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Posts Tagged ‘Rudolph Valentino’

From Latin to Latino Lover: Hispanicity and Female Desire in Popular Culture
by Nadia Lie

According to Richard Rodriguez, we owe the invention of the Hispanic to Richard Nixon, whose administration introduced this category in 1973 in the classification system of United States citizens (15). Until then, demographic censuses had been based upon categories such as White and Black, Asian and Native American. Though inconsistent with this racial classification, the term Hispanic is embraced by Rodriguez to designate a new kind of Hispanic: US based and more open to US culture in general. In fact, by a kind of [End Page 1] discursive contamination, the category of the Hispanic starts to represent another racial color: “brown.” Suggesting the combination of two opposed colors – black and white – this word then acquires a subversive function with respect to the clear-cut distinctions of the other categories. Brown stands for the combination of what seemed to be incompatible, for its mutual attraction. It rejects dichotomic thinking, celebrates impurity and is connected to concepts such as “irony, paradox, pleasure” (xi) and “eroticism” (xv). The term “browning” is used by Rodriguez to refer to the increased importance of the Hispanics in US society, a phenomenon which he considers to be a great opportunity for mutual exchange between Anglo-Saxon values – such as (in his opinion) freedom- and Latin American ones – such as (racial and cultural) impurity.

Though the creation of the Hispanic in North American politics is presented as a relatively recent fact, the author of Brown points at a forerunner. “Before there were Hispanics in America, there was another fictitious, inclusive genus: the Latin Lover” (R. Rodriguez  107). Set against the background of a sexually repressive society, the Latin Lover derived his appeal from the taboo of racial transgression (107). But if this is true, how can the persistent and even increased success of the Latin Lover in our days, in which America is “browning,” be explained? What exactly is a Latin Lover anyway? And how can its relationship with Hispanic identity be described? In what follows, I propose to take a closer look at this notion by studying its first incarnation in the movie The Sheik. The prototypical features will then be confronted with what I consider to be one of the most popular icons of Hispanicity in popular mass culture: Zorro.[1]

Defining the Latin Lover: Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921)

In Latin Lover: The Passionate South – one of the rare studies extensively dedicated to the subject— Gianni Malossi refers to a dictionary[2] in order to define the phenomenon of the Latin Lover: “passionate, but romantic, lover; it is believed, above all in Northern European countries, that they are men from Latin countries; heartbreaker, seducer” (Malossi  18-19). To provide a more elaborate, coherent definition of the phenomenon seems almost impossible as characteristics ascribed to the Latin Lover vary from his being “mute” (R. Rodriguez  107) to his ability to “use a lot of words” ( Malossi 30), from “a tendency to be short” ( Malossi  66) to his being “tall” (Limón 137), from his incarnation as “phantom, sheik or matador” (R. Rodriguez 107) to his fixed association with the cravat (Malossi  35) and the costume (Reich  35).

Opinions on the origins of the icon differ as well: whereas some consider the Latin Lover to be an archetypal figure (Thomas, 9) ranging back to Zeus (Malossi  64), Jacqueline Reich points at his historical and anthropological roots in Renaissance and Mediterranean culture (Reich  2-3). Others, such as Ramírez Berg (4), insist on his genesis in Northern conceptions of Latin otherness, which suggests an affinity with 19th-century debates on the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Latin “races” (Litvak). The one point all studies dealing with the Latin Lover have in common, however, is their abundant use of photographic materials, thereby revealing what goes almost unnoticed in the definitions: the profoundly visual nature of the stereotype. And though the pictures included show a certain disparity, limiting themselves either to actors performing roles connected to the [End Page 2] Latin Lover or expanding the notion to real-life examples such as Onassis (and even Che Guevara, to some), no disagreement exists regarding the name of the very first incarnation of the icon: Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).[3]

This Italian immigrant to the United States, born under the name Rodolpho Guglielmi, first earned a living in the United States as a gigolo – a male dancing partner for wealthy women. However, he soon made his way to the hearts of millions of women by his dashing appearance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), where he performed a seductive dance as an Argentinian tango-dancer.[4] The association between Latin Lovers and dance will become a fixed one in the following decades. It was The Sheik (1921) in which “he began to define a new kind of screen lover and an Other way of making screen love” (Ramírez Berg 115). In spite of the paradigmatic nature of this film, books on the Latin Lover limit themselves to brief mentions of its plot and instant success. The way in which the two terms united in the expression “Latin Lover” is inscribed in this movie has not yet been the object of more extensive commentary. This is all the more striking since, according to Ramírez Berg, this movie launched “the Latin Lover [as a] remarkably consistent screen figure, played by a number of Latin actors (…), all maintaining the erotic combination of characteristics instituted by Valentino” (115).[5]

When we take a look at this famous film, we notice that nothing in the movie – at least at first sight – sustains Rodriguez’s close association of Hispanicity and Latin Lovers: an Italian actor plays the role of the Arab sheik Ahmed (Rudolph Valentino) who falls in love with the British lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). However, the term “Latin” was used in those days in a broad sense, including all those who spoke a language derived from Latin (so also the French) and sometimes even the Greeks and all of the Mediterranean people (so also inhabitants of Arab countries).[6] In The Sheik, this broad sense of Latinness is defined by a first, major oppositional figure that establishes a difference between Northern and Southern countries as visually expressed by the two main characters: the fair-haired Anglo-Saxon young lady with the pale hands stands in opposition to the Arab sheik Ahmed with the very dark eyes. Besides this sharp contrast between North and South, there is a second one that concerns not racial features, but cultural values. On the one hand, Ahmed represents premodern patriarchal Arab values when he captures Diana during her trip through the desert in order to take her to his tent. As he explains to a friend: “When an Arab likes a woman he sees, he takes her.” On the other hand, there is a certain reticence in him because he refrains from taking Diana by force when he notices her despair at the situation she finds herself in: he has received part of his education in France and it is this European aspect in his upbringing which seems to account for a softer approach to the woman.[7] There is in fact a range of cultural differences varying from the complete Anglo-Saxon Northern values over the more mitigated European Latinity to the complete otherness of Arab Latinity. It is this “range” which grants the Sheik his erotically productive ambiguity, evoking both “suavity and sensuality, tenderness and sexual danger” (Ramírez Berg 115). In this combination, suavity and tenderness are evoked by European Latinity (France and Italy), whereas sensuality and sexual danger are projected onto the Arab world.[8]

If the tension between European and non-European Latinness, tenderness and sexual danger, is what grants the Sheik his erotic appeal throughout the movie, the film surprisingly resolves the antinomy between these opposed values in the end. The happy ending is indeed provided by a revelation concerning Ahmed’s true background: he was the [End Page 3] orphan of an English father and a Spanish mother found in the desert, after which he was adopted by an Arab sheik. This ending is doubly productive: it sanctifies the union between Ahmed and Diana as a repetition of a previous relationship between partners from the North and the South of Europe, and it clearly places Ahmed on the European side. To put it even more strongly, one could argue that Ahmed’s very ability to learn the European lessons in education and human rights is explicable by his innate European blood.[9] In a way, Ahmed is a true European, dressed up as an Arab. His clothing as a sheik is his costume. His Arab identity, his mask.

As a lover, Ahmed combines features of both forms of Latinity: he serenades Diana secretly below her window while she sleeps in the town of Biskra but he also abducts her against her will in order to possess her. He connotes softness and strength. This strength is what turns him into a dangerous man, who is able to frighten Diana and make her obey. On the other hand, it is also this capacity which turns him into her savior when she tries to escape through a desert storm, or falls into the hands of the Arab bandit Omair. Here, the sheik turns into the hero who saves the damsel in distress by plucking her from the ground and riding off with her on his horse in order to protect her.

Ahmed’s moral and physical strength functions as a token of his sexual superiority with respect to Diana as a woman. At the same time, it singles him out as “the other man” from a double perspective. First, his strength distinguishes him from the men in Diana’s own society, who appear to be too weak to control her strong character (e.g., she laughs at her brother when he tries to talk her out of her plan to travel to the desert). Second, as an Arab, he is not to be confused with other Arab men either, because he does not resort to clear violence against women, unlike the desert bandit Omair. The fact that he is neither identical with the British men – who all wear moustaches – nor the other Arabs – who all wear beards – is visually expressed by the many close-ups of his hairless face, accentuated by his turban.

Finally, the two terms under scrutiny – Latin and Lover – are of course intimately connected. What Diana is attracted by in Ahmed from the start is not only his strength, it is also his belonging to another culture: exoticism and eroticism go hand in hand. There is immediate attraction from the first time they see each other, in the town of Biskra, before Diana leaves for the desert. And when she is denied access to the Arab casino, she boldly decides to dress up as an Arab dancer, after having watched the sensuous moves of this Arab woman with fascination. She even insists on borrowing exactly the same clothes this dancer was wearing, thereby suggesting a desire to experience the Arab sensuality in person. As Said has explained, the Orient not only symbolized sexuality as such, but very often also the promise of a different kind of sexuality, generally projected onto the female body (Said 180). In The Sheik, this kind of sensuality is appropriated by Diana as she cross-dresses culturally and feels her senses aroused by the dancer. At the same time the movie performs a twist on the Orientalist discourse of its time by turning the male partner into an object of desire.

In all, the first Latin Lover can be described as a highly ambivalent figure who, in the end, reconciles the opposition between the North and the South by inscribing it into a shared feeling of Europeanness. Hispanicity here performs a syntactical gesture between North and South. In the words of Clara Rodríguez commenting upon Valentino and his imitators, “All of these stars conformed to European prototypes – perhaps to southern and eastern European prototypes, but clearly in the evolving fold of what it meant to be ‘white’ [End Page 4] (and upper class) in the United States at the time.” (C. Rodríguez 28) Latinness is therefore on the one hand the suggestion of Otherness, but at the same time based on the reassuring recognition that this Otherness is within the limits of the own identity.

Valentino’s appearances in movies such as The Sheik set in motion the so-called “Latin craze” (C. Rodríguez 28) that flourished in the Roaring Twenties. This period was characterized by major social changes brought about by World War I and the Russian Revolution, and economically beneficial to the United States until the Depression broke out. The social changes altered the position of woman and to some also implied “libertad en el amor” (Belluscio 13). Belluscio considers the Latin Lover as an expression of modernity as it manifested itself around 1900: “En esa zona del planeta [USA], los hábitos se modificaban con el automóvil, la radio en casa, la publicidad impresa, y las salas de cine simbolizaban el nuevo urbanismo yanqui. La difusión e influencia del séptimo arte creó una idolatría sin fronteras, engendrando psicosis colectivas (…) En ese momento singular, que ambulaba entre la añoranza y el futuro, el ‘latin lover’, macerado como una burbuja, surgía excitante, digno de la ostentación, el lujo y el donaire del ‘American way of life’” (13-14). At the same time, both Ahmed and Diana belong to the upper classes of their society, which might reflect the nostalgia for a vanishing aristocracy in that same period (13). This is also why other authors connect the Latin Lover to the expression of anti-modern values (Malossi 24; Reich 26). In a sense, he is both a symptom of modernity and a reaction to it. Once again, he turns out to be an ambivalent sign.

Zorro or purity

Zorro’s birth is almost contemporaneous to the rise of the Latin Lover icon: the original stories appeared in 1919 and were followed in 1920 by the first Zorro movie, The Mask of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks in the role of Don Diego de la Vega.[10] The fact that the leading part was given to an Anglo-Saxon actor shows that the Latin craze had not really started yet,[11] but the overall setting of the stories and the success of the movie[12] directly inspired by them are indicative of the “diffuse hispanophile sentiment” which Clara Rodríguez sees emerging in the same period (26). Contrary to The Sheik, which shows a diffuse concept of Latin identity, the Zorro stories foreground Hispanicity in an unmistakable way. The names of the main characters –Diego de la Vega, Zorro and Lolita Pulido – and the use of Spanish words in the English text (the “comandante,” the “señorita”)— refer to Hispanic identity as perceived from a North American perspective. Similarly to The Sheik, there is the nostalgic evocation of aristocratic values, here attached to the class of the “caballeros” of “blue blood” and merged with a hispanist discourse of clearly conservative and antimodern brand. Zorro’s defence of the weak is in line with the tradition of Spanish caballeros, and the evildoers are people of “ill blood” (McCulley 91), such as Captain Ramón, who try to take in the positions legitimately held by the aristocratic families to which Zorro and his friends belong. Though he also avenges natives and “mongrel” people when they are treated unjustly, it is clear from the book that they belong to another kind of “race” and are unable to perform the noble deeds that Zorro accomplishes. Rather, Zorro is an example to the youngsters of his own generation, whom he summons to follow his example: “Take your swords in hand and attack oppression! Live [End Page 5] up to your noble names and your blue blood, señores! Drive the thieving politicians from the land! Protect the frailes whose work gave us these broad acres! Be men, not drunken fashion-plates” (McCulley 167). The full restoration of their class, in power and in spirit, is what he aims at.

McCulley’s Zorro is part of the “cult of Spanish California” that characterized California, where the stories are set, towards the end of the 19th century (Lie, “Free Trade in Images”).[13] David Weber has explained the phenomenon as a critical reaction to the accelerated modernization in the United States: “As the nation became more urbanized and industrialized in the late nineteenth century, many Americans recoiled from what they saw as excessive commercialism, materialism, vulgarity and rootlessness and longed for pastoral values that they imagined had existed in a simpler agrarian America” (Weber 342).

In this context, Zorro shares with the Latin Lover a nostalgic return to premodern values, projected onto the Hispanic past of California. He, however, connotates more clearly than the Latin Lover the idea of purity. If the Latinness of the Latin Lover was marked by its opposition to Anglo-Saxon society, in the Zorro stories, the concept of Hispanicity is offset against the “ill blood” of other people speaking Spanish, especially the politicians and the military. Blood is also what distinguishes the noble class from the “natives” and the “mongrel people.”

The motif of “blood,” as indicative of noble upbringing, also lies at the heart of the second story-line in the Zorro episodes. Don Diego de la Vega is urged by his father to find himself a proper bride in order to prevent the family from extinction: he is the only son and heir to his father. If most of us know Zorro as the defender of the weak, this second theme is very striking in the original stories and turns Zorro not only into a model of Hispanic purity, but also of masculinity. Though Don Diego de la Vega is considered “a good catch” because of his wealth and influence in the region, he is not “a man” (McCulley 128) and in the Zorro movie, Lolita Pulido (actress Noah Beery) even cries out that he is “a fish.” Lolita Pulido, the girl whom he tries to convince to marry him, cannot give him her love because he is incapable of arousing romantic feelings in her. The key words in this respect are “courting” and “wooing,” terms by which  are referred to as the ability to speak to the señorita in low and rich tones, to look at her with desire, to bring her serenades (McCulley 175). All of this is considered unnecessary by Don Diego: “I trust there will be no undue nonsense. Either the lady wants me and will have me, or she will not. Will I change her mind if I play a guitar beneath her window, or hold her hand when I may, or put my hand over my heart and sigh? I want her for wife, else I would not have ridden here to ask her father for her” (McCulley 37).

This constantly fatigued, yawning aristocrat corresponds to the popular stereotype of the indolent don in those times (Foster 27) and provides a sharp contrast with the vigorous highwayman Zorro! After Don Diego has made his first – and very unsuccessful – attempt to win Lolita’s heart, the next chapter confronts her with Zorro under the title “A different sort of man.” This is how Zorro makes his acquaintance with Lolita Pulido: “And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her. Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes. She had heard Señor Zorro, the highwayman, described, and she guessed that this was he, and her heart almost ceased to beat, she was so afraid. ‘Silence, and no harm comes to you, [End Page 6] señorita,’ the man whispered hoarsely” (McCulley 45). Zorro, then, symbolizes strength in the same way the Sheik did: the strength to overwhelm her (she feels frightened the first time she sees him), but also the strength to protect her: he saves Lolita and her family from prison and takes her – on his horseback – to a secure destiny. When he speaks to her, he immediately sings her beauty and asks to kiss her hand twice, so it is a small wonder that he quickly gains access to Lolita’s heart.

The exoticism of The Sheik finds an equivalent here in the anonymity – and therefore mysterious character – of the hero. Likewise, his being an outlaw situates him outside conventional – routine – society. As was the case in The Sheik, the stress is on the eyes and the clothing, which function as a costume of a false identity: in the same way that Ahmed was a European dressed up as an Arab, Zorro is a caballero dressed up as a highwayman.

