Hollywood’s Irresponsible and Toxic Take on the Middle East

I have never been to the Middle East, but a permanent image of it is lodged in my mind, and I am very ashamed of it. I picture it as a place where you can’t be yourself, where you have to be assertive as a man or crouching as a woman. I also see it as a place of cruelty thanks to distrust, intolerable government policies, and disrespect from the West. Yet the media hypnotizes these traits onto people. Stereotypes of Arabs, according to Jack Shaheen, cause their people to be the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood, and they’re therefore looked down upon by the rest of the world. It seems even in the modern day, this system persists.

I loathe these stereotypes. Two examples are American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, two critically-acclaimed Hollywood films I couldn’t stand, especially their vilifying of “the other”. I gave Zero Dark Thirty a C-, and I gave American Sniper an F.

The middle eastern cities often look this way in the movie, lifeless in both passion and growth, unhealthy, and grey.

American Sniper’s opening scene involves real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) spying on a family of three living somewhere in the Middle East, in a place that looks freshly bombed and incinerated. The mother and child both take their part in throwing a bomb at the Americans occupying their land, right before they’re shot dead without hesitation.

Maybe the film’s only redeeming quality is Kyle sometimes hesitates to shoot a little boy in this movie. Whereas the real Chris Kyle bragged about the people he killed, how he saw all of “the others” as evil, and when about ten people were in his sight running away, he said they were ripe for the taking. I feel this behaviour promotes unapologetic xenophobia.

Not only that, none of the Arab or Muslim characters receive a node of sympathy or charisma. Also, to my dismay, the only reasons shown for Kyle wanting to participate in Middle Eastern wars is his witnessing of 9/11, and a portrait of a man in orange laying on his knees in the desert, about to be shot dead. Those were the only reasons shown, and though 9/11 was an attack beyond description, with it being at the height of war politics for over a decade, there’s no deeply personal connection for Kyle. With these being the only reasons shown, every Arab on screen in that film showed signs of aggression. Not all of them wanted harm done.

Zero Dark Thirty shows torture scenes enacted by Americans, and finishes with Americans relentlessly killing (in the Middle East, murdering) any and all people living alongside Osama Bin Laden. Some say these killings needed to happen and the American forces couldn’t show restraint.

Zero Dark Thirty is a little less cruel, because during its opening scene, it displays an Arab being tortured by an American instead of the other way around, very brutally, and after the Arab is nursed back to health, he willingly cooperates. Still, as Jessica Chastain’s character ponders details to uncover the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, the film does another thing just like American Sniper: As she is at a restaurant, a bomb goes off, and she has to figure out the best way to safety. She also has to one day be escorted by security quickly into a safe house, because an angry mob wants her in their clutch. In both of these instances, one wouldn’t normally expect to be in danger at a restaurant or while walking to work.

I long for a day when the Middle East is depicted in a light positive enough for my built-in fears to be changed. I long for a day when the people there are not demonized in the media and their homes can receive the support and help they deserve from the wealthier (and less antagonized) countries.

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