I would venture to guess that some white Americans may think that there are no more ridicule roles 1 for minorities in American media. There’s been so much improvement! How could there possibly be one group that still plays the villain all the time? The willful ignorance of some people will never cease to amaze me. Because there is a group that is still put in that box. It happens so often that it might even seem normal to us now: the Middle Eastern Terrorist.
The terrorist role is the strongest ridicule role we have in American media today. With the War on Terror post-9/11, people from the Middle East are the easiest demographic to make a villain. That is not when that stereotype started since there were other conflicts in the region before then, but it has continued to grow rapidly since 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is seen as patriotic and noble to defeat a terrorist. The Middle Eastern terrorist is a villain that gets little to no sympathy. Only media that makes a point to generate empathy for the terrorist does so. Most media makes them nameless, barbaric, and jihad-obsessed war mongers. This is simply unfair and incorrect.
Being raised in the American public education system, I did not learn much about the Middle East outside of the current war and some general history of the region. There are not many stories about the Middle East or the people there in the mainstream media that aren’t war-related. Besides my very few personal interactions with Muslim people, the information I receive about people who are Muslim or from the Middle East come in the form of news media and entertainment media. Both sources tell me that they are a people who hate Americans, are set on the downfall of my nation, and that I should fear. That is something I refuse to believe about the millions of people in over a dozen countries. There is no possible way that many people who come from different countries, ideologies, and backgrounds can accurately be put into a few caricatures.
Men who look Middle Eastern or Muslim have a hard time finding roles that are not related to war or terrorism. Like, a really hard time. 2 Women do not fare well either. Women are rarely hired for on-screen terrorists and have to settle for the less frequent roles of wife/daughter of a terrorist. These roles do not leave them much flexibility in representation either. Their representations are seen as repressed or part of the terrorists’ goals.
This is problematic for a lot of the usual reasons. It creates stereotypes of what people from the Middle East and/or are Muslim look like, act like, and believe. This box keeps the American people ready to stay in the war and keeps us from seeing “the enemy” as fellow human beings with lives, families, and dreams. It also makes people the “other” or the “foreigner.” It denies the identities that someone can be Muslim or of Arabic descent and be American. It says we are American and they are not. Which is extremely problematic for people who are Muslim and/or Arab-American. Hate crimes surged after 9/11 against Muslim people, Arab-Americans, Sikh people, and even Indian people. These hate crimes surged again–as did hate crimes generally–after the election of Donald Trump. Innocent people are hurt or killed every day in America because of these two-dimensional, stereotypical roles that serve as American propaganda.
There has been some backlash to these depictions. Now This-style videos of Muslims and Sikhs explaining their religion and their individuality to break down the stereotypes that have been created. Articles like the GQ article tagged above (2) give us glimpses into the lives of these actors and what they face. However, media is not changing that much in response. Maybe it is too early to expect any changes. Maybe we cannot expect too much to change while there is still a War on Terror and people like President Trump rule our nation. The best thing for our nation right now would be some diverse, in-depth characters for Middle Eastern people. Creating more varied depictions could help all of us learn about tolerance and each other.