Monday, August 23, 2010

The Politics of the Desert Romance

Hsu-Ming Teo notes in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies that
2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. [...] The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over‐sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931.
But as the sheik was transformed into a sexual fantasy for Western women, his female counterpart seemed to have been pushed aside. Sheikh romances generally depict the relationship "between an Arabian sheik or prince and a white Western (usually British or American) woman" (Taylor). Jessica Taylor adds that "the only position for an Arabian woman available in Orientalist discourse seemed to be that of harem occupant, a passive role which is unsuitable for the heroine of the novel, especially since it is a racialized role and the heroines are only ever racialized as ‘white’." Arab women may appear in these novels, but they generally do so as secondary characters. Although they may be given only limited opportunities to speak for themselves, they are not infrequently mentioned by the white heroines, for as Evelyn Bach notes,
In the verbal battles that constitute much of the courtship in this genre, the heroine often makes pointed references to such traditions as white slavery, huge harems, unbridled lust, imprisonment, the inequality of women and the arrogant despotism of Eastern potentates in general and her abductor in particular. (22)
In addition,
In a number of desert romances, usually quite early in the narrative, the heroine makes pointed comparisons between herself and native women. The observations range from the miserable, restricted lives they lead to their constant sexual availability and unquestioning subservience to the men who are their lords and masters. These comparisons serve a number of purposes. First, they add to the litany of Eastern injustice and barbarity. Second, they enable the heroine to maintain her privileged position as a special, exceptional woman. Constant reminders throughout the texts of her fair or auburn hair and pale skin ensure that her difference is more than adequately established. (22-23)
Although some more recent novels do depict more feisty "native women" as secondary characters, Bach's observations probably still hold true about many others, and that's a shame because it obscures the reality of Muslim women's lives and personalities, for example
Young Egyptian women are using blogs and online radio stations to beat the censors and to fight for equality.

Despite making up only 24% of the workforce in Egypt, 30% of women use the internet.

But it is the middle and upper classes that have really taken to the internet as an alternative way to discuss topics and exchange information and air what many conservatives would consider to be radical views.
In Iran
Women have been extremely politically active in the country for quite some time now, and many Iranians are amused, quite frankly, at the West's sudden revelation that neither chadors nor head scarves snuff out the fire in women's bellies. "This isn't new. This is only the first time that you've been aware of it," Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, tells me with a good-natured laugh. Women were essential political organizers as far back as the 1905 Constitutional Revolution; they also fought and died alongside men in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which might not have happened without their help.

Since then, women have rebelled in deceptively superficial ways. Post-revolution, many began pushing the bounds of the new Islamic state's moral fabric, both literally and figuratively. The small silk scarves, bright nail polish and dramatic makeup that have become emblematic of the protests are a direct challenge to the official dress code. "It was the way for women to protest since the '80s," says Marina Nemat, author of "Prisoner of Tehran," a personal memoir about being imprisoned, tortured and nearly executed in Iran.
Last year I came across an article in The Observer which begins with these words: "Habitually dressed in a long black abaya, with a veil placed firmly against her cheek, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the wife of the king of Bahrain, does not conform to the usual image of a political activist." She doesn't conform to the usual image of the sheikh's wife that's to be found at the end of sheikh romances either: "Mild-mannered, progressive and with an impressive command of English, the 60-year-old royal, [is] the first of King Hamad's four wives."

For her part, Queen Rania of Jordan has taken to YouTube:

In Qatar Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned is the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar (Wikipedia) and she
plays a highly visible role in a region where royal wives until recently were rarely seen and certainly never heard.

While it is a deeply conservative society, Qatari women can vote, drive and play a full part in the workplace: headscarves are a frequent sight, but the dress code for women is not as strict as in Saudi. Dr Sheikha Abdulla al-Misnad, president of Qatar University, says about half her staff and 70% of her students are women. (Sutherland)
Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned
currently serves as Chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a private non-profit organization founded in 1995 on the personal initiative of His Highness the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. In autumn 2003, Qatar Foundation inaugurated Education City, a prototypical campus of the future, bringing branches of renowned international universities to Qatar to provide top class degree programs and to share research and community-based ventures.

