I don't think many, if any of us, would disagree that The Sheik was quite ridiculous in terms of race and sex. From the Sheik being revealed as the son of Europeans - because God forbid the pretty young English woman fall in love with someone who's not white, says the 1920s - to Lady Diana eventually falling in love with her attractive captor in an odd Stockholm Syndrome sort of way while the unattractive, actually non-European captor becomes The True Villain, the film has multiple ideas that made the class giggle and which just wouldn't sell in the 21st century.
But, really, wouldn't it? While watching the film, as horrified as I was with the rest of the class, I realized that this is the sort of thing I would've loved when I was younger. Around the 8th grade, when I was about 14, all of my friends and I became enamored with Twilight, where a previously completely independent young girl wants to give up her whole life, including family, friends and freedom, to remain forever by the side of a vampire boyfriend who became progressively more controlling and abusive throughout the film series. But none of us cared - the vampire sounded pretty, and sparkly.
When the Twilight films came out they were an immediate hit, regardless of being total garbage. Robert Pattinson became a heartthrob for many women all over the world, even if the character he played, Edward Cullen, would go so far as to cut the cables of Bella Swan's car to make sure she wouldn't go see her werewolf best friend. Yet Bella was torn between her love for Edward and Jacob, the aforementioned werewolf, both of whom thought they knew what was best for her. At the heart of The Sheik, this is also somewhat the same message. It doesn't matter that Diana is independent, that she loves to travel, and that she wishes to go back home. The Sheik knows what's 'best' for her, which is to stay with him and become his wife in the middle of the desert. These narratives tell us that men must save women from themselves, since the women don't "really know" what they want or need. It's astonishing that they've actually changed very little within the last hundred years.
And of course, there's little reason for them to change. Young girls everywhere are indoctrinated into this mindset from a very young age. Beauty and the Beast is an equally similar narrative - it does not matter that the male lead is originally a monster attempting to contain the female lead, in the end they fall in love, she realizes just how pretty he is and they live happily ever after. And in adult films, we indulge this story with which we've been brainwashed while looking on at stars like Rudolph Valentino or Robert Pattinson. The pill becomes much easier to swallow when it's been coated with a pretty face, as women give up everything but the man while men only gain out of these situations. Sometimes, the narrative even encroaches 'scandalous' territory with more 'liberated' approaches, like 50 Shades of Grey. But in the end, you still have a trapped woman, a controlling man and an unhealthy relationship we're told from our youth to revere as pictures of true love. Bella may have a motorcycle, Belle may have her books and Anastasia Steele may have her blindfolds, but at the heart of each and every one of these modern stories, they're all equally as helpless and outdated as The Sheik's Diana Mayo.