From its very beginning, Western cinema has been fascinated with the mystique of the Orient. Whether in the form of pseudo-Egyptian movie palaces, Biblical spectaculars, or the fondness for “Oriental” settings, Western cinema has returned time and again to the scene of the Orient. [1] Generally these films superimposed the visual traces of civilizations as diverse as Arab, Persian, Chinese and Indian into a single portrayal of the exotic Orient, treating cultural plurality as if it were a monolith. The Arabic language, in most of these films, exists as an indecipherable murmur, while the “real” language is European: the French of Jean Gabin in Pepe le Moko or the English of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. [2]

Although Hollywood’s view of the Orient has been discussed in terms of “the Arab image,” [3] there has been little discussion concerning the intersection of imperial and gender discourses. Hollywood’s view of the Orient is not simply symptomatic of colonialist imagination but also a product of the (Western) male gaze. Sexual difference has been a key component in the construction of the East as Other and the West as (Ideal) Ego.

Consider the Western rescue fantasy, which metaphorically renders the Orient as a female saved from her own destructiveness, while also projecting a narrative of the rescue of Arab and Western women from Arab men. [4] Such an indirect apologia for colonial domination also carries religious overtones of the inferiority of the polygamous Islamic world to the Christian world as encapsulated by the monogamous couple. The contrast of Oriental “backwardness,” and “irrationality” with Occidental “modernity” and “rationality,” the hierarchy of identification with Western versus Arab perspective and character, and the structuring of the key menacing figure of the Arab assassin and rapist — these images, taken together, subliminally enlist spectators for the West’s “civilizing mission.” All function as part of a cultural and geographical reductionism whose subtext is a rationale for the subordination of the East.

Gender and sexuality are significant in colonial discourse. The recurrent figure of the veiled woman in films such as Thief in Damascus (1952) and Ishtar (1987) can be seen as a metaphor for the mystery of the Orient itself, which requires a process of Western unveiling for comprehension. Veiled women in Orientalist films, paintings and photographs ironically expose more flesh than they conceal. This process of exposing the female Other, of denuding her literally, comes to allegorize the power of Western man to possess her. She, as a metaphor for her land, becomes available for Western penetration and domination. While the Arab is associated with images of underdevelopment and backwardness (the visual motif of the desert serves as essential decor of Arab history) the colonizer, whether Lawrence of Arabia or Indiana Jones, appears as an active, productive and creative pioneer, a masculine redeemer who conquers the feminine wilderness.

In these films, the writer-soldier T. E. Lawrence or the scientist-archaeologist Dr. Jones rescues the Orient from its own obscurantism. Colonized people, like women, here require the guidance and protection of the colonial patriarchal figure. The madonna/whore dichotomy, applied within a colonial context, distinguishes submissive “natives” who are “warm,” “giving,” “noble savages” from the rebellious “barbarians” dangerous to civilization and themselves, yesterday’s “assassins” and today’s “terrorists.”

The Manichaean allegory of Hollywood’s cinematic Orient, in other words, does not simply depict all Arabs as “bad.” Rather, it divides them according to a metaphysical clash of good and evil, depending on their historical positioning vis-à-vis the West. The threatening political assertiveness of the colonized people provokes the discourse of the dangerous, instinctual Third World, “non-civilized” elements to be eliminated by the end of the film.


Orientalist films claim to initiate the Western spectator into Arab society. Western historiography narrates European heroic penetration into the Third World through the figure of the “discoverer.” The spectator, identified with the gaze of the West (whether embodied by a Western character or by a Western actor masquerading as an Oriental), comes to master, in a remarkably telescoped period of time, the codes of a foreign culture shown as simple, stable, unselfconscious and susceptible to facile apprehension. Any possibility of dialogue and of a dialectical representation of the East/West relation is excluded from the outset. The Orient, rendered as devoid of any active historical or narrative role, becomes — in the tradition of the distancing male regard toward women — the object of spectacle for the Western voyeuristic gaze.

