Sex, Gender, and Orientalism

Typical examples of Orientalism, at least historical examples, seem to have a preoccupation with gender, power, and sex. In the interview with Edward Said, many paintings are shown depicting women in positions of sensual weakness, either being generally exposed or being aggressively handled by men. This idea of women being sexual objects to be used by men carries over into many of the more popular concepts in Orientalism. The concept of the harem, for example, is one where several women are in a sense owned by one central man and are used by him for sex, often existing in addition to the man’s wife or wives.

There is also the concept, popular in times of over conflict between the United States and the Middle East, of the ravaging Middle Eastern man sexually assaulting women and children in battle. This concept is not exclusive to Oriental/Middle Eastern stereotypes, but it goes hand in hand with depictions of Islam in Middle Eastern countries being one with female oppression and assault at its core.

Finally, I want to talk about the concept of Middle Eastern women being commodities not only for Middle Eastern men to consume, but for Western men to consume. Even in children’s films such as Aladdin, the main woman, Jasmine, is shown in clothing that is often associated with belly dancing. Belly dancing itself is largely considered sensual, centered around the movement of the hips. Its typical clothing involves a low-rise skirt and something to cover the chest, with flowing fabric that moves with the dancing. When Googling belly dancing in order to write this, I found YouTube videos with “sexy” and “hot” in the descriptions. I also found some Halloween costumes for children, which I don’t have much to say about as an intellectual point. Just thought it was weird.

What is up with this preoccupation with Middle Eastern people as either sexual objects or sexual aggressors? As to the sexual objects, I think it has something to do with how India and the Middle East were (and still are) viewed as commodities themselves. Colonialism views the world as full of things to be taken and owned. Often times, those things include people. White, straight men traveled around the world and took everything they possibly could. In a way, portraying these women as scantily-clad, sensual women that were regularly dominated by the men in their countries already made it seem as though they were asking for it. Asking to be dominated, abused, and owned by the white colonialists. For the men, I think it has something to do with similarly justifying the violence and ownership of themselves, their possessions, and their land. When we portray people as savages, less than human, it makes it that much easier to abuse their rights.

Check out this video by Lindsay Ellis if you’re interested in Orientalism and musical theatre; it’s a fascinating breakdown of one of the more obscure, yet fetishized characters from Phantom of the Opera.

4 thoughts on “Sex, Gender, and Orientalism

  1. Ooh, I’m going to steal that Lindsay Ellis video for future discussions of Orientalism. It’s Said …. for millennials! Seriously, it’s really well-done.

    And yeah, it is really important to talk about the intersectionality of race and gender here, something that Said begins to talk about but never pursued as deeply as he could have. Others have picked up on his work, though. A lot of good work lately on a Postcolonial Feminism

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  2. Simone P

    Connor, I love your blog post. I too, and everyone else, have noticed the objectification of women in Western depictions of the East. However, I never connected the dots and realized that potentially it was a way for Western folk the say these women were up for grabs and potentially that the men there treat them wrong so they need saving. I’ve seen a lot of hate and fear fueled bashing of Eastern structures, specifically Islam, because of their supposed degradation of women, but we never seem to turn and reflect on ourselves to see our own shortcomings that fuel this system of degradation that we apparently hate so much.

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  3. Lucy S.

    Interesting and extremely valid connection! I never really thought about this before, but now that you’ve pointed it out it’s very true. I agree with what Simone says in the previous comment, and I also feel as if Orientalism could serve as a justification for the subjugation of such cultures as well as for the even further degradation of women.

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  4. Spencer A

    I very much agree with your statement on middle eastern people either seen as objects or people of intense sexual aggression. I believe many westerners harbor hate towards the middle east for that exact reason. Often Xenophobia that is directed towards middle-easterners is justified by the idea that their society does not treat women properly. People with these notions often believe they have the best interest of middle eastern women in mind. However, these stereotypes can be just as damaging as they portray women as these helpless beings at the mercy of their husbands or fathers. These misconceptions need to be dealt with as I feel middle-eastern stereotypes are by far the most tolerated by westerners. Even the ones who think they are too progressive to stereotype cultures…

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