Evening Thoughts on Complex Individuality and Mutual Recognition

As I read over the criteria list for the blog post, nothing quite struck me right away. My summer reading book Exit, Pursued By a Bear was mildly entertaining at best, and no other book I’ve read recently contained any depth. However, while taking a break from my Criminal Minds obsession this summer, I tried watching the new hit HBO series Euphoria. Although the show is filled with drugs, sex, and lots of sparkles, there is something else that makes it so captivating: the complex individuality of each character.

Like no other show I’ve seen before, Euphoria accurately depicts the struggles of high school, addiction, abusive parents, and every thing in between. What truly amazed me when watching it was the way it that showed life for what it is: really f-ing hard, but something beautiful at the same time. Without romanticizing the struggles of each character, Euphoria demonstrates that every single person you´ll encounter is going through something, whether you know it or not. The show does not focus on one specific character, but rather how each of their complex stories are intertwined in some way.

Nabokov´s concept of mutual recognition goes hand-in-hand with the idea of individuality because it recognizes that each person is more than just a binary, that we are all complex, unique humans. And such is the beauty of real life: we are all complex individuals that are living our own story in tandem with one another.

A Conversation about Cinema, Race, and Bread

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ short story “A Conversation About Bread,” a ‘meta narrative’ calls attention to the complexity of storytelling regarding race, culture, and socioeconomic disparities. It questions the function and implications of academic cultural studies by chronicling an interview between two anthropology grad students who are working on an ethnography project.

One can’t help but become painfully sensitive to their own interpretation of the short story, which is later extended to our broader relationship with stories and storytelling. This questioning of storytelling, immediately made me think of film and cinema.

When Eldwin, one of the anthropology students, reflects on the complexity of storytelling; he asks himself the following important question.

Didn’t every story provide a narrow representation at best and fetishize somebody at worst?

Thompson-Spires, Nafissa. “A Conversation About Bread.” Heads of the Colored People, p.183.

This immediately brought to mind a film analysis video essay I watched on one of my favorite directors, Sofia Coppola. You can watch the video essay here.

Although skepticism of Coppola’s privileged and narrow narrative had surfaced for a while, her 2017 film The Beguiled was the recipient of the most controversy. Consistent with Coppola’s hallmark style, the film was chock-full of painteresque tableaux featuring a group of southern women portrayed by Kirsten Dunst (as always), Elle Fanning, and Nicole Kidman. Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly), in Coppola’s rendition of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War Era novel, the two characters of color (a black slave, and a biracial character) are void from the plot entirely. This directorial decision sparked passionate debates and criticism, drawing attention to Coppola’s privilege and blindness to the diversity of femininity.

According to Eldwin’s philosophy, wouldn’t Coppola’s decision to omit Black characters from her film be better than portraying them problematically?

I feel as if a stereotypical, tokenized, and flat addition of black characters to accompany the white leads or to promote a narrative of white saviorism could be far worse than the narrow view Coppola offered. Read this article about Viola Davis and The Help.

It is hardest to question the things we love and cherish the most, but as a Chinese American girl coming of age – I can’t help but feeling subordinate to this limited, warped portrayal of the delicacies of female adolescence. How could someone who looked like me, or my friends ever exist in this universe of long gazes out of passing windows or the effluvia of the Lisbon sisters’ bedroom paired with melancholically eerie soundtracks by the French band, Air. Would anyone other than a Kirsten Dunst archetype ruin the aesthetic and dreaminess of these films centered around this angelic pinnacles of Eurocentric beauty? Simultaneously, Coppola has been one of the most successful female directors, and has carved out a space for the rawness of female adolescence that was previously nonexistent in mainstream Hollywood. Her attention to feminine aesthetics and detail has often been criticized as superfluous; interestingly enough male directors who do the same, such as Wes Anderson, are often praised for being unique and artistic. Her films have played a critical role in my coming of age, and serve as constant artistic inspirations. Yet her choice to prioritize the privileged, white female narratives in times of historical urgency is questionable. Not only that, but I feel as lonesome as her delicately shielded protagonists when I am led to believe that artistry and beauty is defined by characters such as these. As my own coping mechanism, I have attempted to build this world around myself and for my friends in a way that feels authentic. The ruffles, the longing emptiness, the way the light reflects through the lawns of a suburban neighborhood – it all is translated through my own mind to somehow redefine these stories starring girls like me.