The opposition between the vigorous Zorro and the fatigued Don Diego de la Vega reflects the dichotomy between one variant of the Latin Lover and what may be considered its opposite: the inetto. “The inetto articulates the traditional binary opposite of the masculine, as it is constructed in Italian culture and society, and as it relates to sexuality: the cuckold, the impotent and feminized man. Rather than active, the inetto is passive; rather than brave, he is cowardly, rather than sexually potent, he is either physically or emotionally impotent (…)” (Reich 9). In the Zorro stories and especially in the first Zorro movie, this passive side is expressed by Don Diego’s constant yawning, whereas Zorro, as a full time fighter for justice, enhances the “active” side of the Latin Lover. From a gendered perspective, he symbolizes “performative masculinity,” considered by Jacqueline Reich to be an essential component of the Latin Lover: “Along these lines, the Latin Lover literally puts on a carefully staged show for his admiring public, be it at the beach, which Latin Lovers were known to frequent, or in the mass-produced fantasies for and by Anglo-Saxon women” (Reich 27). True, Zorro does not fight oppression to impress señorita Pulido, but –together with his courting style – this is an important reason why she falls in love with him.

What is lacking from the Zorro stories, however, is the hidden sexuality and open eroticism of The Sheik, which was connected there with the non-European form of Latin identity: the Arab nature. The love between Zorro and Lolita Pulido rather seems to justify the natural appeal between people of the same blood and evokes the pureness of love against the more pragmatic concerns for marriage. Precisely the fact that Lolita Pulido loves Zorro in spite of his anonymity is considered by Don Diego to be a sign of her true love. In this respect, the weak aristocrat he had pretended to be as Don Diego de la Vega was nothing but another mask that he used not only to deceive the authorities, but also to test the true feelings of his future bride. In Don Diego’s final words: “She turned from the wealth of Don Diego de la Vega to the man she loved, though she deemed him, then, an outcast and outlaw. She has shown me her true heart, and I am rejoiced at it. Your excellency, this señorita is to become my wife” (265). The concept of “pure Hispanicity and pure blood” is thus complemented by the concept of “pure love.”

To sum up: there are important parallels between the story of The Sheik and the original stories on Zorro as the motif of the Latin Lover is concerned. Both stories thematize the necessity of love in the relationship between man and woman, as an ingredient not to be confused with (but ideally leading up to) marriage. Love is what women are looking for, even as they reject marriage. But it can only be given by men who are strong enough to control them and protect them at the same time. Eroticism is infused in the relationship by the mysterious side of the male partner, either under the form of exoticism (the Arab) or [End Page 7] social marginality (the masked outlaw). The divergencies between The Sheik and Zorro reside in the way cultural identity, and especially Hispanicity, works. Whereas the Sheik played with different shades of cultural identity, producing an image of ambiguity and ambivalence throughout the movie, Zorro is the quintessential Hispanic and therefore a symbol of purity.  If The Sheik turns out to be a cultural hybrid who spans two opposing cultures (North and South), Zorro is a direct exponent of the Spanish hidalgos and therefore anything but a mestizo. Though he makes women dream, his aim is marriage, not “licentious sex” as Beluscio would have it. Sexuality in the Zorro stories is only there in the theme of procreation and lineage.

From Latin to Latino Lover: Banderas in The Mask of Zorro

In Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood, Clara Rodríguez argues that there are several analogies between the 1920s and the present-day context: the fact that “Latins” are “in” again, the pendulum shift in economy (the Roaring Twenties leading up to the Depression just like the economic boom of the 1980s led to the dot.com burst of the 1990s) and the immigration movement at both moments in history accompanied by a certain “concern” about foreigners entering the United States (C. Rodríguez  244-245). There is, then, a new “craze for all things Latino” (214), but this time, the word “Latin” – if still used – tends to be restricted to the Hispanics from Spain and Spanish America only (26). At the same time, we witness a remarkable presence of actors associated with the Latin Lover. One of the most cited examples nowadays is Antonio Banderas, who “fulfills the fantasy of the Latin Lover at his most classic” (Thomas 141) and is described as the “Valentino-Banderas” (Beluscio 77) symbolizing “la resurrección olímpica del ‘Latin Lover’” (Beluscio 51). Even Banderas himself has proclaimed: “I’ll probably be seen as that Latin Lover type forever. Even if I get greasy and fat and lose my hair, they’ll cast me and say, ‘Yes, but he was a Latin Lover!’ It’s funny there’s always been that thing” (quoted in C. Rodriguez 206). But has “that thing” remained the same now that new Hispanic identities see the light?

The 1998 film The Mask of Zorro was directed by Martin Campbell and produced by Steven Spielberg. The second one, The Legend of Zorro, was made by the same team and forms the sequel to the first. In both movies, the role of Zorro is given to Antonio Banderas, and this is presented by the makers as a deliberate option to highlight the Hispanicity of the popular hero. As the publicity campaign recalls: “Zorro was the first Spanish hero invented by Hollywood,” but never before had he been played by an actor of Spanish descent.[14] Hispanicity is at stake, then, and not in a minor way.

One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is the fact that it portrays two forms of Hispanicity by opposing two Zorros: there is the so-called “original” one, Don Diego de la Vega, who is interpreted by Anthony Hopkins; and there is the new one, whose part is given to Antonio Banderas. The old Zorro has come of age and is looking for a successor. He meets with Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas), who plays a grown-up orphan of Mexican descent. In the book accompanying the movie (Luceno 1998), Alejandro Murieta is described as a mestizo, and this is rendered in the movie by a slight darkening of his skin. Banderas is then almost the opposite of the original, “pure” model that Zorro [End Page 8] represented, and the movie displays the contrast between the two forms of Hispanicity – the European one, and the Spanish-American one – through a series of lessons. What old Zorro teaches the younger one is not only how to use his sword in a proper way, but also how to control his anger and put the notion of justice above the one of revenge. In short, he teaches him the values of caballería. At the same time, the fact that these can be learned by someone of different blood is, altogether, a major difference with respect to McCulley’s first stories. What was a vocation inscribed in the blood of caballeros becomes a lesson to be taught to everyone. The psychological growth into maturity of the new Zorro is visualized by his physical change: in the end, it is the handsome Banderas who succeeds in defeating his enemies.

It should be stressed that this new Zorro is not an assimilated Mexican: he represents a hybrid, a combination of the two forms of Hispanicity that merge into a panhispanic form, embracing now, for the first time, Spain and Spanish-America (Mexico). This hybridity also alters Zorro’s relation to justice itself: if McCulley’s Zorro was a restorer of the natural, social order, anything but a revolutionary, Campbell’s Zorro (the old as well as the young one) is identified with the legitimate fight of the Mexican peasants against the Spanish oppression. From a symbol of premodern values, he turns into a defender of modernity. Modernity is also present at a more profound level: the very idea that people from a completely different background, such as Alejandro Murieta, can become Zorro is, of course, a clear departure from the original association between Zorro and Spanish aristocracy. The Zorro vocation is no longer inscribed in the Spanish blood: it can be offered as a programme to anyone.[15] Does this modernity also affect Zorro’s connection to the Latin Lover?

At first sight, the answer is yes, because one of the things old Zorro sees lacking in his disciple is “charm” and so this quality is once again presented as something that can be acquired. The instruction in charm constitutes another departure from the original model: normally, the Latin Lover’s charm has to appear as a natural quality, even though it was acquired artificially. Jacqueline Reich links this to the concept of sprezzatura: “The opposite of affectation, sprezzatura denotes a naturalness in appearance without revealing the effort that went into its preparation. The result is the projection of grace” (Reich 3). We watch Alejandro Murieta being shaved and washed and dressed up as a real aristocrat: an ironic inversion of the original Zorro figure, who was an aristocrat disguised as a bandit. All of this is necessary to gain access to the circles of his true enemies: Rafael Montero and Captain Love. True to these codes, he brings flowers to the lady of the house, and impresses Rafael Montero by his official greeting of the Spanish court. However, Don Alejandro del Castillo y García (as Zorro-Banderas presents himself to his enemies) is really a hybrid, and in his behavior towards women he goes far beyond old Zorro’s imagination. When inviting the beautiful Elena (Catherina Zeta-Jones) to the dance-floor, he chooses a wild dance that is definitely not appropriate for the occasion, but it does reveal his innate “wild” nature to Elena. It also recalls the fact that shortly before he made The Sheik, Valentino conquered women’s hearts with his tango in The Four Horsemen. Later, Banderas confronts Elena as Zorro and leaves her partly undressed by teasingly stripping her clothes off with his sword. Attraction between Elena and Alejandro Murieta is an instant phenomenon and predates the classes he receives in charm: on his way to the town dressed up as a bandit, he crosses the path of Elena. She is slightly frightened, but admits later at confession to have sinned: “I had guilty feelings about a man,” she says, “I think he was a bandit. Something in his eyes [End Page 9] caught me.” Once again, we find the trope of the immediate attraction between the future lovers, only now they belong to different classes and have “different blood.” As representatives of two forms of Hispanicity, their final marriage and first child symbolize, once again, the conversion of the “pure” form of Hispanicity into a broader one.

This amplification of the notion of Hispanicity in a panhispanist sense in a way runs parallel to the original concept of Latinity, which embraced various forms of it. It also accounts for a more sexualized form of Hispanicity, a dimension that is infused by the reference to Spanish-American culture as the Other form of Hispanicity. In a way, Mexican “wildness” equals Arab sensuality. It reinscribes otherness in the pure form of Hispanicity of the original Zorro. In this sense, the merging of the two figures – Latin Lover and Zorro – produces a new species: the Latino Lover. Typical of this Latino Lover is not only the fact that he embraces European and non-European (read Spanish-American) forms of Hispanicity, but also that he establishes a new relationship with modernity.

Mocking the Latino Lover

The departure from the original Zorro acquires parodic dimensions in the 2005 production The Legend of Zorro.[16] Old Zorro has died and new Zorro has won himself a stable and almost accepted position in his society. In fact, his wife Elena believes he is no longer needed: the only person who needs him, in her mind, is Don Diego himself. The rest of the movie will show that this analysis is only partially correct, but it does confront the viewer immediately with a certain mocking of the Zorro icon. Is Zorro really necessary, or is he an excuse to neglect his other duties, regarding his son Joaquín, for instance? The whole dilemma adds a new dimension to the relation between the old Zorro figure and modernity, because it projects the demands of the new fatherhood onto the old aristocrat Zorro. Their argument gets so strong that Don Diego walks out of his house, to be faced some days later with an official demand for divorce by his wife. We then see Zorro losing control of himself, going out until late at night, waking up too drunk to remember where he was, forgetting to pick up his son at school, etc. When Elena reappears with a new lover, the French count Armand, Alejandro creates a scandal at her party. Their dance, interrupted by sneering remarks to each other, is a parody of their wild dance in the first movie and so of Zorro as a Latin Lover altogether. In another scene, Don Alejandro, after a heavy night, is awakened by a room-maid. When he gets up, he discovers he is not wearing any clothes: the image of poor Don Alejandro hiding his sex with his hands in front of a giggling room-maid is symbolic of the overall “undressing” of his Zorro character. Of course, it is not Zorro himself who is mocked, it is Alejandro Murieta, the married man and father of a son.[17]

This parodic element can be related to the comic dimension of the first Zorro movie, where Banderas not only learned how to behave as Zorro, but also made many laughable mistakes. However, it now, more clearly than before, affects his erotic dimension. When he walks out of his house after the argument, Elena shouts at him: “I hope you and Tornado will become very happy” – “We will,” he replies. Later on, while Don Alejandro is sitting drunk on his horse filled with self-pity, even Tornado drops him (literally and symbolically). The weak man that Don Diego de la Vega just pretended to be in the McCulley stories has now become reality. The cause is simple: this Latin Lover has been [End Page 10] abandoned by his wife. Total destruction is the consequence. The fact that he moreover seems to lose Elena to a European-born French count, Armand, functions as an ironic reference to the Latin Lover figure altogether.[18]

Seen from the point of view of the whole Zorro cycle, this movie insists upon Don Alejandro as “inetto,” under the pressures of modern life. Hispanicity is still there, but it becomes part of the ironic distancing of the original hero. Two scenes in which Zorro speaks Spanish are symptomatic in this light: the one in which his horse refuses to follow his instructions because they are uttered in English, and the one in which Zorro uses Spanish to admonish his own son – who has just performed a risky operation and does not know who his father is. Apparently, only Spanish can give Zorro the authority which before he also had in English.

In the animation Shrek 2 (2004), the parody turns to mockery and extends to the figure of Zorro himself (as opposed to Don Diego). In this movie, a new character is introduced: Puss in Boots. Though his name refers to the clever cat of Perrault’s fairy-tale, who helps his poor master marry a princess through his cunning and his eloquence, Puss in Boots is also a parody of Zorro: he is dressed up as the Spanish swordsman, with special emphasis on the boots they have in common; he leaves the first letter of his name in a tree using three strokes of his sword; and –not in the least– he speaks with the voice of Antonio Banderas, who had played the role some years before. Though Puss in Boots does not wear a mask, the stress is on the eyes: we notice this from his first appearance onwards, when darkness prevents us from seeing anything but his eyes, and later we discover his ability to endear his opponents by casting seductive glances. In a way, he shares with Zorro the latter’s double identity, for he misleads his opponents on various occasions, pretending to be a cute, inoffensive little kitten (‘Don Diego’) whereas he is always ready to attack.

These attacks, however, are deprived of their original meaning, since Puss in Boots is not committed to the fight against injustice. Rather, he offers his services to anyone who pays for them, even when murder is involved. His cynicism shows as he turns from the future assassin of Shrek, hired by the evil king, into his friend as soon as he notices the assignment is more difficult than expected. In this context, he appears as “the other friend” of Shrek’s, who is still accompanied by Donkey, his kind-hearted but rather naive buddy from the first movie. Whereas Donkey jealously claims no more friends are needed, Puss in Boots quickly wins Shrek’s heart by flattering him and gazing at him with his cute, deep eyes – an ironic return of the “courting” capacities of Zorro. The fact that Eddy Murphy is Donkey’s voice adds an ethnic flavour to the rivalry. Whereas Donkey speaks with a “black” accent, Banderas turns Puss in Boots into a very Hispanic creature, with his Spanish accent, Spanish words (“señor”) and Spanish style (“it would be my honor”). The contrast with the simple-minded Donkey gives his Hispanicity a sophisticated, but also treacherous, side. It appeals to baroque culture, with its fascination for illusions, costumes, play.[19] Hispanicity finds an ironic equivalent in the notion of “honor” through the various suggestions of the huge ego that Puss in Boots displays – an ego that is so much bigger than his real size. Most importantly, Shrek 2 clearly inscribes the word Latino in the concept of Hispanicity as it relates to music and rhythms: at the end of the movie, it is Puss in Boots who fires the starting gun for the closing party by shouting “fiesta,” after which everybody joins him in a passionate dance to Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la vida loca.” Except for his constant flattering of Shrek and one suggestive pass to Fiona (“I could be Shrek to you, baby”), all that remains of his Latin Lover capacities is this ability on the dance floor. [End Page 11] Hispanicity is thus reduced to a certain temperament and style, a set of costumes and rhythms that suits anyone, even a cat. At the same time, the Shrek story, as a parody of the typical fairy-tale-plots, reverses the traditional beauty norms that also underlie fictions involving Latin Lovers: the evil character of the prince charming Fiona used to dream of as a child contrasts with the good character of the hideous ogre she finally falls in love with. It is as if Zorro, as he removes his mask, turns out to be so very different from what we believed him to be.