In addition to her work at Qatar Foundation, Her Highness has long served as President of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs which aims to strengthen the role of the family in society and addresses issues of concern to women and children. Her Highness serves as well as Vice Chairperson of both the Supreme Education Council and the Supreme Health Council. In addition, she is Chairperson of the Sidra Medical and Research Center project to build a premier academic medical center in Qatar, Chairperson of the Silatech initiative to address the growing challenge of youth employment in the Middle East and North Africa region, and Chairperson of the Doha-based Arab Democracy Foundation.

Her Highness plays an important role on the international stage as well. In 2003, UNESCO appointed her Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education. In this capacity she actively promotes various international projects to improve the quality and accessibility of education worldwide. In June 2003, she established the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq which is dedicated to the reconstruction of institutions of advanced learning. In 2005, she was selected by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to be a Member of the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of Civilizations. (from her own website)
In sheikh romances the personal is also quite clearly the political. As Amira Jarmakani has noted,
despite claims from romance readers and writers that these novels bear no relation to the actual Middle East, the threatening specter of the terrorist is very much present in these stories, many of which fixate on the sheikh’s efforts to modernize his country against the wishes of those characters presented as primitive and barbaric. (998)
In addition, the hero often grants some of his immense political power to the heroine:
By and large, most of the Arab countries described in these books are fictional. Sometimes these lands are socially repressive, but their leaders usually strive to change them into more modern societies that treat women equally. In some cases, the skills or talent of the beautiful heroine often may help this effort along, particularly if she entered the country for the purpose of taking a temporary professional position (i.e. hospital administrator, conference planner, headhunter). (Sheiks and Desert Love website)
Or, as Jarmakani puts it,
the iteration of global feminism proffered by the novels defines the white heroine’s freedom in opposition to her Arab female counterpart, thereby using an individualist model that implicitly excludes the racialized other from participating in the same freedoms. (999)
Thus, despite the inevitable exceptions, there would appear to be a pattern, common in this subgenre, of feisty, liberated Western heroines nobly working to emancipate oppressed Arab women.1 This is problematic for reasons outlined by Nouha al-Hegelan in an article written in 1980 and titled "Women in the Arab World":
As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives. Like other maligned groups, we do our best to understand these misperceptions and, in our own way, to confront them. I know of no Arab woman who underestimates the difficulty of changing Western assumptions. The stereotypes of Arab women, "imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness," will not be eradicated in our lifetime. While we are often shocked into numbness by the depth of the misunderstanding, we know that each epoch of awareness is a new beginning and a new opportunity for us and for our daughters.

Just such a shock lies in what I call the "born yesterday assumption". Westerners begin by comparing the Arab/ Moslem woman to her sisters in the West. Using Western women as a standard is only part of the insult. The injury is magnified by the added assumption that the Arab woman began her struggle yesterday-as if she was somehow born whole out of a newly tapped oil well-a veiled, uncivilized non-entity.

Like most stereotypes, this image is not merely wrong or insulting, it is ludicrous. Long before Western women even considered themselves as a group, let alone a group deprived of its rights, the Islamic woman had begun her emancipation. From the beginning of Islam, 1400 years ago, the Moslem woman was born with all the rights -cultural and spiritual - due a human being.
Part of that history includes the fact that "one of the world's first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri." For her part, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, who"has forged ahead with critical reforms in her position as head of the newly-established Supreme Council for Women" says that "The image of Arab women in the west, that we are just princesses in a golden cage, with no rights, no choice, no brains and no education, is a challenge. It's totally wrong and I really want to correct it."

