Problematic Visual Culture: Orientalism in American Action Films

The Problematic Visual Culture series seeks to highlight works of art, film, and other media that display and perpetuate harmful, discriminatory ideas. The series also aims to address the effects of these works on our individual and collective biases.

A white American man is a protagonist, and Muslim terrorists are the antagonist. Can you guess the movie being described in this plotline? Most likely, many movies popped into your head, ranging from True Lies, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and even to Iron Man. The stereotype of Muslims—specifically from the Middle East—as terrorists have infiltrated the Hollywood film industry for decades. This process of othering Middle Eastern people and declaring the vast territory that encompasses Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and many other countries as the “Middle East” has its roots in the ideology of Orientalism. 

Although many American films perpetuate stereotypes, I will focus on a more in-depth analysis of Orientalism in the American action film genre by deconstructing the movie American Sniper. I will begin by analyzing the plot of American Sniper and connect it through addressing the origins of Orientalism as an academic discipline described by Edward Said. American Sniper is an example of how art is used to perpetuate divisions and stereotypes in our society. In direct contrast, our current exhibit Taking Shape: Abstractions from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s uses art to break stereotypical boundaries and present the complex reality of marginalized groups.  

The action and war drama American Sniper, made in 2014, recounts the true story of a U.S. Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle. The movie depicts the life of Chris Kyle, who is known as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Inspired by the August 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Chris joins the U.S. Navy and is deployed to Iraq. The movie takes place during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the first scene depicts a woman in a head covering holding a grenade, who Chris kills. The movie continues to present similar imagery of the Iraqi people as villains and a threat to American safety. Kyle and his fellow SEALs are searching for an al Qaeda leader in an evacuated city in Iraq, and they are told that any military-aged male who is still in the city should be a threat. When one of Kyle’s fellow SEALs expresses regret about the war, he reminds him that they are patriots serving their country and protecting their families. The movie depicts Chris as a hero and patriot helping America fight against terrorism or, more realistically, Islam, as American society conflates the two. 

Beyond dismissing the fact that the U.S. instigated this war, American Sniper embodies how problematic American media is, as it exacerbates the issue of terrorism and perpetuates the image that all Muslims are foes. American Sniper participates in the othering of Middle Eastern people that Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Said defines Orientalism as the academic discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, resulting in a collection of images and vocabularies in different forms such as museums, paintings, novels, movies, etc. The Orient is a construction made by the West where the Orient or “the other” becomes the opposite of the West. The West views itself as rational and superior, and therefore, in its obverse, the Orient is irrational and inferior. These characteristics of irrationality and inferiority attributed to the Orient resulted in the implication of certain types of political action to be taken by the West, including colonialism, domination, and military invasions.  

Orientalism is not based on the reality of people in the geographical region that it entails; instead, it is based on this promotion of an “other” and a manifestation of all the qualities that the West deems as bad. In American Sniper, this ideology is apparent as immense amounts of violence is glorified against Middle Easterners and made into entertainment. This violence is “justified” as Hollywood portrays Middle Easterners as villains and threats to the American way of life. The viewer is meant to fall for the historically fantastical concept that all Middle Easterners are terrorists threatening American security, while the American military men loaded with guns and shooting down hundreds of Iraqi citizens are seen as patriots and heroes. This is clear when Chris dismisses his companion’s doubts about the war by saying that they are patriots who are protecting their country. In reality, the so-called “patriots” have fallen for an ideology that associates all the problems of America with the Middle East, a distraction to the real internal issues that our society suffers from. 

Issues of discrimination and “othering” in our society are not only rooted in political institutions but also in the culture and the art that we consume. Perhaps, a new movement needs to emerge in which visual culture and art no longer perpetuate discriminatory ideologies such as Orientalism but are made to represent the complex realities of people’s diversity beyond their attributed stereotypes. 

Image Credit: El Tecolote. The image represents a use of art to depict the Islamophobia present in the U.S. and the violence used in response to it. 

1 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. First ed., Pantheon Books, 1978.

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