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Evil Arabs in American Popular Film

Orientalist Fear

By Tim Jon Semmerling

Publication Year: 2006

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, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), as well as CNN’s 9/11 documentary America 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.

Published by: University of Texas Press

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Preface: Ichthyoid Man: Arcimboldo's The Water (1566)

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pp. vii-viii

The painting hangs on the museum wall. At first sight, it simply appears to be another portrait like any other portrait. The Renaissance artist painted a god or goddess, a prince or princess, maybe a refined and wealthy patron. ...


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pp. ix

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Introduction: Orientalist Fear

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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. ...

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1. The Exorcist: Assault on American Confidence (1973)

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pp. 30-59

The Exorcist is 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). ...

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2. Rollover: Assault on the American Economy (1981)

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pp. 60-92

Alan J. 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, Rollover introduces the Orientalist audience to its heroic characters, Lee Winters (Jane Fonda) and Hub Smith (Kris Kristofferson). ...

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3. Black Sunday: The Loss of Frontier Heroism (1976)

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pp. 93-123

Unlike Rollover, with its entrepreneurial heroes, John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday has 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. ...

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4. Three Kings: Assault on Victory Culture (1999)

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pp. 124-162

U.S. Army Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) is distraught in the beginning scenes of Three 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 ...

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5. Rules of Engagement: Attack from the Multicultural Front (2000)

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pp. 163-201

In the introductory scenes of Rules of Engagement, director William Friedkin, also the director of The 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. ...

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6. CNN's America Remembers: The ‘‘Real’’ Attack (2002)

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pp. 202-247

This book 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. ...

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Conclusion: The South Park Lesson and Orientalist Fear

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pp. 248-255

South Park, the animated comedy series of life in a ‘‘quiet little red-neck, ho-dunk, white-trash mountain town’’ of Colorado, is known for its vulgar characters, violent scenarios, and appeal to America’s Generation X. South Park can 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. ...


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pp. 257-270


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pp. 271-285


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pp. 287-303

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795730
E-ISBN-10: 0292795734
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292713413
Print-ISBN-10: 029271341X

Page Count: 316
Illustrations: 35 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2006