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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Mass Media, Mass Stereotypes:


by Shira



Table of Contents





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 American public today is much better educated and more 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 Oriental 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.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This image, filmed by Thomas Edison, dates back to 1896, the dawn of moving pictures. The dancer is Fatima.

From the very beginning of moving pictures technology, movie makers 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 performer, the primary purpose for including the scene is often to exhibit scantily-clad women to please male viewers. It is common for the characters watching these performers to make comments that reinforce the “dancer as seductress” stereotype.

A list compiled by Maria, a now-retired dancer in Boulder, Colorado identifies 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 Oriental dance. (1) Maria also compiled a list of over 150 television show episodes with such scenes.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Femme fatale Hedy Lamarr wears a costume made of sumptuous tulle bitalli in the 1949 motion picture Samson and Delilah. The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

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 Dawn of Moving Pictures

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.

There were many reasons for this fascination:

  • Governments and commercial enterprises used the Sinai Peninsula (and, after 1869, the Suez Canal) 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.
  • Letters and diaries of some travelers, such as Gustave Flaubert, were widely read.
  • European painters and photographers exploited the attitude that it was okay to create images of nude “barbarian” women to serve as the pornography of their 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 mobile-torso dance styles they observed being done by women of the Middle East.

PHOTO CREDIT: This 1857 painting by Jean-Léon Gerôme is titled "Purchase of a Slave" and serves as an example of the erotic works European painters of the Orientalist art movement created depicting fantasies of Middle Eastern women.


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 pop culture phenomenon 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 1905 debut of the opera Salomé based on Wilde’s play.

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

PHOTO CREDIT: This photo is a film still of Theda Bara from the 1918 motion picture Salomé. No known copies of this film have survived to today — it is believed lost.




Childhood Propaganda

In North America, the public often perceives animated cartoons to be children's entertainment. The Baby Boomer generation grew up with Saturday morning cartoons starring Mighty Mouse, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, and many more. Sunday evenings brought this generation The Wonderful World of Disney with the familiar Disney characters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and more. Although most cartoons in the first half of the 20th century were intended for adult consumption, their slapstick comedy, witty sight gags, and exaggerated characters also appealed to children.

I have gathered 39 cartoons depicting "Middle Eastern dance" over the course of my research. Certain common themes emerge across many of the cartoons — themes that plant the seeds of ideas in the minds of the children as they watch these cartoons. These include:

  • Seducing the Sultan. The dancer performs to please a Sultan (or other powerful man) and possibly also his friends or court.
  • Voyeurism. The dancer performs for her own pleasure, but secretly is watched by a male voyeur.
  • Enticing Men. The dancer uses her feminine wiles to beguile men, such as a performer at a bachelor party.
  • Tomb Magic. Mummies, wall paintings, or relics come to life inside an ancient Egyptian tomb and dance..
  • Other. These can represent a wide variety of dance objectives, including dancing for recreational purposes.

ABOUT THE IMAGE: The more cartoons I discovered, the more I realized the Oriental dance community needs to be made aware of the role media has played in fueling stereotypes in our society, even among young children. This is what led me to develop my lecture titled "Hares in the Harem and Fantasies of Seduction." I developed this flyer for the use of sponsors who invite me to present this lecture at their events.


The earliest animated cartoons I have been able to discover featuring Middle Eastern themes are three Mutt & Jeff cartoons from 1913, including "Mutt & Jeff in Constantinople", "Mutt & Jeff in Turkey", and "The Sultan's Harem"(2). Unfortunately, all three of these are presumed lost. The earliest surviving cartoon with a Middle Eastern theme that I have been locate a copy of is "Mummy O' Mine" (also known as "Egyptian Daze"), a 1926 Mutt & Jeff cartoon (3).

Although most people would think of Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, and other cartoon characters from their childhood as wholesome entertainment, the depictions they contain of Middle Eastern dance represent a type of propaganda that teaches children from an early age that the purpose of belly dancing is to please men.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This scene appears in the Disney cartoon "Karnival Kid"(4), which stars Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. The use of silhouette to show the dancer brings a voyeuristic flavor to the performance.


Pleasing the Sultan

In these cartoons, often the dancers are performing for the pleasure of a powerful man - a king, a Sultan, a sheikh. Examples of this can be seen in the Ub Iwerks version of Aladdin (5), "Chicken a la King," (6), "Li'l Ol' Bosko in Bagdad" (7), a Popeye cartoon (8), and many more.

