Muslim women in the media: Silenced or Sexualized

For many years, particularly the period following 9/11, there has been an overabundance of misconceptions and misrepresentations of Muslim women in American television and film, which has had an enormous impact on the public mind. The negative stereotyping and homogenous outlook has led to a large cultural misunderstanding of Arabic and particularly Muslim women as many Westerners see such women as inferior to the Western defined norm by virtue of their “incomprehensible” difference. These false and exaggerated representations in the media have ultimately led to the oppression of this minority group. As stated in the 2006 documentary “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA”. It is no wonder that individuals in Western society hold the same misguided views on Muslim people that are so often portrayed in the media. It is with this post that I will highlight several examples of the stereotyping of Muslim people that is exhibited through television and film. For example in the television show “The Bachelor” and the film “Zero Dark Thirty”.

In Hollywood film and television today, Muslim women are often characterized in two extreme but very different manners. Muslim women are either portrayed as silenced victims or as sexually available and exotic beings. In both these extremes, victimhood and sexualization, the oppression is always at the hands of a man. The abundance of media images of Muslim women pleasing men, through submissiveness or through sexuality, is a constant reminder of the heteronormative society we live in. These forms of pleasure are never directed towards another woman nor are they self-satisfying, but these images always convey men in a powerful position receiving pleasure from the oppression of women, which ultimately represents a male privileged society.

With respect to Muslim women who are depicted as passive victims of masculine dominance, this victimization is often demonstrated in the media through images of cloaked women submissively following a dominant male figure, often for example, images of women shuffling in the background are seen. Moreover, in many movies it is not uncommon to see women covered in black from head to toe, appearing as unattractive and enslaved beings to men. They shuffle behind abusive and dominant “terrorist” men following their every command while not muttering a word. This for example is prevalent in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty”. While I searched the Internet to find a clip or an image to demonstrate the portrayal of Muslim women in this movie, I came up empty handed. After further research, here is why: The movie, lasting over two hours, takes place in many different Middle Eastern cities in the Islamic republic, yet Muslim women are only shown in 13 scenes, most of such scenes taking place at Osama Bin Laden’s compound during the American attack. Not one of the Muslim women shown in this movie had single scripted line (the only noises that the women made were screams or crying), thus emphasizing the stereotypical silenced submissive figure. Furthermore, these women are depicted as the “belongings” of terrorist men in the movie. The only discussion of Muslim women is when a CIA officer notes that Muslim women must live with their husbands and are never found independently living in a home (which can explain why most of the women were seen in Bin Laden’s compound). This comment reiterates the Westernized view that Muslim women are the possession of men, and are oppressed by Islam. In other scenes of the busy downtown streets, occasionally several women in burqas can be spotted in the background, but even this is seldom (I think it is important to note that in present day Pakistan, where several of the scenes took place, many women in fact do not wear any head coverings). Moreover, not only are the Muslim women in this film displayed as the victims of Muslim men, but also are vilified and made inferior in comparison to the “heroic” upper-class white American men. To conclude, non-Muslim people frequently mention veils as evidence of the oppression of Muslim women, and when media outlets such as the film “Zero Dark Thirty” only portray these oppressed images, it is no wonder that non-Muslim people develop such false notions. Not only do these images narrow the Western understanding of Muslim women, but they also create cultural barriers for Muslim women in reality, as they are unfairly judge based on these false representations.

On the contrary a very different representation of Muslim women is also demonstrated in popular media today. The second common representation is of Muslim women being exotic and darkly-tempting sex-symbols. Particularly more recently, exoticized, and hypersexualized images of Muslim women are becoming increasingly popular. Many movies and TV shows highlight objectifying Muslim women as sex symbols, for example in the heteronormative and highly criticized, but ever so popular show, “The Bachelor”. This season, America was introduced to the first-ever Muslim woman on the Bachelor, Selma.

Selma

Selma (The Bachelor, Season 17 Contestant)