The critical role white female fragility plays in systems of oppression is undeniable. At times, it can arguably be the most oppressive and influential when it comes to the marginalization of womxn of color. Womxn is intentionally spelled with an “x” in order to awknowlege trans and non-binary womxn (who undoubtedly have no place in Coppola’s worlds), and to avoid the sexism associated with man and men. Read this interesting essay on the power of white female fragility over womxn of color.

The solution that the video and I both come to is that Hollywood needs to make more space for womxn of color, instead of tasking Coppola with representing all womxn. As we learn through Thompson-Spires’ characters, the readers are just as responsible as the writers when it comes to highlighting the stories of marginalized people. As an audience, how can we learn to compensate for the finite representation we are given? How can we do so without fetishizing or tokenizing a group that is culturally different from our own? That is a question without a clean and simple answer that we must revisit throughout our lives.

kirsten dunst as Marie Antoinette – if it's hip, it's here

“Parasite” and “The Lesson”: Is Society Really a Democracy?

A couple months back, I watched the film Parasite. The director, Bong Joon-ho, constitutes a story about a poor family living in South Korea that try to climb the social ladder by leeching onto the Park family — getting their taste of wealth. (This movie is a masterpiece and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t).

This film, I’ve noticed, has a lot of parallels with the short story, “The Lesson”. Though I can’t think of a scene in Parasite in particular, the ideologies in “The Lesson” are akin. Throughout the film, there is a common theme of poverty and the inequality between the rich and the poor. The Kim family were destitute basement dwellers who worked just as hard if not more than the Park family, but the Kims were still low income. The Kims worry about money, the extravagant Parks worry about poor people’s unpleasant smell. Similarly, the eight children in “The Lesson” go on a short trip, arranged by Miss Moore, outside of their oppressed community which leads them to encounter items they have never seen, items that are far beyond their economic means. Miss Moore wanted the children to realize that wealth is unfairly and unequally distributed. At the end of the short story, Miss Moore asks the children what kind of society it is in which some people can spend more on a toy than others have to spend on food and housing. Sugar replied, “…this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” (115). Sugar believes that it’s not a democracy because some people do not have an equal opportunity to earn money. There are people, both in Parasite and “The Lesson”, that don’t have to worry about the almighty dollar. Both pieces unveil that there was no “equal crack at the dough,” ultimately concluding that both societies are not a democracy.

Orientalism in Pop Culture

While watching the Orientalism video, Edward Said mentioned the presence of Orientalism in Hollywood. This got me thinking and I decided to do a little research on it. I was shocked to see that some really popular movies had scenes that portrayed middle eastern people as dangerous and violent.

One of the most surprising examples for me was from Back to the Future. I remembered the scene in which Libyan terrorists were shooting at Doc Brown. I think the most disturbing thing about this is that the times I have watched this movie, I never gave this scene a second thought. It never occurred to me how racist it was to choose Libyans as the terrorists coming out of nowhere to shoot at Doc and Marty.

The Libyans | Futurepedia | Fandom

This shows me that Orientalism is rooted in a lot of us because of the society we live in today. It makes me sad that I have unknowingly learned that middle eastern terrorists are normal. It’s making me wonder what other forms of Orientalism are occurring in pop culture today that I have been oblivious to. I’m hoping that learning about this topic will help me see racism towards middle eastern people that I have never noticed before.

Disney Movies

Orientalism is present in Disney movies like Aladdin. In these types of children movies you would not expect an underlying subject of things like Orientalism to be brought to your attention, but there are clear signs in each movie that Orientalism is in fact shown.

Orientalism can be defined in many ways, but when it comes in regards to these types of movies, it is when the East is represented in a stereotypical way.

In Aladdin‘s original opening song the lyrics caused many people to speak up because they stated that the town was going to hurt you if they didn’t like how you looked. This was seen as a huge stereotype and was later taken down because of the outrage it caused. “Orientals” are seen in this movie as aggressive, for example, Aladdin almost getting his arm cut off when he tries to steal. They also make the belly dancers in the movie have minimal clothing. The different types of clothes on characters make the subject cross a fine line of being offensive.

When movies like Aladdin falsely represent certain groups of people, it affects our society because kids grow up to believe the things they see on social media. This movie can teach kids incorrect information regarding people in the East, and can create a major divide in our society. Harsh words like these and false representations can be created to seem lighthearted to children because they do not know better than to listen to the happy music in the background and what the hero will do in the end.

If movies like Aladdin aren’t talked about, it will become our norm is listen to things like this and believe they are true.

