According to Edward Said, Orientalism is a style or thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, meaning the East and West (Said, 2001, p.1992). It is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the US (AANM, 2011). However, the term ‘Orient’ has garnered a more widespread understanding where we are not just referring to the Arabian culture specifically, but rather the Orient as a western term for the Far East (China, India, Japan), the Near East (Greece, Balkans) and the Middle East (Persian Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Israel, Afghanistan).
The notion of Orientalism implies viewing these cultures as exotic, inferior and a little uncouth compared to the Western world, which is why there has been the long-standing fiction that the east and the west are two completely separate entities that represent two different ideals. Orientalism has long existed dating back to the European Enlightenment period and the Colonization of Arabia. The Arab world was and still is often painted as an exotic and mysterious place of sand, harems and belly dancers (AANM, 2011). It is this ideology of the eastern world that the western world has essentially perpetuated, that has permeated into our society and way of thinking.
Many of us are likely to associate these ideas with these cultures, ie. the Disney movie ‘Aladdin’ in which the western stereotypes of the Arabian culture are significantly highlighted. However like Said explains, the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies and myths (Said, 2001, p.1992). Orientalism is recognized as more of a process whereby the west has consciously orientalized the orient in such a way that the heterogeneity of these countries are placed into this western created category ‘oriental’ thus characterizing their exotic difference and inferiority to the west, which has permitted westerns to make generalizations and strategically place all cultures into a monolithic racialising fantasy (Teo, 2013, p.2).
One film in particular in which Orientalism is certainly not absent is the Blockbuster Hollywood film ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. The story loosely follows an American woman’s quest to find herself and happiness by venturing to Italy, India and Bali. It is from the beginning of the film that viewers are instantly hit with the stereotypes the movie foreshadows about finding balance and reconnecting with spirituality that can only be achieved in the east. From here we see the woman traveling to India to visit a guru’s ashram and a medicine/meditation man in Bali.
(‘Eat, Pray, Love’ screen caps)
What the film does is fail to provide the audience with new knowledge about these cultures, instead relying on the preexisting stereotypes. This film and many other orientalist films are not properly representing the East and instead falling back on the existing notion of the East as a place of timeless, otherworldly and incomprehensible, waiting to be discovered by Westerners. So while Orientalism is essentially a created theory of dominance and nothing more than a fake fantasy that extends to films, we need to be able to get beyond the point where the East is no longer subject to the West’s exploitation of pre-existing ideas.
Arab American National Museum (AANM), 2011, ‘What is Orientalism’, Arab American National Museum, viewed 4th April 2016, http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism
Mask, M, 2010, ‘Eat, Pray, Love, Leave: Orientalism Still Big Onscreen, National Public Radio, viewed 4th April 2016, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129254808
Said, E, 2001, ‘From Orientalism’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton, New York, pp. 1991-1993.
Teo, H, 2013, ‘Orientalism: An Overview’, Australian Humanities Review, 54, pp.1-20, viewed 5th April 2016, http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-May-2013/teo.html