But what did we believe he was, after all? Let us give the final word to a woman in this essay on Zorro as a Latin Lover. In 2005, Isabel Allende published a novel at the request of the Zorro Company. She was given complete liberty as an author, except for the fact that Zorro had to be recognizable through his attributes. A full consideration of the adaptation Allende proposes of Zorro would be the subject of another essay. But since her book is part of the official Zorro revival that the Zorro Company set in motion in 1998, her portrayal of Zorro as a Latin Lover deserves some conclusive considerations. One of the most striking features of her book is the introduction of new female characters, which – together with the magical realism – function as sometimes overtly ironic tokens of the Allende idiom entering the McCulley imagination. A first important change is the fact that Zorro obtains a mother and a grandmother (Toypurnia and Lechuza Blanca, respectively), who have a different background and opinion than Don Alejandro de la Vega. Besides rewriting Zorro’s Hispanic background in terms of hybridity – which acquires carnavalesque elements as it mixes with other minority cultures (gypsies, pirates…) – they point at the fact that Zorro was always his father’s son, never his mother’s. According to Annick Houel,[20] the absent mother enhances a quality of the hero of these romantic stories: the fact that they are able to protect and shelter the woman. Secondly, Allende, who writes a prequel to Zorro by describing his years as a child and teenager both in California and in Spain, situates him primarily in between two women of the same family de Romeu: Juliana – whom Zorro falls in love with from the first time he sees her – and Isabel, who is her younger sister and far below Juliana’s beauty. However, Zorro’s love is left unanswered, since he loses Juliana to the pirate Jean Lafitte. Lolita Pulido, his true love in the McCulley stories, then appears as his second best choice, but Allende insists on the fact that Don Diego “debió confesarle la identidad del Zorro antes de ser aceptado” (Allende 381). The most ironic reference to Zorro as a Latin Lover is provided by the anonymous narrator, who turns out to be Isabel. The use of the third person to refer to herself – often in sarcastic ways –functions as a textual mask of her true identity, which is revealed in the epilogue. And a real mask she will wear in the end of the story, when she convinces Zorro to allow him to help her, at the side of Bernardo. Most importantly, she provides what Bernardo (Zorro’s loyal servant in the Disney television series) lacks: a voice to tell Zorro’s stories. By doing so, she not only focuses upon his qualities, but also upon his defects: his big ears that he tries to hide with his mask, a certain vanity before the mirror. She even ends up “psychoanalyzing” Zorro by concluding that he can only truly love unattainable women, such as Juliana (382). This is why Isabel– later in her life – decides not to accept Zorro’s proposal to marry him … yet: “Sé que estaremos juntos cuando él sea un anciano de piernas enclenques y mala cabeza, cuando otros zorros más jóvenes le hayan reemplazado, y en el caso improbable de que alguna dama le abriera su balcón y él no fuera capaz de treparlo” (382). With this last image, of the cripple Zorro who has already turned bald by the end of [End Page 12] the book, Isabel (de Romeu/Allende) concludes her novel: “El Zorro me tiene harta, y creo que ha llegado el momento de ponerle el punto final” (382).

Conclusion

If Clara Rodríguez pointed at several similarities between the 1920s and the current context, all leading up to a “Latin craze,” one has to admit that we have come a long way from the Valentino trope and the original Zorro. The concept of “pure Hispanicity” has been abandoned in favor of a more multicultural definition, which includes Spanish-American and indigenous cultures. Especially in its openness to the “other” form of Hispanicity, incarnated in this case by Spanish America, this rewriting seems to have been to the benefit of the erotic appeal of Zorro, because his sexuality has been enhanced. At the same time, we witness an ironic and parodic treatment of Zorro as a hero, which reduces his position as a symbol of masculinity. The premodern values associated with both the Latin Lover and Zorro have disappeared in favor of the –often comical – clash with modernity itself.

It would be tempting to consider this rewriting as indicative of a more open, tolerant concept of Hispanicity, one that rejects essentialism in favor of a postmodern concept of cultural identity that could be considered more politically correct or illustrative of the “browning” that Richard Rodriguez hopes will occur. However, this would leave out of the picture an essential ingredient of the Latin Lover: the fact that it is a consumer’s icon (Malossi 24), designed to make money. Without a doubt, the North American society that brought forth Zorro has changed in such a way that Hispanics are now not only people of a country “far-far-away” (to quote Shrek 2): the fact that they are an active part of the consumer audience of these icons must have helped the producers find their way to an updating in terms of multiculturality and humor.


[1] This essay constitutes a complement to a previous analysis of the Zorro-figure, in which I focused on its appeal as a symbol of resistance and cultural identity (Lie 2001).Though detailed surveys of Zorro’s evolution in the 19th century exist (Mérida 1997, Curtis 1998), the connection between Zorro and the stereotype of the Latin Lover has never been studied before.

[2] The dictionary quoted is Il Grande Dizionario, Garzanti, Milano, 1987.

[3] Though this article centres on North American popular culture, it should be noted that images of Latin Lovers circulated everywhere, including Latin America. Thus, Jaime Manrique, in his semi-autobiographical book on homosexual writers, testifies about the pervasive influence of Hollywood and European movies on the Latin American popular imagination and his own erotic imagination (Manrique 1999: 15, 25). In this context, it is telling that Manrique explains his initial romantic crush on Manuel Puig – who would later on become his main literary and personal model – by referring to a picture he had seen of Puig, in which the writer resembled Marcelo Mastroianni, that other prototypical figure of the Latin Lover (Manrique 1999: 39).  This also shows that Latin Lovers can appear in contexts of homosexual attraction, an aspect not dealt with in this article; a famous example can be found in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), in which the main [End Page 13] character Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) has a lover called Miguel Alvarez, interpreted by Antonio Banderas.

[4] Useful information about the life of Valentino can be found in Belluscio 1996, Malossi 1996 and Thomas 1998. Without a doubt, his life and early death contributed to his mythical status. An interesting fact is that  he was “discovered” and “designed” by women such as Natascha Rambova.

[5] Another important prototype of the Latin Lover was Marcello Mastroianni.

[6] Some, as Panaro, state that Latin meant “exotic” to an American and could therefore include “Mexican, Spanish, Parisian, Italian, Arab (and also included Viennese, Hungarian and Slavic touches)” (Alberto Panaro, Mass-produced Valentinos in Malossi 1996, 95). Allen Woll observes that “only rarely was it synonymous with ‘Latin American’. More often than not, the Latin Lover was “of Italian descent” (1980, 23) or “the property of Mediterranean civilization” (1980, 25).

[7] This French background also explains the presence of two French-speaking servants in his tent, who can communicate with Diana, and the visit of his dear friend Raoul de Saint Honoré. This French doctor admonishes Ahmed on the values of respect and liberty, thereby rehearsing a trope in Orientalist discourse: “the theme of Europe teaching the Orient the meaning of liberty, which is an idea that Chateaubriand and everyone after him believed that Orientals, and especially Muslims, knew nothing about” (Said 1978, 172). In the end, Ahmed is ready to free Diana in spite of the fact that he has fallen in love with her.

[8] In Muy Macho – a collection of autobiographical essays in which sixteen Latino writers testify about the impact of the stereotype of the macho on their personal lives –  the word ‘macho’ is presented as “the catchword for Latino adult manhood” (González 1996:xiii), and the general term under which all North-American images about Latino men can be ranged (González 1996 cover text). However, I believe there is ground to distinguish between the macho and the Latin Lover in terms of erotic and sexual behaviour. Thus, it is striking that the concepts of ‘suavity and tenderness,’ which figure so prominently in The Sheik, and the intimate connection with the motif of female desire, hardly ever appear in the essays collected by González. Moreover, the main figure evoked in the essays of Muy Macho is the father, never the mother nor the female lover, which underscores the fact that the macho world is mainly a male world, whereas Latin Lovers are directly defined with respect to women.

[9] See the analogy with Tarzan (1911-1912), who is able to develop into Lord Greystoke because he has the European genes (Cheyfitz 1997).

[10] Interestingly, Curtis points out that Fairbank’s interest in the Zorro stories was the result of his objective to attract more female, matinee audiences (in McCulley 1998, viii).

[11] In this context, also see Foster on the first filmic interpretation of the Cisco Kid in 1914: “Thus, in keeping with an entrenched Hollywood tradition that has a long life, people of color (Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks, Asians) are played by Anglos; this practice was true even when the former were as much the evil and perfidious enemies of the latter as their benefactors” (Foster 2010: 29).

[12] “El éxito de La marca del Zorro llegó a tomar tales dimensiones que, durante las primeras semanas de exhibición en el Capitol Theatre de Nueva York, la policía tuvo que [End Page 14] tomar el local para contener a las exaltadas masas que anhelaban ver a su nuevo héroe” (Mérida 1997, 35).

[13] Sandra Curtis believes McCulley depicts Californian life under Mexican rule (in McCulley 1998, x). However, no single mention of Mexico is given in McCulley’s text, except for vague references to “the mongrel people”. Possibly, this has to do with the influence of the Boltonian school of historiography, which silenced the part Mexico played in California’s history. The Boltonians were part of the “cult of Spanish California” and Curtis (1998, 11) confirms that McCulley consulted documents on the region before writing his stories.

[14] “To play the only Spanish hero created in Hollywood and the first time a Spanish guy is going to portray that character is an awesome and beautiful thing. It is almost spiritual to me” (Banderas  quoted in Lie 2001: 497).

[15] In Lie 2001 I have analyzed the way in which the master-disciple-figure in this Zorro movie rehearses and rewrites the dichotomous discourse on Mexican subalternity which Claire Fox, in The Fence and the River (1999) saw appearing at the beginning of the 19th century. In this respect, The Mask of Zorro presents itself as a post-NAFTA movie that inscribes Mexican subalternity in a playful way into an inclusive concept of Hispanicity.

[16] In his brillant study of the Cisco Kid, David William Foster points out a similar emergence of an ironic and parodic stance towards this character in a made-for-TV movie directed by Luis Valdez in 1994  (Foster 2010: 27). In his conclusion, Foster draws a comparison between the Cisco Kid and Zorro, which first shows an important difference between the two figures: whereas the Cisco Kid allows for homosocial and homosexual behaviour,  which is due to the fixed presence of his male sidekick Sancho, Zorro – often solitary – tends to be ‘straight’ (Foster 2010: 39). At the same time, Foster underscores the crucial fact that both popular characters are incarnations of the Hispanic caballero as a deviant moving through the Anglo world and therefore carry with them the potential to unsettle Anglo heterosexual normativity. In the case of the Cisco Kid, this ‘queer’ character is shown in scenes in which a certain effeminate posture of the Cisco Kid becomes an important tool to outwit his adversaries. In the case of Zorro, the potentially subversive dimension of his behaviour shows in his systematic triumph over Anglo rivals when it comes to winning the heart of women.  As for the stereotype of the Latin Lover in general, his transgressive nature is often staged in the context of a marriage or another form of an official engagement between an Anglo man and woman, which turns him into an important agent of adultry and illicit sex. For a famous example, see the disruptive effect of the exotic Hungarian guest Sandor Szavost on the marriage of Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Dr. Harford (Tom Cruise) in Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

[17] We find a similar strategy in the movie Internal Affairs: see Lie 2006.

[18] Another aspect of this deconstruction of the Zorro-figure  is the way in which his son Joaquín appears as a childish incarnation of Zorro. When faced with a rather strict schoolmaster, who is out to punish him, he performs a playful fight with his “opponent,” and lands outside on his feet, receiving, with a glimmering face, the applause of his fellow schoolmates. Zorro is not only about heroism: it is about playing and performing.

[19] The fact that the original Puss in Boots helped his master to appear as a count (the Marquis de Carabas), though he was only a miller’s son, is another indication of this connection to illusiveness. [End Page 15]

[20] Quoted from her book Le roman d’amour et sa lectrice by R. Amossy and A. Herschberg-Pierrot (2005: 84).[End Page 16]

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. Zorro : Comienza la Leyenda. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 2005. Print.

Amossy, Ruth & Anne Herschberg-Pierrot. Estereotipos y cliches. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 2005. Print.

Belluscio, Marta. Seductores y Amantes : Historia del ‘Latin Lover’ y otros galanes. Valencia: La Máscara, 1996. Print.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1997. Print.

Curtis, Sandra. Zorro Unmasked: The Official History. New York: Hyperion. 1998. Print.

Foster, David William. “Of Gay Caballeros and Other Noble Heroes.” Good Bandits, Warrior Women and Revolutionaries in Hispanic Culture.  Ed. Gary Francisco Keller. Temple, Arizona: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2010. 23-44. Print.

González, Ray. Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront their Manhood.  New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Print.

Lie, Nadia. “Free Trade in Images? Zorro as Cultural Signifier in the Contemporary Global/Local System.” Nepantla: Views from South (2001): 489-508. Print.

—. “Cet obscur objet du désir : Andy García como Latin(o) Lover en Internal Affairs.América: Cahiers du Criccal 34 (2006): 129-138.

Limón, José. American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.

Litvak, Lily. “Latinos y anglosajones : Una polémica de la España de fin de siglo.” España 1900: Modernismo, anarquismo y fin de siglo. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1990. 155-199. Print.

Luceno, James. The Mask of Zorro. New York: Pocket, 1998. Print.

Malossi, Gianni. Latin Lover: The Passionate South. Rome: Pitt Immagine, 1996. Print.

Manrique, Jaime. Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Print.

McCulley, Johnston. The Mark of Zorro.  New York: Tom Doherty Associations, 1998. Print.

Mérida, Paul. El Zorro y otros justicieros de película. Madrid: Nuer, 1997. Print.

Ramírez Berg, Charles, 1997. “Stereotyping in Films in General and of the Hispanic in Particular.”  Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US Media. Ed. Clara E. Rodríguez. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997. 104-120. Print.

—. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.

Rodríguez, Clara. Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004. Print.

Rodríguez, Richard. Brown: The Last Discovery of America. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.

Thomas, Victoria,. Hollywood’s Latin Lovers: Latino, Italian and French Men who Make the Screen Smolder. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 1998. Print.

Weber, David. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.[End Page 17]

Woll, Allen L. The Latin Image in American Film. Los Angeles: University of California, L.A., 1980. Print.

Visual materials

The Sheik (1921). Artwork InstantVision Ltd 2004.

The Mark of Zorro (1920). Sterling, Fort Mill 1998.

The Mask of Zorro. Tristar Amblin 1998.

The Legend of Zorro. Columbia Pictures & Spyglass Entertainment. Tristar Amblin. 2005.

Shrek II. Dreamworks Pictures Production 2004.[End Page 18]

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“Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film,” by Hsu-Ming Teo

In 1919 a romance novel by a little-known Derbyshire woman was published, featuring the story of an aristocratic but tomboyish English virgin who, in her travels through French colonial Algeria, is kidnapped by an Arab sheik and raped many times. She eventually falls in love with this “brute” of an Oriental “native” (whom her brother would have equated with a “nigger”) but then discovers—much to her surprise—that her beloved Arab rapist sheik is in fact the half-English, half-Spanish son of a peer of the British realm. As for the sheik himself, the violent and priapic Ahmed Ben Hassan is reduced to repentance and redeemed by his love for Lady Diana Mayo. He reverts to “civilized” standards of patriarchal European gender norms, presumably forsaking rape and promiscuity (though not necessarily his penchant for strangling evil Arab opponents when he deems this justified). The two live happily ever after in the desert, leaving the reader with the final specter of an aristocratic English couple “gone native,”  it is true, but reigning imperialistically over the unruly Bedouin tribes of the Sahara in an area which was nominally under French colonial control. Edith Maud Hull’s The Sheik thus concluded with a reassertion of reactionary patriarchal gender relations as well as the fantasy of proxy British rule extended over French-colonized “natives”—a subtle display of one-upmanship in British imperial rivalry with the French.

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. In the U.S.A., the book went through fifty printings alone in 1921, and it was the first novel to appear on the bestseller list for two consecutive years (Leider 153). It was continually reissued in paperback throughout the 1920s to 1960s, while it sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965 (Blake 67). The New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of the film’s opening in 1921. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167-8). 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 (Edwards 50). The novel made a dramatic impact on the literary genre of Eastern love stories in Britain, reviving the popularity of the early twentieth century “desert romance” pioneered by novelists such as Robert Hichens and Kathlyn Rhodes, and spawning a series of forgettable imitations in other novels and short stories in women’s magazines. In the United States, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby” was composed in response to the film and rapidly became a jazz standard before being reworked by the Beatles in 1962. Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik (1925), and Valentino’s reprisal of his sheik role in the film version of 1926, brought the craze for all things romantically “Oriental” to its zenith in fashion and film.[1]

Sheik fever died down by the 1930s, but its impact on western popular culture was already indelible, particularly as fodder for spoofs and satires. It did not take long for the first mockery to appear. The Shriek of Araby (1923) lampooned the abduction scene in The Sheik where Valentino rides across the desert sands and snatches Agnes Ayres from her horse, throwing her over his saddle and snarling, “Lie still, you fool.” In The Shriek of Araby, a hapless young theater employee daydreaming about The Sheik attempts a comically bungled abduction of a young lady from the back of a mule.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

Dick Dorgan, “Giving ‘The Sheik’ the Once Over from the Ringside”, Photoplay Magazine 21 (April 1922):90.

