Hollywood is the place where magic, fame, and fortune are made.
From classic movies to blockbusters, Hollywood movies dominate every corner of the world.
We got great films such as Casablanca, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Avengers, and every other blockbuster you can think of, we grew up watching movies made by Hollywood and produced by company giants like Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers, you name it.
Because everyone in the world has seen movies from the filmmakers' point of view, most of us have this idea of what certain places and people are like.
We romanticize France, we perceive USA as the place to be for success, Italy as home to art, and China as where martial arts exist.
These preconceived notions impacted how we see the world around us, and it all boils down to representation. This can be attributed to the foundation of the Hays code in the 1930s.
The Hays Code
It’s a set of guidelines for all the motion pictures that were released between 1934 and 1968. With its foundation at the beginning of the cinema’s golden age, The Hays code was created to ensure that Hollywood movies would be family-friendly and not offensive to the viewers. However, they have fallen into the pit of misrepresenting minorities and ended up creating harmful stereotypes that have negatively affected the way people view other cultures.
Starting with The Mammy type – the older woman, overweight, dark-skinned woman idealized as the caregiver, obedient, maternal figure - that began in Gone with the Wind which harmed the way the black community was being portrayed and ended up making African American cast as either slaves, maids or chauffeurs.
How about the way Asian women were depicted as either the madam butterfly, AKA the submissive type. Another example of Asian representation is the dragon lady type. Mexican Women are the spitfire who get all angry and tempestuous. The code even banned interracial relationships and was deemed ‘immoral’
Middle East Misrepresentation in Hollywood
And now moving on to the Middle East, we rarely see a positive depiction of our culture or people in the media. This is due to the Orientalist vision which paints Western society as developed flexible, and superior and vilifies the Eastern.
Looking back at the early years of Hollywood, we see that Hollywood was filled with stereotypes of the Middle East. Arabs being portrayed as villains or ignorant include but is not limited to:
1. The comedic duo, Laurel and Hardy mocked Arabs in their film Beau Hunks.
2. Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby in Road to Morocco.
3. The Mummy Returns
4. American Sniper
Our people are portrayed as either terrorists or ignorant. It doesn’t help that post 9/11 the vilification of Arabs and Middle Easterns was justified and accepted, which urges us to challenge this stereotyping.
According to Jack Shaheen, the writer of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, hate crimes have seen in increase after September 11 due to the spread of this stereotype in Western cinema.
Just when we get a representation of historical events that impacted the world for the better, we get whitewashed.
A couple of months ago, it was announced that Gal Gadot will be playing Cleopatra
And in 2014, Ridley Scott made Gods and Kings, in which he cast Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in lead parts.
Ridly defended his decision to cast Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in the lead roles stating “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Hollywood deliberately casts white actors in non-white roles because they rely more on name recognition and box office revenue than the actual and faithful portrayal of other cultures and races.
According to research by Sociological Images, only 11.1 percent of leading actor roles go to African Americans, only 1.2 percent to Latinos, and only 1.8 percent to Asian Americans.
It doesn’t help that Arabs and Middle Easterns rarely get casting opportunities except for terrorists or side characters.
The Outcome of Misrepresentation and Erasure
Due to a lack of authentic Arab representation, viewers are frequently subjected to false representations that negatively affect how they interact with members of these groups, reinforcing negative stereotypes and escalating anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiments.
In American movies and television shows, Arabs and Muslims are almost always portrayed as violent, dangerous, untrustworthy, barbaric, anti-democratic, and narrow-minded people.
The Next Move
Despite the deep-rooted racism and prejudice that exists within Hollywood, we are in the 21st century. We have the internet, various production companies, and platforms that are challenging the status quo.
We are seeing people using social media platforms to spread awareness about the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry. We are seeing more and more people of color, demand proper representation in Hollywood.
We may not live in Hollywood or have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but we can still make a change. Various actors and producers within the Arab community are working to change the way Arabs are seen.
We are the creators of media that makes characters complicated, rich, and authentic. We have movie festivals, films that premiere at Cannes, and much more.
As of the date of publication of this Article, "AlWathaeqya" Channel announced their preparation for making an upcoming documentary detailing the life of Queen Cleopatra the Seventh.
We don’t and won’t settle for less, for our history is rich, our culture is diverse, and our stories are worth telling.