Representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Iranians in an Era of Complex Characters and Storylines — by Evelyn Alsultany
May 27, 2020
Evelyn Alsultany examines shifts and nuances in the representations of Arabs, Muslims and Iranians in popular TV and cinema. This article was originally published in University of Michigan's Film Criticism journal (Volume 40, Issue 1, January 2016) and is reproduced here via Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License. 

Examining representations of Arabs and Muslims on television and film after September 11, 2001, a few things become apparent. Storylines and characters have become more complex over the last decade or so. The “good guys” have bad qualities: they torture and murder people, sometimes indiscriminately. Conversely, the “bad” guys now have good qualities: they articulate reasonable justifications for their murderous actions. Many of the terrorists represented in storylines about the War on Terror are white men, Arabs and Muslims are sometimes portrayed as patriotic Americans, and the U.S. government is often portrayed as abusing its power. At first glance it looks like the representational landscape has significantly changed from the days of simple binaries of good and evil and that stereotyping is on the decline. However, upon closer examination, as we reflect on film criticism in the twenty-first century, it is important to analyze the ways in which racialized meanings can be produced through even the most innovative or complex storylines.

Even though Hollywood films in the twenty-first century have more complex storylines and characters, it is important not to assume this means that stereotyping and othering have been resolved. Consider the film Argo (2012), about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, which was met with critical acclaim and won the 2013 Academy Award for best picture. The most important gesture made by Argo towards complexity is the opening of the film, which serves essentially as a preface—a two-minute visual montage partly animated with narration that provides context to the Iran Hostage Crisis. This context explains that in 1953 the U.S. and England got rid of Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohamad Mossadeg, because he did not serve their oil interests and replaced him with Reza Pahlavi, who focused on Westernizing Iran at the expense of the Iranian people. The narration explains: “In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew the Shah. The exiled cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned to rule Iran. It descended into score settling, death squads, and chaos. Dying of cancer, the Shah was given asylum in the U.S. The Iranian people took to the streets outside the U.S. embassy demanding that the Shah be returned, tried, and hanged.”

Critics and viewers have debated the extent to which Argo is unusually complex for a Hollywood film because of this opening sequence and its narrative. Middle East scholar and blogger Juan Cole wrote: “Although the film begins with an info-dump that explains that the U.S. screwed over Iran by having the CIA overthrow the elected government in 1953 and then helped impose a royal dictatorship in the form of the restored shah, that part of the film is emotionally flat. It tells, it doesn’t show. It is tacked on. It does not intersect with the subsequent film in any significant way. It therefore has no emotional weight and does little to contextualize the Iranian characters (none of whose names I think we even learn).”[1]

At the same time, however, many disagree with the perspective that the film’s opening accomplishes little, if anything. One internet poster responding to an article in The Guardian about the film, insisted, “The opening to Argo does a great job in explaining the source of Iranian ire towards the US, with a wonderful animated history of 20th Century Iran including the U.S. overthrow of Mossadegh’s democratically elected government in 1953. If that doesn’t question U.S. foreign policy, then I don’t know what else Affleck can do to satisfy anti-American viewers.”[2] The point would be stronger, of course, if the comment did not simultaneously label those criticizing the film as “anti-American,” revealing an unproductive “us versus them” logic that, ironically, reveals the film’s failure to promote complexity over polarizing discourse.

I have termed such (failed) efforts by writers and producers to create more complex storylines and characters “simplified complex representations.”[3] These are strategies used by television and filmmakers to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex, yet they are enacted in a simplified way. It is an approach that seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one in order to circumvent stereotyping. In the case of Argo, despite the unusual complexity offered by the opening context, Iranians are nonetheless portrayed as violent, irrational, and threatening as a people. The inclusion of a two-minute preface does little if anything to mitigate this negative, one-dimensional portrayal.

How we tell stories matters. Where we begin the story matters. Whose points of view we allow (and encourage) audiences to identify with matters. Simplified complex representations do not challenge stereotypes. They tend to affirm them in the guise of cultural sensitivity. Hollywood films in the twenty-first century only appear to challenge or complicate former stereotypes, while promoting logics that legitimize racist policies and practices. If Iranians are a violent and irrational people, then it follows that the U.S. government should not reason with them.

Such films produce reassurance that racial sensitivity is the norm in U.S. society while simultaneously perpetuating the dominant perception of Iranians, Arabs, and Muslims as threats to U.S. national security. For all their apparent innovations, such complex storylines and characters have minimal impact on viewers’ perceptions of Iranians, Arabs, and Muslims and can perpetuate a simplistic vision of good and evil. Given that characters and storylines are becoming more complex, we still need to consider the production of racial meanings and be vigilant about the power of film to shape our perspectives on who is and is not deserving of rights and humanity.

Author Biography:

Evelyn Alsultany is Associate Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and Director of Arab and Muslim American Studies. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (2012). She is co-editor of two volumes: Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging (2011) and Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora (2013). She is guest curator of the Arab American National Museum’s online exhibit, “Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes,” that can be viewed at


  1. Juan Cole, “‘Argo’ as Orientalism and Why It Upsets Iranians,” Informed Comment, February 26, 2013, accessed June 9, 2013,

  2. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Why Argo Is Hard for Iranians to Watch,” The Guardian, reader comments, Londonzak, November 13, 2012, accessed June 9, 2013,

  3. Evelyn Alsultany, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York: NYU Press, 2012).

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