How the West Views the Orient | Teen Ink

How the West Views the Orient

February 23, 2023
By Yuseflateef06 GOLD, Valley Stream, New York
Yuseflateef06 GOLD, Valley Stream, New York
17 articles 0 photos 0 comments

The term “Orientalism” was both coined and popularized by Edward W. Said in his book, Orientalism in 1978. In this book Said defined Orientalism as the way in which the West views the East as exotic, inferior, weak, and in need of western influence. Before continuing, it is important to make the distinction between the Orient, oriental, orientalist, and orientalism. The “Orient” is used to describe the entire East; referring to countries in South, Eastern, central, western, and southeastern Asia just to name a few. The Orient is a term applicable to many groups, but Said narrows in on Islamic/Arab orientalism, with few references to South Asian and East Asian orientalism as well. Now, an “oriental” refers to a singular person that falls under the Orient category, while an “orientalist” studies the orient. Said makes an important note in his book Orientalism (page 52), stating that “a nineteenth-century Orientalist was therefore either a scholar (a Sinologist, an Islamicist, an Indo-Europeanist) or a gifted enthusiast.” Said’s usage of the word “enthusiast” is a not-so subtle jab at westerners that fetishize the Orient and hide their obsessions behind the “study of orientalism,” or being an orientalist. The qualifications for being an orientalist throughout history have been almost nonexistent and blurred, and Said points out the fine line between a specialist and an obsessive enthusiast. That being said, deeming oneself as an orientalist should require intensive education, and there are many orientalists in history that got away with their lack of education in the field of oriental studies. This paper plans to emphasize and analyze the orientalism in popular forms of media, from century old plays to modern classic films.
Orientalism In Past Grecian Society:
            Tough there has been many forms of orientalism throughout history, one of the earliest examples can be observed in the Iliad (As mentioned in Said’s Orientalism). While not as direct and blatant, the differentiation between the Trojans and the Greeks shown in this book marked the beginning of a separation between the east and west. The story is told from the perspective of the Greeks, and the dehumanization of the “other” is highlighted by Barbara Alvarez Rodriguez in her article Displaying the Other.  Rodriquez touches upon how the Trojans are demeaned by Achilles and other Greeks, constantly referred to as “dogs” and other dehumanizing rhetoric. These distinctions between the two groups would be built upon in Western literature, with the works of Aeschylus in The Persians and with The Bacchae by Euripedes. Aeschylus makes the differences between Greeks and Persians especially apparent, and once again the Greek perspective is triumphant over the other, the orient. The Grecian representation of Asian societies is what would spark the orientalist fervor that plagued much of Europe and the West for centuries to come. Along with Euripides’ work in The Bacchae, which draws from many asiatic religions such as the “Bendis, Cybele, Sabazius, Adonis, and Isis, which were introduced from Asia Minor and the Levant and swept” (Orientalism page 57). While some argue that it brought representation to these communities, others may disagree, stating that the Cherry-picking of certain aspects from each religion and culture only hurts the communities more. This is because the representation is not made for the benefit of these communities, but rather for the consumption of western audiences. As Euripides took aspects from each of the religions, it was finely tuned to seem more exotic than it truly was and did not serve as accurate representation for the religions themselves. This pattern is only amplified by Herodotus (yet another Greek writer) in his work On the Customs of the Persians. While he describes the culture found within the Achaemenid Empire, Herodotus manages to Misrepresent the Persians, claiming that they have “no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them as a sign of folly” (1:131). Besides the inaccuracy of the claim that Persians had no temples (as they are widely believed to have been practicing Zoroastrianism in their own temples), Herodotus then emphasizes the differences between Persians and Greeks within his next sentence. He states that the lack of temples/religious iconography is from the Persians “not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine,” only further separating the two groups of people. Herodotus then glorifies Grecian religion, and states that the Persian wont “ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains” or “sacrifice to Jupiter” (Customs of the Persians 1:131). These instances are only the beginning of the “othering” of the Orient and would pave the way for future orientalism in multiple societies.  
Self-Orientalism in Japan:
            With the Grecian form of orientalism, the Greeks seemed to have held themselves to a higher regard than the Orient. They viewed the Orient as lesser, and presented the Orient as such in their media. Japan, however, fell victim to a different type of Orientalism. It is widely known that Japan was imperializing Southeast and East Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, but understanding its imperialist past is important in deciphering self-orientalism in Japan today. Industrialization and imperialism didn’t truly begin in Japan until US involvement on the island. The US arrived with steamboats and other advanced technology, with the Japanese samurai paling in comparison. Japan is then somewhat forced to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, which opened Japanese ports to American vessels and humiliated the Japanese. This leads to the Meiji Restoration, which can be simplified as the acceptance of industrialization and western influence in Japan. Japan recognized their lack of resources on their island, and because these resources are necessary to drive industrialization, Japan begins to imperialize other nations. Japan becomes extremely nationalist, and begins to enforce their own culture on the nations they have imperialized. Throughout all the genocide, cultural erasure, and more, Japan is becoming more and more like the western powers that had once imperialized Japan itself. Following the first world war, Japan is recognized by the west to be more advanced than the other Asian countries, furthering Japanese ideas that they need to spread their culture to the nations they have imperialized. This is shown with the Korean genocide, and amplified by Japan’s actions in the second world war. Following all these events, Japan’s reputation is ruined, and they are once again humiliated by the US from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In a recovery attempt, Japan begins to try and gain soft power (power to influence without the use of direct force), as the US and other countries are keeping a close eye on the country. This is where self-orientalism comes into the picture, as Japan begins to gain cultural influence throughout the world from media/anime, as well as the practice of “kawaii” (cuteness) culture. Japan rebrands their nation entirely, with a significant uptick in tourism, and economic profits from their forms of media. Noticing the influx of western audiences, Japanese directors and creators begin to cater to western images of their country. Women in media then become overly sexualized, and are forced to act kawaii/cute in order to fulfill western expectations and beliefs about Japanese society. Though it is inertly harmful to Japanese people living in western nations, Japan itself is benefiting both in economics, as well as soft power. It then calls into question how much of Japanese culture will be maintained, and how much influence western audiences will have over Japanese media. There is a growing western population of people obsessed with East Asian “culture,” but this culture only extends to what they see depicted by Japanese media. This continues in the conversation about East Asian orientalism as a whole, and is highlighted with the Korean music and drama industry.
