The three B syndrome

16 Apr

The “3 B Syndrome” is the term frequently used to describe the portrayal of Arabs in the mass media: as bombers, billionaires or belly dancers. The alliteration, humorous in its simplicity, is actually an apt summary for the bulk of stereotypes and illinformed representations of Arabs in news media, film, and daily life.

One person fighting against these stereotypes is Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who wrote the sarcastic piece “Arab-bashing for Fun and Profit”, which includes a facetious 12 step guide for how to stereotype Muslims (great piece of counter-hegemonic sarcasm, my personal favorite strategy).  The piece includes tips like, “the villains must all have beards” and “have [the villains] threaten to blow something up.” Published initially in the Los Angeles Times, the piece got a great deal of attention and has been reprinted in many places, and I suggest you check it out.  What Lalami’s post consists of, though she doesn’t refer to them as such, are tropes of empire.  A trope of empire is a familiar and repeated theme, character, narrative, etc., which performs ideological work through the use of language (metaphor, figurative, non-literal) and discourse.  The work done by the perpetuation and ubiquity of these tropes is manifested in the way they essentialize (characterize by unchanging essences), otherize (essentialized characteristics polar opposite of Western characteristics), and create absences (‘other’ is depicted as lacking in positive traits) in the subject.


One man who studies the relationship between tropes and the ideological work that they perform is Dr. Jack Shaheen.  Shaheen, is an internationally acclaimed author and media critic who also fights to halt (or progress from) the 3 B Syndrome in American media. His award-winning book and film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People follows the history of the media’s slander against Arab people and shows how stereotypes have grown in the film history over the years.

Watch this clip from the documentary Reel Bad Arabs, the film translation of Shaheen’s book:

Shaheen’s work also offers solutions for how Hollywood can change their defamation Arabs, and he has consulted for films such as “Three Kings”.

Through work like that of Larami and Shaheen, appealing to humor and logic to reveal the absurdities of Hollywood representation of Arabs, the 3 B Syndrome is slowly disintegrating and tropes of empire are being brought out into the open where they can be dispelled.


Devin Riley

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