Orientalism in American Popular Culture
The term “Orientalism” was originally used to describe Europe’s study of the East; however, Edward Said’s reworking of the term provides it with a modified meaning. Said’s book Orientalism, published in 1978, defines the term as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”, and seeks to highlight the West’s negative perception of the East. The Western tendency to regard the East as the “Other”- upon which studying and ultimately dominating culminates into a combination of fascination and prejudice-can be tracked from the French and British involvement with the Orient from the end of the 17th century and onwards. Said notes that the end of the 18th century birthed Europe’s academic study of the Orient, framed entirely on projections and “empirical reality”, and holding a lasting effect on Western perception of the East into modernity. The beginning of the 19th century marks the Anglo-French domination of the Orient. After World War II, however, American domination of the East developed and with it, so too did different perceptions of the Orient. The many Orientalist texts which have been produced as a result of European and American involvement with the East serves as a foundation for Said’s theories, and confirms the Western view of the Orient as intellectually primitive, savage, and mysterious.
How, then, does American Orientalism differ from European Orientalism? To begin, while America’s imperial presence was not established until after the second World War, its numerous encounters with the East throughout the 18th and 19th centuries played a large role in shaping American perspective towards the Orient and producing “Orientalist Iconography”. American travellers to the Middle East during this time “were primarily missionaries, merchants, and tourists on religious pilgrimage”, and the popularity of travelogues increased as travel did. These travelogues reported “on the decrepit streets and ‘degenerate state of the local population,’ while at the same time presenting overly romantic illustrations about the beauty and mystery of the land and its peoples”. With the growth of American consumer culture in Victorian America, a rise in orient-styled material goods acted as “an expression of cultural superiority by means of material possession”. Despite very few Americans having any real encounter with the Middle East, Orientalist Iconography such as depictions of mosques and bazaars or Arabian-styled lamps, persuaded the population to view the Orient as a mysterious, sensual, and alluring land. Orientalist Iconography served as America’s first step into the production of Orientalist material.
Through the progression and development of a turbulent political and cultural relationship with the East over the centuries, Orientalism in America has shifted considerably. Orientalism is deeply interwoven within American history and has been perpetuated into the present-day through the voices of many political leaders, as well as the media. American cinema, from the twentieth century into the present, has played a major role in the production of orientalist portrayals of the East; many films holding underlying colonial motives through their depiction of racist stereotypes. From children’s Disney films into Blockbuster movies intended for an adult audience, American film holds the dangerous potential to shape viewers’ perception of the East as simultaneously barbaric, exotic, sensual, mystical, and ultimately other-worldly. This paper will analyse the depiction of Eastern characters in American film to demonstrate the manifestation of America’s negative perception of the East culminated over nearly three centuries into popular culture.
When analyzing Orientalist film in America, it is necessary to highlight that cinema’s ability to reach broader audiences and depict life-like images “has become an increasingly effective means for such a cultural and political project, the creation of the "Orient" for western hegemony”. Film can blur the lines between the real world and the imaginary, posing the threat of influencing its audience more significantly than earlier Orientalist iconography. Moreover, the development of technology has facilitated children’s exposure to film at young ages, and the children’s film industry continues to prosper. While children develop, media and film play a crucial role in how a child begins to perceive the world around them. It is therefore necessary to explore Orientalist stereotypes and tropes common within American film, and the ways these depictions perpetuate America’s view of the East as the “Other”. Individuals from the Middle East and Asia, for instance, have historically been portrayed as the villain in American film. There are, however, many more troubling stereotypes that will be highlighted in this paper’s film analysis. The psychology of racism and prejudice is complex, however, stereotype “…offers prejudiced persons a clear-cut structuring of the world, a way of imposing order where there is none”. Orientalist stereotypes in film are, indeed, reflections of real-life fear and ignorance common within the American population. Certain orientalist stereotypes in film can additionally be traced back to specific socio-historical contexts, and reflect America’s hostility towards the countries portrayed negatively in film.
