“Argo: the movie that shows how Hollywood solved the Iran Hostage Crisis”.
So said the increasingly well-preserved Richard Wilkins the other morning as he gushed through the usual Oscars fluff on the Today show. In the face of this idiocy, I nearly died from a sudden aspiration of Woolworth’s Select muesli.
Now Dickie Wilkins is really not your go-to man when it comes to political or historical analysis. He’s good for a fawning interview with Pink or Rod Stewart, but I won’t be touting him as a must-have citation for my students.
But the whole thing is a salient lesson of the way that mass media constructs our ideas of the Middle East and entrenches historical and cultural fallacies.
The creeping menace
Argo of course is not an accurate portrayal of what went on at the time. The people rescued were not really part of the Hostage Crisis, since they weren’t hostages. And their escape was far less dramatic than depicted. Much has been written about the historical flaws in the film and there is no need for me to add another stone to the pile.
(Except to note the reaction of a pilot friend who was apoplectic about the runway scene. His beef was that a 747 lifts off at just over 300 kph. They must have some damn good police cars in Tehran, apparently.)
What is more insidious about Argo is the way it swore to its own veracity. Particularly in the credit roll, where they used news photos of the time and contrasted them with stills of scenes from the movie. Voila! They matched.
The sub-text was “We have created an exact replica of revolutionary Iran. You can trust everything in this movie to be 100% accurate.”
A casting call of clichés
This is the way in which Hollywood gets into our heads and builds our realities. Call it Orientalism. Call it propaganda. But it’s a subtle and constant programming of our minds.
It starts early. The text-book case is Disney’s Aladdin (1992). Replete with every cliché from harem pants to evil hand-amputating Mamelukes, the film sends the message that the Middle East is a dangerous place, full of swarthy villains, magic carpets, thieves and camels. Better still, in Aladdin, the paler your skin, the more likely you are to be good and noble. The conflation of Ottoman, Arab, Persian and Mogul themes reduces the Middle East to a generic series of onion domes and bazaars.
Watched by hundreds of millions of children over the last 20 years, Aladdin is a great example of how, almost from the moment we start consuming media, a message is being spun. You can find the same sort of turban and scimitar nonsense in everything from Bugs Bunny to Scooby Doo.
Jack Shaheen’s work on how Hollywood stereotypes the Arabs is superb. He discusses the use of standard-issue bad guys:
“Arab Muslims are fanatics who believe in a different god, who don’t value human life as much as we do, they are intent on destroying us (the west) with their oil or with their terrorism; the men seek to abduct and brutally seduce our women; they are without family and reside in a primitive place (the desert) and behave like primitive beings. The women are subservient — resembling black crows — or we see them portrayed as mute, somewhat exotic harem maidens.”
Lauren Rosewarne talked about the same sort of thing applied to the Turks in Skyfall and Taken 2. However I believe that this stereotyping of the region’s inhabitants as violent cannon fodder is only the most overt part of the problem. After all, even a person of limited intelligence is going to cotton on the fact that gangs of guys spraying thousands of bullets around the street, whilst failing to hit the hero, is not reality.
What is much more dangerous is that understated tweaking of the background culture and those films, like Argo, that masquerade as credible truth. It’s much more likely someone will base their beliefs about Middle Eastern history and culture on a film like Argo than on some sort of over-the-top action flick.
Again, the message doesn’t have to be overt. There’s a scene in Argo when the embassy staff are moving through Tehran and we see some women in black chadors chowing down on some KFC.
“Hypocrites!” this scene screams. “They hate us for our freedoms but they all secretly want to be Americans!”
You want sand with that?
I guess trying to protest against the dishonesty of Hollywood is something of a losing battle. All I can do is point out to my students that the message is there and they just have to be aware of it. I start my week 1 tutorials by asking the students to brain storm words and images of the Middle East. Almost without fail, the same set of words will come up: desert, camels, terrorism, oil, pyramids, danger, magic carpets…
(The only exception was one time where a guy yelled out “Hookers!” After some confusion it turned out he was talking about the things you use to smoke tobacco with.) So I can’t blame poor Richard Wilkins for his received wisdom about the region. After all, he’s a creature of popular culture.
The problem is so many of us are as well.