Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Evil Arabs in American Popular Film

Evil Arabs in American Popular Film

Tim Jon Semmerling
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Evil Arabs in American Popular Film
    Book Description:

    The "evil" Arab has become a stock character in American popular films, playing the villain opposite American "good guys" who fight for "the American way." It's not surprising that this stereotype has entered American popular culture, given the real-world conflicts between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, particularly since the oil embargo of the 1970s and continuing through the Iranian hostage crisis, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the ongoing struggle against al-Qaeda. But when one compares the "evil" Arab of popular culture to real Arab people, the stereotype falls apart. In this thought-provoking book, Tim Jon Semmerling further dismantles the "evil" Arab stereotype by showing how American cultural fears, which stem from challenges to our national ideologies and myths, have driven us to create the "evil" Arab Other.

    Semmerling bases his argument on close readings of six films (The Exorcist,Rollover,Black Sunday,Three Kings,Rules of Engagement, andSouth Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), as well as CNN's 9/11 documentaryAmerica Remembers. Looking at their narrative structures and visual tropes, he analyzes how the films portray Arabs as threatening to subvert American "truths" and mythic tales-and how the insecurity this engenders causes Americans to project evil character and intentions on Arab peoples, landscapes, and cultures. Semmerling also demonstrates how the "evil" Arab narrative has even crept into the documentary coverage of 9/11. Overall, Semmerling's probing analysis of America's Orientalist fears exposes how the "evil" Arab of American popular film is actually an illusion that reveals more about Americans than Arabs.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79573-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction ORIENTALIST FEAR
    (pp. 1-29)

    The“evil” Arabs of American film are illusions. Much like those perplexing and ambiguous paintings of the celebrated Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593), or those more simplistic drawings that are developed for entertainment and perception analysis in books featuring optical puzzles, the “evil” Arabs are also constructions for entertainment and have implications for the perceptions of the American cinematic audience. Samuel Tolansky has provided us with a useful term when discussing the type of illusions similar to that of the “evil” Arabs: illusions of “oscillating attention.” Tolansky notes,

    These are cases where the diagram is designed such that attention...

    (pp. 30-59)

    The Exorcistis often considered, or at least marketed to be, the most frightening horror film in American cinema.¹ In one of its many memorable and chilling scenes, Father Karras (Jason Miller) interrogates the demon that has possessed the young girl, Regan (Linda Blair). As the screenplay notes:

    The howling ceases, and Regan’s head falls back on the pillow. The whites of her eyes are exposed, as her eyes roll upward into their sockets. She rolls her head feverishly from side to side, muttering an indistinct gibberish.

    Karras: “Who are you?”

    Regan/Demon: “eno on ma I. eno on ma I.”²...

    (pp. 60-92)

    AlanJ. Pakula’s doomsday thriller,Rollover, is another American film that taps the fount of Orientalist fear by threatening an American ideology and myth and toppling the myth’s carefully constructed heroes.¹ In an important scene at a gala upper-class event held at New York’s Museum of Natural History,Rolloverintroduces the Orientalist audience to its heroic characters, Lee Winters (Jane Fonda) and Hub Smith (Kris Kristofferson). Lee Winters is the wealthy heiress to the controlling stock position in the Winterchem petrochemical firm and is the hostess of the black-tie affair. Hub Smith is one of the maverick businessmen in attendance....

  8. 3 Black Sunday THE LOSS OF FRONTIER HEROISM (1976)
    (pp. 93-123)

    Unlike Rollover, with its entrepreneurial heroes, John Frankenheimer’sBlack Sundayhas no American heroes.¹ It is their very absence that proves to be important in revealing a sense of anxiety for the American Orientalist audience. In their place is the Israeli hero, Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), a leader of an antiterrorist commando unit, who has come to America to foil an Arab terrorist plot against the United States. This plot entails an attack on Americans where they feel most at home and where it will hurt them the most: at the Super Bowl game. However, Kabakov’s Israeli methods seem...

  9. 4 Three Kings ASSAULT ON VICTORY CULTURE (1999)
    (pp. 124-162)

    U.s.Army Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) is distraught in the beginning scenes ofThree Kings.¹ Despite the surrounding triumphant revelry of Desert Storm’s coalition forces, Gates cannot muster the same celebratory fervor in the Iraqi desert as his comrades.² It is March 1991, and the war, we are told from the opening titles, is just over. Gates, a Delta Force GI and once doing important work behind enemy lines in Iraq, is now assigned the more tedious and less valorous job of media escort. He tries to partake in the jubilation by pounding away in sexual intercourse with one...

  10. 5 Rules of Engagement ATTACK FROM THE MULTICULTURAL FRONT (2000)
    (pp. 163-201)

    Inthe introductory scenes ofRules of Engagement, director William Friedkin, also the director ofThe Exorcist, presents his two heroes as honorable American military men.¹ Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) are tough career marines and devoted comrades. As we see in the initial scenes that act as flashbacks to the year 1968, these men once served their country in the quagmire of the Vietnam War. While there, they commanded American troops in a hostile environment and placed themselves in harm’s way. They fired upon a difficult-to-see enemy and took fire in return. Under...

  11. 6 CNN’s America Remembers THE “REAL” ATTACK (2002)
    (pp. 202-247)

    Thisbook has thus far discussed Orientalist fear created in American popular films and examined Hollywood’s unreal constructions of the Arab enemy. In these fictions, the characters of the “evil” Arabs are portrayed as threatening to American ideologies and myths. The alleged Arab treachery, equally inherent in all their kind, is, in relation to reality, as illusory as the American ideologies and myths themselves. But how do these fictions hold up in light of the events of September 11, 2001? In view of what occurred on that fateful Tuesday, it seems that the Arabs are “evil” in real life as...

    (pp. 248-256)

    South Park, the animated comedy series of life in a “quiet little redneck, ho-dunk, white-trash mountain town” of Colorado, is known for its vulgar characters, violent scenarios, and appeal to America’s Generation X.South Parkcan also be, and I hail it as endearingly such, an informative barometer and lampoon of when the discourse of popular culture has just gone too far, taken itself too seriously, and lost sight of its real status. Many times it seems that nothing is sacred onSouth Park. Environmentalism, race and religion, harassment and political correctness, sex and sexuality, poverty and famine, SARS, WMD...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 257-270)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-286)
  15. Index
    (pp. 287-303)