So have you come across any sheikh romances which correct the misperceptions of Arab women? Do you think this sub-genre has changed in recent years so that, as suggested by Emily Haddad, "where the novels that appeared before 2004 typically wallowed in the exoticism of their orientalized settings, the newer novels often minimize or even eliminate the Arab world as a setting, or diminish cross-cultural conflict by ascribing a Middle Eastern identity to the heroine" (60)?

1 Among the exceptions are the heroine of Susan Mallery's The Sheik and the Runaway Princess, a "half-Bahanian, half-American princess and art specialist [...] Bahania is a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula" (Haddad 47), the heroine of Jane Porter's The Sheikh's Virgin, "Keira Gordon [who] was born Keira al-Issidri, and the narrative returns obsessively to her confusion over her half-English, half Barakan heritage" (Haddad 58), the half American Aliyah in Olivia Gates's The Desert King and the heroines of two novels written by Alexandra Sellers, namely "Jalia, the heroine of The Ice Maiden's Sheikh [who] is a Bagestani princess raised in exile in England" (Haddad 57) and "The heroine of The Fierce and Tender Sheikh [who] is another princess, Shakira, who had been lost following the assassination of her parents, and is at the beginning of the book living as a boy in a refugee camp" (Haddad 57).

The first photo, of Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, came from Women Gateway. If you scroll down this page you should reach a short biography of her in English. I've also included a photo (found via Wikipedia) of Queen Rania of Jordan, speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos in 2007. I have included these photos because they provide evidence of some of the real women whose fictional counterparts are so often relegated to the status of secondary characters in sheikh romances, while their roles are usurped by Western heroines.


  1. awesome post. this is a good example of how romance novels are sites of cultural tropes ... often the novels have a change or shift in the trope before the rest of the culture does!

  2. "often the novels have a change or shift in the trope before the rest of the culture does!"

    I wonder if a lot of this is because romances deal with sexuality, and people's sexual desires are not always constrained by what social mores tell them they ought to want.

    By the same token, however, that can also mean that sexual desires may remain static while social mores move on.

    Desert/sheikh romances are full of ambiguity and contradictions. As Susan L. Blake has written in her article about The Sheik:

    The Sheik's critique of racial discourse, [...] like its critique of English marriage, takes place within the frame of the ideology it protests. The novel is dual on every level. The Sheik is and is not Arab. Diana rejects English patriarchy and marries an earl. [...] The novel is both a captivity narrative in which the captive chooses her captor and one in which she is rescued by her own people. The question is, which story, or stories, do we read? (83)

    Sheikh romances' attitudes towards Arab men and women are similarly ambivalent. They are accepted, inasmuch as the sheikh is the hero, but they are not, inasmuch as they are Westernised, or it's suggested that they should be Westernised: the sheikhs tend not to be Muslims, for example, they are often part-Western and/or have received a Western education. The white heroine often claims equality for women, but in the process of doing so she often emerges as the unelected spokeswoman for all the non-white women, which implicitly makes some women less equal than others. The fact that so many of these stories take place in entirely imaginary places also complicates their relationship with reality.

    Blake, Susan L. “What ‘Race’ Is the Sheik? Rereading a Desert Romance.” Doubled Plots: Romance and History. Ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. 67-85.

  3. You no what I've noticed? The Arab/Native American + white woman trope. It has been around even when racism was pretty thick. I wonder when & why the Arab and the Native American "brave" became "white"? They certainly weren't in 1900. And that cross-ethnic thing did not happen with either Asian men, or Black men, or men from India and Pakistan. Just sheiks and braves. Have you, in your research, run into much cross-ethic romance? Someone should write and essay ... and it might be me :0)

  4. Hsu-Ming Teo's written a bit about the Anglo-Indian romance sub-genre in her "Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels." She also discusses the issue of whiteness in relation to sheikh heroes in her most recent essay in JPRS.

