Week 7 – Gender in Hollywood’s Orient

ELC352, Week 7 – class readings

Gender in Hollywood’s Orient

Author(s): Ella Shohat

Source: Middle East Report, No. 162, Lebanon’s War (Jan. – Feb., 1990), pp. 40-42

Please look up words you don’t understand!

From its very beginning, Western cinema has been fascinated with the mystery of the Orient. Hollywood films took civilizations as diverse as Arab, Persian, Chinese and Indian and made them into a single portrayal of the exotic Orient. The Arabic language, in most of these films, is impossible to hear or understand, while the “real” language is European: French or English.

Sexual difference has been a key component in the construction of the East as Other and the West as (Ideal) Ego. Consider the Western rescue fantasy, which portrays the Orient as a female saved from her own destructiveness, while also rescuing Arab and Western women from Arab men.

The contrast of Oriental “backwardness,” and “irrationality” with Western “modernity” and “rationality,” and the menacing figure of the Arab assassin and rapist – these images, taken together, recruit spectators for the West’s “civilizing mission.” Gender and sexuality are a significant part of this.

The figure of the veiled woman, in films such as Thief in Damascus (1952) and Ishtar (1987), is a metaphor for the mystery of the Orient itself, which must be unveiled by the West to be understood. Ironically, veiled women in Orientalist films, paintings and photographs expose more flesh than they conceal. This process of exposing the female Other, represents the power of Western man to possess her. She, as a metaphor for her land, becomes available for Western penetration and domination.

While the Arab is associated with images of underdevelopment and backwardness (the image of the desert serves as the essential backdrop of Arab history) the colonizer, whether Lawrence of Arabia or Indiana Jones, appears as a creative pioneer, a masculine saviour who conquers the feminine wilderness. In these films, the writer-soldier T E. Lawrence or the scientist-archaeologist Dr. Jones rescues the Orient from its own backwardness. Colonized people, like women, here require the guidance and protection of the colonial patriarchal figure.

Films distinguish submissive “natives” who are “warm,” “giving,” and “noble savages” from the rebellious “barbarians” dangerous to civilization and themselves. Yesterday’s “assassins” are today’s “terrorists.” In other words, Hollywood does not simply depict all Arabs as “bad.” Rather, it divides them according to a clash of good and evil. If colonized people demand independence, they’re a threat, and this provokes the discourse of the dangerous Third World, “non-civilized” people, who must be eliminated by the end of the film.

Another kind of Orientalist film claims to initiate the Western spectator into Arab society through the figure of the “discoverer.” The film watcher identifies with the gaze of the West (whether embodied by a Western character or by a Western actor pretending to be an Oriental) and quickly learns the norms of a foreign culture, which are shown as simple and stable. The Orient becomes the object of wonder for the Western voyeuristic gaze.

In most Western films about the Orient, we follow the perspective of the “discoverer”. In such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the camera shows the hero’s movement across a passive, unmoving space, gradually stripping the land of its mystery, as the spectator wins visual access to Oriental treasures. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the significance of ancient objects is understood only by the Western scientists, relegating Egyptians to the role of ignorant Arabs who happen to be in a land full of historical treasures, much as they happen to live near oil.

Indiana Jones reproduces the colonial vision in which Western “knowledge” of ancient civilizations “rescues” the past from oblivion. This legitimizes putting Egyptian treasures in Western metropolitan museums. The glorious Egyptian past can “only” be reached by the scientist, not by the ignorant Arab crowds which occupy the background of the film. The colonial presence in Egypt is also presented as natural. The American hero frees the ancient Hebrew ark from illegal Egyptian possession, and also from Nazi control, reinforcing the American and Israeli equation of evil Nazis and Arabs.

Male Gaze

Western women characters are more powerful than non-white women and non-white men in these films. Raiders and Sahara (1983), for example, make an American woman superior to Arab male characters. In The Sheik (1921), a young Englishwoman is kidnapped by a sheik and brought to his desert camp, where he holds her captive and sexually harasses her. The spectator is introduced to the Arab world by seeing a barbaric marriage market. Western women are usually passive objects of male desire in Hollywood cinema, but in the East she is active, because she represents Western civilization. She becomes the civilizing “center” of the film. The white woman is desired by the male characters. Darker women appear mainly as sexually hungry submissives. While the white woman has to be captured and virtually raped to awaken her hidden desire, the Arab/Black women are controlled by their libido. Images of sexual Black/Arab women are contrasted to cold white women. By suggesting non-white women constantly desire sex, these films imply that white rapists are a myth, and cover up the sexual violence of colonialism in the Third World.

From 1934 through the mid-1950s, Hollywood worked under a set of restrictive rules that forbade “scenes of passion”, and required that marriage be shown as the best, most normal relationship at all times. Nudity, sexually suggestive dances or costumes, and “lustful” kissing were prohibited; illicit sex, seduction, or rape could only be suggested, and then only if absolutely essential to the plot and if severely punished at the end. An Oriental setting provided Hollywood filmmakers with a way to show flesh without risking censorship. The Orient, much like Latin America and Africa, became the focus for eroticism for the west’s puritanical morals. An outlet for Western male heroic desire is clearly seen in Harum Scarum (1965). The film opens with Elvis Presley dressed in “Oriental” head wrap and vest, leaping off his horse to overcome two evil Arabs and free a captive woman. The triumphant rescuer sings:

I’m gonna go where desert sun is; where the fun is; go where the harem girls dance; go where there’s love and romance, out on the burning sands, in some caravan. I’ll find adventure where I can. To say the least, go East, young man. You’ll feel like the Sheik, so rich and grand, with dancing girls at your command. When paradise starts calling into some tent I’m crawling. I’ll make love the way I plan. Go East, and drink and feast, go East, young man.

The images of harems are an invitation to an unknown, alluring world which calls to the primitive desires in all men (supposedly). The Arab man in these films plays the Id to the Western Superego.1 In The Sheik, the main actor Rudolf Valentino acts as the Id when he is thought to be Arab. But when it is revealed that he is the son of Europeans, Valentino is transformed into a Superego figure, who risks his life to rescue the English woman from “real” Arab rapists. The English woman overcomes her sexual repression only in the desert, after being sexually provoked repeatedly by the Sheik. Valentino acts out sexual fantasies that would have been impossible in a American or European setting. The Sheik begins in the city, where European civilization has already “tamed” the East, but the real dramatic conflicts take place in the desert, where women are defenseless. This is the masculine fantasy of complete control over the Western woman, without any moral code to follow.

Similarly, in the more recent reworking of The Sheik and Son of the Sheik in Sahara, the male rescue fantasy and the punishment of female rebellion are the backdrop to the film. The central figure, Dale (Brooke Shields), is the feisty, race-car- driving only daughter of a 1920s car manufacturer. She is presented as reckless, daring and assertive for entering the “men only” race. (She also disguises herself as a man, and adopts his profession and his mastery of the desert through technology.) Captured by desert tribesmen, she becomes a commodity fought over within the tribe and between tribes. Scenes of Shields wrestling with one of her capturers invites the Western spectator not only to rescue her but to experience sexual desire. At the end, Shields wins the race and decides to return to the noble light-skinned sheik who had rescued her at the risk of his life. The woman, who could have won independence, still prefers ancient gender hierarchies.

1This comes from the personality model of Sigmund Freud. Freud said our personalities were formed by 3 forces. 1) the Id: pure desire (child). 2) the Superego, guilt, shame and authority that suppresses the Id (parent); 3) the Ego, which keeps both forces under control and allows us to express our needs appropriately (adult). You can look up these terms using Google to get more information.

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