The accomplished writer and lecturer discusses his latest text, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.
Author Jack G. Shaheen, Ph.D.
Tavis: Dr. Jack G. Sheehan is an internationally acclaimed author and is considered the foremost authority on media images of Arabs and Muslims. His most recent books are called “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” and “A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture”. The latter text features some rich material from the Jack G. Sheehan Archive at NYU.
His lectures and writings illustrate the damaging racial and ethnic stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in American media, and I’m pleased to have him on this program. Thank you for being here, and thank you for your lovely daughter.
Dr. Jack G. Sheehan: Well, I thank you.
Tavis: We’re blessed to have her on our team. Let me start by asking how you started to do this work. If my facts are correct, one day Michele and her siblings were watching a cartoon and saw something that they found as children disturbing, ran to their father to tell him about it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Take me back to that cartoon years ago.
Sheehan: Well, we’re going back to 1974…
Tavis: Don’t tell Michele’s age. Do not tell Michele’s age.
Sheehan: Well, she was very young [laugh].
Sheehan: They were watching Saturday morning cartoons. And she and her brother Michael came running up the steps and the exact quote is, “Daddy, Daddy, they’ve got bad Arabs on.”
So I assigned them every Saturday morning from that time on to begin checking because I didn’t have a VCR to look for bad Arabs in children’s cartoons. And every time they saw, you know, a Popeye or a Bugs Bunny or a Donald Duck, I’d go running downstairs with a pad and a pencil and start taking notes.
And then I thought, I wonder how pervasive this is? And I began documenting images of Arabs on commercial television. And I did that for eight years, documenting about 200 television shows. It took about eight years before I wrote my book, “The TV Arab”. Came out to L.A. interviewing producers, writers, directors.
Went to New York, talked to broadcast executives, and basically the song was pretty much the same. Vilification process, there was very little empathy and it was almost as if what am I doing there questioning them? It was difficult, very difficult. Took me five years to get the first article published on the issue.
Tavis: I’m not naïve here, but why so long to get someone to publish that kind of article?
Sheehan: Well, I was swimming upstream, you know. I mean, any time a stereotype is imbedded, look at African Americans.
Sheehan: I mean, that image, you know, with Black men as not being so bright, rolling their eyes every time they came close to a graveyard, the Mammy image, no Black faces on television.
Once a stereotype gets imbedded in our minds and these repetitive images happen again and again and again, producers, writers, directors, politicians, they’re reluctant to change it. There has to be pressure and a public awareness.
Tavis: What kind of images of Arabs are we talking about specifically here?
Sheehan: Villains. People that hate us, people who are Islamic fanatics. Prior to 9/11, it was billionaires, bombers, belly dancers, boisterous bargainers in suits. Post 9/11, it’s gotten much worse because now American Arabs as well as American Muslims are being projected as villains.
Now that’s very dangerous. You know, we as American Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 and yet that has spilled over. The image of the Arab and the Muslim has spilled over and impacted us.
Tavis: I happen to know that you are Christian, not that that matters here, but why does a Christian care so much about this particular issue?
Sheehan: Well, the Good Samaritan in the Bible, right? Why did the Good Samaritan…I mean, do I have to be–I mean, look at the whites involved in the civil rights movement. I mean, why did they care?
I mean, look at the Jewish Americans who support, you know, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Jews, the Israelis themselves? Why do they do it? I mean, that’s what a humanitarian does. I mean, that’s our job. Our role in life is to try and make things better.
Look at you with this show. Look what you try to do. I mean, most of the people that you have here are really concerned about issues that matter. It’s not about promoting themselves necessarily or about the film or the TV show that they do.
So my life has been dedicated trying to humanize Arabs and Muslims and to give visibility to American Arabs and American Muslims to have us being projected no better, no worse, than anyone else, and that’s been my goal.
Tavis: Are these images, these negative, nasty, ugly images, life imitating art or art imitating life?
Sheehan: I think neither. I think they’re the product of sick minds and minds that are filled with greed. I think that people have a political agenda that advance these images. People do it for profit, people do it because they’re lazy. You know, there’s no one really protesting. But what happens is–and we know–the impact of these images. What we don’t discuss is how these images injure people.
I mean, look at “Birth of a Nation”, one film, the reemergence of the KKK. Well, almost every two weeks on television, the AMC channel, we see “True Lies”. It’s being aired every two weeks and that’s sort of like, for an Arab American or for a Palestinian, watching “Birth of a Nation” if you’re an African American or demonizing Asians with a Fu Manchu movie.
You know, what we have to understand is that there are so many commonalities in this stereotype. You know, people of color always trying to seduce the white woman, people of color coming from a barbaric culture, and we still haven’t unlearned these prejudices. Somehow in our minds, we still perceive people who look different, maybe who worship in a different place that we do, as evil, as not like us.
