Constructs of Orientalism and Stereotyping Eastern Women
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According to Edward Said, the West constructs a notion of the East as “other,” through orientalism which turns the East into a place to be feared or desired as an image of the West’s imagined “otherness.” as noted in the work of Peter Brook’s Mahabarata, and contemporary films like we have seen in Avatar, or of practitioners that subvert and challenge orientalist perception found in the West, as we have seen in M Butterfly.
Through an examination of performance from at least two different cultures, show how the theatre is used to either exotify the other in a kind of “Oriental Gaze,” and the work of other contemporary practitioners who wish to challenge these “otherings” of a culture.
The phenomenon of orientalism in art and literature is one of the most historical and cultural phenomena. The idea of orientalism played an important role in literature of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century in Europe, It was more widely referring to the portraying of the East by Western artists, as the fascination with the orient influenced many of the romantic writers who situated novels and poetry about the mysterious Eastern lands and also dazzled many famous painters who were surprised and impressed by the charm and beauty of the East. These painters translated that fascination in their paintings using many methods, while some of them painted what they actually saw and experienced in the East, others painted their imagination about the myths and magical tales of the mysterious East. The East became an interesting destination for travellers, many of whom went on to write about and paint their experiences in the exotic lands among unfamiliar peoples and customs. In arts in general, the orient became associated with beautiful landscapes, eroticism and mystery.
Many scholars place the beginning of postcolonial studies in history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and arts at the publication of Said’s orientalism, published in 1978. Said focuses his attention in this work on the interplay between the “Occident” which refer to the West and the “Orient”, which refer to the East.
In this essay I will explore the meaning of the other and otherness from the perspective of the European gaze. I will try to find out how the west sees the east by focusing on their image of the eastern women through theatre as it is one of the important arts that reflect the community gazes, by analyzing the “Veil” symbol and it representation through Oscar wild play “Salome” and the “Fan” symbol through Puccini’s opera “M. Butterfly”. As well as I will show how some practitioners subvert and challenge orientalist perception in the West and also how they sometimes fall victims to the stereotyping in the middle east of the challenges.
Orientalism broadly defined, as the representation of the Eastern world by the western world, more deeply, as the study of the Orient by western scholars and their evaluation of its social and moral values, and its future prospects.
The beginning of oriantalism perception was in the 19th century by scholars who translated some writings of the East into English, in order to know more about the Eastern cultures which will empower the west with knowledge of how to conquer and defeat the Eastern countries (Sered, 1996).
By the mid-19th century oriental studies expanded and became important to many scholars. However, racist attitudes and stereotypes have become inherent to this cultural movement. The West saw the Eastern art and literature as exotic and inferior to their ideals. Many critical theorists pointed out that there is much that can be learned about the West’s image of itself through the way Western writers have portrayed the orient The idea of the oriental as the “Other,” or the mysterious unknown, reflects the European concerns about one’s own identity (Byington, 2001).
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Orientalism is a way of thinking about the East as strange, exotic, dark, mysterious, erotic and dangerous, and has helped the West to define itself through this contrasting image. The west had always seen the East as inferior and to rationalize the colontiastion of the East, they had to define eastern people as despotic or stagnant and in need of Christianizing, civilizing or controls (Hübinette, 2002).
Edward Said and Orientalism
Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”… In short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. (Said, 1978)
The most influential critique on orientalism came in 1978 with Edward Said. He managed to attack the oriental perception not only to our notions of the ways in which the West constructs representations and portraitures the East but, to how the ideology of Othering is facilitated through Art and literature in his book “Orientalism”.
According to Said, the West has created a “dichotomy” between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the Orient. The Middle East and Asia are viewed with prejudice and racism. The West has created a culture, history, and future promise for the East. On this framework rests not only the study of the Orient, but also the political imperialism of Europe in the East. He discussed the dialectical relationship between Occident and Orient as is a manifestation of “us versus them” (Said 1978).
Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the “Orient” was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. He studied many works of European scholars and writers specialized in the peoples of the Middle East in order to denounce the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in their texts. Said thinks that by knowing the Orient, the West came to own it. So according to Said, it is imperialism which motivated orientalism. Without imperialism, westerners would never have study near and Far-Eastern societies and culture (Sered, 1996).
