Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11
Activists and scholars have been arguing for years that negative representations of minorities in US-based commercial media has contributed to how the public perceives any group. The first feature film in the US, The Birth of A Nation, is a good example of the role that racist depictions of Blacks contributed to public lynching in the early part of the 20th century.
This is the fundamental argument that author Jack Shaheen has been making for years as it relates to media depictions of Arabs with his groundbreaking book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which documents how Hollywood has portrayed Arabs. Years later the book was made into a documentary and now Shaheen has written a sequel, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11.
Guilty is important on two levels. First, it tracks Arab depiction in Hollywood films and US entertainment TV shows since 9/11. These depictions since 9/11 have continued to disproportionately represent Arabs in a negative light, quite often as terrorists. Some examples that Shaheen looks at are the movies Click (2006), Final Destination 3 (2006), The Kingdom (2007), Team America (2004), and Transformers (2007).
Each of these films has stereotypical representation of Arabs, most often as terrorists with overt depictions of bearded sultans who are driven by lust and greed. In the movie Click there is a brief encounter with a wealthy Arab with the main characters in the film. An Arab actor does not play the Arab businessman and his White counterparts cannot pronounce his name. At one point the main character in the film says are you asking me to design an “Arabian hoochie house?” This brief exchange suggests that Arab men have no respect for women. In the movie Transformers, Arabs are helpless in the face of an alien invasion and must rely on the US military to protect them.
Shaheen also includes US television programming in his analysis of popular media depictions of Arabs since 9/11, since a similar pattern exists. In a chapter entitled “TV’s Arab-American Bogeyman,” the author demonstrates that Arab characters are depicted in very negative ways. The popular FOX network show 24 uses Arabs as terror suspects repeatedly and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has White wrestlers always beating an Arab wrestler named Hasan. One reason why these depictions contribute negative public perceptions of Arabs is because they never show “Arab American women and men doing what normal Americans do in their daily lives.”
The second reason why Guilty is an important book is because of how the author makes the link between these media stereotypes and the treatment of Arabs and Arab Americans in the real world. Shaheen always comes back to what these racist depictions of Arabs mean to everyday Arabs and Arab Americans, which is to say that hate crimes and discrimination have been on the rise since 9/11.
Guilty does an excellent job of weaving the actual treatment of Arab Americans in the US since 9/11 and how media depictions create a climate for this negative treatment. Anyone who wants to understand the relationship between media and racism would find this book valuable. Those who care about the civil rights of Arab Americans would do well to read this important and timely book.
Jack Shaheen, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11, (Olive Branch Press, 2008).