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.
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.
One of my favorite television shows of all time is New Girl that ended a few years ago. The characters are all endearingly weird in their own way and they get themselves into so many funny situations. New Girl has become a comfort show to me as mac and cheese is some people’s comfort food. That being said, because I love it so much, I feel that it is necessary that I criticize it and it’s Othering of Hinduism, displayed in the character, Cece.
New Girl is a sitcom about a girl named Jess (Zooey Deschanel) who gets cheated on by her ex-boyfriend and is forced to find a new apartment in LA. She ends up finding a listing on Craigslist for an apartment that needs a new roommate. She ends up moving into this apartment with three men: Schmidt (far left), Nick (second to the right), and Winston (furthest to the right), and shenanigans ensue.
Cece is portrayed as Jess’s hot, wild-child best friend. Because of this, Cece doesn’t feel like she belongs in her Indian/Hindu culture. To stick with this premise, it seems that the writers rely on Orientalism to accentuate her differences and make her drawn toward Schmidt, the self-proclaimed “douche bag.” This is most apparent in season two when Cece is suddenly fixated on getting married in order not to disappoint her family and to have children. Cece also does this in opposition to Schmidt, who is her ex-boyfriend at the time because she thinks that he is not ready to be serious with her, which is what she needs if she wants to have children soon. When Schmidt comes over to her apartment in an attempt to win her back, Cece does something that the writers portray as “drastic,” which is to call her mother and ask for an arranged marriage, something that is very common in Indian/Hindu culture.
It is further clear that the purpose of the arranged marriage premise is Othering rather than for the purpose of exploration or acceptance when Schmidt assumes that Cece doesn’t want to get married to the person that she is arranged with and attempts to ruin her wedding. This results in Cece confessing that this is not what she wants. This implies not only that the writers find arranged marriages somewhat barbaric and outdated, which is a fundamental element of Orientalism.
This is just one example of how Orientalism is used in the writing and character development of this show. In order for Cece to married to Schmidt, she has to disregard her mother’s disapproval. The show begs Cece to be estranged from her culture due to the fact that it doesn’t seem appropriate in the American culture that she lives in.
Orientalism as it is used in this show is a perfect example of how media can distort public perception of a culture and how people experience it.
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.
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.
One of the biggest things that separates Gen Z from the generations before it is that we have all grown up in a post-9/11 world. Those of us in the class of 2020 weren’t even alive before it. So how does that shape our view of the Eastern world?
Orientalism has been present in the United States for a very long time, but many people credit the attacks on the World Trade Center with heightening it. After the attacks, the media created a narrative where the Middle East was synonymous with terrorism, and that has continued through Gen Z’s entire lifetime. For some in this generation, the only images they’ve seen of the Eastern world are ones of terror cells and desolation. And now we’ve all lived through President Trump’s attempts at a “Muslim ban,” which absolutely stoked the xenophobic fire.
Despite all of this, I believe that Gen Z has the capability to change the American rhetoric around the Eastern world. Although we all don’t remember a time before 9/11 and the stereotypes and racism that followed, we are able to recognize over-generalizations and call people out when they are misinformed. We are continuing to challenge the norms in the media and entertainment industries around telling Eastern stories. Perhaps we, as a generation, will be able to break down the idea of “otherness” that comes with Orientalism and appreciate each other’s cultures without fear.
After reading up a little on the concept of orientalism, my mind went to movies that I’ve seen. More specifically Disney movies. These movies, that are made for children have underlying themes and concepts that you really don’t realize until you are older. Looking back on the movies I watched as a child its clear that I have a different understanding of them than I did as a child….
That being said, some of the Disney classics that popped into my head that have these racist stereotypes in them are Lady and the Tramp, Mulan and Aladdin.
In Lady and the Tramp the cats in the movie are depicted as evil characters of whom seem to resemble the Asian culture. It seems as they are associating their evil nature with their race. The siamese cats act very sly and are always sneaking around in the movie which is a stereotype associated with orientalism, being suspicious and sneaky.
In Mulan, the Asian culture is presented in a somewhat exotic way. It is what Western people consider the “typical” Asian culture, which has continuously been represented in Western cinema. This idea meshes all the different branches of Asian culture to seem like its the same, when in reality they are completely different places. With this in mind, this concept is what children in Western countries were taught when they were young through movies like Mulan. The movie is a combination of Chinese and Japanese culture making Mulan an unrealistic representation and generalizing the cultures in Eastern countries. The film is clearly intended to be set in China because they show the Great Wall of China amongst other details incorporating Chinese culture. But they also show her wearing kimonos, white face make up, and the Japanese national flower, the cherry blossom throughout the film.
Lastly, in the movie Aladdin, the evil villain, Jafar, who is trying to steal the magic lamp is represented as someone from the Middle East, again who is the villain. He is the evil man who is scheming against the main character. In addition, later in the movie, Jasmine is enslaved by him which adds to his evil nature. This adds to the racist depiction of his character by him objectifying a woman. In addition, Princess Jasmine is from a culture that typically covers their head and most of their body. But in the movie her outfit is nothing of the sort. This adds to the Western depiction of Eastern Culture.
Reflecting on these movies, it is clear that these ideals are heavily influencing the film industry. Film makers are using these stereotypes and inaccurate representations of different cultures to better their films. Western cinema is based off of incorrect assumptions and depictions of culture and people in general. How do we change this moving forward?
Orientalism can be seen throughout Cinema. One genre that this is especially prevalent is comedies. Writers try to get cheap laughs out of racist stereotypes. A lot of the time the jokes are mostly tongue and cheek, almost satirical in nature. The writers seem to be aware of the controversy of the content, so they try to overdue it in attempt to justify the ignorance. One extremely harsh example of this in Team America: World Police.
In the movie a fictional military team called “Team America: World Police” is tasked with stopping terrorist threats on the United States. The movie portrays the Middle Eastern terrorists and North Koreans as inhuman are cartoon-ish. They make fun of their language and imitate it crudely.
Sure, it could be argued that the movie does the same to the Americans. World Police points out the hubris of the United States and how self righteous America is. However, this satire doesn’t really do its job. It is not really satire at all. Showing foreign people we are currently at war as strange and ridiculous does not help. Movies like this only further enable racist mindsets and ignorant adolescents who are usually the ones watching this type of movie.
This type of nonsensical and proactive comedy does not engage the viewer in a conversation about race. It points fun and asks them to laugh along. It validates, and even furthers, a xenophobic mindset. One that further divides the conflicts we face today.