Consider the Mighty Mouse cartoon titled "The Sultan's Birthday" (9). The story begins with the Sultan mouse sitting on his throne as the other mice bring him birthday gifts. One such gift consists of a curtained litter from which emerges a sexy female mouse in what we would recognize as a belly dancing costume. The Sultan nearly drools at the sight of her, then howls like a wolf. He is captivated as she begins to dance for his pleasure. This cartoon teaches children that Oriental dance causes men's libidos to rise out of control.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This scene appears in "The Sultan's Birthday", and shows the dancer enticing the Sultan.


In "Insultin the Sultan", a tourist girl is kidnapped by slave dealers and sold to the Sultan. The Sultan commands her to dance for his pleasure after rejecting two other women. The rest of the plot consists of Willie Whopper trying to help her escape. (10)

This cartoon teaches children that people in the Middle East kidnap tourists and sell them into slavery, then command them to do sexy dancing for their master.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This dance scene appears in "Insultin the Sultan".


Enticing Men

A related theme in cartoons is that of the dancer enticing male spectators. One example of this can be seen in the 1935 cartoon titled "Good Little Monkeys". (11)

The story's main characters are the three Good Little Monkeys known as See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil. The Devil comes to tempt them. They are able to resist all temptations until the Devil presents a belly dancer. She proves to be the one temptation that can challenge their resolve.

This story line teaches children that belly dancers are tools of the Devil. It teaches them that the purpose of a belly dance performance is to seduce virtuous male viewers into sinning.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a still from the dance scene in "Good Little Monkeys".



Another common theme in cartoons is that of the voyeur. In these cartoons, the woman is either dancing privately for her personal pleasure, or performing privately for her master. Along comes a voyeur who surreptitiously watches. In one example of this, shown to the right, Koko the Clown watches through a keyhole as a woman belly dances in her private boudoir (12). As with the Mighty Mouse cartoon mentioned above, his eyes pop out with excitement and he salivates at the sight.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This image is a still of a scene from Koko's "Harem Scarem".


In "Socko in Morocco" (13), Woody Woodpecker's eyes pop out of his head with excitement when he sees the silhouette of a woman dancing inside her tent. As with "Sultan's Birthday" and Koko, the male spectator loses all self-control at the mere sight of Oriental dance. The silhouette theme also appears in Disney's "Karnival Kid" (14).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This image is a scene from Woody Woodpecker's "Socko in Morocco".

In Popeye's version of the Aladdin tale (15), Popeye peers through a window as Olive Oyl dances, oblivious to the fact she is being watched.


In an episode of The Simpsons (16), Bart sneaks into the room where his father is attending a bachelor party, and uses a spy camera to photograph Homer dancing with a belly dancer. The rest of the episode explodes in scandal as the photographs are circulated all over town.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a still from a scene in The Simpsons episode titled "Homer's Night Out".

From these voyeuristic cartoons, children learn that belly dancing is a forbidden activity, a dance of the boudoir, something that one spies on, rather than watching openly at a family party with children present.




Other Stereotypes

Tomb Magic

Another pervasive stereotype about Middle Eastern dance is the mistaken belief that tomb walls in Egypt show people dancing with their elbows and wrists bent in "Pharaonic arms" awkward right-angle poses. This notion was born in the modern dance movement of the early 20th century. It persists today, even though Irena Lexova's 1935 book Ancient Egyptian Dance shows that there is no evidence to support it. On my four trips to Luxor and three trips to Saqqara, I have explored many ancient tombs and temples, but I have never seen this arm position on the wall art, not even once.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This scene appears in the 1926 cartoon "Mummy O' Mine" (17), the earliest (so far) cartoon discovered in the course of researching this article.

In keeping with the early 20th century's passion for Egypt and archeology, a number of cartoons showed scenes of travelers visiting ancient Egypt and investigating tombs. Often, the insides of these tombs would contain some sort of magic, such as mummies or wall paintings coming to life. These sometimes would include dance scenes, and the majority of those dance scenes depict the stereotypical "Pharaonic arms".