The horseback abduction scene was a rich source of mockery, especially for American cartoonists and illustrators such as Dick Dorgan, who wrote a satirical review of The Sheik for the film magazine Photoplay, accompanied by the above illustration. It sometimes seemed that in some quarters, merely to insert the word “sheik” incongruously into the title was productive of mirth, as was the case with Ukulele Sheiks (1926). The spoofs or sly references to The Sheik continued long after desert romance as a literary subgenre had petered out. In the midst of the Second World War, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Anthony Quinn were featured in The Road to Morocco (1942)—a film which satirized the fantasy of westerners being kidnapped and incarcerated in harems by featuring American men as the abductees, imprisoned in the Moroccan princess’s harem. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons made ridiculous references to abductions, harems, and even had the “wascally wabbit” dressed as a belly-dancer in one episode. References to The Sheik repeatedly cropped up in numerous comics and television shows as well (Michalak 7, 13-14). In 1984, John Derek’s film Bolero featured his wife Bo Derek playing a young, 1920s American flapper enamored with Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film begins with Bo Derek gazing up longingly at a poster of The Sheik. She travels to the Middle East, determined to lose her virginity to a sheik, but her plan goes awry when the sheik who has agreed to deflower her falls asleep instead.

Satires and spoofs, however, were not the only legacy of The Sheik throughout the twentieth century. 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). These historical romance novels found their counterparts in films and television shows of the 1980s such as the British television mini-series Harem (1986) or the Brooke Shields film Sahara (1983). By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the modern-day “sheik novel” was being produced by authors from various parts of the British Commonwealth and the United States. Australian and Canadian romance writers joined the British in producing contemporary Orientalist romance novels by the mid-1980s, but the subgenre became Americanized after the First Gulf War in 1991, growing steadily in terms of the output of American-authored publications and sales. The Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 saw no diminution in the popularity of these novels about love stories between white women and Arab or Muslim men. On the contrary, 2002 saw the peak of publications so far, with at least twenty-two different contemporary sheik romances published that year, and four historical harem romances. In 2005, an estimated fifty-one million Orientalist romance novels were consumed by readers, prompting ironic comment in some newspapers and Time magazine, while the years since have seen no abatement in the popularity of this subgenre. Indeed, several websites have been set up that are purely devoted to Orientalist romance novels. E.M. Hull’s The Sheik has thus had a remarkably far-reaching impact on western popular culture over the last century; an influence that persists to this day.

Since the 1970s, feminist, postcolonial, literary, and film scholars have paid intermittent attention to Hull’s novel. Anderson’s The Purple Heart Throbs (1974) was among the first to describe the rough lineaments of the desert romance novel epitomized by The Sheik, while subsequent scholars such as Melman, Ardis, Chow, Blake, and Gargano proceeded to analyze different thematic issues woven throughout the book, often reading it against other types of contemporary texts and cultural phenomena such as the New Woman novels, sex manuals, divorce laws, and the 1920s fascination with T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia.” Still others such as Hansen, Raub, Shohat, Caton, Eisele, Studlar and Leider devoted attention to the novel’s translation onto the silver screen, exploring the meaning of Valentino’s masculinity and his sexual and ethnic status, as well as analyzing the manifestation of a particular American-Orientalist discourse in the film. Such readings of The Sheik have insightfully emphasized its sexual and imperial politics, while sketching the historical context for its reception. Apart from Caton’s essay, however, none of the previous studies compares the novel and the film at length, and none takes into account the differences between British and American societies that underlie both the production and reception of these texts. It is important to tease out these differences because the silent film version arguably eclipsed the novel in influence and made the story famous world-wide, not just in English-speaking countries, yet the novel and the film differ in significant ways. This essay considers The Sheik as both a novel and a film, comparing their similarities and differences of plot and meaning through the particular historical contexts of their production and reception. It begins with a brief discussion of existing scholars’ work on the novel and the various historical contexts that they have mapped out before proceeding to look at how World War I shaped the production of E.M. Hull’s novel, and how the British context of a white imperial culture and its fear of miscegenation with colonized “natives” influenced both the production and reception of the novel.

To argue for a direct causal relationship between a text and its historical context is never easy at the best of times, and near impossible where extant documentary evidence is so scarce. Hull’s papers tell us little about what influenced her to write The Sheik, while definitive information about specific readers’ responses to the novel is non-existent because of the lack of reader surveys carried out. However, given the prevailing cultural concerns of the First World War and the 1920s, it is possible to infer the contemporary roots of Hull’s preoccupations in the novel, as well as readers’ likely responses. The same applies to the American reception of Jesse Lasky’s film production of The Sheik, even though more documentary evidence about the film’s production process and its reception exists in this case, and some comprehensive biographies have been written about Valentino that discuss his role in the film. With these limitations in mind, this essay argues that beyond the obvious differences arising from the changes to the plot or from technological considerations of the media of literature versus film, the differences between the novel and the movie arise from Britain’s experience of sexuality, violence, and the First World War; understandings of whiteness and imperialism in both Britain and the United States; the different historical experiences of gender, race, and ethnicity in the two countries—linked to the colonial context in Britain, but to anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship in the United States; and finally, the different traditions of popular Orientalist discourse in the two countries—anchored to a “realist” mode of representing the geopolitical situation of actual colonies in the case of Britain, and arising from fairground and merchandising fantasies of “Arabian Nights” Orientalism in the case of the U.S.

Feminist responses to the novel

The Sheik elicited a polarized and visceral reaction upon publication in 1919. Billie Melman (90) has claimed that its sales surpassed all other bestsellers at the time; yet while it achieved instant cult status among its mainly female readers, contemporary literary critics and the self-appointed guardians of social morality were appalled, dismissing it as “a typist’s daydream” and condemning it for its overt portrayal of sadomasochistic sexuality—a response that has been repeated by feminists throughout most of the twentieth century (Melman 90). However, the last two decades have seen a growing body of scholarship on The Sheik which have revised earlier hostile opinions, and which have grown increasingly sophisticated in analyzing issues of gender, power, race, and imperialism in the novel.

The earliest responses by feminist scholars to The Sheik echoed its contemporary reviews which condemned it as a “poisonously salacious” novel, in the words of the Literary Review of 1921 (Blake 69). Objections were not made on the grounds of its portrayal of Arabs and the Orient so much as on the grounds of its portrayal of sex and the treatment of white women. In one of the first book-length surveys of the genre of romance fiction, Rachel Anderson declared that:

The Sheik is the most immoral of any of the romances, not because of lewd descriptions of sexual intercourse […] but because of the distorting view Miss Hull presents of the kind of relationship which leads to perfect love, and the totally unprincipled precept that the reward of rapists is a lovely English heiress with a look of misty yearning in her eyes (188-189).

Melman described The Sheik as “a prudishly told tale of masculine dominance and complementary feminine masochism and passivity” (102), while Mary Cadogan argued that the novel was “not only […] an anti-feminist tract in which rapist behaviour is rewarded but a justification of racism” (131).

From the late 1980s onwards, however, scholars began reading the novel within its historical context, paying closer attention to issues of gender and sexuality. Melman’s comprehensive chapter on the “desert romance” in Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties was among the first to pay sustained scholarly attention to the novel and, along with Michael Diamond’s detailed discussion in “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940 (2006), it is still one of the most useful delineations of this subgenre. Melman pointed out that in addition to the “rape-cum-redemption” story, what caused the greatest outrage in the 1920s was not so much the “prurience” or “obscenity” of The Sheik and similar “sex novels,” but the fact that they were for women. These novels were regarded as “pornographic literature, manufactured by female writers for the consumption of a sex-starved mass female audience,” whose work experiences in the First World War and its aftermath had seen an increase in spending-power and leisure opportunities (Melman 92-93, 104). Underlying the outrage was a deep anxiety that traditional gender, sexual, and social mores were being subverted. The happy ending of the novel—such as it is—ultimately championed the idea that “the modern sexually emancipated woman can pursue pleasure without being punished for her presumption”; for unlike traditional novels, Diana does not die and is not destroyed by her rape or her subsequent enjoyment of sex (Melman 93, 102-3). In Melman’s eyes, despite whatever other crimes The Sheik might have been guilty of, it placed discussion of women’s sexual desires and sexual autonomy at the center of popular culture, thus contributing to a modern understanding and conversation about sex in the 1920s.

The exact historical period when women’s sexual desires were legitimated has been a subject of some debate. For Ann Ardis, The Sheik did not so much herald the radical legitimization of female sexual desire in the 1920s as perpetuate an “advanced” view of sexuality that dated back to the New Woman novels of the 1890s (287-296). Ardis focused particularly on the androgynous figure of Diana Mayo. Whereas Melman interpreted Diana as an interwar flapper, Ardis argued that Diana was actually a New Woman and, like so many other New Women in novels of the 1890s, she initially rejects heterosexuality, marriage, and domesticity. The periodization of the novel has received little attention apart from Ardis’s work. As it turns out, however, Melman’s and Ardis’s views are both plausible. Ardis has reason to date the work as an early-twentieth century novel, but this is only made clear in Hull’s sequel, The Sons of the Sheik, where references are made to German espionage in French North Africa and the implications for the coming Great War. In the film of The Sheik, however, the setting, clothing, and hairstyles date it as a contemporary 1920s story. Both authors nevertheless agree on the importance of The Sheik in legitimizing female desire in the 1920s as well as

legitimizing the female adventure plot […] for the operant fantasy here is not just about having an erotically satisfying relationship with an early twentieth-century version of a New Age sensitive and virile man; it is about galloping with him across the desert or hunting wild apes with him in the Sub-Saharan jungles. In the context of post-war efforts to redomesticate women, Hull’s romances insist upon women’s continued access to the public sphere, albeit in an extremely privileged way (Ardis 294).

Feminist critics in the 1990s thus began to move away from reading The Sheik as a reactionary narrative of sadistic patriarchal lust visited upon a masochistic, victimized woman suffering Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, they looked at the radical and potentially liberating aspects of sexual representations and attempted to descry Diana’s empowerment. Although Patricia Raub acknowledged that “in some respects, The Sheik can be read as an object lesson to young women who attempt to be too independent and self-reliant,” she agreed that “Hull was the first to celebrate sex from the perspective of the female partner” and she went on to argue that the novel demonstrates Diana’s access to power (120 and 122). Drawing on Jan Cohn’s Marxist-feminist thesis in Romance and the Erotics of Property (1988), Raub argued that Diana achieves wealth, status, and power over the sheik’s tribesmen via her relationship with Ahmed, while the sheik’s exercise of power over Diana is overturned by the novel’s end: “Almost against his will, the hero is himself captured by the heroine; he acknowledges his love for her. The heroine has been able to ‘remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love’” (Raub 126).

Such an argument is not without its problems. As Karen Chow has noted, although the sheik repents of his earlier autocratic treatment of Diana, he is equally dictatorial and disregarding of her wishes when he decides to send her away in order to make amends. Her attempts to seduce him fail, and it is only when she takes the drastic step of trying to shoot herself that he relents and gives way to her desire to stay with him. Diana may be empowered by forcing Ahmed to love her tenderly, against his will and prejudices, but this is a limited transformation. As he himself admits, and as his actions and the few instances of her fear of him in The Sons of the Sheik demonstrate, he cannot change what he is; indeed, he warns her that “you will have a devil for a husband” (296). For Chow, however, the novel fulfilled its function of empowering women readers and filmgoers, if not Diana herself. Chow argued that “ultimately, it is not Diana the character but the woman reader, writer, and filmgoer in the material world who is liberated by reading these steamy passages and creating a sex symbol in the figure of Rudolph Valentino” (73).

Although these scholars recognized the imperialistic background to The Sheik and mentioned Hull’s seemingly radical transgression of racial boundaries in the sheik’s rape of Diana and her love for an Arab, little was made of these aspects of the novel beyond passing comment. As Melman read it, the revelation of Ahmed’s “real” identity as a European, followed by Diana’s insistence that she cannot think of him as other than an Arab, are “gratuitous” since they occur so late in the novel (102). The work of Susan Blake and Elizabeth Gargano over the last few years, however, has focused more attention on the racial and imperial themes of the novel through postcolonial readings of the plot. Gargano argued that “The Sheik enacts an apparently transgressive erotic daydream, which first questions and then ultimately reaffirms the Englishman’s capacity for domination” (175). For her, the novel explores the crisis of masculinity that beset British culture in the wake of the First World War. Significantly, none of the European or American men are able to woo Diana successfully because they “embody a demoralized post-war passivity” in the face of the masculinized modern woman (176). The hypermasculine, violent, primitive, sexually potent sheik succeeds where “civilized” but emasculated modern western men have failed. But the sheik is of course a European, and Gargano compares his disguise with that of the famous “white sheik” of the war years and its aftermath: Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Both Englishmen are presented as “‘better’ Arabs than the Arabs,” and this serves to underline the fact that “an Englishman, raised under the same conditions of unimpeded freedom, absolute power over his subordinates, and constant physical activity, is still superior,” thus reaffirming Britain’s imperial mission and providing a suggested cure to enervated postwar British masculinity (Gargano 182).

Where Gargano argued that The Sheik was indeed an example of Orientalist colonial discourse perpetuating racial stereotypes, Susan Blake allowed for more heteroglossic and contrapuntal interpretations. Blake’s innovative and sophisticated reading of The Sheik against contemporary issues of race and divorce led her to conclude that the novel presents two competing stories about imperialism, gender, race, and miscegenation—told respectively by Raoul de Saint Hubert (the French novelist who is the sheik’s best friend) and Diana. What readers conclude about these issues at the novel’s end ultimately depends on whose voice they choose to listen to (Blake 75). For Blake, the central puzzle to be solved in the text is how:

[I]n a culture that divided humanity into biologically fixed and hierarchically ranged races, The Sheik creates a character who “is” both Arab and English. In a culture terrified of miscegenation, it permits an English lady not only to fall in love with a man she believes to be Arab, but to continue to think of him as Arab after his “real” identity is revealed and to settle into implied marriage with him in an Arab environment. As a popular novel, The Sheik necessarily supports the prevailing ideology of its time, but the nonconforming facts raise the question of what else it is doing (70).

Blake contended that in Saint Hubert’s story—a story by no means without its own internal contradictions—the understanding of race is biological. Saint Hubert tells the tale of the sheik’s European parentage that permits Diana to love and remain with Ahmed without the taint of miscegenation. This story thus supports conventional ideas about class, gender, imperialism, and race,  because at its close an aristocratic British couple, both performing traditional gender roles, rule over a tribe of Arab “natives”. In Diana’s story, however, the sheik remains an Arab and she loves him for being an Arab. Blake suggested that Diana’s understanding of race is cultural rather than biological, which is why she is able to continue regarding Ahmed as Arab (75-78). Diana needs Ahmed to be Arab rather than English because in this novel, violence is twice associated with the English: first with the sheik’s father, the Earl of Glencaryll, whose abuse led his wife to flee their marriage; and then with the sheik himself, who wreaks vengeance on the English because of his father’s domestic violence. Diana’s story thus subverts two interconnected and strongly-held imperial and patriarchal tenets about race, gender, and sexuality at that time: namely, “that sexual threat comes from the Other and protection from the English,” particularly within the shelter of the family and the domestic sphere (Blake 79). The novel, Blake argued, is “double-voiced” in every way, hinging on the “race” and subsequent identity of the sheik. “Raoul’s identification of the Sheik yields to the pressure of imperialist discourse to identify any Other as inferior […] Diana’s insistence that the man she loves is ‘Arab’—Other and equal, if not superior—resists that pressure and thus functions as a counter discourse” (Blake 78). However, I would argue that Orientalist discourse and the very text of The Sheik itself pose limits to the effectiveness of this counter discourse. Being Arab does not save Diana from domestic violence, for the novel confirms in one incident after another that Arabs are a brutal, cruel people who show a “callous indifference to suffering” (Hull 137).

Nevertheless, this body of insightful scholarship has illuminated The Sheik in many ways and explained both its popularity as well as its widespread appeal. It is particularly important to recognize that readers—both then and now—do not simply respond to a straightforward, univocal, monolithic story whose meaning is predetermined and closed-off to varying interpretations. Different or changing ideas about acceptable gender behavior, sexual curiosity and titillation, fantasies and fears about race and miscegenation, and differing attitudes towards imperialism, can all be accommodated within this text—albeit some more easily than others. Thus far, however, this body of scholarship has focused principally on the reception and cultural impact of the novel in the 1920s. Little consideration has been given to its actual moment of composition. Moreover, there has also been a conflation of British and American attitudes towards The Sheik, and towards imperialism, race, and miscegenation. In what follows, I want to explore more carefully the specific imperial, national and racial histories of Britain and the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and then to compare the British novels with the American films in order to tease out variations in the plots and characters that created different meanings in the British novels and the American films of The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik.

