Everything we know about other races and cultures, unless we have experienced them first hand, comes from the media. This means that how different ethnicities are constructed and represented in media has persuasive power in shaping our perception and understanding of that culture. Our entire world is mediated. This is particularly important, as cultures are not only routinely misrepresented but are often not represented at all. In most cases, the political representatives in power dictate a certain perspective which is depicted by the mainstream media, which, in turn, becomes that culture’s dominant discourse. This is problematic, as foreign cultures in Western media, specifically Middle Eastern cultures, are more often than not portrayed in a negative light. The media also tends to stereotype Eastern cultures by painting a simplistic, negative picture of their culture and characteristics.
After 9/11, negative media portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on US television were abundant. This directly aligned with Bush’s political regime – the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’. However, what is surprising is that in addition to this negative portrayal, there was also an increase in the number of sympathetic depictions of Arabs and Muslims at this time (Alsultany 2013). In television and movies, Arabs and Muslims were frequently represented as terrorists or demonized as the evil ‘other’. This was then counteracted with an arguably positive portrayal of the same race later in the same text. This was a deliberate attempt to position America as “an enlightened country” that had “entered a postrace era” (Alsultany 2013, p. 162). However, negative representations are not necessarily best neutralised by someone else’s idea of a ‘positive’ representation (Khorana 2014). Despite being considered for the most part, positive, the portrayals were simplistic and contributed to the justification of discriminatory policies (Alsultany 2013).
It is important that when we access media that depicts other races, that we look at it critically and do not take it at face value. By examining the example of the representation of Arabs and Muslims in American media after 9/11, we can see that these depictions are far from accurate and that stereotypes are not easily subverted with simplistic ‘positive’ representations. Perhaps most importantly, it is crucial that we understand that media is often created and disseminated with specific political agenda’s in mind and that these representations are often far from accurate.
Alsultany, E 2013, ‘Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11: Representation Strategies for a “Postrace” Era’, American Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 1, pp.161-168
Khorana, S 2014, ‘Race, Ethnicity and the Media’, BCM310, lecture, University of Wollongong, viewed 5 May 2014