Orientalism in American Pop Culture

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In today’s American technological society, the power of media has a profound impact on shaping the way the public view and/or develop personal opinions about certain topics. By using popular culture as a tool to spread news and information to the public, the power of media has created depictions, whether it be accurate or not, about other parts of the world.

Edward Said was a Palestinian America scholar who was widely known for his novel Orientalism and for being one of the first researchers in the academic field of postcolonial studies. In 1978, Said coined the term “”orientalism”” and defined it as “”the West’s patronizing representations of “”The East””””, specifically South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and East Asia. The concept of orientalism is apparent in many parts of American media today. In this literature review, I will specifically be analyzing how the power of media of the western world has distorted the public’s perspectives of the eastern world by using orientalism within American popular culture.

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Said believed that Orientalism was rooted deeper than how the West, or “”The Occident”” represented the East or “”The Orient””. Said argued that Orientalism started with European Colonialization. The West painted a world of the East that needed civilizing, in order to justify western colonization of eastern countries and artificially divide the two worlds of the civilized and the uncivilized so that The West would appear more superior (Tekdemir). The main problem however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with “”Orientals”” and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with the Orient in their western world through different media sources. This created a certain image about The East in European minds and in doing that infused a bias in Europeans attitude towards The East (Luyendijk).

Representation in media plays a significant role in forming perspectives of the eastern world. Our knowledge of the world is greatly shaped by media sources like the news. Although news media is not the only way to receive factual information, it is one of the biggest sources that is responsible for informing the public (Trivundza). According to a scholar, “”The East is represented by the West, for the West and through the West. This representation is virtually as old as Western identity, since through this image of the Other the West has defined itself in relation to what is was not”” (Khalil, p. 322). Framing the East as “”the exotic other”” creates a separation of the two worlds making the western world seem superior (Trvundza). Examples of this type of framing can be found in news media coverages of the in the middle east. News coverages in countries in the middle east would typically be shot in areas that have been torn up to frame that the country is in despair. The quiet rest of the countries would not be captured in the frame of course because it’s not news. By omission of the great parts of middle eastern countries, the new media creates a false assumption that the east is uncivilized and in total despair compared to the western world. False framing is also seen in many pop cultural artifacts. For example in the music video “”Bad Girls”” by M.I.A, the female rapper, M.I.A is seen driving around with a group of girls dressed in jewels and hijabs carrying around big guns. A false perception that this music video could create would be that the middle east is violent.

As Said lays out in Orientalism, hypersexualizing and exaggeration of Eastern countries reinforces the stereotypes, and western representations of The West. A lot of times in American pop culture, non-Asian celebrities and music artists are seen wearing Asian garments, and using Eastern inspired artifacts as an “”aesthetic”” for their music videos and performances.

For example, in Nicki Minaj’s music video for “”Your Love””, she is seen wearing a hypersexualized kimono. By modifying the kimono to make it appear sexy, Minaj has in fact sexualized Japanese formal garment along with their women. Another example of appropriation would be Katy Perry’s music video “”Dark Horse””. Perry is seen over accessorized with face paint, and chains, and is also wearing a sexualized Egyptian garment. According to Pennington “”it serves to sharpen the contrasts between Us and Them”” (p. 114) By creating this stereotyped image of Eastern women, cultural appropriation in pop culture damages the perspective of authentic Eastern cultures and creates a dangerous reputation for Asian women as “”sex figures””

Orientalism can also be found in American movies. In many movies that take place in Eastern countries, the narrative always involves a “”western savoir.”” Said explains that the West “”depicts The East as soft, feminine, and irrational, in need of the saving grace of rational Wester masculinity”” (Said) and this idea is apparent in films like Kill Bill, Rush Hour, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, Indian Jones, and more. All these films involve westerners going over to eastern countries and “”saving the day.”” Such representation of The East creates inaccurate perceptions that The East is subordinate to the West.

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