    There are quite a lot of inter-racial African-American/White romances. Cristen Blanding's 2005 MA thesis examines some of them.

    As for the Native-American hero/white woman romance, I have the impression it evolved from captivity narratives. The latest item I've come across on this subgenre is Theresa Lynn Gregor's 2010 PhD thesis, "From Captors to Captives: American Indian Responses to Popular American Narrative Forms."

    I know there are some other relevant items, but those are the ones that are coming to my mind at the moment, and they're ones which are readily available online, which is always helpful.

    As Hsu-Ming Teo's essay on The Sheik demonstrates, one can't assume that the historical, social, political and literary context in which one type of inter-racial romance emerged and developed is identical to that of another type.

  5. Laura, just wanted to say (belatedly) that this was absolutely fascinating, and thanks!

  6. The comparison between what made inter-ethnic romance 'mainstream' is what intrigues me. In the US there is a longstanding and racist tradition that white men can have relationships with women of other ethnicities and it is "exoticing the other' but white women were socially penalized for romances that were outside their ethnic bubble. Yet at some point the narrative of white women and Native American men or Sheiks came into practice. Why those two ethnicities? Were they different yet "white enough"? I am curious about the cultural shift that made the brave and the sheik "suitable" romantic heroes. The original "Sheik" was really a secret Englishman. But 'he' was an actual Arab (usually) in the 1980's Harlequins. There is probably some work already done on it. Maybe.

  7. I meant anthro work! Not any disrespect for Susan Blake's work! Which I have not yet had a chance to read. I was just wondering what my field was up to. I think out loud even when I type :0)

  8. "just wanted to say (belatedly) that this was absolutely fascinating"

    Elizabeth, compliments are always welcome, however belated. ;-)

    "Yet at some point the narrative of white women and Native American men or Sheiks came into practice. Why those two ethnicities? Were they different yet "white enough"?"

    Hsu-Ming Teo mentions in her JPRS article that "Although the subgenre of the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the late 1930s, the 1970s saw its revival, particularly in the form of the newly emerging erotic historical romance novel, produced primarily in the United States by authors such as Johanna Lindsey (1977) and Bertrice Small (1978)."

    Since I haven't read any of the earlier sheikh novels, I don't know whether all of those sheikhs were actually White, but it could be that there are differences between the race(s) of the early sheikhs and the race(s) of the later ones.

    I think in the case of non-White sheikhs, class (signified by royal/noble ancestry and plenty of wealth) probably played, and continues to play, a role in making them more acceptable to readers.

    In the case of Native American heroes, I suspect at least some of the appeal is due to the idea of the "noble savage." Stephanie Wardrop's "Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance" (1997) MELUS 22.2: 61-74 might be helpful to you.

    It's not a subgenre which seems to have become particularly popular in the UK so I don't know much about it but I did a quick search and in her MA thesis, "American Indian Stereotypes in Early Western Literature and the Lasting Influence on American Culture" Lacy Noel Cotton touches very briefly on modern romance novels and suggests that

    Miscegenation has experienced a complete reversal in popularity amongst American readership since the 1960s. Where it once was an unmentionable occurrence, a "horrid alternative," now it seems to reflect the secret fantasies of every woman who reads a historical novel. Bookstore shelves are crammed full with pulp historical romance novels, completely lacking in historical fact, that spins tales of idyllic half-breed men that sweep ill-content white women off their feet. (83)


    While the Indians in these books are treated sympathetically by their authors, they are still badly misrepresented. Even romance novels that involve Indians in a contemporary setting suggest a certain nobility or idealism to its Native American characters, largely connected to their traditional heritage. Ultimately, devoted readers of this genre concoct an unrealistic understanding of American Indians and their "Noble" race, both past and present. (84)

    Unfortunately she doesn't go into any detail about why this type of romance appeared in the 1960s, or who was writing them, which makes it difficult to verify the date she gives.