It was not until Selma mentioned her families faith, however, that the viewers realized that she was Muslim as she has had numerous cosmetic surgeries to make her face appear less “Middle Eastern”, as well as admitted to undergoing skin-lightening treatment. Moreover, America assumed that she was not of the Islamic religion by virtue of the fact she did not wear a veil. The Bachelor himself was shocked when she confided in him of her religious views, as was the rest of America.  Following the addition of Selma to the cast, “The Bachelor” was praised for “racially diversifying their cast”. I disagree with this statement, as the producers would never include a woman of Islamic decent if she was not a glamorized exotic woman, falling into the category of a conventionally beautiful feminine woman. Adding a Muslim woman who wears a veil to the cast would be unheard of in this television series, as a woman who wears a veil, most definitely does not fall into the Western idea of a conventionally beautiful woman. One also has to note that Selma comes from a highly privileged background, which I believe also played a major role in her casting on the show, as “The Bachelor” always casts professional and successful women of high socioeconomic status in order to glamorize the show, ultimately to achieve a high profit. Finally, I find it hard to agree that “The Bachelor” could ever diversify their cast by virtue that the show exhibits a dominant heteronormative culture, excluding any individual who identifies themself as queer. It would be unheard of if the nature of the show changed to having homosexual couples finding love and happiness. I find it quite ironic that women who identify themselves as lesbians would never be cast on this show, however, the show is constantly promoting girl-on-girl verbal and physical violence in order to win over the “heart” of a man, ultimately promoting female competition and enlightened sexism.

Finally, I personally have felt to a small degree the oppression that Muslim and more broadly, women of Arabic decent face. Based on my physical appearance, no one has ever guessed that I come from a Middle Eastern decent, as I do not fit the stereotypical “Arab” appearance. My family on my maternal side, however, is from the Middle East. After I share this part of my heritage with friends and peers they immediately assume I am Muslim and do not initially believe that I have family from the Middle East, as I do not fit the veiled and victimized Arabic stereotype so often portrayed in the media. Then after telling people of my family background come the endless and repetitive Middle Eastern “jokes” and “remarks” that never seem to end.

It is because of the popular distorted and inaccurate images of Muslim women exhibited in Western culture, that many people have the view that the Islam community equates with the oppression of women and that such women yearn to live in a “liberating” country like the United States. As stated in the 2006 documentary, “Reel Bad Arabs”, the more Arab women advance, the more Hollywood keeps them locked in the past. I am curious about other positions and views on Muslim women in the media. Do you think that American film has become more oppressive towards Muslim women since the tragedies of 9/11, or do you believe that our society is evolving and becoming more inclusive and less narrow-minded on the Islamic faith?

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Disney Princesses and Villains

I couldn’t agree more with Wordtothewomen1’s statement, “there is a large inequality of racial representation with Disney princesses”. In fact, I could argue that this is an understatement of the racial representation of Disney princesses. Despite Disney’s small strides towards diversifying the representation of gender and racial differences with its characters (e.g. Disney’s 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog), what occurs “behind the scenes” is far from diverse. Not only are the vast majority of princesses and other Disney characters white in colour, but the voice actors of the few racially diverse princesses are in fact Caucasian themselves. Take for example princess Jasmine, a young woman of Arabic decent. One with think, like her character, the voice behind the princess would be of a similar background, however, unsurprisingly a white-American is the actress. Similar with Pocahontas, a Caucasian women (whom is not in the slightest Native American), is the one belting the songs for the animated character.

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One does not have to look very deeply into what goes on behind the scenes in Disney movies to discover a lack of racial diversity and the presence of racism. Below are several photos of Disney villains. While looking at these photos, I urge you to find similarities.

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It disturbs me to realize that many of the Disney villains are made to look as though they are a different race from the “white” norm portrayed in films. In Aladdin for example, Aladdin and the villain, Jaffar, are both Arabic men. Yet Aladdin has been given a very light skin-tone and speaks and sings with an American accent. Jafar on the other-hand is portrayed in a more ethnic manner with a thick Middle-Eastern accent and a darker complexion. An even more distinguishable example would be the colour difference between Scar and Mufasa in the Lion King. Although both are kin of the same parents, they appear to be two different “races” of lions, with of course, the darker of the two being the evil lion. This racial insensitivity is also displayed more subtly in films such as Cinderella. Looking at the skin tone of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, they differ from that of her own, a porcelain-white skin and blonde hair appearance. Her one stepsister, the biggest villain of them all, has a much darker complexion. Moreover, both stepsisters are made to be unattractive compared to their beautiful stepsister. What kind of message does this give young children, particularly children of colour? That women of colour are not as attractive or appealing as those who are white? It is very discomforting that I did not make these realizations until now, which makes me fear how many young children subconsciously develop the notion that lighter skin is more attractive than darker. Providing villains with the appearance of racial minorities is very unsettling to me. Coming from a family of diverse racial backgrounds, it saddens me that my caring, compassionate, and loving family members whom are of Middle-Eastern and African-American decent are indirectly portrayed as villains in such films.

Evidently, it is not only Disney that can be faulted for its racial insensitivities. More specifically, Disney is not the only franchise to racially stereotype villains as being ethnically diverse. Many movies (e.g. Twilight) and novels (e.g. 50 Shades of Grey) can be faulted for the same underrepresentation of racial minorities. In fact, the sole character of a racial minority in the two examples provided above both happen to be the “villain”. Laurent, an African-American vampire, is set out on a mission to kill Bella Swan in Twilight. In 50 Shades of Grey, Jose Rodriguez, a Latin American, is the romantic competition and only threat to Anastasia’s love interest, Christian Grey.

