Good Americans, Bad Americans and the politics of representation


In the few days that I spent in Rabat this week, several Moroccans told me something that struck me as strange: Americans are good at languages, and they make an effort to learn about other cultures.

What??

We Americans typically start learning a foreign language only in high school, and we’re notoriously US-centric. Most Americans don’t have a passport and I’m pretty sure that almost none can place Morocco on a map. (I couldn’t until 2005, and maybe briefly in eighth grade when my French teacher had us memorize all the countries in the world.) This isn’t just due to our terrible lack of education in world geography. Morocco is obscure to most Americans.

Yet something I’ve found frustrating in a few MAMAS class discussions has been the presumption of the American perception of Morocco: Americans associate Morocco with terrorism. Americans think Moroccans are backward. Americans feel threatened by Moroccans. Etc.

The best example of this is our film class, which I thought might be really interesting until it actually started. We were given no theoretical basis, unless you count the professor’s personal, meandering opinions as theory. We were given only a loose framework for analyzing movies—something about considering the film as text, and not bringing in outside information.

Except that the entire class is built around the premise that “Hollywoodian” movies reproduce stereotyped images of the Maghreb. Not a bad starting point, of course, but hearing the same basic idea repeated over the course of a semester is like listening to a broken record that plays only the opening measures to a song. I keep waiting for the good stuff, but it never comes.

Babel, Hideous Kinky, The Wind and the Lion, The Man Who Knew Too Much are all collapsed into one big mass of ‘Representation of Morocco by Hollywood’ as primitive, violent, mysterious, debauched, religiously extremist, etc. That last one is by far the most far-fetched, and a 99 percent projection of something that is just not in the films we looked at.

A lot of what I hear argued says more about Moroccan angst and insecurities than it does about Americans’ perception. Therefore any portrayal of rural poverty, for instance, which is a reality in Morocco, becomes in some minds an American commentary on Morocco as underdeveloped. Unhappy with the implied criticism, some dismiss the “message” as reflecting a political agenda. Things get really interesting when some people in class suggest that maybe there could be some truth to outsiders’ portrayal of Morocco–something which I think we can acknowledge while still reading texts with a critical eye.

Only rarely in this class do we ever move past simplifications and actually stretch our minds. The professor doesn’t encourage us to stray too far from his own theories, though. If we disagree with him, it only proves that we don’t get it. Ironically, he claims he wants to encourage students to think critically.

Do we have a problem of lack of awareness among Americans of the Arab world, the Muslim world, the Maghreb, and the difference between all of those? Absolutely. Are there negative images of Arabs and Muslims in movies? Yup. I don’t mean to say that American films don’t ever reproduce clichés about Morocco and “the Orient.” The book and film Reel Bad Arabs, for instance, document the production of clichés about Arabs in movies.

However can we analyze a bunch of different movies about Morocco, guided only by the vague assumption that the American public has a negative image of Morocco? Without any academic depth, we’re just fighting tired stereotypes with more tired stereotypes.

***Read comments for more discussion on representation***

12 Comments

Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, Moroccan-American Studies

12 responses to “Good Americans, Bad Americans and the politics of representation

  1. I feel your questions are to the point. I agree with you on your point that the course has fostered a stereotype about American movies’ representations of the Arab world, and the Maghreb in particular. However, I wish we were able to challenge this stereotype with a counter-example; if only we could have access to one single film that represents Arabs in a different way from the films we discussed.
    Unfortunately, our approach to the films we covered can be anything but academic.

    • Kathleen

      yeah, you’re right that we need a counter-example. I actually think that Babel is rather nuanced for instance. One of the major themes of the movie is mis-communication and how our assumptions cause us to misapprehend people. After the kid accidentally shoots the woman, people jump to conclusions and assume that it’s a terrorist act, when really it’s something so much more pedestrian.
      I’ll grant you that it’s hard to find examples that positively portray, what, Arabs? Muslims? Moroccans? And even if it’s a positive portrayal, it could still be simplistic, or false, or whatever. The problem seems to do with representation, period. Which is why I like that Babel offers a commentary on and criticism of the outsider’s, Westerner’s gaze.