  9. Fantastic post! I was reading feminist/anti-racist blog posts about Orientalism in the film Cairo Time, which is about a romance between an Egyptian man and a white American woman. As I read them, I kept thinking about sheik romances and how the failures of the film--while not being exactly the same-- intersect with the failures of the Romance sub-genre.

    It is interesting how desire and racism can co-exist. Though not so surprising when one considers that homophobic patriarchal cultures require that men both desire and despise women.

  10. Oh! Forgot to mention, according to a recent class on feminist history, there was a small sub-genre of travel writing done by Victorian English women who married Middle Eastern men and the cliches you mention--in particular the stereotypical treatment of Middle Eastern women--appear there. Perhaps, if the Native American romance arose out of the captivity narrative, the sheik romance has some ties to this non-fiction writing far back in its ancestry?

  11. Kyra, I should have mentioned this earlier in the thread, but a while ago I wrote a post about race and colour which contains some quotes from an article by Kate McCafferty, including one in which she suggests a reason why the Native American hero (rather than another race of non-White American hero) became particularly popular.

    "It is interesting how desire and racism can co-exist."

    In that earlier post I mentioned the importance of language and colour symbolism, but I didn't focus, as Stephanie Burley does in her "Shadows & Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance" (Paradoxa 5.13-14 (2000): 324-343), on how desire and racism are tied together, implicitly, in some of the common words used to describe protagonists.

    Burley looked at Silhouette Desire romances which "At first glance [...] seem about as de-racinated as a loaf of Wonder Bread [...] these titles seem unencumbered by any kind of racial politics" (324) but she goes on to find "racially encoded language, trope, and ideology" (324) in them. For example, in the books she examines,

    all of the heroes, none of whom would be described as Black or African American, are associated with various notions of "darkness," both in terms of their physical traits and the symbolic language that describes their moods, thoughts, and motives. The heroines, in comparison, are consistently represented as lighter and whiter. (324)

    She suggests that

    the standard description of the 'tall, dark, and handsome' hero, in distinction to the seemingly paler heroine, merits scrutiny [...] darkness symbolizes the hero's danger, mystery, sensuality, and otherness. (328)

    Colour symbolism, then, can embed in texts the concept of a dangerous/forbidden sexual attraction to someone colour-coded as dark and therefore desirable. Obviously that doesn't immediately read as "racist" when the hero in question is both "dark" and "White" but it perpetuates certain word associations and emotional connotations around "darkness" which are associated with ideas about race.

    You can also find people saying they have a preference for "dark" books, i.e. ones in which there's angst, tormented characters etc. And this is seen as a desirable characteristic in the book, because it makes it more interesting and exciting, even though most readers presumably wouldn't want such "darkness" in their real lives.

  12. "Perhaps, if the Native American romance arose out of the captivity narrative, the sheik romance has some ties to this non-fiction writing far back in its ancestry?"

    Susan L. Blake mentions some of the earlier non-fiction:

    A third discourse, practiced by Lady Anne Blunt and Richard Burton among others, idealizes "true Arabs" for the very qualities the English aristocracy claimed for itself, "superiority in point of birth" and "absolute independence." This romantic-aristocratic discourse constructs Arabs as worthy of admiration and imitation by whites [...] and separates character from color, but preserves the idea of pure races and sidesteps the question of miscegenation. Lady Anne Blunt illustrates this side step in her description of the well-known Damascus couple Lady Jane Digby and Sheik Medjuel el Mezrab (whose marriage may have inspired the fictional union in The Sheik). Lady Anne devotes six pages to admiration of Medjuel, whose "dark olive complexion" she pronounces a sign of his "good Bedouin blood," but barely mentions "the strange accident of his marriage with an English lady," except to assure the reader that it has "not estranged him from the desert" (8-9). (74)

  13. Wow! The romance scholars have been leaving anthropology in the dust on this one! These are definitely articles I need to read, and to think about this stuff using anthropological theories ... I think it could make a great article.