Said asserts that according to the Occidentals, the Orientals had no history or culture independent of their colonial masters. Orientalism is more an indicator of the power the West holds over the Orient, than about the Orient itself.
After Said, numerous studies have been published on the different orientalisms of the West that various countries and cultures of Asia have suffered. Among many orientalists, Said´s book provoked angry and sometimes even hateful responses, while others declared themselves ready for a fundamental change of attitude towards Asia and the Asians, their objects of study. Said´s theory of orientalism has also provided feminists and post-colonial theorists with a general method of understanding the nature of oppression (Hübinette, 2002)
Said argued that the West has stereotyped the East in art and literature, since antiquity– such as the composition of The Persians by Aeschylus so in modern times, Europe had dominated Asia politically that even the most outwardly objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias that Western scholars could not recognize. Western scholars appropriated the task of exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves, with the implication that the East was not capable of composing its own narrative. They have written Asia’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Europe as the norm, from which the “exotic”, “inscrutable” Orient deviates.
Said concluded that Western writings about the Orient depict it as an irrational, weak, feminised “Other”, contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West, a contrast he suggests derives from the need to create “difference” between West and East that can be attributed to immutable “essences” in the Oriental make-up.
A mean of expressing cultural and social identity
The term oriantalism was increasingly used by sociologists and other scholars since the 1990s, to refer to ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and cultural representations of the Eastern societies (Chua, 2008). Orientalism became a way of thinking about the world and the cultures that inhabit it. It acquires global significance through the identification and provision of these cultures in ways that support, even promote, on a political and economic superiority of the West.
Edward Said, pointed out in his definition of Orientalism that the Orient is “almost a European invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Said, 1978). He also pointed that the Orient helped the West to define itself, as it consider to be a contrasting image in terms of people, ideas, experiences, etc. As Orientalism lives on in the academic world, many writers, ideologues, journalists, political, historians, poets, painters, moviemakers and others contributed to the Orientalist vision of the world, they justify that by the impossibility of studying the Orient, without being influenced by Orientalism.
The other and the otherness
The other can be defined as the image outside oneself, each different yet somehow the same and, therefore, connected by their reflection. It can also be understood within the double of self and can be seen as organizing the very existence of individual subjects. While otherness is the condition of being different from that otherwise experienced or known (1).
The term “The other” is usually used by social, ethical, cultural, or literary critics, they use this term in order to understand the social and psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group. By using the term “other”, the persons begin to notice the dissimilarity from another, and this is usually shown in the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images.
The West used these terms to identify what they didn’t understand about the Eastern culture as the contemporary preoccupation with other and otherness in the west which represents a concern for personal identity. But in order to understand the Eastern culture they had to exclude them from the normality and surrounding them with mystic cloud thus the focusing on “otherness” became a way of understanding the cultures differences more than similarities ((Portis, 2009).
Portrayal of the Orient in arts
In the nineteenth century, when more artists travelled to the Middle East, they began representing more numerous scenes of Oriental culture. In many of these works, they portrayed the Orient as exotic, colourful and sensual. Such works typically concentrated on the Middle East countries.
French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres who painted many work portraying the Middle East culture. When Ingres, painted a highly coloured vision of a Turkish bath, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms. Even so, in contrast to Eugène Delacroix who had visited an Algerian harem in person which after he painted the Algerian harem, Ingres never travelled to Africa or the Middle East to see such subjects in person, and the courtesans shown are more Caucasian and European than Middle Eastern or African in appearance. For Ingres the oriental theme was above all a pretext for portraying the female nude in a passive and sexual context. Exotic elements are few and far between in the image – musical instruments, a censer and a few ornaments (Elif, 2008).
In Theatre, Madam Butterfly and Mikado are considering examples to the oriental perception to the Far East. As Gilbert and Sullivan in Mikado and Puccini’s Madam Butterfly -which is based on a short story written by John Luther Long and dramatized by David Belasco- depict Japanese culture musically and dramatically. They used Western musical views of Japanese and Oriental music in both plays as well as they used the western stereotyping of the Japanese people as the costumes, white faces, hair design, etc. without presenting the true nature of this culture. These performances played on stereotypical Western views of the Far East in general and the Japanese culture in particular.