As shown above, one cartoon showing this stereotype was the 1926 "Mummy O' Mine" starring Mutt & Jeff. Later, Disney used it in "Goofy & Wilbur" (18) and TerryToons picked up the theme in King Tut's Tomb (19) with Heckle and Jeckle.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This image is a still from Disney's "Goofy and Wilbur". In the scene, the song "Streets of Cairo" plays in the background.

These cartoons keep alive the incorrect stereotype held by many that the bent-elbow arm position was typical of ancient Egyptian dance. This stereotype probably doesn't harm the reputation of Oriental dance, but it has tainted the dance in another way — many dancers have incorporated the arm position into their Oriental dance performances or interpretive Pharaonic pieces, often with unfortunate results.


Middle Eastern Culture

Cartoons of the early 20th century contained a large amount of racist material, not only applied to Middle Eastern people, but also applied to Native Americans, African Americans, the Rom, and other ethnic groups. For that reason, censors today often ban racist cartoons from airing on television broadcasts.

One of the cultures often satirized by these cartoons is that of the Middle East. Orientalism is often permitted by the censors, even if racist depictions of other ethnic groups are suppressed. Cartoons typically show women wearing the "harem girl" outfit of sheer face veils, sheer harem pants, and midriff-baring crop tops, often as slaves or prisoners in the harems of the enemy that the cartoons' heroes are trying to vanquish. Snake charmers are a familiar sight. The cartoons keep the stereotypes alive, feeding viewers' incorrect beliefs about Middle Eastern culture.

For more commentary on the depiction of Middle Eastern people in both motion pictures and animated cartoons, see Jack Shaheen's book, Reel Bad Arabs.



What Does This Mean to Us Dancers?

By understanding how our dance has been portrayed by the media, we become aware that the imagery the North American public has been viewing since childhood 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 church basements for classes, banned from performing in city festivals, or rejected from obtaining arts grants to fund events. 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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

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.


Out of the 39 cartoons with "Middle Eastern dance" scenes uncovered so far in this research, 22 show male characters responding to the dancers with voyeurism or titillated reactions. Children who grow up watching such cartoons absorb the message that this is what belly dancing is "for". Most adults don't even remember being exposed to this propaganda as children, nor do they question the "truth" of what they saw. Most would be offended if asked, "Do you believe that everything shown in children's cartoons is true?" yet they cling to ideas about Oriental dance they learned from these cartoons.

We may be tempted to condemn people for their ignorance, but perhaps there are more effective ways to respond. People often have no idea where their stereotypes came from. All they know is that this is what they have "always" heard. Before we attack people for their ignorance, perhaps we should consider whether they are reasonable people who may be willing to listen to a new way of thinking about belly dance. Some will be fascinated when dancers educate them about the problems with this origin theory; whereas others will cling to their stereotypes.




What Do We Do About It?

The media isn't likely to stop stereotyping Oriental dance and Middle Eastern culture any time soon. So how can dancers fight the stereotypes?

Raising awareness of the issue can help. Dancers can raise awareness with each other, as sometimes dancers' own behavior can be part of the problem. Dancers can also learn how to talk to the public about the stereotypes, where they come from, and how to create new ways of thinking about them. It can also be helpful to show Oriental dance performances to the public that do not fit the stereotype through the use of folkloric costuming and dance for such events as city festivals, children's school events, etc.

As a place to start, it can be useful to explore the following questions with other dancers, and also to use them as inspiration for journaling:

What Problems Does the Stereotype Cause for Dancers?

  • In what ways have the "dance of seduction" stereotypes created problems for dancers in your own community? Denied rehearsal space? Rejected from a performance opportunity? How did the dancers handle the situation, and how effective was their action? What should they have done differently?
  • What are the personal consequences for dance students when family, co-workers, and friends make disapproving remarks about "belly dance"? What can dance teachers do to prepare beginner students for such negative comments? What suggestions can teachers offer students on how to deal with such remarks?
  • What role does the public stereotype of "belly dance" in your community play in students signing up for classes or people hiring dancers to entertain at parties? How does the stereotype help or hurt?
  • The late Oriental dance teacher Bert Balladine said, "The image of Belly dance must stay a little bit naughty to the general public, because when it isn’t anymore, they’ll look for something else." Do you agree with him or disagree? Why or why not?
  • How does the "dance of seduction" stereotype cause people to trivialize Oriental dance, to make them think it's not a real dance form? What can be done to educate the public in your own local community that Oriental dance is a legitimate performing art in its own right, and not simply sexy wiggling about?

