If The Sheik brings to mind any one currently popular film, it’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The cultural phenomenon that has been Fifty Shades illustrates how complex sexual fantasy can be: the series is about a man who is possessive and controlling, who uses his patriarchal and financial power to press his partner into doing what he wants. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the stories’ BDSM elements.) And yet, the appearance of Fifty Shades in mainstream pop culture represented a feminist triumph inasmuch as it forced open space in the zeitgeist for the representation, expression, and discussion of (heterosexual) female desires on a scale usually reserved exclusive for (an equally narrow set of heterosexual) male desires.
The phenomenon of Rudolph Valentino, the sex symbol of the early 1920s, parallels this story in many regards. Valentino’s meteoric rise to stardom was driven by the adoration of women. His prominence in film magazines and the money the studios were willing to spend on his films were responses to an overwhelming desire on the part of American women to gaze at Valentino. And yet, a movie like The Sheik frames the erotic fantasy that was the Valentino phenomenon within a story that denies any feminine sexual or social agency, that asks its viewer to accept the most base presumptions about femininity and masculinity—not to mention the “oriental” Other—that perverts kidnapping and psychological torture into the basis for a grand love story.
As the film opens, the resolutely independent Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is in Baskra in colonial North Africa. Accustomed to the freedom afforded her by modern Western society, she refuses a marriage offer from another European. To demonstrate her defiance, she not only goes out alone to enjoy Baskra’s nightlife for the evening—she also sneaks into an Arab-only casino in disguise. There, she is surprised to find that the Arab royals are at the Casino to barter for wives, and, mistaking her for an Arabian woman, the dashing Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan has taken an interest in her. Discovering she is white, Hassan allows her to leave, but devises a plan to meet her again when he discovers that one of his compatriots has been contracted to take her on a safari the next day.
What follows is, quite simply, a kidnapping. While Lady Mayo is on her safari, the Sheik abducts her, bringing her into his lavish tent and implying in several scenes that he is on the verge of raping her. As Mayo, Ayres shows no sign of burgeoning attraction in these scenes, little hint that any part of the Sheik’s “seduction” is consensual. The camera might be understood to tell a different story—lingering close-ups on Valentino’s face are not lacking, even though, as an early-20s film, much of the action is still allowed to play out in long shot—but it is unquestionable that what is depicted is a form of sexual terrorism.
That this sexual terrorism—this wanton subjugation of a woman explicitly trying to claim her own agency in a world of men—is projected onto the foreign Other makes the film, in its dominant strokes, all the more disgusting. It is easy to recognize, from the perspective of 100 years, the way that The Sheik displaces Western society’s own misgivings about liberated femininity onto the allegedly barbaric colonial subject. Predictably, Lady Mayo eventually relents, realizing that she loves the Sheik—though it takes being kidnapped by an “even worse” Arab chieftain to realize her everlasting love. The shrew is thus tamed, without the film ever having to make shrew-taming the official position of its male European characters.
But in assembling this familiar story about the lascivious Easterner successfully seducing the suffragette, The Sheik clearly runs into a problem: it can’t simply endorse racial mixing, as if a white woman would wilfully submit to the advances of a nonwhite cretin. Thus it includes a last-minute twist: as Valentino’s Sheik lies prone, wounded while gallantly defending Lady Mayo, she notes an odd physical feature of his. Turning to the Sheik’s close European friend Raoul (Adolph Menjou), Mayo intones (via title card, of course), “But his hands are so large for an Arab.”
This sublime example of racist ideology’s absurdity is answered with Raoul’s simple explanation that, in fact, Raoul is an orphaned European, half Spaniard and half British, who was raised by the previous Sheik as his own son. This straw of information breaks the camel’s back: Mayo can now love her attempted rapist without reservation, knowing that he has secretly been white (white enough, anyway) the whole time.
What can we take away from this movie, full as it is of the most obviously reprehensible tropes? How can we square the fact that this movie is explicitly about denying women sexual agency with the fact that women drove its popularity? A pessimistic take is that in The Sheik the fantasy of Valentino is appropriated, funneled toward culturally conservative ends, and that is certainly true. But it may help to remember that visual pleasure is not so easily hemmed in by narrative. We might recognize that partaking in the enjoyment of Valentino's face, of his figure in the stylized robes of Hollywood’s “Arab,” and daydreaming about being forcefully taken into his tent, is not the same as submitting in real life to the kind of treatment Mayo is subject to—just as we may castigate Fifty Shades for conforming to so many negative tropes about heterosexual romance, but not uniformly condemn the people who find pleasure in such stories.