Hollywood Continues to Distort Images.

Laura Sislen, Guest Editorial

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There are many consequences linked with Hollywood’s depictions of many groups of peoples—in particular, those who are deemed “Others.” What I mean by “Others” is any group of people who are not white, Anglo-Saxon men and, occasionally, women. Hollywood’s depictions of Arabs in particular create a negative worldview of a complex and different culture and transforms them into “Others” even further.

According to Jack Shaheen’s film and book “Reel Bad Arabs”, Hollywood renames the Middle East as “Arabland”. “Arabland” often includes deserts, an oasis, generally a palace where a rich sheik resides, harem maidens and classically the abduction of a white (typically blonde) woman. The consequences of this depiction make us believe that Arabs, along with their culture and land, are merely images of fantasy and exoticism, while it also dehumanizes them.

In correlation with dehumanization, another consequence is that we do not accurately depict Arabs on film either. They are almost always characterized as lecherous, barbaric, and prone to terrorism. This is even perpetuated in the Disney children’s movie “Aladdin”. Hollywood has not attempted to humanize Arabs, therefore keeping us in the dark and furthering our ignorance on the topic. The consequence of this ignorance is perpetuated and incensed in the way that Hollywood shapes our view of Arabs. While it is true that we have had political conflicts with the Middle East, even prior to 9/11, Hollywood in no way helped us to understand that these are people. What we are shown are merely characterizations that lead to more intolerance among Americans towards Arabs, creating a stronger sense of Us vs. Them.

As Shaheen states, despite the truth, we accept the mythology because we have grown accustomed to the images. Along with the false projection of Arabland and the intolerance for Arabs, Hollywood films reinforce negative stereotypes and depictions of not only Arabs, but all “Others” as well. Because of the repeatedly used stereotypes in film, we are sensitized to the image Hollywood has assigned to Arabs and many other races (African-Americans, Asians, Jews). Arabs are made into one-dimensional, less-than-human beings. So when we begin to have political stress with the Middle East, the people of America are probably more likely to agree with war against, bombing, and the killing of Arabs because they have classically been shown to be villainous and completely different from ourselves. If one isn’t getting any formal information regarding the Middle East and is, in addition, being exposed to these kinds of films, it seems natural that they would create a negative image of Arabs in their conceptual framework of them.

Hollywood doesn’t only dehumanize the “Other” but also dehumanizes itself and Americans. Because of stereotyping, profiling and pop culture, I have experienced the negative side of the depiction of the “Other” as the “Other.” In high school, I heard that Asians were either porn stars or nerds, and I’m sure the person I’m quoting meant to add “or Kung Fu and Karate masters.” Growing up (also as a person of the Jewish faith), I have experienced many stereotypes. Friends and strangers have asked me about finances, and how rich I’ll be when I’m older because Jews and Asians are “so good with money and business.” It has also been assumed that I’m naturally gifted (in school, particularly math and science), lack sports skills and have tough, strict Asian or Jewish parents. The worst I have been told is that I’m a “Communist Chink,” despite being from South Korea. While most of the stereotyping I have received is in a sense “positive”, like being smart, good with money and successful, it still had a negative impact on me and my perception of self and place amongst everyone else. Thankfully, I was not born during World War II or the Vietnam War, in which Asians were put under further scrutiny as enemies of the nation. Unfortunately, this is now transferred to the conception of Arab and Arab-Americans.

Although I have distinguished myself as my own person and removed myself from stereotypes at this point in life, these had a negative impact on me growing up. It was tough to find my own sense of self and self-image. I actually loathed Asian people for a good portion of my life; they all looked the same to me, and they were all jokes. I felt like I could only be the thing that other people made me and also made people intolerant of who I actually was. I was ashamed. The stereotypes made me feel less than human, and vastly different from my counterparts…as if my slanted eyes, flat face, and sleek black hair didn’t already make me feel that way. All of my friends were white and Christian; so being Asian and Jewish always made me feel like an outsider, which I didn’t entirely understand because I’m adopted. I used to joke with my friends that, due to growing up in America, I have been brainwashed into thinking I’m a “white male trapped in a little Asian girl’s body.” I distinctly remember one day in kindergarten when a group of kids pointed at me, laughed, and danced in a circle around me repeating the phrase “Chinese kid.” I didn’t get it. First of all, I’m not Chinese…and even if I was, why would they point and laugh at me? Maybe because I look different? Maybe because they were never exposed? Sure, but it was mainly because they were children. They were cruel because they were ignorant.

Throughout my life people didn’t even care to ask about academics, sports, or finances because they felt they already knew the answers. A teacher once asked me what caused a car accident I was involved in. My response was “Hey, I’m Asian and I’m a girl,” sarcastically, of course, and he laughed and just walked away, with no further inquiry. All of this is what I mean by Hollywood dehumanizing itself. By not understanding and not attempting to understand the other, and frequently making the same mistakes in doing so, we limit our selves; we are stopping our progress and, in fact, are taking steps backwards. Creating mythologies, projections and characterizations just proves our own fears, anxieties and ignorance. Without taking any steps to solve the problems we have created, we stop ourselves from progressing. Hollywood is keeping everyone in the dark and turning us into the little children in my kindergarten class who didn’t know any better. We need to stop pointing fingers, name-calling, and laughing at people. Where is the humanity in taking the humanity away from someone else? The answer is that there is none.

Laura Sislen is an AACC student who wrote this essay for a Mass Communications class

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