Moreover, in movies, Arabs were largely romanticized and viewed as exotic and part of an alluring orientalism during the 1940s. The rich Arab in robes became a more popular theme, especially during the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the 1990s the Arab terrorist became a common villain figure in Western movies.
The images of women in East
Many scholars who wrote about or painted the East didn’t really visit or experienced the Eastern culture, they just interpreted what they imagined, that inherent the image of the Eastern people, in particular the women, with stereotyping. Asian women have been portrayed as prostitutes, aggressive, opportunistic sexual beings and predatory gold diggers using their feminine to get what they want (Hofstede, 1996). Also Arab women were usually portrayed as exotic belly dancers or mute, subservient, and repressed. Western film and literature has continually portrayed such stereotypes of Eastern women.
Stereotypes of Asian women
There are lots of terms portraying the stereotyping of the Asian women such as the “Dragon Lady” which was portrayed as a strong, cold and ferocious woman who was knowledgeable in the art of sexual pleasure unknown to the Western world. Another is the “China Doll” stereotype which portrays Asian women as subservient, compliant and anxious to please. It also identified all Asian women as Chinese. From the perspective of the west, Asian women are meant to be seen and played with as a doll. In Western culture, The “Geisha” is seen as a prostitute or sex entertainer, this stereotype indicates that Eastern women are valued and used for their bodies for aesthetic pleasure. On the contrary, a Geisha in Japanese culture is a kind of an artist. They are trained in developing certain social skills such as dancing, singing, tea-making, conversing and serving to be an artistic entertainer not prostitute (Prasso, 2005). Also there are other terms refer of stereotyping the Asian women suggesting that they are sexually available to foreign white men as “Yellow cab”, “Sarong party girl and “Comfort Women”
There is lots of stereotyping to the Asian women from the western perspective that harmed their identity; all these stereotypes perceptions depended on how the West misunderstands the East, Asian women are usually portrayed as beautiful, sexually available, exotic, and loyal but submissive. According to Elaine Kim a Professor of Asian American Studies, the stereotype of Asian women as submissive has hindered Asian women’s economic mobility.
Stereotypes of the Middle East women
From decades, separation between nations and individuals has been maintained by very powerful symbolic boundaries leads us, symbolically, to close ranks culture and to stigmatize and expel anything which is defined as impure, strangely attractive precisely because it is forbidden, taboo, threatening to cultural order (Hall, 1997).
Since the first contacts with the Arab world, the West has developed a set of stereotypes depicting Arabs as uncivilized and violent. As with the spread of colonization during the 19th century, an organized scholarship devoted to the representation of ‘Otherness’ emerged as a defining moment in this cross-cultural history (Hirchi, 2007).
The stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims are often manifested in literature, media, theatre and other creative expressions. Arabs and Muslims in TV and movies are often involving themes associated with violence. As the words “Muslim” or “Arab” is connected with the image terrorist and bomb-making or sometimes refer to the wealthy oilmen. An Arab woman is usually represented, a belly dancer, sex objects, whore, terrorist or subservient, imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness (Shaheen, 1988). Even in cartoons which is consider to be aimed at children is full of negative images of Arab women which portray them as belly dancers, exotic and harem girls, (Wingfield and Karaman, 1995).
These stereotypes don’t only harm the psychological and cultural part of the Eastern civilisation but also helps dehumanizing a group first before attacking it (Qumsiyeh, 1998).
Salome as a representative of the Arab women
For decades Salome figure has became a representation of the Arab women. The west used to see the Arab women evil, seductive, belly dancers, nudes and that was shown in lots of arts work of that time which is considers stereotyping to the Arab women. The origin of Salome story and her famous dance came from the Bible:
But at a birthday party for Herod, Herodias’ daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, so he vowed to give her anything she wanted. Consequently, at her mother’s urging, the girl asked for John the Baptist’s head on a tray.
