The Problems of Orientalism

Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential scholarly works in the past few decades, connecting largely to ideas of colonialism, imperialism, race, and political identity (Chibber, 2018). Presented by Edward Said as the study of a particular idea of the East, and how it contributed to the spread of European colonial rule, orientalism applies to all literature, languages, and cultures of the ‘Orient’. The Orient is a term used to refer to the people living in the East as an idea to other their way of life. This was used to establish an opposite to the Western world, creating a dichotomy of what was considered good and bad from the perspective of the western world.

The effects of orientalism are vast and carry on into modern times. There are many arguments discussing the harmful lasting effects of orientalism including the racist ideology held in othering the East and the Orient, as well as the rationalisation of colonisation within the 19th century.

Rationalising Colonization

European nations looked upon the Orient as “gullible” and “uncivilised” and presumed that people of the Orient did not understand systems such as class, self-determination, or economy, and due to an observed cultural “betterness”, it was the West’s superior duty to colonise and “save” them (Chibber, 2018). This contributes heavily to the rationalisation of colonising the Eastern cultures as the normal grounds of political judgment seemed not to apply if these assumptions were true. Ignoring the distinctiveness of Eastern culture and labeling the natives as inferior in terms of race, religion, and governing structures (Gupta, C., 2022) Europe could conceptualise the Orient as the “quintessential Other”, absolving imperialism of any wrongdoings, giving them power over the Other (Chibber, 2018).

The justification of colonisation through the idea of overcoming orientalist beliefs and political structures has severely impacted historical Eastern culture, as well as our relationship with Asian cultures today. Damaging Eastern cultural beliefs, traditional practices traditional systems of rule, and other significant ways of being, all Asian cultures have forever been touched by a forced presence of Westernisation. Orientalism has affected global attitudes and the current relationship between the East and the West, as presumptions enforced by this ideology continue to stigmatise the East as the Other, and continue the illustration of difference (Orientalism and its Effects on Today’s Society essay, 2022). Modern-day stereotypes and damaging labels are still prevalent due to the still present idea of cultural “betterness”, which was once used to rationalise colonisation and vilify the Orient.

Racist notions of othering

The web of racism, cultural stereotypes and dehumanizing ideology runs deep within orientalism as a way in which to present the Orient as subhuman and consequently “lesser” than the West. Orientalism was used to construct a generalised and amalgamated identity of all cultures across Asia, combining Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other cultural practices together to form a single concept for Europeans to understand. It is used to oppress the minority group and strengthen power within the Occident (West) to further justify othering (Smith, 2016). This tactic, as well as displaying the Orient as a more spiritual, sensual, eccentric, dangerous, and distant idea, allowed the general public to associate Asia with all things opposite to the lives they lead. This form of strategic orientalism left Eastern people stereotyped and labeled as dangerous, uneducated, and “dirty” as a way to enforce inferiority (Cheng, 2013).

These stereotypes today coincide with racism and still have harmful impacts on all Asian cultures. Media and the internet have become fast pace platforms for people to share opinions and beliefs, making it easier for these racist ideologies based on orientalism to spread further and faster. Today cultures such as Japanese are displayed through media by their exotic and foreign differences, mainly representing historical culture. Disregarded as fantasy, chishes, and honoring Asian culture, stereotypes of orientalism proceed through modern-day media (What is Orientalism, and How is it Also Racism, 2014).

Maher Morcos, United States
Sultan’s delight
Oil on Canvas

Positive implications?

Orientalism was constructed through the perception of the superiority of the West. To scholars and academics during the 19th century, it appealed to rationalism and was seen as a good way to identify who the people of the East were and what their culture was (Gupta, C., 2022). Despite this orientalism perpetuates racism and justifies colonisation. Although there are not many positive impacts of Orientalism, Edward Said believed that orientalism can still be considered a positive concept as it highlights the role of the Orient and provides the opportunity to better understand the West’s views and hunger for power (Said, 1978).

There is, however, a number of critics of Said’s work, for example, Sadik Al-Azm. Al-Azam suggests that orientalism isn’t a modern phenomenon and is instead the natural instinct of Europeans’ hunger for power that leads to the constant misrepresenting of the reality of other cultures, people, and languages in favour of self-affirmation (Chibber, V., 2018). This suggests that racism and creating the Other occurs frequently throughout history at the hands of Europeans and the concept as a whole, stems back to the concept of power, conflicting with Said’s opinion that orientalism was for the search for understanding rather than power.