E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and World War I

Edith Maude Henderson was born in 1880, the daughter of a New York shipowner and his Canadian wife. As a child she traveled widely with her parents, even visiting Algeria—the setting of her sheik novels. In 1899 she married Percy Winstanley Hull in London, and the couple moved to Derbyshire in the early 1900s where Percy Hull became an agriculturalist. After the publication of The Sheik, the press would run descriptions of Hull as “the shy wife of a Derbyshire pig farmer,” because the image seemed so incongruous with the shocking sex and exotic setting of the novel. Percy Hull did indeed breed prize-winning pigs, among his other agricultural pursuits, but he had begun his professional life as a civil engineer. During the First World War he served in the armed forces. It was this absence that prompted Edith Hull to begin her literary career. She began writing The Sheik “not with any idea of it being published, but rather as a means of distraction at a time when I felt very much alone” (Hull papers). The particular circumstances of the novel’s composition—probably in the later years of the war since it was published in London in 1919—are significant in shedding light on certain features of the novel: namely, its focus on sex, violence, and the Middle East.

Many scholars have pointed to The Sheik’s literary heritage of abduction and rape motifs from Richardson’s Clarissa, to Gothic novels and Victorian melodramas. The “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 had also given rise to a spate of rape novels within the British colonial context, as Jenny Sharpe and Nancy Paxton have shown. As Sharpe argued, however, “rape is not a consistent and stable signifier” in either British colonial or metropolitan discourse, “but one that surfaces at strategic moments” of cultural or political tensions (3). In the case of Anglo-Indian writing, as Paxton noted, the rise and circulation of “rape scripts” after 1857 served to consolidate British explanations and justifications for increasing imperial control in the colonies, especially India, as well as to attempt a remasculinization of British domestic politics at a time of increasing female independence (112). Novels featuring violence against women—especially middle- or upper-class women—were few and far between in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The New Woman novels and other sensationalist pre-war “sex novels” such as Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) were more concerned with establishing women’s sexual desires and sexual identities, or debating the merits of sex outside marriage when ennobled by love—“the one motive which makes a union moral in ethics,” as Glyn explained in the introduction to the American version of her novel. Glyn’s Slavic “Lady” in Three Weeks certainly articulated the idea of sadomasochistic sexual love found in The Sheik, telling her young lover Paul Verdayne:

[A] man can always keep a woman loving him if he kiss her enough, and make her feel that there is no use struggling because he is too strong to resist. A woman will stand almost anything from a passionate lover. He may beat her and pain her soft flesh; he may shut her up and deprive her of all other friends—while the motive is raging love and interest in herself on his part, it only makes her love him the more […]

However, the lovers in Three Weeks did not actually enact such a scenario, because what the Lady loved about Paul was—in Glyn’s own explanation of the novel—his “straight and true” manhood, while their love influenced him toward “vast aims and noble desires for future greatness” (Glyn “Introduction”).

It was during the First World War that sex, violence, and rape came to the forefront of British culture and consciousness in a most dramatic way. A number of wartime developments was responsible for this: the onset of “khaki fever” among young women at the start of the war; tales of German atrocities in occupied Belgium and France that were used by the British government for propaganda purposes; and the return of war-traumatized veterans which was not only attended by mental illnesses and physical disability, but also by an increase in public and domestic violence.

The first of these occurrences problematized young women’s overt display of sexual desire in British society. As Angela Woollacott has shown, the outbreak of war in Britain was accompanied by an “epidemic of khaki fever” whereby, according to the press, adolescent girls and young working women flocked to military camps, sexually propositioning and harassing soldiers in towns and cities (325). In the nineteenth century, the open display of sexual desire or sexual behavior was associated with prostitutes. When the “amateurs” or “free-lance” girls succumbed to khaki fever in 1914, they were perceived to be sexually aggressive and shameless in their pursuit of soldiers, just like prostitutes. Even more shamefully than prostitutes, however, the “amateurs” did not do it out of a need to make a living. Furthermore, they displayed an independence of mind and spirit that was much deplored. As such, they “threatened a subversion of the gender as well as the moral order” (Woollacott 326). In response to this, the middle-class Women Patrols Committee and the Women Police Service were established to patrol gender and sexual behavior in public spheres. Middle-class women patrolling the streets took it upon themselves to censure and separate “couples thought to be embracing too closely, following those they suspected might be about to embark on unsavory courses of behavior, and warning youngsters of the dangers of overly casual behavior” (Levine 45). Khaki fever died down by mid-1915 when women were co-opted into war work and other forms of patriotic contribution to the war effort, but concern over women’s sexual behavior and the spread of venereal diseases meant that middle-class women continued to police working women’s sexuality in public places throughout the war (Woollacott 331).

If khaki fever brought to public consciousness an uneasy awareness of young women’s dangerous sexual desire and autonomy, then tales of German atrocities trickling back from the continent introduced rape and sexual violence into public discourse. The German invasion of neutral Belgium on August 4, 1918 had been Britain’s ostensible casus belli to declare war on the Central Powers. In making the case for war to the British public, complex legal arguments about obligations incurred by Britain under the 1839 Treaty of London were soon replaced by simpler, sensationalist accounts in newspapers, war pamphlets, and posters of German atrocities—particularly the rape, abuse, and torture of women and children. The raped Belgian woman came to symbolize the violated borders of Belgium itself in many propaganda posters. Artwork in these posters graphically portrayed the “innocent, virtuous Belgian or Frenchwoman violated. Belgium became a frail and ravished jeune fille, weeping and broken on the floor as the uhlan, the helmeted German cavalryman, leaves the bedroom” (Harris 180).

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her...” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

A. Truchel, Les Monstres, “He might at least have courted her…” poster. Source: Harris (1993), 171.

Other artists depicted a female Belgium stripped, bound, and raped. These images acquired more force as stories of rape and violence were amassed in Lord Bryce’s official Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, and they were widely repeated and believed at the time (Gullace 714, and Ward 29). By 1916, the British were compiling documents about the abduction of women and children for forced labor—including sexual labor—in The Deportation of Women and Girls from Lille. The bishop of Lille appealed emotively to a British and American audience, telling them that “promiscuity […] inevitably accompanies removals en masse, involving mixture of the sexes, or, at all events, of persons of very unequal standing. Young girls of irreproachable life […] have been carried off” (Gullace 742).

Even as stories of German sexual atrocities circulated in Britain, the “rape of Belgium” was also used as propaganda to try to persuade the United States to enter the war. When it did in 1917, at least two US war posters (below) referred to the raped Belgian woman, demonstrating just how widely this image had spread in popular culture.

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I Liberty Bonds poster

American World War I recruitment poster

American World War I recruitment poster

In all these accounts, violence towards women and children was depicted as typifying the behavior of the German “Other.” The behavior of English soldiers, by contrast, was supposedly characterized by “honour, decency, rightness, and fair play” (Harris 29). This notion of honorable English or British masculinity and the chivalric treatment of women and children became more problematic in the later years of the war and its aftermath because of increases in domestic violence in all belligerent nations (Thébaud 68).

As is well known, the Great War had a traumatic effect on a whole generation of young men. Literature on the war and demobilized soldiers have usually portrayed these men as either shattered, shell-shocked neurasthenics or angry young men nursing bitter grudges against those who sent them to war (Adams 1990 and Fussell 1975). Demobilization was always going to be a difficult experience for men. If soldiers were discharged during the war, it was probably because of physical or psychological injuries. After the war, men had to face the problems of “finding a job, resuming family life, and curbing aggression” that they had been encouraged to develop and display during the war (Nye 430). The effects of the war on men’s lives were visible not only through the large number of amputees in public spaces after the war, but also in the behavior of demobilized soldiers. Men suffering from “shell shock” displayed their trauma through a “shivering, shuddering, fainting, halting, ‘mincing gait’” that distressed those who witnessed these symptoms (Leed 99). Such behavior undermined the “manliness” of shell-shock victims because of the prevailing belief in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe that a “true man” was one who was in control of his passions and his body (Mosse 101). If the “shivering” neurasthenic veteran symbolized the trauma of war, so too did the embittered and violent veteran—often said to be of working-class origins—who could not control his passions.

As soon as the guns fell silent in November 1918, members of the ruling classes and the British press began to express fears of “brutalized” working-class soldiers turning to violence and theft. According to The Times in May 1919, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police “feared that a battle-hardened husband might now murder his wife rather than, as before the war, administering ‘just a clip under the ear’” (Emsley 175). Meanwhile, as Clive Emsley has noted, the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs

believed that a significant minority of front-line soldiers had returned seriously altered by their experiences: They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening. They had gone through “an intensive culture of brutality”. Equally, and this he implied had prompted sexual assaults, “sexually they were starved. For months they had lived out of the sight and presence of women” (Emsley 175).

Emsley has argued that by and large, these moral panics about the return of a whole generation of psychologically-scarred, brutalized men failed to materialize, and that the statistics for indictable assaults show no significant increase in the postwar years. It is probably true that the majority of soldiers returned to the private life of what Alison Light has termed “Little Englanders” who eschewed imperial masculinity and politics for the quiet pleasures of tending their gardens, smoking a pipe, and doing crossword puzzles (Light 1991). There is currently insufficient research into the First World War and domestic violence in Britain to warrant any detailed or conclusive statements about the rate of increase in wife and child abuse, and it is certainly worth noting that nations on the losing side experienced the greatest political, social, and domestic violence (Nye 431). However, Susan Kingsley Kent’s work on the increase of violence against British women during the war and Elizabeth Nelson’s work on the First World War and domestic violence in Australia both suggest a correlation between war trauma and increased rates of wife abuse; while Simona Sharoni’s study of gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has likewise documented an increase in male violence against women and children during military conflicts which legitimize the brutalization of society. The fact that divorce rates in Britain rose after the war suggests increases in both adultery as well as “cruelty,” or wife abuse, because while men could petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery, until 1923 women had also to prove abuse in addition to adultery (Blake 81). An increase in male domestic violence would be unsurprising because as Nye has observed, returned soldiers felt “resentment at those who had stayed behind, including their wives, and the traditional patriarchal obligation to control one’s wife was a particularly exigent aspect of militarized masculinity” (430).

This social and sexual context of wartime and postwar Britain is important to The Sheik in obvious ways. It explains why female sexuality is so fraught with confusion and contradiction in this novel, and why passion is intermeshed with violence. In the New Woman novels of the 1890s and 1900s, the heroines exploring their sexual identities are middle class. In The Sheik, the aristocratic Lady Diana Mayo has an obviously passionate, sexual nature, but for her to be aware of this at the start of the novel would be to degrade her in terms of class as well as sexual morality, since wartime anxieties about young women’s sexual behavior were directed towards working-class and lower-middle-class women. Middle- and upper-middle-class women were the ones who patrolled and tried to regulate young women’s behavior, just as in the novel Lady Conway tried to uphold the rules that governed acceptable British behavior—like the stereotype of the imperial memsahib abroad. As others have pointed out, rape performs the function of permitting Diana to experience sex while absolving her from all responsibility, thus maintaining her status as a virtuous and virginal heroine. Not only does Diana endure rape, she actually comes to enjoy sex and to participate in it, thus transforming rape into consensual sex and even the suggestion of a modern, companionate relationship with the Sheik. As her months of captivity wear on, and despite the Sheik’s occasional reversion to cruelty, she comes to treasure the late nights when Ahmed “told her all the incidents of the day’s visit to one of the other camps, and from his men and his horses drifted almost insensibly into details connected with his own plans for the future, which were really the intimate confidences of a husband to a wife who is also a comrade” (Hull 283). The confused attempt to reconcile romantic, companionate love with sexual passion and violence within the home must have resonated with readers whose male family members had returned from the frontlines traumatized and, unable to cope with the transition to domesticity, sometimes prone to violence.

That Hull should have conceived of abduction and rape as a central plot device in the novel is therefore scarcely surprising, since rape stories were in wide circulation in British society at that time. The problem, of course, was that rape was associated with German wartime atrocities and there was no way that rape in a European context could possibly be anything but horrifying. Not until American troops began arriving at the Western Front in huge numbers after April 1918 did the tide of the war begin to change decisively in favor of the Allies. In fact, it is possible that when Hull was writing the novel, the outcome of the war was still undecided, with Germany tipped to win after the collapse of the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. Hull side-stepped these problems to a large extent because she formulated her plot within the subgenre of the desert romance novel, and this solved many of the dilemmas created by the war.

The Middle East was the only arena where fighting during the First World War in any way resembled glamorized ideas of noble heroes testing themselves on the field of blood. Where the static war on the Western Front diminished soldiers and often left men in the “feminine” position of cowering passively in the trenches, helpless in the face of heavy bombardment before being mowed down by an enemy they could not see, the war in the Middle East—particularly the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, and the Arab Revolt—was active and mobile, and featured cavalry charges that conjured pre-modern images of chivalric warfare. In particular, the Arab Revolt initiated by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali in mid-1916 brought Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence to prominence as a result of the sensationalist reportage of the American journalist Lowell Thomas. Thomas’s dramatic war film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia—in which Lawrence featured famously as the “white sheik” who, together with Sherif Hussein’s sons Feisal and Abdullah, led the Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire—debuted in London in 1917 and ran for six months. It is impossible to know whether Hull ever saw this film, or whether the “white sheik” in all his ambiguously-gendered, quasi-feudal, Orientalist glory inspired Hull’s English aristocratic white sheik, but the parallel is certainly there: the Englishman masquerading as an Arab, who alone is capable of uniting and leading the unruly tribes of the desert.

Gender, whiteness, and imperialism in the Middle East

The Middle East not only invoked the plethora of ideas about the Orient that had been circulating in Britain for the last few centuries; in Britain, the North African desert also conjured ideas about noble Bedouin as “true” Arabs (in contrast to their much-derided town counterparts) as well as memories of European women who had found in the desert a space to be free from European conventions and sexual and social behavior. In the scholarship on women’s travel writing, much has been written about the constraints of nineteenth-century femininity upon women’s travel writing and their behavior abroad (Foster, 3-25, and Mills 1991). Despite these well-documented constraints, however, European women traveling abroad were certainly aware of the possibility of sexual liaisons with “Oriental” men. A few women even acted upon their sexual desires and entered into long-term relationships with non-western men.[2] These were not technically illegal relationships. At no time did the British government actually pass legislation forbidding interracial unions within the United Kingdom or in its colonies. This distinguishes interracial relations in Britain from those in the postbellum United States, where miscegenation was prohibited in various states and only gradually repealed state-by-state, until the US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Yet perhaps it was because of the porousness of these racial boundaries that British popular literature at the turn of the twentieth century became obsessed with interracial sex, the mysterious and fatal attraction “Oriental” men had for British women, and the horror of miscegenation. Without legislative barriers against interracial unions between white women and non-white men (unions between white men and non-white concubines were tacitly accepted), the full weight of social opprobrium was brought down upon the practice in popular culture. In The Sheik, if Diana will not or cannot save herself and embrace her traditional literary fate—death—resulting from rape, let alone interracial rape, then Hull the author must save her through the timely revelation of the Sheik’s English and Spanish parentage (albeit with an uneasy hint of Moorish blood in his heritage), thus shoring up the boundaries of white racial identity to appease her readers and potential critics.

From the start of The Sheik, readers are reminded that this is both an Oriental and an imperial tale. Diana is a representative of the white race and of British imperial prestige; her gendered behavior is a reflection upon the rival merits of the British and French mission civilisatrice that accompanied and justified colonial expansion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Intermittently throughout the novel, then, British and French culture and colonial successes are subtly compared. French colonial control over Algeria is shown to be sadly wanting when Diana’s desert party is ambushed by Arab raiders. Moments before she realizes the seriousness of her situation, just before she is swept off her saddle and abducted by the Sheik, “Diana’s first feeling was one of contempt for an administration that made possible such an attempt so near civilisation” (48). It is precisely the feebleness of such an administration that permits the fantastical ending: the British aristocratic couple extending feudal rule over warrior-like Bedouin tribes in French colonial Algeria. In this novel, it seems that the French are mainly lauded for their loyalty to the British protagonists: the Sheik’s faithful valet, Gaston, is French, as is his best friend Raoul de Saint Hubert, who helps the romantic couple realize their love for each other (a fitting role for the Frenchman in the British imagination!), and who chivalrously sacrifices his own love for Diana in order to facilitate her relationship with the English Ahmed Ben Hassan.

