- Who Are Arab Americans?
- Popular Perceptions
- Why The Stereotypes?
- About & Credits
Arab men have been represented in U.S. popular culture in limited ways, as sheiks and terrorists. These images have distorted the lived realities of Arab men. Sheik, the Arabic word to refer to an elder or leader, has been used in the U.S. to signify a variety of stereotypes of Arab men; dangerous romantic heroes, kidnappers, rapists, and greedy oil-rich men.
In 1921, this term was popularized by the film, The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino. In the film, Valentino plays an Arab who kidnaps a white woman and holds her captive, waiting for her to fall in love with him. When she escapes and is kidnapped by another Arab sheik who plans to rape her, Valentino’s character becomes the romantic rescuer of women (who the storyline later reveals, is not in fact Arab).
Harlequin romance novels tend to have a common storyline of white women being abducted by Arab men and falling in love with them in the process. The Sheik, written by E.M. Hull in 1919, is the first known Harlequin novel based on a romance between a white woman and an Arab sheik, which initiated a genre that continues to the present. Many contemporary Harlequin novels revolve around the figure of the sheik as a domineering seducer and abductor of women who are either Arab or European, or Euro-American. In these storylines, Arab men are either threatening, or sites of romantic intrigue, and white men are often needed to rescue the damsel in distress.
The sheik as a romantic figure, kidnapper and rapist of women, eventually shifted to the “oil sheik” stereotype – a rich a greedy Arab who is an economic threat to the U.S. – in conjunction with the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973.
Through news reporting about hijackings, violence and terrorism over the last three decades, Arab countries have come to represent terror in the American imagination, and the image of Arab men has shifted to that of a terrorist. As a result, countless films and video games have been made featuring Arab terrorist characters, for example, Black Sunday (1977), The Delta Force (1986), and True Lies (1994).