The king was grieved, but because of his oath, and because he didn’t want to back down in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders. (Matthew 14:6-11)
Herodias’ chance finally came. It was Herod’s birthday and he gave a stag party for his palace aides, army officers, and the leading citizens of Galilee. Then Herodias’ daughter came in and danced before them and greatly pleased them all.
“Ask me for anything you like,” the king vowed, “even half of my kingdom, and I will give it to you!”
She went out and consulted her mother, who told her, “Ask for John the Baptist’s head!”
So she hurried back to the king and told him, “I want the head of John the Baptist — right now — on a tray!”
Then the king was sorry, but he was embarrassed to break his oath in front of his guests. So he sent one of his bodyguards to the prison to cut off John’s head and bring it to him. The soldier killed John in the prison, and brought back his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl and she took it to her mother. (Mark 6:21-28)
In reading the Biblical description, we find out that there is no specification of the kind of dance Herodias’ daughter did. Nothing claim that her dance involved veils, or the removal of clothing, or seduction. Actually there is no proof in the bible story that the death of John the Baptist is linked to the seductive seven veils striptease.
In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salomé based on the origin story in the bible. Wilde’s play portrays Salomé as an evil character who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist (Elliot, 2002).
Herod: Do not rise, my wife, my queen, it will avail thee nothing. I will not go within till she hath danced. Dance, Salomé, dance for me.
Herodias: Do not dance my daughter.
Salomé: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.] (Wilde, 1891)
The script of the play does not specify that the dance must be seductive or a consisting any striptease of veils. In the beginning of the 20th century, the fascination with the Middle East become at its peak, the writers and painters saw the story of John the Baptist as a good example of the orient from their perspectives the story had all the elements that make for public interest sexual overtones as murder, politics and the seductive dance. However, the dance of the seven veils has never been a part of Middle Eastern dance traditions, and is not performed in the Middle East today. But it was invented by western, and has been preserved for entertainment reasons.
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The veil which is just only a piece of cloth is marked as a part of mystery and myth. It is both part of the culture and the imaginations of people in the East. The veil and the harem symbols have always fascinated the Western people. They were prevented from seeing and communicating with Arab women and that produced feelings of frustration and aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, the veil has provided men with the fantasy of exotic and erotic experiences with the beauty behind the veil (Mabro, 1991).
In the Middle East, the veil was and still is a modesty garment which is worn to protect a respectable Muslim woman from the prying eyes of male strangers. May be it is used in some dance performance but without the incorporate removal of seven veils until the dancer stands totally nude.
To conclude Salome is seen as an oriental misrepresentation to the Middle East women from the perspective of the Western. This misrepresentation have harmed the image of the true nature of the Middle Eastern women as they were seen as evil, belly dancers, seductive and nude with no respect to their own identity and religion. And the veil become associated to that mis representation as it become a seductive tool linked with nudity.
M. Butterfly as a representative of the Asian women
“Female sacrifice narratives can be traced back to biblical tales like the story of Ruth, who gives up everything for the sake of her husband who has a culture and religion different from her own. In America Pocahontas tales, which call for the sacrifice of the woman of color for the sake of white men, have been common. However, the Japanese Madame Butterfly has become the best known modern manifestation of this type of narrative.” (Marchetti, 1993)
Madame Butterfly is an opera by Giacomo Puccini. He based his opera in part on the short story “Madame Butterfly” (1898) by John Luther Long, which was dramatized by David Belasco. Puccini also based it on the novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a tragic story of love, betrayal and a young mother ultimate sacrifice. It is a story and myth lies at the heart of Western perceptions of Japanese women as passive, selfless, and dedicated completely to their husbands and families. The work reveals numerous stereotypes and prejudices of the Western world concerning oriental culture. It become an icon and myth of the Japanese woman as the ideal of loving self-sacrificing, devoted wife to a Western husband.
