Washington Report, August 12, 1985, Page 6
Still the Bad Guys: A Review of This Season's TV Arabs
By Jack Shaheen
The 1984-85 television season continued the trend toward denigrating the people of the Middle East. Over 30 programs—from the the popular A-Team to Bugs Bunny cartoons—enhanced stereotypical portraits. Arabs were seen as a group separate from Americans—an indigestible lump, a foreign body.
Here are some selected distortions, many of which appeared in programs that had nothing to do with Arabs.
- On the A-Team series, a Middle Eastern princess will marry some rebel "with a towel around his head." The A-Team beats the socks off the rebel and his henchmen.
- In a Bob Hope Special, Hope, dressed as a used-camel salesman, boasts: "Now that the Arabs own Beverly Hills there'll be caravans down Rodeo Drive."
- Hail to the Chief features Libyan terrorists who hold Bob Hope's USO tour hostage. "Give me a unit of Green Berets and I'll level falafel land in half an hour," shouts the U.S. general. Chief flashes anti-Arab barbs weekly.
- On Dynasty, Ahmad, the Arab character, proves no Arab can be trusted. Rather than keep a promise to John Forsythe, he beds Joan Collins.
- Top-rated music videos, Rock the Casbah (The Clash) and California Girls (David Lee Roth) feature Arabs flaunting oil riches and ogling blondes.
- Lace I and Lace II focus on a desert kingdom, complete with veiled, cackling women, clad in black.
- The TV movie Key to Rebecca, focuses on Sonia, an Egyptian belly dancer with kinky sexual habits, who hates the British. Joining Sonia are hordes of Nazi-loving Egyptians, including the half-German villain.
- A Miss Marple TV movie begins with Marple happily arriving in London. On entering her hotel, however, she is stunned by a six-and-a-half foot tall Arab 'giant' and his three dwarf-like wives.
- In a Highway to Heaven episode a man dresses as an Arab to enhance the value of some homes. Such a ploy ensures "a fair shake."
- On Cover-Up Arabs are drug merchants with "bad breath" who kidnap American women. White slavery is the theme and the destination is Tunisia—"the marketplace of the world."
- On What's Happenin', Amid, the Arab, is a hit-and-run driver who sups on goat's milk and pigeon's brains. His Rolls Royce demolishes the protagonist's car. Amid won't pay up-his father has business relations with the U.S. government.
- In Bugs Bunny's 1001 Rabbit Tales Bugs is told to tell the Sheik's "bentheaded son" a story. If not, Bugs will be "beheaded" or "boiled in oil."
- Jerusalem D.C. is a Mike Evans propaganda film that pleads for America to adopt Israel as our 51st state. This film, telecast by numerous independent and network-affiliated stations, dehumanizes Arabs.
TV's Invisible Arabs
Often what we do not see is just as important as what we do see. The TV season also featured "invisible Arabs." We saw no Arab families and no Arab heroics. Common sense says that we should have balanced portrayals of Arabs and other ethnic groups and minorities. But common sense has not yet affected TV professionals.
There are some notable exceptions.
Tom Kersey, ABC's vice-president of broadcast standards, tells me: "We spend most of our time rejecting [demeaning] Arab stereotypes. But rather than changing the character to positive representations, the producers and writers simply drop the character and Arabs per se disappear from the television screen. There have been exceptions, of course, but very few."
In my consultations with Mr. Kersey and other network executives I discovered that heroic Arabs have been considered taboo. Writers avoid positive portrayals. To date we have not seen, for example, an Arab with wit and intelligence sharing laughs with Bill Cosby on his show, nor has an Arab physician appeared on Trapper John, M.D. or St. Elsewhere. Hill Street Bluesand T.J. Hooker could benefit by featuring an American cop with Arab roots. Or consider the effect of seeing Blake Carrington of Dynasty in love with an attractive Arab. And couldn't Webster, the adorable boy who stars in a show of the same name, share roots with a friend from the Middle East?
NBC-TV did take a major step with an Arab father and child in a Smurfs episode. The child, a whiz at algebra, and his father were lovable characters. Furthermore, no Arab heavies were lurking in the shadows—a first in itself.
Since completing my book The TV Arab, I find consultations with ABC executives refreshing and candid. Their approach to the Arab image is beginning to change. For example, one script depicted a rich Arab prime minister with a harem and camels. After a consultation, it was rejected. The writer refused to change the caricatures and the network's Standards Division shelved the teleplay.
In another consultation, I informed a networks standards official that Turks should not be singled out as villains. The result of the discussion: Some stereotypes remained but a few Turkish heroes were added to the episode. At my suggestion, several derogatory lines about Islam were also omitted. The network official also agreed to show Istanbul as a cosmopolitan city in lieu of a village with goats and camels.
Some Sips of Change Ahead
Broadcast standards officials sincerely want to know more about the peoples of the Middle East and to offer balanced images. Equally important, documentation of the stereotyping in The TV Arab has motivated several executives to consider consultation. A dim light is appearing at the end of the tunnel.
Only a few years ago access hardly existed; today the network, officials openly discuss Arab images. Consultations with network executives and the positive portrayal of Arabs in a singleSmurfs episode may not be world shaking, but I see them as first steps toward eradicating the caricature.
We do not want our children to inherit the TV Arab image. As concerned men and women of good will, we should continue to monitor programs and regularly seek out dialogue with TV executives, writers, and directors. The TV stereotype will be banished only if we work together in the quest for fairness. Keep in mind this law of physics: Nothing percolates unless you apply a whole lot of heat.
Jack Shaheen is Professor of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University and author ofThe TV Arab.