Why Hollywood is not the villain
by Daniel Mandel
May 15, 2004
Does Hollywood stereotype minority groups? In particular, does it stereotype Arabs and Muslims? And what bearing, if any, do the answers to these questions have on current United States policy and conduct in Iraq?
Popular films have always stereotyped groups to a greater or lesser extent. But it is often claimed that, having abandoned most stereotypes - even the Soviet enemy is gone, along with the Cold War - Hollywood is clinging to one last set, Arabs and Muslims, and vilifying those groups for the sake of entertainment.
In short, intolerance and racism is the cause, indoctrination by Hollywood stereotype is the charge, and US aggression against Middle Easterners is the result - a claim echoed on this page on Tuesday by Joseph Wakim ("To Bush, the Arab is always the villain").
As it happens, however, these claims are fanciful.
Hollywood has never dispensed with stereotypes. Some - American Indians, the Soviets - have been moderated or even dropped. The public sees these as unjust or dated.
Others, held to be adequately true to life or relevant, persist. Middle Eastern terrorists, Italian mafias, Russian organised crime leagues, and a host of others have all appeared in recent films, and with reason: such depictions reflect realities known to the film-going public.
Add to this a host of other stock characterisations that have been remarkably constant over the years - chillingly amoral business executives, urbanely heartless British politicians and officers, pushy Jewish lawyers, rogue army generals, black street gangs - and it is clear that generalised depictions of large swathes of humanity are part of Hollywood's stock in trade.
Because terrorism against Americans is carried out by Arabs and Muslims, there is a basic truth to movies such as True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996) and The Siege (1998) that lends them the minimum authenticity required by viewers to suspend disbelief.
True Lies is a story about Islamists planning to explode nuclear devices in the US. Executive Decision deals with Islamists hijacking a plane and planning to unleash a deadly toxin in the US. The Siege tells of an Islamist group carrying out horrific attacks on New York. None of these scenarios lack feasibility, and some of them have since come to pass.
Unsurprisingly, screenwriters focus on realities well known to their audience, and there is simply no escaping the fact that the Middle East abounds in terrorist groups. That is why the action in, for example, GI Jane (1997), takes place in Libya, rather than Costa Rica. That is why the terrorists in True Lies are Middle Eastern, rather than Scandinavian.
Even Delta Force (1986), a film rightly criticised by Wakim as gratuitously offensive to Arabs, recalls events - the public slaying of an American hostage, the segregating of Jews and Israelis from other airline passengers - from real life.
In short, stock characters and situations are to be expected in popular fare, and the use of stereotypes is not necessarily reprehensible unless it has no basis in fact. Were it otherwise, it would be impossible to depict Nazis or Japanese imperialists without being accused of racism and vilification.
To the claim that we never see Jews or blacks depicted this way, the answer must be that the day we have Jewish Osama bin Ladens or black Mohammed Attas, we are likely to see their fictional counterparts on the silver screen.
Hollywood in any case makes a poor suspect for explaining the brutality of American prison guards in Iraq. No war has ever been completely free of atrocities, let alone cruelty of the type exhibited by the guards.
Without the aid of Hollywood, armies and militias in many continents have engaged in far worse, not least in the Middle East itself where, for example, the depredations of Saddam's genocidal regime attracted less comment than present American misdeeds.
If Hollywood is a poor suspect, so too is George Bush. Agree or disagree on the wisdom of his invading Iraq to remove Saddam, Bush has, if anything, gone out of his way to avoid offence to Islam.
Indeed, by describing it often as a religion of peace, and by saying al-Qaeda terrorists are religious renegades, Bush has strayed into a province better left to imams and scholars than to politicians. Undoubtedly his doing so serves a political purpose - but not the one of ratcheting up racism.
Criticism of Western politics and popular culture, hauled into court to explain the ills of the Middle East, is often couched in the language of fair play and pluralism. In fact, however, it tends to become a form of concealment for the region's ills, either through denial or blame. Neither assists public understanding.
Dr Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and a fellow in history at The University of Melbourne.
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