The Western obsession with Korean media/society:
The popularization of (South) Korean media is seen today with the explosion of the televised K-Drama and K-Pop music industries. According to the Statista database, Americans represent 7.4% of K-pop consumers, compared to South Korea’s 10.1% (as of 2019). This is not inherently a bad thing, as it can be defended as Americans just liking the music. The problem arises when these same Americans become obsessed with the band members, or Korean society. Many of these obsessed westerners will watch Korean shows and consume Korean media expecting to understand the Korean culture. Similarly to Japanese media, Korean creators will specifically target western audiences, and where the Japanese have Kawaii, Koreans have Aegyo. Aegyo and Kawaii both are the practices of “cuteness culture,” and they once were used by women in order to climb the social ladder in each respective society. Both are now used widely to serve the western imagination, and only serve to cater to the West. These Korean singers/actors will try to appear cute, and will go so far as to sexualize themselves in an attempt to increase viewership from the west. Although both Japan and Korea are willing to partake in self-orientalism, they also experience the standard orientalism from the west. East Asian societies are viewed as effeminate by the West, with women being seen as hyper-feminine and men being seen as emasculated. Orientalism in these countries is therefore mostly seen with the “submissive woman” stereotype in western media. There are countless other examples however, with the odd obsession with martial arts, as well as the improper casting of East Asian actors. As touched upon with Persian orientalism by the Greeks, misrepresentation is a form of orientalism, as it depicts the orient in an inaccurate way for Western audiences. The west has and will inaccurately display the east in an attempt to serve their own narrative, and this issue will be further developed with Arab/South Asian orientalism.
Arab/South Asian Orientalism:
            Before the events that occurred on September 11th, 2001, Middle easterners and South Asians still faced orientalism. Though they were treated as exotic and foreign by the west, these groups went by generally unscathed/unharmed by orientalism in media. That was until 1984, when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released. In this specific film, there is an entire tribe of people that perform human sacrifices by ripping the hearts out of their victims. Though there’s no direct reference to any certain culture, the characters are played by South Asian actors, and it demonizes that entire group of people in doing so. The trend continues in 1992, when Disney released the classic film Aladdin, which heavily stereotyped and misconstrued four separate ethnic groups. For instance, the lead character Aladdin is wearing Turkish and Persian clothing (fez for example), while Jasmine wears Indian clothing. There’s usage of Arabic wording throughout the film, and the villains all tend to have thick accents, yet there is a mixture of Indian and Arab architecture. The film makes very little note that these cultures are all vastly different from one another, and lumps them all in together in order to make the setting simple yet exotic to its western audience. Misrepresentation isn’t the only problem though, as there is also the sexualization of women (aka orientalism), as women are seen wearing transparent niqabs (cloth that covers one’s mouth and nose). The problem is that the niqab is a symbol of modesty, and the women wearing these niqabs were belly dancers. While belly dancers are a part of Arab culture, modesty is another part, and the two being mixed to suit the fantasies of the West would only hurt women that veil in the West. The movie caused animosity between all the groups it misrepresented, and gave an entire generation of kids an inaccurate depiction of these cultures. The orientalism caused by this film would somewhat extinguish following the events of 9/11, as these cultures were now seen as evil and oppressive, rather than strange and exotic. There was a major uptick in war movies after 9/11, and their depictions of middle eastern society would only cause Americans to defend the decision for war/invasion. The setting of these films was usually a remote desert that had mud buildings and was “backwards.” There was almost never a distinction between the citizens and the terrorists/antagonists, and audiences often left with a distorted view on Middle eastern society. Movies such as Body of Lies or The Kingdom fit this template, and there are countless others that are more/less extreme with pushing their narrative. The orientalism created by films like Aladdin would cause Americans to group the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia together, while the orientalism created by wartime movies post 9/11 would demonize these groups. This persists in present society, as many Westerners fail to acknowledge or even recognize the differences between each of these groups
            Orientalism has been popularized in Western society in large part due to its history of imperialism and colonization. Whether it was during the Indian ocean trade (where western nations would try to obtain eastern art/pottery/etc.), or some other interaction between the West and the East, the Orient was almost always fetishized and deemed lesser. This has been amplified in current American society specifically, as many Americans that lack connections to their ethnic heritage interact with those that have direct ties with their culture. These Americans may feel envious, and while some choose to explore their own heritage through genealogy, others latch onto Orient cultures. They consume media almost exclusively from one country, and become obsessed with that culture. This is where cultural appropriation finds its way into the discussion, but that is an entirely new issue to be discussed at a later date.

The author's comments:

Yusef Lateef is a 16 year old student at Elmont Memorial High School in New York. He is planning on applying to college with biomedical science as his major, and is excited for many future endeavors to come

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