Disney’s Aladdin from 1992 has become, arguably, the most famous orientalist American film. It is known in America to be a child-friendly story from the otherwise highly erotic plot of The Arabian Nights, one of the most popular books in Europe and America for over three centuries. The plot of The Arabian Nights remains a testament to the ways in which the West romanticises the East, eroticizing it to the point where sexuality and Arabic culture became inseparably intertwined in how the West perceived the Middle East. The success of Aladdin and its sequels can be seen across North America, whether in Las Vegas at the Aladdin Hotel or in Halloween stores stock full of Princess Jasmine costumes. Despite this Orientalist stereotype being replaced in favour of the “evil Muslim terrorist” stereotype in the present day, this idea of the East lingers in American culture to the point where “…all one needs to do to evoke the entire Orientalist canon of magic, richness, exoticness, barbarity, irreducible difference, is to use the one titular word: Aladdin”. Although Aladdin’s depiction of magical flying carpets in the desert, genies, and extravagant palaces filled with rich men and women in exotic dress can be dismissed as harmless and simply apart of Disney’s magic, these depictions continue to “[flatten] the differences among Middle Eastern cultures, while portraying the region as backwards and in need of civilizing by the West”.
Perhaps the most famously explicit racist scene in Aladdin appears in the film’s opening song, where they profess the land to be “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” and proudly declare, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”! Although deleted in the more recent versions of Aladdin, the original Disney production’s theme song perpetuates the common American stereotype that the Middle East is barbaric and brutally violent. The lyrics additionally portray Arabic men to be senseless monsters. The original film immediately received backlash from activist committees, and “when the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested the lyrics, Disney removed the reference to cutting off ears in the home video version but left in the descriptor ‘barbaric’”. Terms such as “barbaric” and “savage” have a long and racist history of European usage to describe cultures unlike their own, deeming them in dire need of Western interference and conversion. These racist terms have historically spread across Western countries through popular exploration narratives and travelogues, justifying colonization and blatant racism towards the “Other” for centuries. Disney’s use of the term “barbaric” in Aladdin’s opening song carries with it the West’s legacy of racism and colonization.
The 1992 Aladdin’s characters are additionally portrayed in a Eurocentric and racist fashion. For instance, the film’s antagonists have much darker skin than the film’s protagonists, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. Moreover, the villains speak in foreign accents and are portrayed with facial hair, large noses, and are otherwise ugly, while “the good Arabs possess European features and white American accents”, and no facial hair. In fact, it has been revealed that the original Aladdin animation “Americanises the Aladdin character by using Tom Cruise’s image as the template for his animation”. The implications of these animations reveal an innately racist view towards the Middle East and Arabic people, as the “good Arabs” are essentially stripped of any Arabic traits and are portrayed, instead, as slightly more “exotic” Europeans; thus maintaining the alluring and magical feel without straying too far away from European beauty standards. On the other hand, features typically associated with Arabic people, such as darker skin and facial hair, are essentially demonized through their association with the film’s villains. White American viewers of the film can therefore comfortably associate themselves with the film’s protagonists Aladdin and Jasmine-to some extent subconsciously- while regarding the film’s villains as foreign.
The most recent version of Aladdin, a live-action Hollywood film which came out in 2019 and amassed over one billion dollars in box office sales, has most definitely made some improvements in terms of casting and production. For instance, an Egyptian actor, Mena Massoud, plays Aladdin. Moreover, most of the main roles are played by actors of Middle Eastern descent. However, many other characters are played by white actors who had their skin darkened with makeup while onset. The 2019 version additionally continued in the footsteps of its original by portraying its protagonists with American accents. Aside from the racial details of the film, the extent to which the Middle East is essentially portrayed as a romanticised and magical land remains evident in the 2019 version through the constant appearances of Belly dancers, turbans, and Arabic and Iranian accents, therefore trading in “explicit racism for cliched exoticism”. Disney’s Aladdin remains, unfortunately, one of many Disney films to harbour racist Orientalist stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice towards the East into modernity.
Although Edward Said primarily directed his focus towards the Middle East, Asian countries are additionally portrayed in a negative light by the West. Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, for instance, manages to incorporate racist depictions of individuals of East-Asian descent despite not having many human characters. To expand further, the Siamese cats portrayed as villains in Lady and the Tramp are depicted as highly offensive Chinese caricatures, fitting into the stereotypical “Orientalist Villain” trope. The cats, who wreak havoc against the film’s wide-eyed and innocent protagonist, are depicted with “exaggeratedly slanted eyes, inscrutable grins, and heavily accented speech”. Furthermore, during the cats’ first appearance, the instrumental music accompanying their scene attempts to mimic an Oriental style; further establishing the Chinese caricature through song. This song is an example of “aural stereotyping”, which is defined as a “sonic re-inscription of old, essentialized, seemingly timeless racialized tropes to signify the ‘Orient’ as imagined by the West based on a limited sampling and reinterpretation of Asian sound”. This form of stereotyping is often used by non-Asian producers who are attempting to evoke a sense of “Asianness” in their production, and is often accompanied with an exaggeration of physical features typically associated with individuals of East-Asian descent. The culmination of visual and sonic depictions of the Orient- as the West imagines it- ultimately creates an association with Asia for the film’s viewers, further intensifying the offensive caricature of the Siamese cats.