Because Diana is cast as a victim through much of this novel, there is limited opportunity for her to undertake the usual role of imperial women in the colonies: as the memsahib organizing expatriate domestic life and policing the boundaries of sex and race (Stoler 2002); as the maternal missionary or social reformer shouldering what Antoinette Burton has called the “white woman’s burden,” rescuing helpless, downtrodden native women from their Oriental plight (Burton 1994); or as the intrepid woman traveler traipsing insouciantly into villages where no white woman has ever been, the amused cynosure of all eyes and the compassionate dispenser of medication and cheap trinkets (Teo 1998). Nevertheless, Diana’s imperial identity is established through the fact that as a white British woman, she has traveled widely throughout the world and even gone tiger-hunting in India. Imperial prestige (and behind it, the threat of imperial violence) enables her to embark on a journey into the desert by herself, unaccompanied by any other European and dressed in “manly” riding clothes without any regard to local custom or sensibilities. Diana’s powerful imperial identity is further emphasized through her intimidating use of her “imperial eye” to subjugate cowering natives—their eyes waver and fall before her haughty gaze (Hull 36 and 212), whether in India or in the North African desert. In fact, Hull is at pains to tell us that there was only one “native” whose gaze did not fall beneath hers—the Sheik, who is of course English. When Diana first stands before Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan—a figure formed in the image of the Gothic villain with “the handsomest and cruellest face that she had ever seen”—his “fierce burning eyes […] swept her until she felt that the boyish clothes that covered her slender limbs were stripped from her, leaving the beautiful white body bare under his passionate stare” (pp.56-57). Since she (and the reader) believes him to be Arab at this point, a clichéd trope of colonial relations is inverted here: the all-seeing, all-commanding gaze of the imperial eye gives way to the predatory, penetrating gaze of the supposed “native,” whose hungry stare consumes her whiteness—here transformed into a sign of her gendered vulnerability.

There are repeated references to Diana’s whiteness throughout the novel: the sheik’s lascivious glances at her “beautiful white body” (Hull 57), for instance, or the villain’s awareness of the “white woman who was Ahmed Ben Hassan’s latest toy” (196). Whiteness scarcely matters to Diana at first, yet although she is careless of this at the outset, her experiences in the novel teach her racial solidarity. Facing a greater danger from the bandit sheik Ibrahaim Omair later in the novel, with only the French valet Gaston at her side, Diana becomes aware of the overriding importance of white identity against the stratifications of class. At the moment when she and the French servant had faced possible death together, “all inequality of rank had been swept away […] they had been only a white man and a white woman together in their extremity” (211). While Diana’s aristocratic British imperial identity is important, therefore, it can also be subsumed within a broader white European identity, within the context of colonization and resistance or danger from non-white “natives.”

If Diana’s whiteness establishes her sexual desirability to all men—white and non-white—it also confirms the significance of her rape, since the only rape which counted in western imperial culture was the rape of a white woman by a non-white man; the far more common historical scenario of non-white women’s rape by white men received little comment throughout this period. If rape has broken her down, it is Diana’s interaction with social and racial inferiors within the colonial context which restores her sense of identity. It is her “childish” Bedouin maid Zilah who “in some indefinable way gave back to Diana the self-control that had slipped from her” (Hull 62). It is the French valet, Gaston, who serves her as devotedly as he serves the sheik, who returns to her a sense of what is due to her as an aristocratic Englishwoman (277). Yet any such sense of recovered status fluctuates. Over the next month of constant rape, she comes to realize that “her life was in [the sheik’s] hands, that he could break her with his lean brown fingers like a toy is broken […] She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless” (78).

To understand the full impact of the depiction of interracial desire and miscegenation in this novel, we need to remember that the nineteenth-century British Orientalist writings of men such as James Cowles Prichard and Richard Burton conflated Arabs, Africans, and animals as savage “creature[s] of instinct, controlled by sexual passions, incapable of the refinement to which the white races had evolved” (Kabbani 63). As Michael Diamond has shown, novel after novel from the 1890s to the First World War raised the specter of an Arab man attempting to “compromise” a white woman, only to be strongly rebuffed. In William Le Queux’s The Hand of Allah (1914), those English who “knew Africa, who knew the Arab” hated “the taint of black blood. To such men the sight of their own women introducing their daughters to that oily Egyptian sickened them” (Diamond 77). The heroine in Robert Hichens’s Barbary Sheep (1909) nearly succumbs to an Arab spahi while her husband is engrossed in game hunting, but she realizes in time that the Arab cavalryman is purely mercenary and “the peculiar disgust which so many white-skinned people feel towards the dark races of the earth suddenly rose up in her” (Diamond 78). A.J. Dawson’s Hidden Manna (1902) ends with the heartfelt exclamation: “God save us all from mixed marriages, I say!” (Diamond 78). In some cases British men, rather than God, save their women from mixed marriages; in many other cases women save themselves by drawing back from crossing racial boundaries.

In none of these pre-war novels did an Arab man actually have sex with a white woman. This was why The Sheik was such a bold and subversive novel for its time, despite its reactionary conclusion. Pre-war novels set in the Orient required white women to police their own sexual desires and uphold the imperial, racial, and bodily integrity of the white race. However, The Sheik broke with this convention to depict “proud Diana Mayo who had the history of her race at her fingers’ ends” (Hull 275) refusing this duty of the white race, choosing instead to abase herself before her love and sexual desire for the Arab man she believed the sheik to be. Fortunately for her, then, the sheik is actually European, a British peer of the realm. This racial legerdemain was an important plot maneuver for it excused Diana’s inexplicable attraction to the supposed “native,” dissipated the horrible specter of miscegenation, and provided the means of Ahmed’s repentance and redemption and consequently, the novel’s happy ending. Moreover, it meant that Diana would remain British in nationality, for the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act stated that “the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien,” losing the rights and privileges of British nationality. Not until 1948 could women from the United Kingdom retain their own nationality regardless of whom they married (Baldwin 522).

Hull returned to the themes of miscegenation, imperialism, love, and rape in the sequel The Sons of the Sheik (1925); but this time, the strictures against miscegenation were more pronounced, uttered by the sheik himself when he discovers that his son Ahmed has raped a Moroccan woman (who of course turns out to be the daughter of a French aristocratic family). The truly radical moment in The Sons of the Sheik occurs at the end of the novel after the heroine (by that stage pregnant with young Ahmed’s child) is abducted and savagely raped by the German villain. In the final pages of this novel, Ahmed decides that the heroine’s rape does not matter to him because his love for her is worth more than the fact that she has been violated by another man. This must surely be one of the first such episodes for a mainstream novel, whereby the rape of a woman by a man other than the hero is not punished by her death, and which still concludes in the union of raped heroine and hero. Significantly, at the end of The Sons of the Sheik, Hull finally presented readers with the rapist Hun of British wartime propaganda, whose brutality makes that of young Ahmed’s pale by comparison. Yasmin is in fact presented in the typical posture of the raped Belgian woman: “Crouched half naked on the ground, bearing all the marks of a desperate struggle, with her unbound hair streaming over her bare shoulders, she lay moaning and writhing in agony, her face hidden against the crumbling wall” (Hull, Sons of the Sheik, 358).

While Hull flirted with the specter of interracial sex between a white woman and an Oriental man in The Sheik, she would recoil strongly from the suggestion of miscegenation in The Sons of the Sheik and her subsequent novels. What had happened in the interim? If Arabs and other colonized peoples were “noble savage” allies during the war, their cause personified and glamorized by T.E. Lawrence, things changed rapidly after the ceasefire. In 1919—the year Hull’s novel was published in Britain—the Amritsar massacre, in which nearly four hundred anti-colonial protesters in the Punjab were gunned down by the British Indian Army, exacerbated colonial anxieties about race relations in the Indian sub-continent and revived Mutiny-era narratives of Indian rape of English women (Sharpe 123). After the Paris Peace Talks, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which replaced it, saw much of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East carved up and placed under British and French control as League of Nations mandatory states. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914. To Britain’s growing empire in the Middle East was added Palestine, the Transjordan, and Iraq. From the start, the assertion of British power in place of Ottoman suzerainty was strongly resisted in its newly acquired Middle Eastern territories. In 1920, fourteen thousand British and Indian troops stationed in Iraq put down an Arab uprising at the cost of four hundred fatalities. In Somaliland in 1920, the British bombed Muslim encampments when a Muslim leader rose up against British rule. In Iraq, where the British had installed Sherif Hussein’s son Feisal as a puppet king, revolts broke out sporadically throughout the 1920s and were met by Royal Air Force bombings before the British mandate was ended in 1932. Anti-colonial sentiment throughout the 1920s must have reverberated uncomfortably through the Orientalist romantic fantasies of novelists and readers, probably leading to its decline by the 1930s when it was replaced by the growing popularity of adventure stories about the French Foreign Legion inspired by P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste trilogy.

Meanwhile, domestic events in Britain brought home fears about “reverse colonization” and interracial unions. A sizable “black” (including Arabs and South Asians as well as Africans) population had lived in London and other British port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff for a few hundred years, but these numbers increased during World War I, when colonial workers and seamen were recruited to make up shortfalls in British manpower (Tabili 9). Just as women’s contribution to the British war effort saw them gradually enfranchised after the war,[3] so did colonized men’s contribution lead to a demand for citizenship rights, and a sense of entitlement as subjects who had sacrificed for the British during the war. In such an environment, interracial boundaries began to be breached. The postwar years saw incidents of black men marrying white women. As Lucy Bland has argued, for white Britons this was a case of returned servicemen finding black men in their jobs, housing, and beds, partially contributing to the outbreak of race riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and London in the first half of 1919 (34). Newspapers screamed of “The Black Peril” (indeed, they had been doing so since 1917) and blamed black men for taking white men’s jobs and white men’s women (Bland 35 and 37). In response, the British parliament passed the Aliens Order in 1920, restricting non-white immigration (Caton 111).

Arab men then became a specific focus of concern in 1923 during the murder trial of Madame Fahmy, a thirty-two year old Frenchwoman who had married a wealthy Egyptian prince ten years her junior, and who subsequently murdered him. A connection was made between the trial and the immense popularity of “sheik” romances, as the Daily Mirror’s editorialized regarding the Fahmy case:

Too many of our women novelists, apparently under the spell of the East, have encouraged the belief that there is something especially romantic in such unions. They are not romantic, they are ridiculous and unseemly; and the sensational revelations of the trial […] will not be without their use if they bring that fact home to the sentimental, unsophisticated girl (Bland 47).

Indeed, Fahmy’s defense barrister argued in his summation: “Her greatest mistake—possibly the greatest mistake any woman could make—was as a woman of the West in marrying an Oriental” (Bland 46). Therefore, although Britain had no legislation against interracial unions, public sentiment regarding miscegenation was abundantly clear.

These events, both domestic and foreign, undoubtedly had an impact on both the production and reception of Hull’s output in the 1920s. Her subsequent novels such as The Sons of the Sheik (1925) and Captive of the Sahara (1931)—like those of her fellow desert romance novelist Kathlyn Rhodes—insisted on the impossibility and outright danger of interracial unions between Europeans and Orientals. Prolonged intercourse of any sort was detrimental to one or the other—usually the Oriental. The most dangerous figure in these later stories was the hybrid male: the Arab or Egyptian who was half-white, or who was culturally white. Occupying the status of both hero and eventual villain, the sheik who affected whiteness would inevitably reveal his dark desires and his degenerate Oriental self. According to novelists such as Hull and Rhodes, despite the sheik’s desire for racial and cultural whiteness, he was helpless to control the baser instincts resulting from his biological race. Relinquishing his desire for the white woman, or even sacrificing his life for her, ultimately constituted his one heroic act. In Hull’s Captive of the Sahara, the Bedouin sheik—who falls in love with the English heroine and who invites her to his desert stronghold, the City of Stones, only to imprison her there when she refuses to marry him—ends up dying to protect her. This, and the fact that he (an actual Arab, unlike Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan) never forces himself upon her, are his only virtues in a tragic tale of unrequited love and misguided anti-colonial ambition. The “native’s” love for the white woman threatens her reputation and destroys him. Whatever timorous gestures The Sheik had made towards breaching the boundaries of the white imperial race through the body of the white woman, therefore, the vast majority of English novels in this subgenre during the 1920s and 1930s reverted to the argument that it was the white woman’s responsibility to uphold this boundary and to police ruthlessly her own dark desires for the sake of all “races.” Interestingly enough, however, none of these storylines was ever as popular as the prospect of the taboo interracial union initially played out in The Sheik.

The specific historical circumstances of E.M. Hull’s novels thus shaped the contours of her plot and changed the social taboos she was willing to test or break. Where she was prepared to challenge social attitudes towards women’s sexual desire and the significance of rape for women in The Sheik and The Sons of the Sheik, miscegenation was not a boundary she was ultimately willing to breach. However, when her story of The Sheik was translated into an American film, the permeability of white boundaries—gendered, corporeal, social, and political—was once again challenged, as was the meaning of whiteness itself. Across the Atlantic, on the far side of the American continent, Hollywood began to develop an alternative understanding of whiteness in the desert romance, and of white women’s relationship to non-white, but not-black, men. Through Hollywood, and particularly through Rudolph Valentino’s role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, “ethnic” Americans, who occupied a precarious position within the polity, vaulted over the bodies of Africans and Arabs to consolidate their position as white American citizens.

The Sheik in America

Even before the publication of Hull’s The Sheik in the United States, American popular culture was already well-acquainted with a commodified, consumable Orient that was paradoxically modern in its love of exotic primitivism. As Holly Edwards has shown, American artists began to incorporate Middle Eastern themes into their paintings from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many were no doubt influenced by the French school of Orientalist painting, but in the United States Orientalism served two different purposes in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It connected American Protestant narratives of a Chosen People in a Promised Land to the biblical landscapes of the Middle East; and it also expressed nostalgia for a pastoral or frontier ideal that was vanishing, replaced instead by an increasingly urban society characterized by the commodification of consumer goods, sexuality, physicality, and the exotic Orient (Edwards 17). The 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago was especially significant in this transition. Not only did the Fair align and affirm American visions of the Orient with European imperial hierarchies of ethnographic difference and cultural inferiority through the condescending display of Oriental villages from Egypt and Algeria, for example, but it also situated the Orient within the modern idiom of salacious sexuality through Sol Bloom’s concoction of the scandalous but popular “hoochy-coochy” Oriental belly dance (Edwards 39).

From the turn of the century onwards, Oriental material culture served as department store and advertising backdrops for selling sensuous luxury items, cigarettes (Mecca, Medina and Omar, and the famous Camel brand), home furnishings, fashion, and film. This was the paradox of Orientalism: exotically primitive and inferior, Orientalism was also a playful discourse through which modern Americans could indulge the pleasure of the senses and experiment with alternative forms of sexuality, gender relations, and mystical rituals. Orientalism was used to explore and transform how Americans related to each other, and this explains the popularity of masquerade balls and the use of Oriental motifs in freemason and other occult male societies at this time. These Oriental role-plays offered “the opportunity to try on surrogate identities and taste illicit pleasures while protected by disguise. People moved across class and ethnic boundaries to dabble in what were perceived to be risqué behaviors” (Edwards 40). Because the United States had no formal sustained imperial relationship with “the Orient” at this time, and because British and French interests successfully blocked the expansion of American oil interests in the region until after World War I (Little 2002), American Orientalism in the early twentieth century was not so much about the justification and extension of imperial power as about the Orient as an imaginary space for American “pleasures, fantasy, and escapism, in the mode of the Arabian Nights.” For Americans, “the Orient represented the option of luxury and self-indulgence, far from the rigors of a humdrum desk job” (Edwards 23). Therefore American Orientalism, as William Leach has argued, “was symptomatic of changes taking place within western society—and especially in cities—that had little to do with imperialism or with the desire to appropriate somebody else’s property, but that symbolized a feeling of something missing from western culture itself, a longing for a ’sensual‘ life more ’satisfying‘ than traditional Christianity could endorse” (105).

This understanding of the Orient as an exotic commodity that could satisfy a more sensuous age was further strengthened by the spectacular use of Oriental imagery in the Broadway production of Hichens’ The Garden of Allah, which premiered in 1907. That the play opened in New York, popularly known as “Baghdad on the Hudson” for its commerce and seedy immigrant life, was particularly apt. The Garden of Allah featured live camels, technological feats producing whirling sandstorms on stage, and meticulously researched recreations of Algerian scenery (Edwards 44). The visual spectacle of the Orient soon overshadowed the play’s narrative content, which was confusing and soon forgotten. It ushered in a pre-war vogue for Garden of Allah tie-ins, with hotels and restaurants being decked out in furnishings reminiscent of the stage play, while all manner of consumables were associated with the phrase “Garden of Allah”—from women’s perfumes to table lamps. As Edwards observed, the “migration of Garden of Allah imagery from story to product epitomizes the process whereby the Orient was constructed and then disseminated in forms that conformed with American dreams and patterns of consumption” (45).

