethnic and religious backgrounds in Hollywood movies is not a new phenomenon: indeed, the only culture that Hollywood filmmakers can represent without bias or mistreatment is the modern American culture. Characters of other national, ethnic or religious backgrounds, such as Latino, Muslims, and even Europeans, are often misrepresented. However, Arabs, according to Jack Shaheen, remain “the most maligned group in the History of Hollywood” (Reel Bad Arabs). As Shaheen argues, there is no single reason for such misresepresentation or a factor that leads to the stereotyping, but a combination of factors, such as the Americans’ inflexibility and indifference, as well as the lack of influential Arab figures in Hollywood (37). This paper attempts to examine some instances of misrepresentation of Arab women in modern Hollywood, particularly in films such as Osama, Sex and the City 2, and the recording of Fatima Djemille’s Coochie-Coochie Dance, as well as to explain the consequences of the issue.
Osama is a 2003 film set in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule. The main character is a young girl who has to disguise herself as a boy in order to get a job to support the family, which consists of her and two other women: her mother and her grandmother. She starts going to a Taliban training school with boys, neither of whom know her true identity, and gets a job with the local milk vendor. The disguise, however, is found when she menstruates. Osama is arrested by the Taliban men, but instead of being executed, she is married off to an older man, who already has three other wives reporting severe abuse and mistreatment.
The film aims to depict the harsh realities of life under the Taliban rule. However, in the movie, life is only tough for women. They are portrayed as voiceless and incapable of supporting their lives without the help of a man. For instance, in one of the first scenes of the movie, it is shown that Osama’s mother works at a hospital; however, when the hospital becomes dysfunctional and her private patient dies, she has no means to support the family, as it is assumed that the only jobs women are entitled to are nurses or caretakers. The women of the family are shown as passive victims to male oppression, accepting their powerlessness to the extent that allows them to endanger the life of Osama by disguising her. Overall, despite the fact that there are many modern examples of Middle Eastern women’s empowerment – for instance, the wives of Arab politicians making a cause for feminist issues (Smith par. 1) – the film still portrays women as dependent on men in all aspects of life and incapable of surviving without a man’s support.
Sex and the City 2
Another tendency often found in Hollywood movies is the tendency to create a contrast between American and other cultures. This contrast typically shows American characters as educated, free, and progressive, whereas the other culture is depicted as wild, underdeveloped, and stereotyped (Shaheen 22). After the tragic terror attack of 9/11, the propensity to describe Arabs and Muslims as opposing Americans in one way or another has worsened (Kozlovic 216). While Arab women are not portrayed as villainous or evil as often as Arab men, the contrast between American and Arab women still presents the latter in an unfavorable light.
In Sex and the City 2, for instance, four American female friends go to Abu-Dhabi for a holiday. Whereas Arab men mostly act as welcoming figures or helpers throughout the film, Arab women are marginalized; they do not communicate with the main characters and are thus portrayed as voiceless. In a hotel restaurant scene, Carrie specifically says that the coverage of the face with a niqab feels particularly weird to her: “It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice” (Sex and the City 2). The American women are dressed in bright colors, and they talk freely about topics that are seen as frowned upon in a strict Arab society, whereas the conversation of the three Arab women sitting at the table beside them is barely audible, as if they were communicating in sign language. Overall, the portrayal of Arab women in Sex and the City 2 is based on the contrast with American women. Through such a comparison, Arab women are perceived as voiceless and almost imprisoned in their traditional clothing and quiet, unnoticeable behavior.
Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance
Finally, the last example of the mistreatment of Arab women is their sexualization. The recording of Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance by Thomas Edison was taken in 1896 and shows an authentic Middle Eastern dance performed by a female dancer Fatima Djemille. As the recording was one of the earliest records of the original Oriental dance, it has spread all around the world to transform into the now popular belly dance, which, in most parts of the world, is now performed with a lot less clothing and is “fraught with sexual innuendo” (Fatima’s Coochie-Coochie Dance). Even in previously discussed Sex and the City 2 we can see belly dancers at the nightclub, and it is not their mastery of dance that is accentuated, but rather their attractiveness and the bright costumes that provide little coverage of the body. Contrary to Fatima’s dance, their movements are slow and sensual, clearly intended to attract men’s attention. Such portrayal of traditional Middle Eastern dance art contributes to the overall sexualization of Arab women (Reel Bad Arabs), which adds to the stereotypes imposed on the Arab society.
Overall, the three examples are similar in the way that they treat Arab women, giving them no individuality and reinforcing the stereotypes that are already present in the society. However, the particular ways in which Arab women are portrayed in these films vary from voiceless and weak figures to sexualized exotic beings. The effects of such a stereotypical portrayal are evident and severe: popular media affects the people’s perception of other cultures, worsening the stereotypes in society, and thus affecting everyday communication (Shaheen 35). Moreover, images that are seen on in film and the stereotypes imposed on people of certain backgrounds can “lower self-esteem, injure innocents, impact policies, and encourage divisiveness by accentuating our differences at the expense of those human qualities that tie us together” (Shaheen 23). Hence, it is needed to devise a more realistic portrayal of Arab women in Hollywood, which would include their empowerment and involvement with feminist issues, as well as brightness and independence that are characteristic of the modern Arab women (Sakr 38-39).
Nevertheless, according to Kozlovic, popular films have the potential not only to create stereotypes about the people of other backgrounds, but also to end the mistreatment and promote dialogue across nations and culture: he argues that “film studies [are] a mode of interreligious dialogue aimed at mutual understanding and peace-building” (229), and should be used appropriately. Overall, by addressing the problematic portrayal of Arab women in Hollywood films, it could be possible to erase many stereotypes with relation to Arab people and their culture, thus promoting a healthier relationship both within the country and on a global level.
Edison, Thomas. “Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance.” Youtube, uploaded by Ron Librach, 2013. Web.
Kozlovic, Anton K. “Islam, Muslims and Arabs in the Popular Hollywood Cinema.” Comparative Islamic Studies, 2007, pp. 213-246. Web.
Osama. Directed by Siddiq Barmak, performances by Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, and Zabih ullah Frotan, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2003.
Reel Bad Arabs – How Hollywood Vilifies People. Directed by Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 2006.
Sakr, Naomi, editor. Women and Media in the Middle East: Power Through Self-Expression. I.B.Tauris, 2004.
Sex and the City 2. Directed by Michael P. King, performances by Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, and Cynthia Nixon, HBO Films, 2010.
Shaheen, Jack G. “Hollywood’s Muslim Arabs.” Muslim World, vol. 90, no. 1-2, 2000, pp. 22-42, Web.
Smith, Helena. “The First Ladies of the Arab World Blaze a Trail for Women’s Rights.” The Guardian. 2009. Web.