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Examples of Orientalism in Western Pop-Culture
Transcript of Examples of Orientalism in Western Pop-Culture
(Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting "Harem Pool", displayed on the cover of Edward Said's 1978 book, "Orientalism".)
By: Curtis Chagnon
What is the meaning of Orientalism?
Orientalism refers to the Western imitation or depiction of certain characteristics and aspects of Middle Easten and Asian cultures. The publication of Edward Said's book "Orientalism" brought widespread awareness to the term; which he recognizes as the West's prejudiced interpretation of the East. Said also explains how orientalism developed shortly after European powers had come into contact with the lesser developed people of the East. The Europeans recognized their cultures as bizarre and exotic, resulting in their ethno-centric attitudes.
Produced by Paramount Pictures, The Dictator is a comedy released in 2012 starring Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen; a dictator from the Northern African Republic of Wadiya that has travelled to New York City to address the United Nations council after international concerns over his country's clandestine nuclear program. Examples of Orientalism include the frequent ordering of executions at the slightest offense, extravagant military outfits, and ridiculous mock Arab accents just to name a few. The film's main character, the Admiral General Aladeen, is supposed to mainly represent Libya's one ruling dictator from 1977-2011, Muammar Gaddafi. Other rulers Aladeen is supposed to represent include Aladeen are Idi Amin, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong Il (Kirshirck, 2012). The film has been criticized by many Arabs due to the large number of important Arab characters that are not portrayed by Arabs themselves. The Dictator also includes anti-Semitic views and frequent jokes about the repressed people of "his country".
“Movies that children watch for enjoyment and pleasure rather than instruction unfortunately leave a deeper imprint on a fresh, impressionable mind than does an unexciting textbook” (Kincheloe, 159).
Since the film's release in November of 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures, Aladdin has become one of Disney's most successful films to date, being ranked as the fourth highest film based on popularity ("Best Disney Movies"). Unfortunately, the film has long been criticized for its unfair portrayal of the Arab world and is one of the more widely known examples of modern Orientalism still present in Western society today. Aladdin's opening theme song, "Arabian Nights", is criticized for its lyrics "Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face, it's barbaric, but hey, its home" (1992-1993 Original Aladdin). The lyrics signal to the viewer that Aladdin's home is not just a faraway place, but a place of mystery much different from the audience's. When the song says "..where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face, it's barbaric, but hey, it's home" it demonizes Aladdin's home and allows the audience into recognizing it as uncivilized and barbaric, further supporting the film's representation of "faraway place" not able to be related to by the audience.
After complaints, Disney changed part of the lyrics from "Arabian Nights" that was "Where they cut off your ear where they don't like your face" to “Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense” ("Aladdin"). The new lyrics still represent a false reality to the audience. Once thought of as barbaric and mysterious, the song still portrays Aladdin's home as mysterious, but with the addition of these lyrics, the new impression given is that his home is a vast and uninhabitable area.
The Adventures of Tintin was a popular series of comics created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi. The comics were published in French from 1929-1976. The "hero" and main character is Tintin who is a young Belgian journalis. Written in 20th century Europe, the story's plots usually were written by Remi with a goal of realistically representing events and ideas of the 20th century. Tintin travels across the world, from Belgian colonies to the Soviet Union. Throughout the comics, examples of racism and Orientalism appear ever so often. In the comic, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets", Tintin travels to the Soviet Union. Remi wanted a story highly critical of the Soviet Union. The story represents the Bolsheviks as "absolute evil" and shows them rigging elections, murdering opponents (the picture to the right), and stealing the food from the people. Although not totally untruthful, the story is dramatized by Remi to influence people against the Soviet Union, not only for political, but also personal reasons. Remi and most Beligans were largely influenced by the Catholic Church at the time and was critical of the Bolshevik's atheist views. The picture to the left represents torturers that have red hot pokers. Represented as Chinese torturers, many find offense in this picture. It suggests that only people of the "Other" use torture against others, creating an idea they were inferior.
Aladdin is one of the protagonist characters of the film. Unfortunately, the characters perceived as the good ones speak with American accents. The rest of the cast, dealing with a majority of the antagonists of Aladdin, are given "ridiculous and exaggerated" Arab accents. Giving the protagonists American accents easily allows the audience to distinguish them from the opposite antagonists that speak with Arab accents. To Americans, the American accent would be easily recognized as familiar while the Arab accent is recognized in an exaggerated and foreign way. To kids watching Aladdin, one might learn to associate the negatively represented Arab accent as bad, mysterious, and foreign.
(The picture here is Mr. Bohlwinkel, a Jewish banker who appears in "The Shooting Star". He is represented with stereotypical Nazi-era features including a large nose, large lips, and an overweight build.)
Mentioned in a reading from this week, the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom represents examples of Orientalism. In the film, Indiana Jones finds himself accidentally arriving in India after fleeing from China. An Indian tribesman discovers the group and brings them back to his village. Upon arriving, the group learns of a Kali-worshiping cult that has taken the village children as slaves, ruling from a palace nearby. After the arrival at the palace, the food served to the right included monkey brains, a snake with beetles cooked inside, and many other foods that are represented as cultural food when in fact, most Indians do not eat anything remotely similar to monkey brains. In the film, the palace is secretly hiding a cult still practicing inhumane rituals involving removal of a live person's heart for the Hindu goddess Kali. Not only are ritual victim's hearts removed by hand, they are then lowered into a underground pit of lava. To portray Indian's in this way unfairly and inaccurately represents the actual lives and beliefs of Indians.
When thinking of Orientalism, one would probably never Nicki Minaj's name come to mind. Nicki Minaj rose to fame becoming one of the few widely successful female rappers. Her song "Your Love" is a perfect example of Orientalism in today's pop-culture. In her song "Your Love", Nicki Minaj is representing a samurai-in-training who develops a deep love for her master. In the video, Nicki changes her normal appearance to create a "foreign" look by slanting her eyes, dressing in a Japanese geisha, always dressing in silk, as well as other characteristics often associated with the Japanese. In reality, Nicki Minaj dresses in a falsely stereotypical outfit that creates a look unlike the reality. In "Your Love", she says "When I was a Geisha he was a Samurai, somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai". She chooses to ignore the diversity of Asia, rapping her samurai master spoke Thai and generalizes that Samurai's are an Asian "thing" when actually they are a Japanese cultural tradition, and associates her teacher as speaking Thai. In the video, scenes of men in samurai dress with swords stand next to samurai women with swords wearing "Japanese" headscarves that are much more similar to Arab headscarves. She represents the "Others" in a false way while failing to recognize the diversity of Asia and its people.