Gilded Serpent presents...

Mass Media, Mass Stereotypes: Beginnings

Theda Bara plays Salome

by Shira
posted April 15, 2010

It has been over a century since the Middle Eastern dancers at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago sparked controversy and scandal. Although the North America public today is much better educated and sophisticated than it was then, when it comes to belly dancing, many people still cling to the old “seducing the Sultan” and “dance of the seven veils” stereotypes from long ago.  Admittedly, some of this can be explained by bad behavior by attention-hungry performers who represent our dance poorly to the public. However, it goes deeper than that.  The mass media of television, motion pictures, newspapers, and magazines have continued over the years to reinforce the stereotypes even now, in the 21st century.

From the very beginning of moving pictures technology, moviemakers have used “Middle Eastern dance” as a means of adding sexual innuendo and sexy eye candy to their productions. 

Whether the film depicts a concubine dancing for the Sultan, a spy thriller with some of the action set in the Middle East, a harem full of beauties waiting to serve their master, or a modern-day Moroccan restaurant in New York with a dancer, the primary purpose for including the scene is often to exhibit scantily-clad women to please the male audience members.  Often, the characters watching these performers make comments that reinforce the “dancer as seductress” stereotype.

A list compiled by Maria, a now-retired dancer in Boulder, Colorado contains nearly 200 movies made in North America and Europe that feature either “Middle Eastern dance” scenes or scenes of women lolling about in costumes that the public would perceive as being associated with our dance form. Maria also compiled a list of over 150 television shows with such scenes. In addition to Maria’s work, I have discovered 19 cartoons, some dating back to 1926, which depict “Middle Eastern dance”.

To understand how the entertainment industry’s fascination with harems and belly dancers began, and why such scenes appeared in even the earliest moving pictures from the 1890’s, it is helpful to look at the larger context of European and North American culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The earliest motion picture technologies were developed in the 1890’s by the Lumiére brothers in France and Thomas Edison in the U.S.  By this time, Europe and North America had already spent a century cultivating a fascination with the exotic East. This fascination was generated by:

Thomas Edison's movie of Fatima

Daisy Duck

Bugs Bunny

  • Governments and commercial enterprises used the Sinai Peninsula as a gateway to colonial holdings in India and other Asian countries.
  • Treasure hunters became interested in tomb raiding – the beginnings of what we know today as “archeology”.
  • Tourists saw the Middle East as an exotic place to visit.  Diaries of some travelers, such as Gustav Flaubert, were widely read.
  • European painters exploited the attitude that it was okay to create images of nude “barbarian” women to serve as the pornography of its day, whereas such images of European women would have been unacceptable in their society.
  • Accustomed to corset-clad European women who could barely breathe, let alone move their midriffs, Europeans became fascinated with the torso-based dance styles they observed being done by women of the region.

Gerome's painting of a slave purchase

Thus began an obsession with “the Orient” that lasted for well over a century. In the 1890’s and early 20th century, several additional events fueled this fad further, including Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé with its salacious dance of the seven veils, the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago with its associated scandals, and the debut of the opera  Salomé based on Wilde’s play.

Therefore, it is no surprise that when technologies to create and project moving pictures were invented in the late 19th century, Oriental themes became prominent. Thomas Edison’s actualités (mini-documentaries) included Near Eastern entertainers.

  Several early movies utilized themes of Salomé and Cleopatra. The 1916 movie Intolerance included a segment set in ancient Babylon.  The 1920’s brought us Rudolph Valentino starring in The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. Tales inspired by 1001 Nights, particularly those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, have enjoyed enduring popularity.

Over the course of the 20th century, many movies, cartoons, and television shows portrayed “Middle Eastern” themes which presented opportunities to display bare female midriffs or provoke cheap laughs. Interestingly, many of the early cartoons and movies provide tantalizing insights into what “belly dancing” and its spin-offs of the “hoochy coochy” and “the shimmy” looked like in the decades immediately following the infamous Columbia Exposition of 1893.

With 100 years of such material having been promoted by a profit-hungry entertainment industry, it is no wonder that certain stereotypes of the Middle East have persisted to this day. As we watch these programs, we can see Disney’s Daisy Duck doing the dance of the seven veils,  a cute “harem girl” mouse dancing for the Sultan in a Mighty Mouse cartoon, Bugs Bunny wearing a turban surrounded by female rabbits in harem girl costumes, and more. In a Star Trek episode, Captain Kirk and his companions lasciviously eye the dancer and nudge each other, a theme which is repeated in an episode of The Simpsons.

In my lecture Hares in the Harem and Fantasies of Seduction which I developed to present at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada on April 22, 2010, I explore many of these images that I have gathered in my research over the years and I show how they have contributed to the continued misconception held by the North American public that “Middle Eastern dance” is somehow part of the sex industry.  By understanding how our dance has been depicted in the media, we realize that the imagery the North American public grew up with often has very little to do with the reality behind the dance form we know today as “belly dancing”.  

As dancers in North America, we are often very frustrated when the public’s stereotypes about our dance form limit our opportunities. Middle Eastern dance artists have been denied the use of a church basement for classes, banned from performing in a city festival, or rejected from obtaining an arts grant to fund an event. Often, our first reaction is to complain about the ignorance of those who made these decisions. However, when we examine the pervasive stereotypes about our dance that have been created by more than 100 years of mass media misrepresentation, we realize that these people’s mistaken ideas actually did come from somewhere.

Don’t miss Shira’s lecture on this subject at IBCC on Thursday April 22, 2010.
Gilded Serpent will be reporting from the event.

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  1. Heatherqamar

    Apr 17, 2010 - 04:04:43

    What a fabulous article! The attitude of the Western world toward the Middle East and belly dance really has not evolved much since the late 1800’s. How sad! I do remember laughing myself in apoplexy watching the “belly dancers” doing some twisted version of African dance in “The Scorpion King” a few years ago. My twin daughters came home in tears one day when they were studying the Middle East in school. “Mom – you don’t know what they think of the Middle East! You don’t know what they think of belly dancers!” and they said kids were doing pretend belly dance moves and laughing about it. I wrote to the teacher with concern about the students’ misunderstandings about the Middle East. I offered to bring in doumbek and sagat, some genuine Middle Eastern textiles and jewelry, and play some realy music (note: I did not offer to dance, and if I had I might have taught a debke or other folk dance). I also sent information on a wonderful Middle Eastern culture education program offered in Boston that could come to the school if they wanted something more official. I heard nothing from the teacher or the school. People choose to remain in the 19th century when they think of the Middle East because it  seems romantic and exotic – which it can indeed be to us from the West – and the media has done little but encourage that stereotype. Fatima Mernissi’s “Scheherazade Goes West” is a must read about this phenomena. I’m thrilled to see the lists you have linked to – I’ve always wanted a definitive list! Thank you so much for sharing – and I wish I could come to your lecture!!!!

  2. Dina

    Apr 25, 2010 - 01:04:52

    Shira.. lovely article!
    The other day I ordered my favorite 80s cartoon series “My Little Pony” on dvd to watch with my small cousins.. I was quite shocked to see “Shahrazad” portrayed in a non-existent (see-through) harem pants cloth. Why was it necessary to have her legs completely exposed?
    This is what kids grow up with..

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