Just like the film Aladdin, it is easy to write off Lady and the Tramp’s use of Oriental stereotypes as being harmless and silly. One must take into account, however, the American media’s long history of ridiculing features typically associated with those of East-Asian ancestry. The exaggeratedly slanted eyes of the Siamese cats echo a Western tradition of mockery towards Asia and an “Othering” of the Orient. Ethnic caricature, and the legacy of racism it carries with it, is a form of hate speech, and “a microaggression that negatively affects the mental health and well-being of [the culture it ridicules]”. In an article on Racist caricature, Leslie Bow quotes Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which notes that “by making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him”. Although the Siamese cats are merely mischievous and silly cartoon cats, the implications of depicting them as offensive Chinese caricatures are nonetheless perverse and mal-intentioned.
Moving away from children’s films, films intended for adult audiences enjoy the freedom to portray graphic violence, sexuality, and otherwise mature subject matter for heightened entertainment. With this liberty, many American films that depict the Middle East do so with brutal violence and other fear-instilling methods. In turn, these films become entertaining for American viewers, who can watch from the comfort of their homes and observe as their Eastern counterparts are portrayed according to their barbaric stereotypes. Three Kings, released in 1999 and starring many A-list celebrities such as George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, is set in Iraq immediately following the Persian Gulf War. The film follows four strong, masculine, American soldiers who, at the beginning of the movie, have already defeated the “evil Arabs” and are enjoying their victory in the Iraqi desert. Tim Jon Semmerling notes that despite the film taking place in the Middle East, the Arabs are still portrayed as threatening to the American people, and the fear is “[developed] in part from the Arabs’ power to threaten American ideology and myth”. The film follows an American soldier and his unit as they initially set off to escort an American television reporter but are distracted along the way through promises of lost Kuwait gold. The ways in which Three Kings displays the concept of “victory” as an innate American right against the Middle East confirms the progression of Orientalist stereotypes; moving away from Aladdin’s exotic and magical depiction into America’s view of the Middle East as the enemy.
As Three Kings is an American film, it is understandable that the movie depicts the American soldiers as the heroes. A sense of national identity and pride is evident from the movie’s opening scenes after the Persian Gulf War has been won. The entire film, however, glorifies the American military as saviours in their interference with the Middle East, and establishes that victory is essentially a “regeneration of American masculinity” against their threats. The beloved American war story, which is centuries old and has always been told to commend American victory against perceived “savages”, was jeopardized in relation to America’s retaliation against Pearl Harbour. The bomb dropped in Japan at the hands of the Americans was simply too catastrophic to be regarded as a victory. The American war story was threatened even further in light of Vietnam and Iran, who were esteemed by the Americans to inflict loss and humiliation. This blow to the American ego sparked fury within patriotic Americans. The necessity to come out as victors against enemies such as the Middle East remains an essential part of American patriotism, and manifests itself in American politics and media. In order for America to be portrayed as the victors, however, the Middle East is consequently portrayed as “the image of the sinister, seemingly stupid, sensuous, licentious Arab/Muslim other”. Three Kings, along with the many other American films which glorify the American military as it defeats the Middle East, remains an Orientalist film in the sense that its depiction of “evil Arabs” seeks to portray the Middle East as inferior to the great American nation, but a threat, nonetheless.
Furthering the discussion of Orientalism in American films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom harbours various Orientalist stereotypes towards Asia. The Indiana Jones franchise has long been criticized by viewers for appropriating and stereotyping different cultures, however The Temple of Doom takes stereotyping to an entirely new level. The film takes place in India, and depicts Indian villages and Indian culture in a distorted Orientalist sense. The film sets out to portray India as an entirely impoverished and helpless country, in need of help from the movie’s hero, Indiana Jones. Various Asian cultures are additionally portrayed as savage and violent throughout the film as they serve as Indiana Jones’ antagonists, and several scenes feature Indiana Jones spying on Hindu rituals. One Hindu ritual in particular is portrayed as almost Satanic in nature, with dozens of men chanting in deep, monotone voices in front of a statue of the Hindu Goddess, Kali. The statue, surrounded by skulls and fire, breathes smoke and fire out of its mouth and nostrils. The men chanting are seen shirtless, with battered cloth around their waists and turbans sitting loosely on their heads. One of the most violent instances of the Hindu worship scene is when the leader, wearing an animal skull on his head, brutally rips the heart out of a man as sacrifice to the goddess Kali. While the scene is intended to be an entertaining and horrific portrayal of a dark religious ritual, Hinduism is evoked the moment the worshippers chant the name “Kali”. In turn, the film casts Hinduism as barbaric and satanic, and ensures a fearful reaction from viewers through ongoing scenes of violence and horror.
