Arab Stereotypes and American Educators

Arab Stereotypes and American Educators

By Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman, March 1995 Download in PDF

When American children hear the word “Arab" what is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps the imagery of Disney‘s Arabian Nights‘ fantasy film Aladdin, a film which has been immensely popular in theaters and on video and is sometimes shown in school classrooms.

8188c8bb89.gifYet Arab Americans have problems with this film. Although in many ways it is charming, artistically impressive, and one of the few American films to feature an Arab hero or heroine, a closer look reveals some disturbing features.

The film‘s light-skinned lead characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, have Anglicized features and Anglo-American accents. This is in contract to the other characters who are dark-skinned, swarthy and villainous-cruel palace guards or greedy merchants with Arabic accents and grotesque facial features.

The film‘s opening song sets the tone;

Oh, I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam, Where they cut off your ear If they don‘t like your face, It‘s Barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.

Thus the film immediately characterizes the Arab world as alien, exotic, and "other." Arab Americans see this film as perpetuating the tired stereotype of the Arab world as a place of deserts and camels, of arbitrary cruelty and barbarism (see more on arab stereotypes).

Therefore, Arab Americans raised a cry of protest regarding Aladdin. The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) challenged Disney and persuaded the studio to change a phrase in the lyrics for the video version of the film to say: “It‘s flat and immense, and the heat is intense. It‘s barbaric, but hey‘ it‘s home.” While this is an improvement, problems remain.

Former ADC President Candace Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, comments, “I was angry and embarrassed when I listened to the Aladdin lyrics while watching the movie. I could only hope that the audience was not paying close attention and would not take home with them a poor image of the Arab world.” She adds, “I only wish Disney had consulted us first before they developed a movie, reaching millions of people, based on our culture. This is why there is an ADC.”

Grassroots protest has also been successful in combating the troubling elements of this film. In Illinois, a 10-year old Arab American girl persuaded a music teacher leading the school chorus to discard the offensive Aladdin lyrics-although she had to explain three times why the lyrics were offensive before the teacher “got” it.

Arabs in Popular Culture

Disney is by no means the only offender. Popular culture aimed at children is replete with negative images of Arab women as belly dancers and harem girls, and Arab men as violent terrorists, oil “sheiks,” and marauding tribesmen who kidnap blond Western women.

Arabs are frequently cast as villains on Saturday morning TV cartoons, Fox Children Network‘s Batman, is one example. This cartoon portrayed fanatic, dark-complexioned Arabs armed with sabers and rifles as allies of an “alien” plotting to take over the Earth.

A few years ago, Spencer Gift stores sold “Arab” Halloween masks with grotesque physical features, along with their usual array of goblin, demon, and vampire masks. The chain stocked no other ethnic masks.

Comic books frequently have Arab villains as a gratuitous element in their story line: Tarzan battles with an Arab chieftain who kidnaps Jane, Superman foils Arab terrorists hijacking a U.S. nuclear carrier, and the Fantastic Four combat a hideous oil sheikh supervillain. But, as Lebanese American media analyst Jack Shaheen comments, “there is never an Arab hero for kids to cheer” (Shaheen 1980, p.5).

Negative portraits of Arabs are found in numerous popular films, such as True Lies, Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Computer games often feature cartoon Arab villains in which children rack up high scores and win games by killing Arabs.

Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images. Shaheen observes that Arabs are “hardly ever seen as ordinary people, practicing law, driving taxis, singing lullab