The Role of Dancers in Shaping Public Opinion

  • How have local dancers contributed to the stereotypes of "dance of seduction"? What have they done? What problems have been caused as a result?
  • How do "Sultan acts" in belly dance shows reinforce the stereotypes? What could the dancer do instead in her performance to entertain people without reinforcing the damaging incorrect "dance of seduction" stereotypes?
  • What types of performances are presented at local belly dance events? How much flirtation or seduction do they contain? How do audience members react to them?
  • Who attends the local haflas or belly dance shows? What effect does the content of hafla performances have on friends and families who come to watch? What could hafla organizers and performers do differently to create a different reaction in these audience members?
  • How would you respond if invited to perform in a situation where the organizer is insisting on "sexy scantily clad women" such as a harem shtick for a local television station's morning show or an invitation to appear at a gallery opening for an erotic art show?
  • What costuming and dance style choices can you make for local performances that will defy the stereotypes and nudge audiences into seeing belly dance in a different light?
  • How does calling what you do "belly dance" reinforce the stereotypes? How would people's reactions be different if you say you want to teach "Middle Eastern dance" classes in the church basement or perform "Near Eastern dance" at the county fair?

Reacting to Mass Media

  • When you see a "cute" or entertaining cartoon, movie scene, music video, Internet video clip, or other performance with a "dance of seduction", how do you react?
  • How do you reconcile enjoying cute or humorous entertainment that reinforces stereotypes while at the same time realizing it may cause further damage to the public's opinion of belly dance?
  • What is the best way to react if the local newspaper or television station talks about belly dance as being done for the pleasure of men? Should some kind of letter be sent, and if so, what should it say? What kind of response is likely to get the most effective results?
  • What is the best way to respond if a newspaper, television show, or other media story elsewhere in the country/world misrepresents the purpose of Oriental dance? Should it be left for dancers local to the media to deal with, or should the worldwide dance community respond?

Now What?

What actions can you, as an individual, take in your own community to fight back against the stereotypes? What help can you recruit from others? How can you inspire beginning students, teachers, hobbyists, and working professionals to mobilize locally to work on solutions?

If you would like to raise awareness and spur action within your own dance community, please consider inviting me to present my "Hares in the Harem and Fantasies of Seduction" lecture as a workshop option at a dance event in your community. This article has barely scratched the surface of the topic - in my lecture, I offer much more detail.




End Notes

  1. Maria M, "Belly Dancers in the Movies", All About Belly Dance, by Shira. 2009. accessed April 21, 20
  2. Big Cartoon Database. Accessed April 21, 2012.
  3. Fisher, Bud. "Mummy O' Mine", 1926. On DVD Bugs Bunny and Friends under the title "Egyptian Daze".
  4. Iwerks, Ub. "Karnival Kid", 1929. On DVD Vintage Mickey.
  5. Iwerks, Ub. "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp", 1934. On DVD Cartoons That Time Forgot: The Ub Iwerks Collection, Volume 1.
  6. Fleischer, Max. "Chicken a la King", 1937. On DVD Max Fleischer's Color Classics: Somewhere in Dreamland.
  7. Harman, Hugh. "Bosko in Baghdad". 1938.
  8. Fleischer, Max. "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor". 1936. On DVD Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1.
  9. Terry, Paul, "The Sultan's Birthday", 1944.
  10. Iwerks, Ub. "Insultin' the Sultan". On DVD Cartoons That Time Forgot: The Ub Iwerks Collection, Volume 1.
  11. Harman, Hugh. "Good Little Monkeys". 1935. On LaserDisc Happy Harmonies.
  12. Fleischer, Max. "Harem Scarem". 1929. On VHS tape Koko the Clown.
  13. Lantz, Walter. "Socko in Morocco". 1954. On DVD Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2.
  14. Iwerks, Ub. "Karnival Kid", 1929.
  15. Fleischer, Max. "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp". 1939.
  16. Vitti, Jon. "Homer's Night Out." 1990. On DVD The Simpsons: The Complete First Season.
  17. Fisher, Bud. "Mummy O' Mine", 1926.
  18. Huemer, Dick. "Goofy & Wilbur". 1939. On DVD Walt Disney's Funny Factory With Goofy, Vol. 3.
  19. Davis, Mannie. "King Tut's Tomb". 1950.


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