 

Orientalism in Indiana Jones

The Western construct of Orientalism has always been a big part of the American film industry, although the way that the Asian culture is represented is almost never accurate. Hollywood has incorporated Orientalism in many of the adventure films, including the one and only Indiana Jones. In Steven Spielberg’s first three Indiana Jones movies, Indiana’s adventures take him all around the Middle East and India. He frequently encounters a stereotypical, fantasy version of the Asian culture, where Indiana’s character is meant to represent someone that the audience can relate to and root for against the differences he comes in contact with. 

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, there is an absurd amount of the Western/Eastern binary. At the dinner scene, the arrangement of absurd food is meant to shock the audience, making them view the Indian culture as barbarians who consume the most inedible meals. The white characters who show disgust once again represent the audience and their disgust. 

These movies all have the same thing in common, Indiana Jones becoming a hero after defeating all of the villains and taking power over Asian culture.

Isle of Dogs: Orientalism in Film

Isle of Dogs' might be Wes Anderson's most dramatic film yet ...

In 2018, Wes Anderson, stop motion savant, directed the film Isle of Dogs. The film takes place in a future dystopian Japan. Due to an outbreak of “snout fever,” all of the dogs of Japan have been sent to a desolate island that is home to Wall-e like trash cubes, and toxic waste. The movie received rave reviews about its aesthetic look and witty humor. Though at the same time, the film has been criticized as being both racially insensitive and a westerner’s take on Japanese culture. 

Orientalism takes on multiple forms in this movie. The first example can be seen through the voice acting. Though the film includes some phenomenal voice actors (Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson) sadly none of these actors speak a lick of Japanese. In the opening sequence, captions reveal that there will be no subtitles present in the film. This works for the majority of the movie, but there are lines of Japanese dialogue that are included and left untranslated. Though maybe unintentional, this leaves certain characters disenfranchised and often misunderstood. 

The film continues to display problematic elements with its main heroine. Tracy Walker is an American exchange student who has vowed to bring justice for the abandon pups. Tracy’s character is essentially the typical “white American savior”. The rest of the Japanese characters are overshadowed by her involvement. These characters are then seen as compliant in the regime, and once again, Western views of how society should function are pushed towards the forefront. 

The racial insensitivity of this film takes on a different look through the leading dog, Chief. When the audience first meets Chief, the dog has a jet black coat and a “gruff” persona. As the movie continues, he becomes softer and more compliant with his human overseers. One of the ways Anderson shows this transformation is by Chief undergoing an extensive bathing process. The audience is surprised to find that in actuality, the color of Chief’s hair is white. The symbolism from this scene is extremely problematic. Essentially Anderson associates aggression and “feral” behavior with darker tones. The white fur (which could be compared to the skin) is then perceived to be friendly and tame.  

Director Wes Anderson's latest work "Inugashima" trailer release ...
Isle of Dogs' is pronounced 'I love dogs' and people are freaking ...

Anderson is keen to utilize Japanese and Asian aesthetics, but he fails to capture the richness of the actual culture itself. Naming a scientist Yoko-Ono and including sumo wrestling is one thing, but actually providing greater substance and detail to aspects of the culture is another. Anderson seems to provide an image of the Western perspective of Asian culture, but fails to provide a holistic view of how the culture actually functions. 

Kill Bill: Quentin Tarantino’s Orientalist Classic

Beatrix Kiddo battles O-Ren Ishii’s Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Quentin Tarantino’s two part classic Kill Bill will go down as one of the greatest action films of the past 20 years and one of the critically-acclaimed director’s greatest films in terms of visual and auditory effects.

However, Kill Bill is one of the best examples of orientalism, which defines western society’s historically patronizing representation of “The East”: Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

The first volume of Kill Bill shows the film’s protagonist, Beatrix Kiddo, travel to Japan, where she immediately goes to purchase a samurai sword from “former Kung-Fu star” Hatori Hanso. After a scene which shows Kiddo fetishize over a wall lined with beautiful samurai swords, she purchases a sword and then she is on her way to kill Bill and the others who stand in her path, the first being Japanese native O-Ren Ishii.

Kiddo then finds O-Ren and battles all 88 of her henchmen, killing each one, and then eventually killing O-Ren and her two “bodyguards.”

By the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1, over 90 people had been killed by Kiddo, a white woman; because what else is there to do in Japan other then killing people with a samurai sword?

Not once throughout the movie are we, the audience, introduced to a Japanese native not associated with death or violence. This connotes that Japanese people are violent and have no true meaning to life other than killing others to stay alive.