This is distinctly different from Orientalist discourse in Britain at the same time, which was more artistic, literary, and anchored in travel narratives or scholarly treatises on the Orient. This is not to suggest that the British Orientalist discourse was more “authentic” or “true” to “the Orient” than the American variant. As Said has argued persuasively, the discourse of Orientalism was never simply a more or less accurate representation of “the Orient;” it was a discourse which actively “Orientalized” the Orient, investing it with the qualities that made it seem inevitably “Oriental” to Europeans. In any case, as Timothy Mitchell has shown with regard to Egypt, European colonial authorities sometimes restructured the physical space of Orient so as to render it comprehensible within the pre-existing discourse of Orientalism. Villages, army barracks, and towns were reorganized along the lines of the replicas constructed for world fairs or exhibitions, exemplary of certain “political truths” about the colonized (Mitchell 1988). The discourse of European Orientalism was thus not necessarily more “authentic” or “true” than the discourse of American Orientalism.

Nevertheless, despite this active “Orientalizing” of North Africa, the British (and French) relationship with the Orient was still constrained by the geopolitical realities of colonialism: different types of political relations with local rulers; the lucrative provision of financial services; trade, investment, and the building of infrastructure; administration of the civil service; control over the military and containment of anti-colonial activities; and the existence of sizable expatriate European populations in key colonial towns and cities (as well as tourists traveling through lands rendered safe by the assertion of political dominance and military power). To this extent, then, British Orientalism differed from the extravagant and glamorous Orientalist fantasies peddled by American business and the entertainment industry to whet consumer appetite for new fashions, furnishings, and a new, more sensuous “national dream life for men and women” (Leach 107).

It was little wonder, then, that the novel should have enjoyed the same success in America as in Britain, although perhaps for different reasons. Indeed, its fame spread even further afield when the secretary of an entrepreneurial Hollywood mogul, Jesse Lasky (of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount), urged her boss to cast Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role of the film (Leider 152). Hollywood had shown an early fascination with the East, and the Oriental film was one of the most popular genres in the first two decades of the twentieth century, beginning with George Méliès’s The Palace of A Thousand and One Nights (1905). The filtering of the East through the “Arabian Nights” meant that from the start, Hollywood productions of desert romances differed from their British counterparts in terms of the attempts to recreate the “authentic” Saharan desert—something on which British filmmakers often prided themselves. It may have been that British cultural familiarity with the region through the writings of its novelists, travelers, Orientalist scholars, and the realism characteristic of the paintings of artists such as Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis, laid a greater expectation of “naturalism” and “authenticity” on British filmmakers.

Famous Players-Lasky was bound by no such considerations. Neither George Melford, the director, nor Lasky were much interested in historical or geographical verisimilitude. Melford certainly took advantage of the setting and the story to film some dramatic long shots of Arabs riding en masse across the rolling desert dunes, while Pathé Company footage of actual Algerian town scenes were spliced into the film for exterior crowd scenes (Leider 155). However, the interior shots made no attempts at realism. They were often staged within arched doorways or framed by opulent draperies and awnings, creating a proscenium-like effect throughout the film that distanced the audience from the action on-screen, forcibly reminding audiences they were watching the elaborately staged realm of Hollywood Oriental fantasy (Caton 116). This was the “Arabian Nights” Orient of advertisements and hotel, restaurant, or department store designs. Melford’s habit of using a “keyhole” effect to frame certain sequences within a black circle reinforced this fantasy, and was also reminiscent of the French artist Gérôme’s tondo of his Orientalist harem fantasy, Le Bain Turc. Again, no attempts at “authenticity” were made with Valentino’s sheik costume or the interiors of the sheik’s tent. Rather, they were the fashionable confections of his partner, Natacha Rambova (Leider 156-158). This, then, was never an attempt to represent the “real Orient” (or what westerners perceived it to be), but to indulge what were clearly American fancy-dress fantasies of the Orient, and the story was filmed in a way to emphasize this (Leider 155-156).

The film of The Sheik differs from the novel in many significant ways, perhaps the most crucial being the characters of Diana (played by Agnes Ayres) and Ahmed Ben Hassan, and the initial encounter between them. In the film, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is at a hotel casino where the sheik is allowed to display a chivalrous, gentlemanly side to his nature (in the novel, of course, Diana’s first encounter with the sheik is his abduction and rape). The sheik spots Diana as he is entering the casino, which has been closed to other western guests. Diana, angry at being kept out of any public place by “a savage desert bandit” is told by a French officer that the sheik is a “rich tribal prince who was educated in Paris” and in Biskra, “his slightest wish is law.” Like the novel, then, the film downgrades the authority of the French in colonial Algeria. The French permit colonial relations to be overturned, so that Arabs are able to keep Europeans out of a space within a hotel owned and inhabited by Europeans. Diana veils herself, masquerades as a dancer, and gatecrashes the sheik’s party, but her white skin gives her away. In their exchange, Diana is shown to be haughtily rude while the sheik displays an ironic courtesy towards her. She is positioned as an arrogant imperialist, telling the sheik that she intruded because “I wanted to see the savage who could bar me from this Casino.” Unlike the novel where Diana is a passive victim of the sheik’s lust, unwittingly drawing his attention because of her beauty, in the film it is Diana’s own discourteous action in failing to respect social and racial boundaries at the hotel that brings her to the attention of the sheik. She is not without power or agency in their initial encounter either. When he unmasks her in the casino, exclaiming “The pale hands and golden hair of a white woman,” she draws a revolver on him. Her act mimics in miniature the conquest and colonization of the Middle East—at the barrel of a gun, a gun that she loses in the desert at the moment of her abduction and the loss of her power as an imperial subject. The man who abducts her, however, is not a complete stranger to her but one whose attention she has deliberately courted. This is important in ameliorating the shock of the abduction.

The abduction scene proceeds according to the novel, but the rape scene is again different. For one thing, rape is deferred a number of times. The sheik forces Diana to change out of her riding clothes and dress for dinner, then she tries to escape by running out into a sandstorm. She is brought back by the sheik who then kisses her. This kiss, which leads to the rape in the novel, is interrupted in the film when the sheik himself has to head out into the sandstorm to rescue the men’s horses. When he returns, he sees Diana on her knees beside the divan, her hands clasped in desperate prayer and a jeweled cross displayed prominently on her chest (in the novel there are no references to Diana’s Christian religion). He approaches her stealthily, one hand outstretched and ready to debauch her, but he is conscience-stricken at the sight of her weeping prayers. Head bowed in dejection and perhaps in remorse or pity, the sheik then leaves the bedroom and sends the Arab maid Zilah to comfort and tend to Diana. What happens next is open to interpretation. Those who were familiar with the novel inferred the rape because the following caption, “Through the dull slumber of despair—until morning tempts back a desire to live” seemed to suggest the same plot as the novel, as did Diana’s subsequent costume as a subdued Arab woman. In Kansas City, the widespread understanding that Diana had been deflowered led to the film’s ban locally (Leider 166). However, other audiences concluded that Diana was not raped.

This ambiguity in interpretation was very much due to the fact that Lasky wanted the film to evade the censors so that it would be as “mainstream” and popular as possible (Leider 162, 167). As Steven Caton has argued, the film can be interpreted as a shift from rape to romantic courtship. Caton noted that the scene where the sheik leaves Diana sobbing in the maid’s arms is in fact full of symbols of phallic detumescence: the sheik’s upraised right hand drops in dejection as he leaves, and the lit pipe or cigarette that the sheik habitually holds in his hands are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, both the sheik and Diana are fully clothed the following morning, Diana wakes alone, and the sheik places a rose on Diana’s breakfast tray, signaling an intent to court her in the traditional western manner. Leider noted that:

Many of the original reviewers of The Sheik complained that the movie, in toning down the rape, changed what had originally been the story of a woman overpowered by a man into one about a woman having her way with a compliant male. They argued that Hull’s tale had lost its spine in the process of being adapted from book to screen. […] Woundingly, they used the language of castration, speaking of the movie version as “mealy, emasculated” (167).

A review in a film magazine, for example, castigated the censors for “patting ‘The Sheik’ into a decorous mood mild enough for the most tender mind. His fierceness—which so delighted the gentle spinster readers—is all gone […] and his attitude toward the kidnapped heroine is that of a considerate and platonic friend rather than the passionate, ruthless lover” (Pictureplay 1922).

The sheik’s emasculation is complete at the film’s conclusion. Where the novel ends with the sheik wresting a pistol away from Diana’s grasp before she shoots herself, the film ends with the wounded sheik waking from a coma to hear Diana offering her life to God in return for his recovery. The two are reconciled in a way which emphasizes the vulnerability of the sheik. While Diana is upright, watching over him and playing nurse, the sheik is weak and bedridden. It is a final image not dissimilar to a World War I Red Cross poster featuring a nurse as “the greatest mother in the world,” cradling a wounded soldier whose head is bandaged. By the film’s end, the sheik’s turban—symbol of his Oriental Otherness—has been replaced by a stark white bandage around his forehead, while the clothes he wears seem no different from a European man’s. The transformation that his love for Diana effects in him—from savage Bedouin sheik to wounded white European man—is encapsulated in his final words: “the darkness has passed and now the sunshine.”

Under Melford’s direction, Diana reprises the role of the white woman in the imperial mission, bringing Christianity and European civilization to the Orient, and rescuing Ahmed from his racial and cultural apostasy at the film’s end: “Pray God, dear friend, to save his life,” she says, “Oh, if He would only accept my life in exchange for his!” Even prior to this, she brings civilizational “light” to the Oriental tents of the sheik: dressing for dinner, reading books, and engaging in “cultured” behavior, especially when the French novelist Raoul de Saint Hubert visits. These activities—the upholding of ruling-class European standards of behavior—are by no means insignificant. From the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, any white woman who immigrated to the colonies and married a white man was deemed to have fulfilled her duty to the empire. This was because white women—especially middle-class women—were seen as civilizing influences who would prevent white men from “going native,” taking indigenous concubines, and undermining the hierarchical racial structure on which British colonialism was based. As Adele Perry has shown with the case of British Columbia in the 1870s, for example, the population was considered to be lacking in white women’s influence of culture, gentility, morality, and piety. Without white women’s presence, white Canadian men were dangerously exposed to the temptations of “all the evils of heathendom” and “risked becoming a disgrace to the English race itself” (Perry 501). English literature set in the colonies around this time similarly emphasized that the role of an Englishwoman was to marry and be a helpmeet to an earnest Englishman whose life was dedicated to the service of the empire—whether in the form of involvement in the colonial bureaucracy, the army, or in public works such as building railways or dams. After marriage, a wife’s service to the empire took the form of creating a pleasant home environment for her husband and serving him (Teo 2004).

The film thus follows the novel’s imperial agenda, as did many other Hollywood films of the interwar years. So many Hollywood films were based on British imperial adventure novels, that in 1939 The Daily Express praised Hollywood for “glorifying Britain’s empire” and noted that “the British empire need not worry for propaganda while Hollywood does its imperial publicity” (Webster 63). Where the novel of The Sheik emphasized the role of white men in extending and controlling the empire in the Middle East, however, the film gives equal emphasis to Diana’s role as a white woman within this imperial project. Moreover, because of the film’s ending, Diana retains her spirit and sense of agency—tempered by love and tenderness—whereas in the novel she is crushed and driven to self-destruction. Where the British novel condemns and destroys the New Woman, replacing her with a more traditional “womanly” woman—passive, submissive, helpless, and even suicidal—the American film applauds modern, feminist-influenced femininity. Indeed, a few years earlier Jesse Lasky had requested Cecil B. De Mille and Jeannie Macpherson to “write something typically American that would portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in this country are now interested in […] the kind of girl that dominates […] who jumps in and does a man’s work” (Leider 165).

The imperial civilizing mission, and the role of the white woman as enlightened as well as enlightening in every sense of the word, is visually expressed through the aesthetic use of film lighting technology to “privilege and construct an idea of the white person” (Dyer 84). Diana’s whiteness is first emphasized when she enters the sexualized space of the Oriental casino where the sheik and the other Arabs are engaged in the “marriage gamble where brides are won on the turn of a [roulette] wheel.” She stands out from the other veiled women and is unmasked because of her whiteness. When the sheik takes her hand, his hands are colored and shown to be much darker than hers. Film is of course a technology of light, and in these films light is literally used to convey stark messages about the civilizational light brought by western women into the benighted lands of the East. As Dyer has explained, early film stock tended to show white people as dark-skinned unless lighting was used strategically to highlight skin and to eliminate shadows. During the 1920s, Hollywood developed a convention of using the key light, the fill, and backlight to keep the white figure “separate from the background as well as creating, when wanted, the rim and halo effects of heroic and glamour lighting” (Dyer 87). In The Sheik, the whiteness of the heroine’s skin, and the effect of light on her, around her, or flowing from her to the hero, is carefully created. Although Agnes Ayres —like Diana in the novel—is not blonde in this film, her clothing often reflects the light, and her hair is backlit in such a way that she is radiant with light. This accorded with the developing traditions of cinema lighting, whereby “idealized white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls onto them from above. In short, they glow” (Dyer 122).

In the era of black and white silent films, colors and clothing were crudely symbolic. The villains in American Westerns wore dark clothes and a dark hat, whereas the Western hero was symbolized by his white hat. The same symbolism can be seen in The Sheik. When Diana is abducted, she wears light-colored riding clothes and a topee—the costume of European imperial authority that is also worn by Raoul de Saint Hubert. Forced by the sheik to change into a dark evening dress, the symbol of her white European, Christian identity then rests in the large cross that is seen prominently around her neck. However, clothing is more ambiguous for Arab men, particularly the sheik. In the opening scenes, he and the other Arab men are dressed in white robes. By the time he has Diana in his power, however, his white robes have given way to darker, multi-layered, richly textured striped or patterned garments of white, black, and other shades. In the final sickbed scene, when the sheik, through Diana, reclaims his whiteness and literally sees the light, he is simply dressed in a nondescript pale shirt and breeches. Without his characteristic turban, he is indistinguishable from a European man.

The scenes of conflict between Ayres and Valentino in The Sheik emphasize the contrast between his darkness and her light. Valentino’s hands were artificially darkened so that they would stand out against her skin and her clothing whenever he held her. Although his face is darker than hers—as was the tradition for all white men juxtaposed against white women in film at the time—his face nevertheless appears white when he is not in close proximity to Ayres. Leider noted that as a southern Italian, “Valentino’s dark complexion might have been highlighted as an asset, since he was playing a hot-blooded, charismatic Arab chieftain.” However, given widespread racial fears of miscegenation and nativist sentiment about white purity, and given the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the 1920s, “the producers played it safe: only in the posters and lobby cards, especially those in color, does Rudy’s skin look tan or even black. On-screen, his face appears white, but his hands show darker” Leider 159). This schizophrenia of lighting and coloring reflects the ambivalence of Americans towards racial and ethnic others, and towards citizenship and even whiteness itself.

The Sheik was produced in a context of increasing white American concern over immigration from southern and eastern Europe that eventually resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924—the Johnson-Reed Act—which included a “national origins quota” system for Europeans, limiting immigrant numbers to 2% of the existing population group in the 1890 census. As Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924 “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness into a hierarchy of plural and scientifically determined white races,” dominated by Anglo-Saxons. The response of newly arrived European immigrants—Irish, Italians, Poles, and Slavs—or their descendants was to scramble for inclusion into and consolidation of a catch-all white “Caucasian” identity, constructed at the expense of black Americans then migrating from the agrarian South to the urban and industrial North and West (Jacobson 7-8). The crucial test for belonging was, of course, naturalization and citizenship, restricted since 1790 to “free white persons,” and later amended in 1870 to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Rather than challenging the racial basis of citizenship, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries instead saw a raft of legal attempts to have certain marginal groups declared “white” (Gualtieri 52-53).

