the Middle East is a geographic region made up of diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions. Arabs constitute the largest ethnic group that comes from this region (which includes countries such as Egypt, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc.). Not all individuals from the Middle East are Arab. And within the media, there is not one single representation of Arabs, Muslim-Americans or people from the Middle East.

Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the story being told, and the type of production (mainstream or independent), there may be a multitude and range of representations.  At the same time, even with all these representations, there are some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. Historically, people from the Middle East have been portrayed in American media as Arabs who are…

…terrorists, religious zealots, primitive, exotic, animalistic, dangerous…

…violent, mysterious, deceitful, evil foreign…

These stereotypes and conventions may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup.

If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body language, their speech, where they live, what kind of job they have, how they interact with others of the same or different ethnicity, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

dig now 

Begin by making a list of specific representations of Arabs, Muslim-Americans, and those of Middle Eastern descent you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media examples on this website tagged “Arab/Arab American.” Then, consider:

  • What types of representations are these?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are the stereotypes based on how the individuals look? What they say? How they speak? What they do?
  • Are they violent or peaceful? Are they secretive and mysterious or forthcoming and trustworthy?
  • Are they protagonists or antagonists? Heroes or villains?
  • Do the stereotypes of Arabs and Arab-Americans potentially relate to political ideologies, historical or current events?