“Despite the changes and the increasing independence of Japanese women in the nineties, the dated Western stereotypes of Japanese women remain firmly entrenched in print, broadcasted, and film media. In the latter, especially, Japanese women are still routinely depicted with painted faces and geisha attire….The prototype for all of these images was Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly… This classic portrayal has no doubt had a long-lasting effect on the psyche of Western males. The compliance and gentleness attributed to Japanese women have long struck a responsive chord in men used to self-assertive, confrontational, and independent Western women” (Ma, 1996)
There are lots of visual elements in this performance that contributed in the stereotyping process of the Asian women as the hair style, white face makeup, scenograph of the place and most important, the costumes which are the kimonos of the main character of the play, Madam butterfly. The west attempts to understand Japan through the metaphor of the kimono. The kimono was inherent to the Asian culture for decades.
There are many types and styles of kimono which are worn depending of the formality of the occasion, the age of the wearer, their marital status, time of day, and time of season. In addition to colours and styles, the way kimono is worn differs between whether it is a single or married woman. All of these factors come into play when deciding what kimono is appropriate to wear and how to wear it which means that the kimono is not just a dress but it’s a culture. The West has treated this culture by great contempt, as any shape of kimono represent the Asian women regardless this kimono culture. (Goldstein , 1999)
To conclude, Madam Butterfly helped stereotyping Asian women by surrounding them by the fence of isolation. It has become a representation of the cultural identity and a misrepresentation associated with submission, fragility, and femininity. And by dealing with the kimono as a representation symbol of that culture it became associated to these concepts. As if Madame Butterfly didn’t wear the kimono a lots of concepts and stereotyping perception could change.
History reveals that western arts have humiliated, demonized, and eroticized Arab women. These images inherited and embellished western pre-existing Arab stereotypes. In the 18th and 19th century’s western artists and writers offered fictional renditions of women as bathed and submissive exotic object. The stereotype came to be accepted as valid, becoming an indelible part of European popular culture. Nowadays the Arab women in western arts still trapped in the siege of being veiled, silent or a terrorist. While the Asian women representation changed a little as female characters in movies or TV dramas have shifted from obedient weak girls to strong, intelligent, working women.
David Henry Hwang change attempt in his M. Butterfly
David Henry Hwang is a contemporary Asian American playwright his play is a deconstruction of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. Hwang play shows that gender roles provide people with an identity based on determining the “other” and being the opposite. The actual categories of what we consider to be male and female exist only in our minds as ways to identify ourselves.
Madame Butterfly is not just a story about love relations or the homosexuality; it is more than that where it raises themes as sexuality, ethnicity, imperialism and race. Madame Butterfly is consider one of the most important play in terms of challenging the political, social and cultural identities of the West over the last decade, This play forces its Western audience to deal differently with Eastern stereotypes involving sexual orientation, gender, and culture, especially those stereotypes issued by the myth of Orientalism (Burns & Hunter, 2005).
In Hwang play, the reason that Gallimard failed to discern that his lover was a man can be attributed to the cultural stereotype imposed by the West on the East. The West thinks of itself as masculine while it regards the East as feminine, “weak, delicate, poor… but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom — the feminine mystique.” (Hwang, 1988).The West expects Oriental women to be submissive to Western men. Also the themes of racism and sexism are linked. Thus, even Eastern men are feminized. As Song puts it, “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”
At the end of the play, the Hwang reversed the roles of Gallimard and Song; he began to demolish the racial and sexual stereotypes that he has been steadily exposing from the beginning. Gallimard, exploited, loving, betrayed, becomes like Butterfly, while Song is revealed not only as a man but also as a deceiver like Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly who was never what he appeared to be. He wanted to show the Western audience that stereotypes are not only dangerous, they are also false.
It is important to say that the East had fascinated the Western and became a new source of inspiration for the artists, as painting, literature, theatre, movies and other creative arts. A new artistic movement, Orientalism, was born from this fascination. However, Orientalism in the 19th century was not always representative of what and how the East really was. Many distortions and stereotypes existed, and that led to some criticisms from scholars like Edward Said who didn’t agree of how the west stereotype the East without real understands to the Eastern cultures. The West treated the East as inferiors in order to have the right to colonize them; their justification was that the East has to be civilized by the hand of the West. The stereotypical images of the Eastern women which was and still promoted by the Western media has a great effect on the culture image in general and the economic mobility in particular, as this stereotyping had harmed the tourism in the Middle East as it a terrorist countries as well as created the sex tourism in the Far East it exotic countries.
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