Orientalism in American Media

America as a nation tends to believe that we are the best and the heroes of the story. Can you remember the last time you watched a movie where it was a non-American person fighting an American villain? Because I can not. In American media such as movies and even history books the Americans are always depicted as the good guys, or that the world revolves around them. This concept is better known as Orientalism. Orientalism refers to how the West tends to depict Eastern civilizations as barbaric and primitive, and then the West as civilized and advanced.

Orientalism is very prevalent in American movies. The genre of old western movies is plagued by Orientalism especially. In these movies, white people are portrayed as the heroes, while the savage Native Americans terrorize them. In reality Native Americans are actually very civilized, friendly people with a lot of culture. What adds to the misrepresentation of the native Americans is that during this period of time the native Americans were actually very peaceful people, they simply were just trying to keep the land they had been living on for years upon years before the white people came.

Furthermore, Orientalism is very prevalent in history books. In my experience with history classes, world history is portrayed as revolving around America. The books we are taught completely ignore the history of nations outside of America. In reality America does not have a big place in world history, it is a nation that has only been around for a couple hundred years, while other nations have been around for thousands with a lot more history to them which is all pushed to the side for the sake of American history.

Orientalism and the MET Gala

In 2015, the annual MET Gala theme was China: Through the Looking Glass. In essence, the event was an exhibit of Asian inspired designs made by western designers. The MET released a description of the event, stating the purpose of the theme was “to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity.” The statement implies Orientalism is a conversation rather than a system used to oppress eastern cultures.

Orientalism at its core is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The use of American designers at an American event which targets Asian culture is doing just that – dominating and defining the culture for the Western world. The suggestion that Orientalism is a site of “creativity” implies that the culture is something Americans can play and explore with rather than a region’s way of life.

We like to believe that racism and Orientalism are things of the past, but in reality they are so deeply embedded into our culture that they become trends for the Western world to capitalize off of. The MET Gala is just one example of Orientalism in America, but its certainly one of the most blunt. Hopefully, the MET will do a better job of picking appropriate themes in the years to come.