The Rise of Asian Culture in American Movies and My Experience

In the last twenty years, movies with more Asian actors or movies about Asian culture have been watched by millions. The movie industry has come a long way by making movies about cultures allowing it to be more diverse. This is a great milestone to American movie production and to award shows. Quite a few Asian actors and filmmakers have been nominated or have won academy awards.

From my point of view, from being born in 2002 and I’m now 17 in the year 2020, the biggest movie seemed to be Crazy Rich Asians: A romantic comedy including Asian culture in America and in Singapore.

For me, and lots of American teenagers, this was our first glimpse at Asian-American culture in film. The colorful, family driven, extravagant culture left me in awe. Sure the film was maybe more Hollywood than I know, or maybe it wasn’t, but either way, I got a great idea of what some Asian cultures are like by watching it.

I hope more Asian culture appears in my life and maybe one day I’ll get to travel to see it for myself. Immersing audiences into new cultures is a great way for people to accept and learn.

Hilarious Orientalism in Rotana Movies

Is 'Hamza's Suitcase' available to watch on Canadian Netflix ...

The Rotana Group is the Arab world’s largest entertainment company, and recently it released many of its goofiest movies into the international section of Netflix, making a presence in the Western world. The movies are unfortunately almost all in Arabic, which creates some issues for an American audience but as a Syrian-American, I can say that these movies have Orientalism at their very core.

Many aspects of Middle-Eastern culture and Arabic stereotypes are taken and exaggerated and distorted greatly. From views on women and homosexuality to camels to hookahs to terrorism to Arabian trap music; these movies paint a picture of the Arabic world that could not be farther from reality. The movies are a lot of fun to watch but the humor used is extremely shallow and can offer no new insight about the world (other than misleading Westerners that their stereotypes and presets about the Eastern world are true).

Orientalism and Kids’ Movies

In today’s society film entertainment is prevalent in many age groups. Speaking from experience, when I was younger, I was obsessed with Disney movies. Now as I am older, the presence of Orientalism in Disney classics is quite surprising. As defined, “the representation of Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotyped way that is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude”. Personally, major companies such as Disney should not be adding stereotypical fiction characters and shaping how children view other races. For example, beloved films such as “Pocahontas”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and “Aladdin” all portray Orientalism.

These films have aspects of ideal western beauty, sexualized Romanian “gypsy”, and portrays of the middle east. For children, these aspects of the films probably don’t come to mind. Though they are highly present, they are working and twisting the minds of innocent children. Although movies can be seen as cultural products, there should be an extend in which certain themes are presented.

Overall movies will continue to depict Orientalism, though companies like Disney do not have negative intentions, the way characters are represented can help fix the problem. As people who understand how certain characters are portrayed, do discuss it with someone who doesn’t would also be a great thing to do.

 

Orientalism in “The King and I”

“The King and I”, a classic American movie musical that almost everyone can find themselves singing along to. When thinking about the topic of orientalism the first thing that automatically comes up in my mind is this movie. Even if you were to ignore the white people playing Asian people, it would still be hard to ignore the other insensitive issues that are apparent in this movie. Let’s briefly go over the plot, the story follows a young teacher who is sent to a fictional place in Asia called Siam where she has to teach the King’s wives and all of his kids English. She teaches the English language as well as customs and etiquette to the royal family in order to make them more “Modern”. One of the prime examples of orientalism is the purpose of Ms Loenowens’ trip. Like I said before, she is teaching the Royals of Siam how to be proper so they can look good for the many other Europeans who are visiting to decide if they’ll “accept” the kingdom. It is clear that Ms Loenowens is trying to white-wash their culture, and it is seen as the “right thing” in the movie.

Another big issue with the movie is how the King of Siam is portrayed. The barbaric and poorly mannered king is a horrible representation of Asian culture. Apart from the messed up portrayal of some of these characters, many of the actors playing the people of Siam are white when the characters are Asian. The man who plays the king is a Russian- American actor and the woman who plays Tup-Tim is Puerto Rican. Casting people who don’t have an eastern ethnicity is a very distasteful way to put on a film. Overall, the Westernization of the characters in, “The King and I” is a prime example of why Hollywood needs to understand the history of what they’re portraying. Maybe we can learn from these mistakes and not repeat them. I have already seen significant change since the release of this famous film.

Is Crazy Rich Asians Enough?

