Support the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition, an organization that works “for the advancement and visibility of Middle Eastern/North African performers on-screen in film, television and streaming platforms.”
Watch films and television featuring SWANA actors and/or made by SWANA creators that depict lived experience with greater nuance, like Ramy Youssef’s Ramy and Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual (both streaming on Hulu).
Read bell hooks’ Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies to understand how television and film can serve as sites of liberation or oppression for communities of color more broadly.
We’ve previously written about the ways that Hollywood whitewashes film and television to prefer stories represented and made by white people. Also crucial in this conversation is how Hollywood has consequently represented the Middle East throughout its history.
The Southwest Asian/North African (SWANA) community is one example of a group that has faced harmful representations and stereotyping in Hollywood. A 2016 report uncovered many findings that support this fact, particularly on television. A majority of television characters from this region (67%) appear in crime or geopolitical dramas. Among those characters, 78% are “trained terrorist/agents/soldiers or tyrants,” which reinforces the stereotype that this group should be understood as a threat. On top of that, two-thirds of all television characters from the Middle East “speak with pronounced foreign accents,” solidifying the idea that those from the region will always be “foreigners” in the United States (MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition). In other words, these findings illustrate how Hollywood co-signs the belief that those in the SWANA community do not and cannot belong within the bounds of the nation.
While some may think that this sort of stereotyping is concentrated in the post-9/11 era, Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of the SWANA community and the contested region has roots that go even further back. Scholars have noted the presence of the Middle East and Middle Eastern characters in Hollywood going back to just after World War II. At a time when the United States began asserting themselves as a superpower in the world arena, Hollywood and the film industry were influenced by U.S. foreign policy decisions (and that sort of mentality has never really seemed to stop). Hollywood used the Middle East as the setting of biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959)—stories that showed the very American ideal of the power of freedom over slavery (Epic Encounters). Other films like Arabian Nights (1942) showed the Middle East as an exotic and Orientalized fantasy land. In so doing, Hollywood flattened and whitewashed the Middle East to serve the United States’ imperial interests.
After the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Hollywood depictions of the Middle East and its inhabitants shifted. Arabs, in particular, were portrayed by the film industry as terrorists and other insidious stereotypes (Atlas Obscura). The most notable example is the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter, which portrays Sally Field as an American woman trying to escape her Iranian husband’s clutches, who is intent on trapping her in Iran, where she has few rights. Although the Iran Hostage Crisis had ended a decade prior, disdain for Iranians and Iran was still apparent in the United States. And while the film’s initial release was not notable, it has continued to endure in the cultural zeitgeist as “evidence of the barbarity of Iranian men” and Islam. More significantly than that, it was screened in schools for “educational purposes” (Vulture). This trope continued into the 1990s, with films such as True Lies (1994) and The Siege (1998) depicting Arabs and Palestinians as terrorists.
In the wake of September 11, this trend of portraying Middle Easterners as terrorists did not abate, as films like Argo (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) were released to critical acclaim. But, in addition to these Hollywood depictions that tied SWANA and Muslim Americans to a sinister and aggressive other, a “sympathetic Muslim” character emerged that proved to be just as harmful. After 9/11, primetime crime and political dramas would feature sympathetic or more “positive” representations of Arabs and Muslims. Characters included Muslims who were steadfast patriots to the United States or victims of a hate crime. While this may seem like a good thing on the surface, it is actually used to strengthen the idea of the U.S. as a benevolent power (like after World War II) and justify imperial aggression abroad (Arabs and Muslims in the Media).
To move forward, we need to acknowledge how Hollywood has historically stereotyped the Middle East, depicting people from the region as barbaric, exotic, backwards, threatening, dangerous, or objects of pity. Rather than perpetuating a particular idea of the Middle East as a monolith, we should feature the voices of an array of individuals coming from the SWANA community to give texture to representations of lived experiences. Although there are parts of this experience that involve trauma sustained during and after 9/11 — as well as the many other contentious moments that have come with U.S.-Middle East relations — the community’s experiences encompass so much more.
A majority of SWANA television characters (67%) appear in crime or geopolitical dramas. Among those characters, 78% are “trained terrorist/agents/soldiers or tyrants,” which reinforces the stereotype that this group should be understood as a threat.
While some may think that this sort of stereotyping is concentrated in the post-9/11 era, Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of the SWANA community has roots that go even further back, with scholars identifying the post-World War II era as the beginning of Middle Eastern representation in Hollywood.
Rather than perpetuating a particular idea of the Middle East as a monolith, we should feature the voices of an array of individuals coming from the SWANA community to give texture to representations of lived experiences.
Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.