Shifting Perceptions is a counter-hegemonic blog where we, students from a variety of backgrounds, speak of our shifting perceptions of the world around us especially that which is portrayed to us in the media. We will take you on journey to realizing the deeply rooted, common misrepresentations of Arabs and Muslims in the media and hope that our shifted perceptions allow us and anyone who reads this blog to view the world around us with a lens that is culturally relative and appropriate.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
'The Ten Commandments' and Benevolent Supremacy - Andrew Covert
I was a young kid
when I first saw Director Cecile DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten
Commandments. My initial impression of the movie back then was
that it was a roughly accurate retelling of a biblical story, no more
and no less. I didn’t think racial or national meanings could exist
since the groups being portrayed (the Egyptians and the Hebrews) were
historical groups. The movie was set long ago, so how could there be
any deeper meanings within it aside from the story it’s retelling?
What I failed to realize as a kid was that to really understand a
movie and its message, you must think about what the world was like
during its production. After contextualizing the film in Alsultany’s
class, I began to understand how this adapted version of Exodus
encoded meanings of race and nationality relevant to anxieties
surrounding the position of the US during the Cold War.
Melanie McAlister’s concept of benevolent supremacy was
integral in reforming my perception of this film. McAlister defines
benevolent supremacy as a “discourse about the nature of
U.S. power in the Middle East in the post[WWII] period”. She
argues that this discourse worked to position the US as morally
superior to the Eastern Block for its emphasis on the importance of
civil rights. Part of her initial evidence for this is actually
DeMille’s introduction to The Ten Commandments, in which he
explains that the story of Exodus and the film is a struggle over the
question of “whether men should be ruled by God’s law, or by the
whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state,
or are they free souls under God? This same struggle is going on
today.” If only the young me had thought about what was happening
in the world in 1956, I might have realized that this was a film less
about a biblical story than it was about the United States and
Essentially, the Hebrew slaves represent Americans. They are
“American” in that they want to live in a free society, and that
their quest for freedom will play an important role in the founding
of Christianity, which is the dominant religion in the US. The
Egyptians, then, are meant to represent the Soviet Union and
communism. In retrospect, it is no wonder that Yul Brynner, who was
born in Russia, was cast to play the evil dictator Ramses. It is also
no wonder that a character who is supposed to be an ancient Egyptian
speaks with an accent that sounds very Russian.
Ramses, played by Russian-born actor Yul Brynner
Moses, played by American-born actor Charlton Heston
Seeing the movie after contextualizing it in Professor Alsultany’s
course made it not only more interesting to watch and critique, but
also to start making connections about how media can serve political
purposes. The Ten Commandments synonymizes Judeo-Christianity
with freedom, taking a system of belief essential to the US as a
nation: Christianity, and positing it as something that directly
manifests itself in values of personal freedom and democracy. A
religious affiliation is mapped onto a political stance.
Too often we view media out of context and without a critical eye.
The Ten Commandments is but one example of how media is often
constructed to reflect dominant standpoints and to perpetuate
hegemony, or the domination
of certain ideologies and discourses. If we as the viewer can take a
few minutes to think about what was happening in the real world when
a certain piece of media was made (or is happening in the case of
emerging media), we can grasp the ultimate meaning of it and be able
to mount necessary critiques.
 Melani McAlister, “'Benevolent Supremacy': The Biblical Epic at
the Dawn of the American Century, 1947-1960,” in Epic
Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East,
University of California Press, 2001), 45.