  2. mariam

    I got excited when I realized from the first lines of the post that you are talking about our discussion in the MAMAS classroom. I guess many people in the group has got the impression the course has deviated into a litany of self- lamentation and victimization and got stuck there! This can probably partly be explained by the lack of a systematic coverage of the basic academic trends in analysing cinematic discourses and representational discourses. You know, this always drives me to burst out my anger on the long hours we have spent talking idly about things we had no idea what their academic basics were. But I won’t get angry now! I was writing an essay on language policy and I will need my good mood to get back to work. hehehehe!
    Our discussions reveal more about “our insecurities and angst”, more about our liminal positions both as national subjects and as international citizens, facing social and economic injustice inside and cultural injustice outside. The long process of impoverishment (of all types) which started with colonialism and taken over by the postcolonial elite has created a deep disillusionment with politics, with any attempt at reform, and sometimes with faith in the nation as a whole. We have turned up living here and not here. We live our daily lives which we deeply feel as a caricaturisation of some other reality we have in mind. The world out is real and unreal, real because we live and we play the same game to keep us going on, but unreal because there is a model in our heads for how we can do things in a better way. we turn out agents and complacent in the injustices, but the circle seems too tight to break through.
    How Moroccans perceive themselves as international citizens? There is a limit to empathy concerning how much people from different countries can stretch their understanding to capture the depth of one another perceptions of their identities in international contexts. I doubt that there is a Moroccan who in one way or another is not cautious not to produce a word, an act or anything that can be read as typical of the terrorist Moslems when travelling in Europe or America. Travelling to the USA for example is a nice prospect but may not be that nice for a Moroccan with head cover. I had to cope with daily reactions to my headscarf which was be my selection for exclusive inspection from a long queue of people at one time, my selection from all the group to be reminded of the codes of entrance to the capitol at another time, or could be an exaggerated display of cross cultural tolerance at the best of times. By force, no one can feel that he is just a human being with some different ideas in situations like these. We needn’t get out of Morocco to feel like that.. The media is making the situation worse. It highlights the worst part of the scene and presents it as the only facet of what is there out. “Moroccan angst and insecurities” are the consequences of the national and international political situation that they grapple with. When one is put into the defensive, one tends to be critical, cynical and offensive with little differentiating rationality. I hope I haven’t fallen the trap of presenting a flagrant psychological reading of the Moroccan character!!! This is a personal reflection on our “insecurities” amid a strenuous effort to write up thoughts I dealt with some three months ago in the course of language policy…

    • Kathleen

      I really like what you say here:
      “There is a limit to empathy concerning how much people from different countries can stretch their understanding to capture the depth of one another perceptions of their identities in international contexts. I doubt that there is a Moroccan who in one way or another is not cautious not to produce a word, an act or anything that can be read as typical of the terrorist Moslems when travelling in Europe or America.”
      When people confront each other for the first time, they bring with them so much historical baggage that it’s almost impossible to strip down to the bare, human element.
      This reminds me so much of discussions I’ve had about race and racism in the US context. A conversation about race gets very intense, very quickly, because the discussion can never start at zero. Which is why our professor’s insistence that we read only the pure text is absurd!!

  3. Rasheed

    hey all,
    if you allow me I would start with “hearing the same basic idea repeated over the course of a semester is like listening to a broken record that plays only the opening measures to a song.” Honestly, we are doing the same thing, mistake, on this blog again in the sense we are repeating more or less the same discussion we had after each class we attended. We tended to express our disappointment about the value of trying to make sense out of nonsensical courses. Expressions like ‘ma master ma walo’, ‘tkharbi9’, ‘come what may’, ‘just bear with us’, ‘beside the point’, ‘irrelevance’, ‘soon it’ll be over’ … are often voiced out by Mamasers. I am afraid that these expressions have transcended the walls of room 32 and started spreading out bit by bit to reach petite-a-petit. Personally, I kept waiting for Kathleen to present on the Maghreb in the American cinema. by the way, I am still waiting for that presentation to come. As she said ‘I was frustrated’, and any American attending our class would feel the same, because of the loads of criticism directed to Americans in general and Hollywood in particular. Still, I think that it would be useful if you, Kathleen, provide us with a different discourse through which you show the other part of the coin. A cinematic discourse that represents Moroccans as you see them on actuality. A discourse that would belie all the classmates who castigated Hollywood for the negative images of Moroccans on the silver screen.
    This is if you allow me, if you don’t, I would get back and read the comments of my friends then zap into writing my essay on ‘the Maghreb in the American Cinema’ . wish me luck.

    • Kathleen

      I don’t think it’s my role to provide an alternative vision of Moroccans in American cinema. I commented above in response to Elhassan that it’s true, those views are hard to come by in movies. My point, though, is that we can’t just take that assumption and run with it, making everything just kind of fit into a simple theory about “negative” portrayals of Moroccans. It’s true, I get annoyed at hearing so much criticism of the U.S., but believe me when I say that it’s nothing I’ve never heard before, and many things I actually agree with. But, just because there’s a grain of truth doesn’t mean an argument is well constructed or sophisticated.
      As for the presentation, touché. I’ve thought about that actually, since I know I’ve been very vocal in critiquing others’ presentations. It’s only fair that I should expose myself to the same treatment, if we have time in the last class.