I would like to add that on a very different note, these same Disney movies, novels and blockbuster hits can all be faulted for giving fantasies of power to females. As stated by Susan Douglas in her novel, Enlightened Sexism, (2010), “we are getting images of imagined power that mask, and even erase, how much still remains to be done for girls and women”. It is through media outlets such as those described above as well as tv shows, for example, the Apprentice and movies such as Legally Blonde, where women are competing or acting alongside men, or even have a superior role to men, where both women and men develop the notion that all are finally equal in society. However, looking deeper into these female roles, it is apparent that they are simply given fantasies of power, and contribute to the concept of enlightened sexism. In Legally Blonde for example, the main character Elle Woods, is hyper-feminine. On the surface, she is the top of her class and ultimately wins a major court case. One must think, however, how did she get to the top? Well, through her sexuality and femininity she trickled her way to the top. Enlightened sexism is taking the gains of the women’s movement in the past as a given and consequently turning women into sex objects, whom succeed because of their appearance. Enlightened sexism is merely one of many consequences that have arisen from fantasies of power in popular culture, and I am certain that if this downward spiral continues, the efforts of feminism and women’s rights from the past will slowly disappear.

Gender Socialization at University

Growing up, I along with the majority of my peers were ingrained with gender divisions – fixed cultural and social norms and expectations, surrounding how women should behave, what activities we should take part in and how we should dress. Parents, teachers and peers would apply specific gender roles to almost everything I did. Moreover, throughout my childhood these gender roles were exemplified in my education, extra-curricular activities, and other environments. I will never forget, for example, when I was forced to wear a purple hockey jersey for my competitive hockey team named the “Lady-Wolves”. (And Canadians wonder why women’s hockey has not developed an extensive fan-base like men’s hockey…)

As much as I wish I could say that gender socialization has changed to accept a broader range of personal identities, I am reluctant to say that I have noticed much change throughout my adolescence and early adulthood with respect to gendering. My undergraduate experience thus far has been surrounded with many gender norms and expectations, some of which I would like to highlight below.

By virtue of the nature of my program, Physical and Health Education, I spend a lot of time using the athletic facilities at our university athletic and recreation centre. Being a new “state-of-the-art” fitness facility, it is no wonder that it includes features such as a “Just for Women” fitness room. A gendered gym at first thought seems quite innocent. On a positive side, it encourages women who are not comfortable exercising in a gym where there are men to become physically active. As well, some women for religious reasons, are not permitted to exercise with people of a different gender, thereby, a restricted gym would promote inclusion for different cultures and religions. In the case of the university I attend, my question is why we have a women’s only gym, however no men’s only gym? It would seem that for the same comfort reasons, and perhaps religious, certain populations of men would also be more comfortable exercising in an environment without the presence women? I would argue that having a women’s only gym with the absence of a male-only gym would be a display of androcentrism. Furthermore, what is the option then for individuals whom do not identify themselves within the stereotypical categories of women and men? Are the gyms divided based on your biological sex, or is the division based on the gender that one personally identifies with? Ultimately, I question whether the concept of a women’s only gym is guilty of discrimination.

The women’s only gym not only is different in the gender restrictions it upholds, but the physical equipment within is very different from the equipment you would find throughout the facility in the more gender-inclusive areas. For example, the maximum weight that can be found in the women’s gym is 20 pounds, and most of the weights are pink, purple, or light blue. You can find further gendered equipment with the purple jump ropes and exercise bands. I found the following link on Walmart’s website for Dumbbells, which precisely reflects what the women’s only gym at my university contains:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/CAP-Barbell-1-lb-Neoprene-Dumbbell-Pink/20750571

As you can see, as the weights get bigger, the colour becomes darker and less “fun” and “girly”. Ironically, the exact same weight sizes can be found in the “co-ed” fitness areas, however Dumbbells are entirely iron, lacking any colour, which look similar to this:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/Cap-Barbell-Cast-Iron-Dumbbell/11099738

I think it is apparent to the majority of students at university that there are gender roles that are enforced on a daily basis. From the gym, to student residences, lectures, advertisements on campus, and something as little as the Booster Juice menu on campus, gendering is unavoidable. I don’t think I stand-alone when I say that gender norms have been created and are being enforced in a university environment, and that we as a society are far from eliminating gender barriers and norms. There is plenty of change that needs to be done at institutions as influential as universities, however, where to start?