In most Western films about the Orient, we accompany, quite literally, the perspective of the “discoverer” — and it is precisely this point of view that defines his historical position. A simple shift in perspective to that of the “natives” would suggest the intrusive nature of the “discovery.” In such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the camera relays the hero’s dynamic movement across a passive, static space, gradually stripping the land of its enigma, as the spectator wins visual access to Oriental treasures through the eyes of the discoverer-protagonist.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the full significance of ancient archaeological objects is presumed to be understood only by the Western scientists, relegating Egyptians to the role of ignorant Arabs who happen to be sitting on a land full of historical treasures — much as they happen to “sit” on oil. The origins of archaeology as a discipline are inextricably linked to imperial expansionism. Yet Indiana Jones reproduces the colonial vision in which Western “knowledge” of ancient civilizations “rescues” the past from oblivion. This masculine rescue legitimizes denuding Egyptians of their heritage and confining it within Western metropolitan museums. The film symptomatically assumes a disjuncture between contemporary and ancient Egypt, since the space between the present and the past can “only” be bridged by the scientist and certainly not by the ignorant Arab crowds which merely occupy the background of the film. The film, furthermore, is set in the mid-1930s, when most of the world was still under colonial power. The colonial presence in Egypt is presented as natural. The American hero liberates the ancient Hebrew ark from illegal Egyptian possession, and also from immoral Nazi control, allegorically reinforcing the American and Israeli equation of evil Nazis and their Arab cohorts.

Male Gaze

Western women characters became the delegates of the white male perspective in these films, being granted a more powerful gaze in relation not only to non-white women but also to non-white men. Raiders and Sahara (1983), for example, suggest a sexual-racial hierarchy in which the American woman is privileged cinematically and in the narrative over Arab male characters. In The Sheik (1921), which revolves around a young Englishwoman kidnapped by a sheikh (Rudolph Valentino) and brought to his desert camp where he holds her captive and sexually harasses her, the spectator is first introduced to the Arab world as the place of the barbarous ritual of the marriage market. At the same time, the Western woman character, largely the passive object of male gaze in Hollywood cinema, is granted in the East an active (colonial) gaze, insofar as she represents Western civilization. She becomes the civilizing “center” of the film.

The chromatic sexual hierarchy in these films, moreover, reflects Western racial views whereby white women/men occupy the center of the narrative. The white woman is desired by the male protagonists and antagonists. Darker women, marginalized within the narrative, appear largely as sexually hungry subalterns. While the white woman has to be lured, made captive and virtually raped to awaken her hidden desire, the Arab/black women are controlled by their libido. Images of black/Arab women in “heat” versus “frigid” white women indirectly highlight the menacing figure of the black/Arab rapist, implying the impossibility of a white rapist — and therefore mythically eliding the history of subordination of Third World women.

Pretext for Passion

Hollywood’s Orient became in some ways a pretext for eroticized images, especially from 1934 through the mid-1950s when the restrictive production code forbade depicting “scenes of passion” in all but the most puerile terms and required that the sanctity of the institution of marriage be maintained at all times. Miscegenation, nudity, sexually suggestive dances or costumes, “excessive and lustful kissing” were prohibited; illicit sex, seduction, or rape could only be suggested, and then only if absolutely essential to the plot and if severely punished at the end. [5]

The image of the harem allowed the colonial imaginary to play out its own fantasies of sexual domination. An Oriental setting provided Hollywood filmmakers with a narrative license for exposing flesh without risking censorship; they could display the bare skin of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks as well as that of scores of women, from Marlene Dietrich dancing with her body painted gold to Dolores Grey swaying her hips, always with the pretext of “realism.” The display of rape in a “natural” despotic context continues to the present — as in Menahem Golan’s Sahara. The Orient, much like Latin America and Africa, thus became the locus of eroticism for a puritanical society and a film industry hemmed in by a moralistic code.

The outlet for Western male heroic desire is clearly seen in Harum Scarum (1965), a reflexive film featuring a carnival-like Orient reminiscent of Las Vegas entertainment, itself located in the burning sands of the Nevada desert, and offering harem-like nightclubs. The film opens with Elvis Presley — attired in “Oriental” head wrap and vest — leaping off his horse to overcome two evil Arabs and free a captive woman. The triumphant rescuer sings:

I’m gonna go where desert sun is;
where the fun is;
go where the harem girls dance;
go where there’s love and romance
out on the burning sands,
in some caravan.
I’ll find adventure where I can.
To say the least, go East, young man.
You’ll feel like the Sheik,
so rich and grand,
with dancing girls at your command.
When paradise starts calling
into some tent I’m crawling.
I’ll make love the way I plan.
Go East
and drink and feast
go East, young man.

The images of harems offer an “open sesame” to an unknown, alluring world whose forbidden codes are presumably desired by the instinctual primitive inhabiting all men.

The Arab man in these films plays the Id to the Western Elvis Presley in Harum Scarum man’s Superego. In The Sheik, Valentino acts as the Id as long as he is known to the spectator only as Arab, but when it is revealed that he is the son of Europeans, he is transformed into a Superego figure who nobly risks his life to rescue the English woman from “real” Arab rapists. The English woman, for her part, overcomes her sexual repression only in the desert, after being sexually provoked repeatedly by the sheik. Valentino the “Latin lover” is here projected into another “exotic” space where he can act out sexual fantasies that would have been unthinkable in a contemporaneous American or European setting. The Sheik begins in the city — where European civilization has already “tamed” the East — but the real dramatic conflicts take place in the desert, where women are defenseless, playing off the masculine fantasy of complete control over the Western woman without any intervening code of morality.