  4. You don’t have to take what’s said in the class seriously to that extent .. It’s just blabla .. students are fed up with that brouhaha .. they only want to get their degree and say good bye to those robots who teach us .. as ya said the pro…fessor took great deal in this big misunderstanding .. to say that Americans produce negative stereotypical image about the Middle East and North Africa is very populist .. we always victimize ourselves saying they are planning for a conspiracy against “us” .. then, it’s just whatever .. It was stupid from the part of the professor to give them that bullshit pattern; saying: Aha, this is the Hollywoodian pattern: good vs evil; primitive vs civilized, violence vs safety .. I couldn’t discuss more when he says that all movies are supposed to be work of art .. I couldn’t discuss more when he couldn’t distinguish between mainstream films and art films as a distinctive film mode practice .. I couldn’t discuss more when he say we think of Bernardo Bertolucci as great filmaker, but in fact he is not .. This makes me sick .. At least I didn’t say in the film I present about that it reproduces the same stereotypical image (‘-) .. But, don’t take things too seriously, otherwise ya’ll get crazy.

    • Kathleen

      cool and collected, as always! Thanks for reminding us all that the class would be better if we all could just discuss amongst ourselves!

  5. Mustapha

    it seems that your Teachers are discussing films on Morocco from the perspective of a person who is accustomed to living in dirty places, oppressed unemployed women, homeless children, absence of good infra structure, quite honest people, very weak and shabby means of transport, close minded educators, to mention but a fiew among themes discussed in Hollywoods films on Morocco. these things seem bizzare for an American director accustomed to a different life standard. my word here is that if you couldn’t change your teachers worldview, i think you will have time to regenerate the way research is carried in this field. above all we cannot close our eyes and say whatever is displayed in Babel, Morocco, Road to Morocco, Five Fingers and others is totally true, but full of overgeneralizations that we all should work hard to unfix and restyle it

    • Kathleen

      Hi Mustapha, thanks for your comment. I think there´s no shortage of stereotypes in movies about Morocco, the larger Middle East, Arab World, Muslim world. I think examining those images requires nuance, and a recognition that there is some variation between films. Babel does not present the same picture as Hideous Kinky, which doesn´t just simply replicate the images found in Casablanca. I think no one would say that what we find in movies is totally true, but of course some images find their way into our notion of Morocco, especially if it´s all we see. I happen to think that Bable, for instance, contains not just stereotypes, but sophisticated commentary on stereotyping, especially in a terrorism-obsessed context.

  6. Mustapha

    salam Kathleen, I do comply with your arguments.no one can deny the few and slow changes that happen to take place over 80 years approximately. the good things are a plus for us all. my word here is that we should work together to changes the remaining preconceptions we still unfortunately hold about eachother. I’m working on these Hollywood’s cinematic portrayals of Morocco and I found myself still face to face with displeasing scenes and at the same time some pleasing ones. so it’s not fair to talk only about negative stereotypes but also about fair ones. as Moroccans still we dont feel at ease with many scenes that would seem normal for An Amerian Director so as not to overgeneralize it to all Ameriacans. I really like to talk about film-makers rather than refering to American cineam so as to avoid generalization since not all Ameriacans hold same worldviews of directors.
    I have some questions for you Kathleen: how do you see the way the young child is portrayed masturbating and longing for his sisters body(why not another body).how do you see the way the Moroccan police men treat their homeland citizens. why the film is shot only on the mountains not in big cities like Mexico and Japan.three different place and the only strange place happen to be Moroccan. how do you see the way the old women in black is presented as the one who would heal the pain of the victim. I think Morocco has myriad clinics.
    pls be frank in you response did you pay attention to those scenes and did they change your perception of Morocco. last question if you dont mind. Have you ever visited Morocco before you saw th film and after?

    • Kathleen

      I had been to Morocco when I saw the film for the first time. I think the film is more sophisticated than people give it credit for. The point is NOT to paint a complete picture of Morocco, and I think a viewer can appreciate that the film shows a very remote rural part of the country. As a viewer, I read the fact that the kid lusts after his sister as an indication of how isolated the place is, rather than some kind of message about Moroccan depravity. I also wonder how many clinics exist in the most remote parts of Morocco.
      As far as the other places go, you find different types of “strangeness” in each. Even in the parts about Southern California, there is much subtle commentary on how sheltered the kids are, how entitled the parents feel, and how pathological race and class relations are there. It is not a “normal” place.
      I can understand why a Moroccan person might be offended by portrayals of some part of Morocco, but in your comments and in conversations I’ve had with other people, I perceive a knee-jerk reaction to discredit all narratives of Morocco that come from the outside, and the hasty assumption that all viewers will assume the worst about an entire country.

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