As previously mentioned, the film’s emphasis on poverty throughout Indian villages and people creates a sense of helplessness and bleakness. The movie depicts villagers as “submissive, uneducated, and helpless people who prostate themselves for help when they see Indiana and his friends”. In contrast, Indiana Jones is portrayed as the handsome and capable hero, the only individual able to relieve the pain of the Indian villagers through his knowledge and bravery. The villagers are constantly subjected to danger by an array of sinister and bloodthirsty animals, and rivers infested with Alligators and blood-thirsty bats pose regular threats to the wellbeing of Indiana and those in his company. This emphasis on poverty, as well as natural threats, reduces India to a treacherous country in need of Western interference and aid. The highly stereotyped and menacing portrayal of Indians sits comfortably within the Western perspective of the East as the “Other”, an uncivilized place with bizarre and cruel religious practices and helpless poverty. Indiana’s character therefore symbolizes the Western hero, whose role is to navigate the territory of the barbaric and savage into victory.
Through the analysis of four Orientalist films in American popular culture, there are several commonalities to be drawn within American Orientalism and the ways in which America perceives the East. To begin, a dominant theme of regarding Eastern countries as uncivilized and barbaric enables the West to “[set] itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”. When viewing the East as an unruly and faraway land, the Western identity maintains a sense of superiority and civility that their Eastern counterparts lack. Events such as the Second World War have further intensified this sense of dominance, as the United States “emerged as the world’s leading military, economic, and political power”. Much of the American sense of identity relies on its dominance over the “Other”. In this way, films such as Three Kings and Indiana Jones serve to affirm America’s own perception of itself. The cultures cast in a negative light at the expense of America’s Orientalist films are left to be interpreted by ignorant American viewers as backwards and uncivilized. Said notes that “the Orient was not Orientalized because it was discovered to be ‘oriental’… but because it could be- that is, submitted to being- made Oriental”. The European and American dominance over the East has been justified for centuries by the belief that the East is uncivilized. These beliefs have now been carried into modernity, enabling such racist stereotypes and depictions to take place in American film.
More recent events that have highlighted America’s racism towards the East, such as 9/11 and the outbreak of COVID-19, serve to demonstrate the Orientalism interwoven within American culture. While these events took place nearly two decades apart, one being a deliberate act of terrorism while the other an epidemic, both events hold similarities in the ways in which the American population responded. To expand, both 9/11 and COVID-19 became closely associated with a specific group of people in the minds of many Americans. In terms of 9/11, the rampant islamophobia and hate crimes towards Muslims which took place after the event indicate that many Americans associated the attack with the Middle East, and more specifically, Muslims. As for COVID-19, the xenophobia exhibited towards those of East-Asian descent demonstrates that many Americans associated the virus with China, and, due to ignorance, East-Asia in general. In this way, these specific groups became the “Others”, a perceived danger to the wellbeing of America by association with a perceived threat. The inability to separate the events from the groups of people that became associated with them reflects the racism that many Americans harboured towards them even before the events took place. They were, in fact, already the “Other” in the minds of many.
This “Othering” can be demonstrated through a conversation I had with my grandmother that took place during the panic and confusion of the initial COVID-19 outbreak. In the process of explaining to me that she believed she had already contracted the virus months earlier, she nonchalantly mentioned that she contracted it from the “Chinese woman she sat next to on the bus” one day. Despite not having any information on whether or not this woman was ill, whether she’d recently travelled abroad, or anything even slightly rational to explain why the woman could have infected her, my grandmother believed she had been infected by the woman because the woman appeared to be Chinese. In this way, my grandmother associated the virus with an entire population, and those of East-Asian descent became a threat to her own wellbeing through her inability to separate the virus from an ethnic group. In order to think this way, however, one must subconsciously or consciously view a group as the “Other” beforehand. A lack of exposure and ignorance towards Eastern cultures, combined with the Orientalism which prevails in Western media and society, allows beliefs such as these to take place. To conclude, the Orientalism depicted in American film is the product of the racism and prejudice against the East that has thrived within Western societies for centuries. These films are merely small fragments of a large network of Orientalist stereotyping and beliefs.