Representation of ‘Moroccan’ Women in Iñarritu’s Babel
Hollywood; or Orientalism II
“Al tikrar biallem il hmar. By repetition even the donkey learns.”
This Arab proverb, which is used by Jack Shaheen in his book Reel Bad Arabs (2001), encloses how efficient repetition can be when it comes to learning. For more than a century, he argues, “Hollywood has used repetition as a teaching tool. Tutoring movie audiences by repeating over and over, in film after in film, insidious images of the Arab people” (1). Arabs are portrayed as ‘subhumans’. A term that was used by the Nazis once to refer to Jewish people. It is indeed in the repetition, where lies the real danger. Amongst the roles discursiveness plays is to naturalize certain things, make them look normal and natural, until they become idée recue as well as ‘common-sense’. The very impact of Hollywood has been and is still is its very capacity to shape people’s perceptions. To turn “War into peace, freedom into slavery and ignorance into strength” (2), as a certain Orwell once wrote in 1984. Babel, a movie directed by the famous Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu in 2006 in no exception. In it the same stereotypes about the Arabs are reproduced over and over again.
Babel takes the form of a multi-narrative movie which setting is divided into four geographical locations: Morocco, Japan, Mexico and the United States. It was nominated for not less than seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, as well as two nominations for Best Supporting Actress and for Best Original Score. Starring actors such as Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, etc. We are dealing here, with a movie that certainly belongs to the Hollywoodian mainstream. This is really no exception. As mentioned before, the setting is divided into four countries, yet Morocco is depicted as the most uncivilized place. It is actually, although arguably, not even depicted as Morocco but as: “Arab land”.
The fact that, for the average American: Persians, Amazigh, Turks, Kurds, or any other ethnic or political group are all Arabs, reminds us of Edward Said’s discussion about the origins of Orientalism. Said draws on Foucault to argue that amongst the elements preparing the way for Orientalism is the impulse to classify nature into types, which aimed at reducing the number of things to a smaller number of orderable and desirable types, while of course including some and excluding others. Here the characters in the movie are not referred to as Moroccan, rather as Arabs, with everything that the word bear for American, as well as international one would be tempted to argue, audiences. But what is of main interest in this essay, is not really the representation of the Arab, but more specifically of the Arab woman in Babel.
In theory, there are mainly three kinds of ‘different’ representations for Arab women in Hollywoodian productions. First, there is the Arab woman as the highly sexualized belly dancer. That is there to be admired and gazed upon. Second, we have what Shaheen calls “Bundles in Black” who are veiled women, always in the background, in the shadows, always silent, they are never given a voice. And lastly we have what may be considered as the most complex one and also the one which is in vogue nowadays, the Arab woman as a bomber; a terrorist; some movies depict the Arab woman as being very beautiful, almost sex, yet as being capable of the most atrocious acts as soon as she gets the chance to. These are mainly three conceptualization of the Arab woman in American movies and again Babel will be no exception.
In the movie, the most salient characteristic of Arab women might be without much debate their silence. Only at very few exceptions they are given a voice, as we are going to see in a few scenes. They never express their opinions about anything. They are there, to be considered as slaves at best or furniture at worst. In one of the very first scenes, when the guy who is going to sell the rifle first arrives to the house of the buyer, the viewer gets the see the Arab woman for the first time. First thing one would notice, the Arab woman is working, and I do not use the word work in its positive sense, she is preparing tea with what we understand to be her daughter sitting next to hear as if she is learning the very tasks that she will need to re-echo once married herself. Also, and something that is very important the women are always on the background, never on the front. The first scenes always show men at the front, talking, discussing the price of the rifle and women in the background; silent, or talking to each other in very low voices. Just a few minutes later, the view is shocked by a depiction of the Arab woman as being “ethically filthy”. From her very young age, the daughter allows her brother to watch her from a hole in the wall while she is changing her clothes. Adding insult to injury, the viewer is later shown the boy masturbating which would only strike hate and disgust towards these creatures that engage in acts of incest even from childhood, an age where children in the United States are believed to be as innocent as angels ought to be.
A few minutes later and when we, the viewers, see Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett for the first time, contrary to the Arab woman, Blanchett is sitting is what seems to be a