Examples of orientalism in film

Disney’s 1992 animated film Aladdin presents orientalism through the stereotypical representations of Asian culture. Although it is a children’s film meant to portray a simple story, the meshing of different Asian cultures, stereotypes of brutality, sensualism, decadence, exoticism, and villainization are depicted continually through its plot.

The film begins with the musical score “Arabian Nights” which sets the scene in a mystical, distant land. With the main character Aladdin being chased by many Arabians, the score describes them to be brutally barbaric in nature. This displays the stereotypes of brutality and uncivilization that is common in orientalism, continuing to exaggerate the difference between our world and the world within the film.

Despite the movie being mythical and rooted in fantasy, Indian, Arabic, and Asian aspects are depicted mixed throughout to create a generalised idea of Asia, similar to the Orient. The first distinct illustration of this occurs in the costuming of Jasmin and Aladdin. Jasmin wears Indian cultural shoes, whereas Aladdin wears a traditional Turkish Fez.

How Disney Projects Orientalism Through their Movies

The film continues to portray orientalist stereotypes of sensualism through the depiction of belly dancers in revealing clothing, the sexualisation/ objectification of Jasmin by Jafar, exoticism in terms of Jasmin’s Tiger and Aladdin’s monkey, and the decadent caves, palaces, and jewels depicted throughout the film (Song, H., 2016). This is all to create a fantasy world distant from our own, continuing orientalism through mixing Asian cultures and again creating the stereotypical Other.

Lastly, the vilanisation of Jafar also stems from orientalism, as depicting him to be animalistic, mysterious, and deceitful are all characteristic of harmful stereotypes placed upon people of the Orient to justify “white superiority”, racism, and the saviour complex.

Conclusion

Therefore, orientalism and all of its racism, stereotyping and harmful ideologies have been used to justify and rationalise the actions of European colonisation. This continues today in the forms of prejudice and racism towards all Asians and the objectification/exploitation of their cultures for profit. Orientalism impacts all people of Asian descent and can only be considered a problem within our society. To overcome ingrained ideologies such as orientalism, knowing and acknowledging their historical implications is critical to understanding why they have such lasting and damaging effects on people, cultures, and beliefs.


References

Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission. 2022. Orientalism & Colonialism – Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission. [online] Available at: <https://www.aimislam.com/orientalism-a-colonialism/&gt;

Cheng, W., 2013. Strategic orientalism: racial capitalism and the problem of ‘Asianness’. African Identities, 11(2), pp.148-158.

Chibber, V., 2018. The Duel Legacy of Orientalism. [ebook] Cambridge University Press. Available at: <https://as.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/sociology/documents/Said%20Paper.pdf&gt;

Essay.ws. 2022. Orientalism and its Effects on Today’s Society Essay. [online] Available at: <https://www.essay.ws/orientalism-and-its-effects-on-todays-society-essay/&gt;

Gupta, C., 2022. Orientalism : A Perspective. Delhi: Deptt. of Philosophy, University of Delhi.

Kahlifa, M., 2016. How Disney Projects Orientalism Through Their Movies – Sail Magazine. [online] Sailemagazine.com. Available at: <https://sailemagazine.com/2016/11/how-disney-projects-orientalism-through-their-movies/&gt;

MAMBROL, N., 2020. Analysis of Edward Said‘s Orientalism. [online] Literary Theory and Criticism. Available at: <https://literariness.org/2020/11/10/analysis-of-edward-saids-orientalism/&gt;

Song, H., 2016. Orientalism in ‘Aladdin’. [online] Humanity + War. Available at: <https://songhannah.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/orientalism-in-aladdin/#:~:text=Orientalism%20in%20%E2%80%98Aladdin%E2%80%99%20In%20his%20book%2C%20Edward%20Said,the%20West%20and%20is%20superior%20to%20the%20Orient.&gt;

Smith, A., 2016. Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy. Color of Violence, pp.66-73.

Reappropriate. 2014. What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?. [online] Available at: <http://reappropriate.co/2014/04/what-is-orientalism-and-how-is-it-also-racism/&gt;

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