  14. I wonder when & why the Arab and the Native American "brave" became "white"? They certainly weren't in 1900.

    Miscegenation has experienced a complete reversal in popularity amongst American readership since the 1960s.

    "Although the subgenre of the British-authored “sheik novel” had run out of steam by the late 1930s, the 1970s saw its revival..."

    Interestingly, the "Hays Code" was in effect from 1930 to 1968.

    And that cross-ethnic thing did not happen with either Asian men, or Black men, or men from India and Pakistan. Just sheiks and braves.

    "Brave" (noble) and "warrior" (conqueror, or, in bare minimum, not-wholly-conquered) seem to be the magical code words of the (perceived) qualities for an "exotic" lover, as opposed to non-fighting, servant-like, dependant, "conquered" farmers (merchants?), i.e. qualities considered passive and "feminine".

    Hsu-Ming Teo's "Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels": Benita Parry argued that “Anglo-Indians tended to find Moslems, Sikhs and Rajputs, the ‘fighting races’, more congenial than the ‘passive, supine’ Hindus.”

    Hence "Arabs" rather than Jews (who are often depicted as passive victims), Apaches vs. Hopis ("anti-war"), Maori vs. Australian Aborginal people; Vikings, Scots (Highlanders), Gurkhas, the "Aryan" warrior race of Rajputs, Cossacks, Tatars, Goths, Norman knights, Samurais. And most recently the small body of "Masai romances", Masai being the quintessential Tall, Dark, Handsome Warrior type.

    The traditional colonial discourse associates the female body/feminine with the conquered/possessed/tamed land (penetrating undiscovered new territories and all that). Hence, the white men were free to have relationships with the "exotic Other". Whereas white women = white homeland/civilization. A transgression and "rape" of a white woman, whom the white man was tasked to protect = conquest, rape of homeland, spreading of foreign seed, as it is, if this makes sense. Much like Captain Aubrey/Crowe declares in Master and Commander: "England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship _is_ England. Or: "This womb _is_ England." *G*

    Maybe the desire for a forbidden, exotic lover in romance novels might be considered a feminist counter-reaction, an expression of freedom (to choose one's lovers).

    Perhaps, if the Native American romance arose out of the captivity narrative, the sheik romance has some ties to this non-fiction writing far back in its ancestry?

    The long & strong French-Ottoman Allience (1536-1800) gave rise to French orientalism, in literature, also. Could Voltaire's "Sultan" in "Zaïre --The Tragedy of Zara" be the frontrunner for "Sheikh"...? =)

  15. Kara posted a comment which seems to have vanished from the thread. I'm not sure if Kara deleted it, or if Blogger did. In case it was Kara who decided to delete it, I won't quote from it, but I was very intrigued by mention of the Hay's Code in relation to the dates given for the reappearance of sheikh romances and the appearance of Native American romances. I hadn't heard of it by that name before, and I didn't know much about it.

    Floyd Cheung observes that

    Colonial Maryland passed the first law against interracial marriage in 1661; the US Supreme Court did not strike down all state laws of this sort until 1967 (Chan 59-61). Scientists in the nineteenth century coined the term “miscegenation” to legitimize the hypothesis that interracial unions would result in the “decline of the population” (Gilman 107). Even the US film industry helped naturalize the assumption that heterosexual liaisons should take place only between members of the same racialized identification. From the 1930s until the 1960s, the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, banned representations of interracial coupling in American film as morally unwholesome. Although the Hays Code is no longer in effect, miscegenation has been disproved as pseudo-science, and US laws against interracial coupling no longer exist, the assumptions that warranted these measures linger at the turn of the twenty-first century.

    Cheung, Floyd. "Negative Attraction:
    The Politics of Interracial Romance
    in The Replacement Killers
    ." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to Present 1.2 (2002).