Significantly, in contrast to Britain—where Arabs were associated with “blacks” until the Second World War—in the United States, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, and Turks were declared a “white” race under the landmark 1915 Dow v. United States ruling by the Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fact” of Levantine whiteness was established in a series of naturalization cases heard in federal courts between 1909 and 1915. Syrians such as George Dow and his supporters deliberately constructed themselves as white, appealing to a shared sense of Christian entitlement, their ancient civilization, and the Semitic roots they shared with Jews who were considered racially white (Gualtieri 42-46). For the new immigrant groups, however, whiteness was unstable and precarious. To southern Americans, the Mediterranean, Eastern European, Jewish, and Levantine immigrants were “in-betweens,” occupying a status between true whites and blacks. Inclusion into white identity and white society was provisional, dependent upon their occupations, associations, and behavior. They were only white as long as they upheld the “white man’s code.” It was possible for these groups to slip into blackness if, like Italians in Louisiana, they worked alongside blacks, maintained business relations, or even intermarried with them—in which case they would be treated as blacks (Jacobson 57). In New Orleans, eleven Italians were lynched by the White League in 1891 while in Tallulah, Louisiana, five Sicilian storekeepers were lynched in 1899 (Jacobson 56-58). Levantine immigrants were not exempt either. Syrians were the targets of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, while in Florida, the lynching of Nicholas Romey shocked the Syrian community, who were not only outraged but “bewildered” that he had not been recognized as a white man. In the words of the Syrian-American newspaper ash-Shaab:

The Syrian is not a negro whom Southerners feel they are justified in lynching when he is suspected of an attack on a white woman. The Syrian is a civilized white man who has excellent traditions and a glorious historical background and should be treated as among the best elements of the American nation (Gualtieri 47).

Valentino’s role as the pseudo-Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik must be contextualized within this history of competing versions of whiteness and citizenship in the United States, as well as within discourses of American Orientalism. Rudolph Valentino, born Rodolfo Guglielmi, emigrated from southern Italy to New York in 1913, where he worked at a number of odd-jobs and made a living as a “taxi dancer”—a professional dance partner in popular dance halls—before heading west to Hollywood in 1917. As Leider has observed:

He didn’t set his sights on romantic or heroic roles. Physical traits determined casting choices and he knew he looked foreign, which meant he would be typed as a villain. Ethnic and racial stereotypes were still rigidly fixed, and moral qualities attached to skin tone and hair color, as well as nationality. Blonde women tended to be cast as virgins, brunettes as vamps. To American directors and producers, and much of the audience, dark skin implied contamination. The most popular leading men of the moment were all clean-cut, square-jawed, all-Americans […] like Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lockwood, and Wallace Reid. (87)

Films featuring Italians—such as The Criminals (1913), which focused on the Mafia kidnapping of a child, or D.W. Griffiths’ Italian Blood (1911)—pathologized them and called their whiteness into question (Leider 50). Griffiths dismissed Valentino as “too foreign looking” for anything but villainous roles, and Valentino, accepting the inevitable, advertized himself in Motion Picture Studio Directory as “a New Style of Heavy.” In the end, it was white American women—actresses like Dorothy Gish and Carmel Myers, or screenwriter and Metro executive June Mathis—who persuaded male directors to cast Valentino in leading roles. Through these women’s assistance, Valentino became Hollywood’s first swarthy romantic hero, helping to “redefine and broaden American masculine ideals. Only after Valentino could a blonde leading lady accept and return the ardent kisses of a screen lover with dark coloring” (Leider 4). Even so, he did his best to stay out of the sun, recognizing that he had a propensity to tan and fearing that he would become “like a Negro” and “too black for pictures” (Leider 162).

In The Sheik, then, the spectacle of Valentino the Italian immigrant representing Ahmed Ben Hassan the Arab raised questions about white identity, civic belonging, and social acceptance—represented by the right to marry a white woman. In the context of contemporary debates over whiteness, immigration, and citizenship, Caton has argued, the revelation of Ahmed’s mixed parentage “has a precise correlate in the contested notions of whiteness and non-whiteness […] Could Italians in America (Valentino, for example) claim to be white?” (Caton 114). Could, then, the Jewish Americans who flocked to and dominated Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry? Caton contended that the “immigrant who is neither white nor black but confusingly in-between could become a ‘bourgeois’ citizen of the country with the helping hand of the patronizing white woman. […] Libidinal attraction to a dangerous type is justified and legitimated for the sake of a national melting pot, paid for by the exclusion of the black man” (116).

Originally non-white-but-not-black, Valentino/Ahmed Ben Hassan can become white through his love of a white woman, who tames and redeems him through Christian courtship and marriage. This process of conversion and redemption is in direct contrast to the novel, where it is Diana’s feminist-inflected, modern femininity which is tamed and crushed by Oriental rape. In the film, Diana’s second abduction and attempted rape by the evil robber Sheik Omair takes place after Ahmed Ben Hassan, under the Frenchman Saint Hubert’s influence, has reluctantly agreed that because he loves Diana, he must send her back to her own people. From this point on, Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man takes place at the expense of darker others. His initial “otherness” is now displaced onto the villainous Omair, who is not only much darker in complexion but who also associates with Africans, in contrast to the Frenchmen with whom Ahmed surrounds himself. Sheik Omair is guarded by a giant Nubian and surrounded by the classic Hollywood iconography of African otherness: nearly-nude dancing girls and tom-toms. In the act of rescuing Diana, Valentino/Ahmed survives a near-fatal attempt on his life, whereas black-affiliated Omair and his Nubian guards die. Valentino/Ahmed’s transformation into a white man thus takes place at the expense of villainous black men. In the final scene, as I have mentioned before, he is stripped of the outward symbols of Oriental otherness—his thobe and his turban—and left only with his shirt and breeches, while Diana kneels by his side and lays her head on his wounded breast. As Caton remarked, this is “allegorically significant in the context of American race relations,” for “it offers the dream of a partnership between white and ethnic other, implied by the handclasp of Diana and Ahmed before the final fade-out” (Caton 116). To American women, the film thus offered a potentially different message of racial, ethnic, or cultural incorporation than did the British novel.

However, Valentino’s—and, hence, other ethnic heroes’—acceptance as a white man was gendered and conditional. While many women idolized him as the “perfect lover,” for some others, as for a Photoplay reader, he looked “wicked […] maybe because he is not an American” (Studlar 299). In point of fact, Valentino never became naturalized as an American citizen because he was torn between his roots as an Italian and the country which had made him famous but which also consistently questioned his masculinity and his racial heritage. He was famously reviled by American men who “feared that American women, duped by immigrants—especially those, like tango pirates, who achieved a masquerade of good breeding—would bear offspring who would inherit the ancestry of their dark foreign fathers, an ancestry that was considered to be tainted” (Studlar 299). Just as Arabs could be represented and displaced by a more acceptable “white ethnic” like Valentino, in time, swarthy but romantic ethnic heroes in Hollywood would be represented and displaced by “Anglo-Saxon” actors such as Ronald Colman (The Night of Love), John Gilbert (The Cossacks), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Baghdad and The Gaucho), and Richard Barthelmes (The White Black Sheep). As Studlar has noted, “such stars could temporarily satisfy female desire for erotic exoticism without threatening either American men or the nation’s Nordic/Anglo-Saxon purity” (Studlar 301). This sequence of the colonization and displacement of the exotic ethnic/Arab figure by an indisputably “white” man echoed uncannily the displacement of the Arab Ahmed Ben Hassan by the white Earl of Glencaryll in The Sheik, but it also served to emphasize that these white heroes were at their most erotically charged when masquerading as non-white men. This is of course the paradox of Orientalism: a discourse which creates and propagates images of inferior “others,” it simultaneously expresses the consciousness of a lack on the part of the western self/culture, and a yearning for the exotic other.

Conclusion

The Sheik was one of the most important popular cultural artifacts produced in the twentieth century, a text whose influence is still evident today in countless songs, romance novels, films, television series, comics, cartoons, and in the very transformation of the connotations associated with the word “sheik” itself. Today, however, what remains of the text in popular memory is the image of a white woman abducted by a swarthy Arab man in flowing robes, perched on a galloping steed thundering over desert dunes. Meanwhile, the Arab-turned-English sheik himself has become inextricably intertwined with, and perhaps even lost in, the image of the Italian-turned-Arab-turned-American matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, whose death soon after the completion of The Son of the Sheik denied him any opportunity to sever his eternal association with the sheik by playing other subsequent roles. Both images—the horseback abduction and Valentino as the sheik—simultaneously evoke fun and fantasy, ridicule and romance; and perhaps that is why relatively little attention has been paid to both the novel and the film in comparison to other popular novels and films throughout the twentieth century.

Scholars in film and literary studies have certainly redressed this neglect over the last two decades, but apart from Caton’s work, discussions of the film and the novel do not generally overlap. Furthermore, although Hull’s novel, in particular, has been read within a plethora of different historical contexts pertaining to the 1920s, the circumstances of its production in the midst of World War I and its subsequent reception arising from the different imperial, ethnic, racial, and Orientalist contexts of Britain and the US have received little mention. This is not to suggest that the film and novel did not overlap, or were radically different in meaning and reception in Britain and America respectively. This is clearly not the case. The foregrounding of Diana’s desire for adventure, passion, and the exotic Orient is shared by both novel and film; as is her arrogant confidence arising from her position as a white imperial subject who has the power, ultimately, to rescue the European male “gone native,” and restore him to his white self. Where the novel crushes her and reduces her to submissive passivity to the sheik, however, the film celebrates her spirit and shows her triumphant over a somewhat debilitated sheik at the end. Still, the Hollywood film shares the novel’s imperial assumptions and obligingly confirms the novel’s insinuation that the French are weak colonizers who are best cast as adjuncts to the plot and to the British protagonists, even though the setting is in French colonial Algeria. Both novel and film condone the role of violence in romance—even though the film subsequently cloaks the novel’s rape scene in coy ambiguity—and, of course, both exalt the figure of the sheik as a menacing, mesmerizing, sexually potent, Oriental romantic hero. These things, and many other lesser details, the two texts have in common.

Yet the differences are equally significant. The first point of differentiation between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film is the tradition of Orientalist discourse incorporated into each text. Like many of her fellow “desert romance” novelists in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Hull drew from a tradition of Orientalist literature concerned with historical accuracy, “authenticity,” naturalism, and verisimilitude, seemingly conscious about how well her descriptions of notable tourist destinations—Biskra or the North African desert—matched the descriptions in British travel accounts. Indeed, she herself would go on to write a travel book, Camping in the Sahara (1926). Moreover, British Orientalist discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded in concerns about colonial matters in the East. Said is surely correct in arguing that during this time, Orientalism served to justify European domination of its colonies. Hull commented on, or wrestled with, actual or potential colonial or racial problems in The Sheik and her subsequent desert romances. The justification and extension of British imperialism, especially in contrast to the French, is a significant part of the novel.

However, coming from a specifically American tradition of fairground and department-store Orientalism, Lasky’s film was less concerned with verisimilitude or the depiction of actual geopolitical regions, and more absorbed in creating a fantasy “Arabian Nights” space which emphasized the visual, spectacular, commoditized exotic: Oriental curtains, rugs, draperies, cushions, lamps, furniture, clothing, headwear and cigarettes. In this and subsequent sheik or desert romance films, Orientalism and “Arab-face” offered American men a way of experimenting with alternative masculinities that indulged the senses and reveled in “feminine” commodities such as exotic clothing, while combining this with a dangerous and violent ideal of the heroic lover. This ideal, first propagated by the British novel, had a very particular and poignant resonance for British audiences in the 1920s.

Hull’s novel was produced during a period of trauma: the constant reports of defeats, stalemates, and heavy casualties arising from the First World War—a war in which her own husband was involved; the stories of German atrocities trickling back from Belgium and amplified by the British government; the upheaval of social and sexual mores on the home front; the trauma of returned soldiers—often shell-shocked, neurasthenic, or embittered—trying to adapt to civilian life; and the domestic violence meted out against both strangers and loved ones that sometimes ensued. This must have influenced Hull to conceive the violent rapist hero whom the heroine could still fall in love with, because his Oriental otherness, brute strength, arrogance, confidence, and sexual prowess—part of his hyper-masculinity—were no doubt attractive in an age dominated domestically by what Sonya Rose has called the “temperate hero” (2003).

The Sheik was then received within a context of backlash against women. Although women over thirty received the vote in 1918, this limited victory for female suffrage was offset by the retrenchment of women from the workforce to make way for returned soldiers, and by hostility against young working-class women for taking men’s jobs or, in large port cities, for consorting with other men, especially “black” men. Women were certainly not passive in the face of this backlash. Many young women defiantly celebrated what gains were left to them after the war: access to the public sphere and to the new forms of consumerism and public entertainment that swept Britain in the 1920s—shopping, dancing, and movie-going, where they consumed Hollywood fare such as The Sheik. These were entertainments which celebrated and gave expression to female sexual desire, including the desire—fulfilled in fantasy if not reality—for dangerous “black” men, among whom Arabs and South Asians were included. In the end, Hull indulged women’s sexual desire but firmly reined in their interracial fantasies, diverting them instead to the figure of the heroic British man in “Arab-face.”

In many ways, the United States shared the same historical memories as the British; after all, Lasky’s film was released merely two years after the publication of Hull’s novel. However, the historical circumstances, and therefore the meaning, of these events differed in small but significant ways for Americans. For example, the American experience of the war was signally different from the British. The same motif of German atrocities in Belgium was used as American propaganda after the US declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, but the American public had not been bombarded with such stories for years as had the British public. For the Americans, the war was of a far shorter duration and lesser impact in terms of the war-wounded and the dead. Four million men were immediately mobilized but the first troops only made it to France a year later, at the end of March 1918, and these troops only experienced one victory after another from then until November 1918. The casualty rate for mobilized American soldiers was eight per cent, compared with forty-four per cent for the British. Whatever the war traumas experienced by individual soldiers, American society as a whole was not traumatized by World War I. Consciousness of the war was not part of the context in which the film was either produced or received.

The same broadly shared attitude towards race which nonetheless masked significant variations can also be seen in Britain and the US, which were both hostile to interracial relations between white women and non-white men. Despite the lack of any legal prohibition against interracial relations in Britain and its colonies, such unions between white women and non-white men were treated with deep revulsion and condemnation, because the boundaries of the imperial race and its inferior colonized subjects were being breached—something that British society strongly objected to especially after the 1857 Indian “Mutiny.” Arabs were generally placed on the same footing as Africans in this imperial hierarchy of race. In the US, however, anti-miscegenation laws were aimed squarely at African Americans and sustained by the myth of the black man raping the white woman (while ignoring the actual reality of white men raping black women). Arabs, while not quite securely “white,” were nevertheless differentiated from African Americans, and in the early 1910s, consolidated their citizenship rights as Americans on the basis of not being “black.” Here, the history of immigration plays into the construction of racial and white identity. For the British, racial questions held their greatest significance in the empire; within Britain itself, apart from the pockets of non-white populations in port cities, subjects were white precisely because they were British. In the US, however, European immigration from the postbellum era onwards raised the question of who could be considered white and, therefore, a potential citizen. The boundaries of “whiteness” were gradually extended to include the Irish, eastern and southern Europeans, Jews, and eventually Arabs—all of whom combined to form a “Caucasian” race which again differentiated itself against black Americans.

When George Melford directed The Sheik, the same process of incorporating the Italian/Arab Valentino into white society can be seen. Arabs are “white” enough to be played by Italians who, in turn, have become “white” enough to represent Englishmen (albeit with a hint of Spanish-Moorish blood). “White” Arabs associate with white people like the French. Unlike the degenerate bandit Omair, the white sheik distances and differentiates himself from indisputably “black” people like Nubian slaves. The racial and white ethnic logic of this film only makes sense within the context of the history of American racial, immigration, and citizenship policies of the early twentieth century: a history in which black people are constantly represented in servitude of some sort, but where non-white/not-black people can be assimilated into the body politic as citizens if they distance themselves from blacks.

In the end, we cannot determine how many readers and film-goers were attentive to the various nuances and differences between Hull’s novel and Lasky’s film. Contemporary reviews of the film in magazines such as Photoplay or Pictureplay seemed to latch on to one overwhelming difference: the emasculation of Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film. This they blamed, not so much on Valentino for his portrayal of the sheik, as on the producer and director for choosing a film that would inevitably “give the censor’s knife full play” (Pictureplay 1922). Regardless of how cognizant audiences were of these differences, they are important because they show the various ways the Orient became “Orientalized” for two different audiences in the early twentieth century, and they indicate the different purposes that a heteroglossic Orientalist discourse could serve: as escapist entertainment, certainly, but also as an intervention by a previously unknown woman writer into British imperial matters as well as into the wartime and postwar debate about women’s sexual desire, and as a medium of exploring American racial identity and inclusion into full citizenship. Finally, whatever else The Sheik did or did not do, it placed women at the center of Orientalist discourse as both producers and consumers of the novel and the film, thereby making them complicit in its legacy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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[1] This essay assumes that “the Orient” is a Western discursive construct rather than existing geopolitical reality but, for ease of reading, will omit scare quotes from the terms “Orient” or “Oriental” in subsequent references.

[2] For example, Lady Jane Digby and Margaret Fountaine.

[3] Women over thirty were given the vote in 1918. It would be another decade before they were enfranchised on the same terms as men.

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