I have now seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians 3 times. What can I say — it’s a great movie. Awkwafina is hilarious, Constance Wu is brilliant, and Henry Golding is attractive. But something I hadn’t taken into account until recently is that maybe it’s a little too simplistic. I’m not here to bash the movie because at the end of the day, it was a HUGE win for Asian Americans. But it was exactly that: a win for Asian Americans. What never crossed my mind, though, was how it portrayed Singaporeans. Once again, I still believe this was a landmark film in increasing representation in Hollywood. As director Jon Chu said a while back, it’s a movement. While the movie has enjoyed massive success and shed light on a non-white cast, some people still think it could’ve gone even further.

Take this quotation from a profound article on Vox, “While it’s definitely significant that Hollywood is finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is a divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians in Asia.” I couldn’t agree more. Here, as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, author Kirsten Han touches on how she felt the film was flawed in more ways than one. What she wrote next made me come to another realization. In western films, we really only see Asia depicted in 1 of 2 ways: as “rising Asia” with modern architecture, servants, and next-level wealth, or as an extremely impoverished place with a lack of social mobility. When I think about the films I’ve seen with an Asian cast in the past year, it totally fits the description. In one of my personal favorites, Parasite, we see this deeply-entrenched divide between the rich and the poor. In Raise The Red Lantern, we see extreme generational wealth and tradition. While I loved both of these films and I actually think they did a great job with representation, it makes me wonder. Is Orientalism at play here? Is this really an accurate depiction, or are these over simplistic?

In other western movies, what we see of Asian countries is very little. And what we do see motivates these 2 narrow stereotypes. We see overwhelming markets with foods that seem foreign to us, tech-savvy people, expensive homes, and action movie backdrops. We see a place with more than 4.4 billion people through one, white-washed lens. I think it’s interesting because something perceived so incredibly progressive in the U.S was actually perceived as not diverse enough to people from Singapore.

 

Aladdin’s Unfair Portrayal of the Arab World

Aladdin | Disney Movies

Aladdin was released in November of 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures, being ranked as the fourth highest film based on popularity (“Best Disney Movies”). This movie was one of my favorites as a kid because I love how adventurous it was, specifically the magic carpet scene. However, the film has been criticized for its unfair portrayal of the Arab world and is a clear example of modern Orientalism. 

Aladdin’s opening theme song, “Arabian Nights”, is often criticized for its lyrics “Oh, imagine a land, it’s 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, it’s home” (1992 Original Aladdin). The lyrics indicate 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 reinforces the audience to recognize it as uncivilized and barbaric. This idea further supports the film’s representation of “faraway place” not able to be related to by the audience. 

After several complaints, Disney changed the lyrics to “Where it’s flat and immense/ And the heat is intense/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The new lines still represent a false reality to the audience. Previously, Aladdin’s home was viewed as barbaric and mysterious, but the song still portrays Aladdin’s home as mysterious, but with these new lyrics, it gives the impression that his home is a boundless and uninhabitable area.

In addition to song lyrics, the movie uses characters with strong accents. The characters perceived as the good ones speak with American accents. The rest of the cast, mainly antagonists of Aladdin, have exaggerated Arab accents. Since Aladdin is one of the main protagonists in the film, he is given an American accent, which allows the audience to distinguish him from the antagonists who speak with Arab accents. To Americans, the American accent sounds very familiar, while the Arab accent is recognized as foreign. In a kid’s perspective watching Aladdin, they may think that the negatively represented Arab accent is bad, mysterious, and foreign. 

It’s Still Here

Europeans used the term “Orient” to describe the peoples and the places of Asia and the Middle East. Europeans believed that due to their better understanding of the history of a culture, and their superior culture, they needed to dominate other cultures in order to improve them. While it was widely accepted prior to the nineteenth century, the term now has created tons of criticism. The effects of Orientalism on American society created foundation for conversations between American people and Asian people. Some researchers say that orientalism is over, but its effects on society sat that the fact it is far from over. The debate over Orientalism continues in the United States, especially after the events of 9/11. According to researchers, “in many ways it has just begun”.

Right now, I think Orientalism will be shown a lot more due to Covid-19. I mean we already have our president calling it the “Chinese virus.”

In my life, I have seen many different occasions of Orientalism. Sasha Baron Cohen’s 2012 film The Dictator portrays the Middle East in a racist and offensive way that may be taken seriously. A scene that really brought me there shows The Dictator giving a speech to the citizens of Wadiya, where the crowd cheers in response to his command that they will not stop their building of  nuclear weapons. He then continues his speech by declaring that the nuclear program is peaceful, but instantly bursts into laughter knowing that what he just stated is false. This implies to the American belief that Iran was constructing weapons of mass destruction. I’d say Orientalism is still alive.