Tavis: You mentioned “True Lies” and there are others you could have mentioned. I saw a wonderful documentary you put together about this. I watched it the other night at my house. And “True Lies” is one of any number of adult films that you cite as examples of advancing the stereotype.
But interestingly, back to Michele and her brother Michael years ago watching the cartoon, some of the bestselling movies today in animation, you point out, still advance these negative stereotypes.
Sheehan: Well, “Aladdin”, you know. I remember having a meeting with Disney and I walked into the studio–I call it Mickey Mouse Studios–and I said to them, “Why the opening song, “Oh, I come from a land, from a far away place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”?
Tavis: That’s the opening song.
Sheehan: That’s the opening song and this is a children’s movie. And the genie, of course, is this big, fat blue marble, you know, Robin Williams. They don’t even have an Arab genie. And in the film, they anglicize everything. I got into it with Jeffrey Katzenberg who did “Aladdin”. You know, he and I went around and around.
I have a lot of respect for Katzenberg, by the way, although we really disagree, and he really should have listened to me, but he didn’t. You know, I tried [laugh]. And they did change the song. The DVD, by the way, does not have that song.
Tavis: Which raises the question. How then do those who care about this issue, least of all Arabs, where do they find the agency to push back on these stereotypes, to your earlier point, if Black folk have not been able to do this successfully? And if Hispanics haven’t done it successfully and if Asians haven’t done it successfully, how then do Arabs do–how do they fight this fight successfully?
Sheehan: I think as Americans we need to be unified. We need to care more about images of our own ethnic group, people of our own faith, Christian, Muslim, you know, regardless. I think unity is what really matters and not to focus–you know, the beauty of doing research on this issue is nothing had been written when I began in the mid-70s.
So I had to look at images of other groups. And the reason I have my archive, the J. G. Sheehan Archive at New York University, over 4,000 collectibles, is because of an African American professor in Ohio State who wrote a book called “Mammy and Uncle Mose” about Black collectibles.
Now his collection and my collection, put those two together, and that makes a statement, you know, to everyone. And there are Asian Americans that have collections that are similar to ours.
So there needs to be a unified effort to combat these images. You know, I think there are a lot of good young people in the industry who care and I think attempts need to be made to reach them, to make them see the injustice, and once they see the injustice, you know, hopefully they’ll do something about it.
Tavis: How do these images that we have been bombarded with for so many decades, so many years now, impact our politics, or am I overreaching here?
Sheehan: No, no. You’re right on target. You know exactly what you’re talking about. Well, public opinion. You know, you go around and you say, you know, you say–I live on Hilton Head Island–I always say. “It’s great here on the island. Look at the Catholic Church how it’s expanded. We have a new synagogue. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a Mosque?”
Tavis: Shuts down the conversation [laugh].
Sheehan: Shuts it down [laugh].
Tavis: Don’t play golf with Jack Sheehan, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Sheehan: No, but it’s sad, you know. And I get invited out, you know, people will say to me, “We had a nice party. We’re sorry you and your wife couldn’t make it. We had Christians there, Jews, and we would have had Muslims had you been there.”
Well, I met my wife in the church. I don’t know, Tavis. It’s an uphill struggle. But the point is, like Dr. King said, and you know this from your research on Dr. King, is not to remain silent, that…
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and that when you see anyone being vilified or demonized…
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to the joke you told a moment ago, this isn’t so funny. But the fact that there are those who still want to paint Barack Obama, the president, as a Muslim even though we clearly know that…
Sheehan: Well, you know, when I did things as a child that weren’t very nice, there was a bar of soap in the kitchen and there was a tongue that sort of needed to be addressed [laugh]. I don’t know. I wouldn’t use it on the tongue. I’d sort of try to get inside the brain and wash it out.
There are certain people who will remain bigots, no matter what you do. They’ll deny they’re bigots, but they’ll remain bigots. I feel sorry for them, you know, and the hope is not with them, but with their children, with young men and women who will unlearn the prejudices that their friends and their colleagues have.
That’s the hope. I mean, that’s what we try to do, right? We try to reach the young people and we try to make them understand that, you know, all humankind is one family, one family in the care of God. And once they understand that, you know, then we move forward.
Tavis: I have two texts in my hand tonight, courtesy of Jack G. Sheehan. One is “A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture”. This is the companion text with his work, his archives, at NYU. They’re in New York City, of course. And the other text, an updated edition, in fact, of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”.
I can tell you this. For those of us who work with your daughter, Michele Tasoff, every day, we have learned a great deal about her tonight by having you on this program. I see where she gets it from. What a great honor to have you on this program.
Sheehan: Thank you.
Tavis: Happy Father’s Day to you.
Sheehan: Blessed Father’s Day to you too.
Tavis: We’re glad to have you on this program.
Sheehan: Thank you.
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