  16. Sorry, I messed up that last link. It should go to here (which is the same place as the other link in that comment, since they were both supposed to link to the same article).

  17. Kara, I'm sorry your comment disappeared like that. Unbeknownst to me, Blogger had set up a new spam detection system which sends some comments into a spam folder. As you can see, I've retrieved the comment now.

  18. "Maybe the desire for a forbidden, exotic lover in romance novels might be considered a feminist counter-reaction, an expression of freedom (to choose one's lovers)"

    Yes, that's one way of looking at it, and Kate Saunders, in her introduction to the Virago edition of The Sheik suggests that the novel "should be seen [...] as a precursor of Erica Jong's 'Zipless Fuck'" (vi) but unfortunately that sexual freedom for white women often seems to be claimed at the expense of the non-white men who are stereotyped and the non-white women who are stereotyped and/or are silenced and/or are pretty much erased from the stories altogether. Perhaps not coincidentally, there's been similar criticism of the recent Sex and the City film, set in Abu Dhabi. Lynne Miles at the F-Word commented of SATC that

    It’s escapism. I thought the series was smart, warm, and funny and, yes okay then, feminist, if you want to get down to brass tacks. [...] whilst SATC has sometimes been problematic on race it has (mostly) been a sin of omission. But that’s not the problem with this movie. In fact, by the end of it, I was wishing that the worst I could say about it was that it hadn’t portrayed any local women. SATC2 doesn’t ignore Muslim women; it stereotypes them as either shrouded victims or bellydancers. It’s talking about them but not allowing them to talk for themselves. That is far, far, more problematic than not portraying them at all. The women of Abu Dhabi are there as objects of pity, of scorn, or of patronising, wide-eyed curiosity, but never as equals.

  19. Thank you, Laura, for your post rescue effort. Also, thank you for all those interesting links, again. :)

    Although the Hays Code is no longer in effect, miscegenation has been disproved as pseudo-science, and US laws against interracial coupling no longer exist, the assumptions that warranted these measures linger at the turn of the twenty-first century.

    Still alive in a form of preemptive self-censorship. Consider the Hollywood's leading black men's (Denzel Washington, Will Smith), pairings with "white" actresses, "white" here excluding Latin women. For example "The Pelican Brief" with Washington and Julia Roberts. The story clearly has those token moments for "romance" and between-the-sheets stuff Hollywood-style. Yet nothing happens, unlike in the original book by Grisham, where Grantham and Shaw do what the audience have come to expect attractive single male and female characters to do in that situation and end up together. What doesn't happen onscreen stands like a red fat exclamation mark there. The characters do not even so much as talk about it why nothing happened/cannot happen, to give some sort of motivation why they are not (or cannot act on it) attracted to each other.

    I dare argue that "The Bodyguard" and "Pretty Woman" would never have made it, if Roberts and Washington had been cast in the roles of Houston and Costner, and Washington in the role occupied by Gere.

    ...but unfortunately that sexual freedom for white women often seems to be claimed at the expense of the non-white men who are stereotyped and the non-white women who are stereotyped and/or are silenced and/or are pretty much erased from the stories altogether.

    Yes, feminism is still very much "white" and "racist", I remember reading more than once. Sounds like SATC2 doesn't give a Disneyfied version, then, but a very accurate portrait of how emancipated western women do view at the veiled women. I would venture to speculate that by trying to offer a more multilayered interpretation, SATC2 would have raised far more bigger waves, waves which would have slapped in the face of the potential audience, to strain the poetics there. It's hard to imagine a commercial film's taking the financial risk of trying to be anything more than escapist entertainment for the widest possible audience, who does not want to pay the $$ ticket price to get its default position challenged. Unfortunately.

  20. Judging by the examples you're giving, Kara, and by Hsu-Ming Teo's essay in JPRS, it seems that comparisons between books and films in this area may be particularly helpful because both the similarities and the differences seem to reveal significant information regarding social attitudes.