Similarly, in the more recent reworking of The Sheik and Son of the Sheik in Sahara, the male rescue fantasy and the punishment of female rebellion undergird the film. The central figure, Dale (Brooke Shields), is the feisty, race-car-driving only daughter of a 1920s car manufacturer, presented as reckless, daring and assertive for entering the male domain of the Oriental desert and for entering the “men only” race. (She also literally disguises herself as a man, and adopts his profession and his mastery of the desert land through technology.) [6] Captured by desert tribesmen, she becomes a commodity fought over within the tribe and between tribes (the camera’s fetishization of her body is the ironic reminder of the Western projection of stars’ bodies as commodity). Scenes of Shields wrestling with one of her capturers invites the Western spectator not only to a national rescue operation but also to an orgiastic space. At the end, the courageous winner of the race decides on her own to return to the noble light-skinned sheik who had rescued her at the risk of his life. The woman, who could have won independence, still prefers the ancient ways of gender hierarchies.

Sahara, like earlier Orientalist films, must also be seen in the context of the threat to institutionalized power presented by the women’s suffrage movements and the nascent feminist struggle. Edith Hull, the author of the novel on which The Sheik is based, expressed the view that “there can be only one head in a house. Despite modern desire for equality of sexes, I still believe that physically and morally it is better that the head should be the man.” [7] The plot of her novel and George Melfrod’s film is also a Western female projection of desire for an exotic lover, for a romantic, sensual, passionate, but non-lethal play with Liebestod, a release of the Id for the bored Occidental woman.

The female spectator, the fan of Valentino, Fairbanks or Presley, is assumed to secretly desire to be a lucky harem girl. The rescue fantasy, when literalized through rescuing a woman from a lascivious Arab, has to be seen not only as an allegory of saving the Orient from its libidinal, instinctual destructiveness but also as a didactic allegory addressed to women at home, insinuating the dangerous nature of the uncivilized Arab man and by implication exalting the freedom Western women presumably enjoy. In The Sheik and Sahara, the woman directly rebels against the civilized tradition of marriage at the beginning of the film, calling it “captivity.” The telos of her desert Odyssey is the punishment of her fantasies of liberation and the appreciation of the traditional sexual order.


[1] Although American and European films share a similar Orientalist representation, my examples will be drawn largely from Hollywood. The Orientalist films can be tentatively grouped into seven sub-genres: 1) films concerning contemporary Westerners in the Orient: The Sheik (1921), The Road to Morocco (1942), Casablanca (1942), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Sahara (1983), Ishtar (1987); 2) films concerning “Orientals” in the first world: Black Sunday, Back to the Future (1985); 3) films based on ancient history, such as the diverse versions of Cleopatra; 4) films based on contemporary history — Exodus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962); 5) films based on The Arabian Nights — The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Oriental Dream (1944), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Kismet (1955); 6) films based on the Bible — Samson and Delilah (1949), The Ten Commandments (1956); 7) films in which ancient Egypt and its mythologized enigmas serve as pretext for contemporary horror-mystery and romance (the Mummy films).
[2] Already in the silent era, films such as The Dance of Fatima, The Sheik and Son of the Sheik (1926) included eroticized dances, featuring a rather improbable melange of Spanish and Indian dances combined with a touch of Arabian belly dancing. And even in Lawrence of Arabia, presumably sympathetic to the Arabs, we generally hear almost no Arabic, but rather English spoken in a motley of accents having little to do with Arabic.
[3] See, for example, Lawrence Michalak, “Cruel and Unusual,” a special issue from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 19 (January 1984); and Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984).
[4] See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 31. “Gender Metaphors: Hollywood’s Orientalist Imaginary” was the topic of my paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Conference, University of California, Los Angeles, October 1988.
[5] The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or the Hays Office, was established in 1922 but it was largely in the 1930s that it established strict “moral” regulations.
[6] There is also a subtext of “camp” fantasy. The exotic space of the Orient in these films gives an outlet for a carnivalesque play of changing ethnic-national and at times gender identities. Isabelle Adjani in Ishtar is dressed as an Arab male-rebel. Brooke Shields is an American male racer in the Sahara desert, Rudolph Valentino (The Sheik), Elvis Presley (Harum Scarum), Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman (Ishtar) wear Arab disguise.
[7] Movie Weekly, November 19, 1921.

How to cite this article:

Ella Shohat "Gender in Hollywood’s Orient," Middle East Report 162 (January/February 1990).

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