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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Orientalism in Hollywood films

To understand what I mean by "Orientalism" and the objective of this response, please watch this short film prior to reading:

It is difficult for a Westerner who has never been there, to picture the Orient without using images that credit Hollywood films.  Of course this is highly problematic due to the absolute misconception and racist overtones that come along with depictions of the Orient in these films and media.  Park (2005) states that “Although many modern institutions participate in this structuring of knowledge over the Orient, media are particularly critical in this process, not just as central institutions in the distribution of knowledge, but as integrally linked to military, political and economic agencies that benefit from a limited view of the Orient as a problem in need of a western, technological fix.”  Through a process called and coined by Edward Said as Orientalism.  Orientalism is primarily a term used for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern Culture in the West by writers, designers and artists.  More recently, the term is also used in the meaning of "the stereotyping of Islam" by western culture, and I would argue this stereotyping happens primarily due to the Western media and films. Park (2005) explains that “large groups of people with diverse histories become oversimplified into one monolithic, subordinate and ahistorical category. These problematic constructions are perpetuated through visual images, verbal descriptors, and the selection of experts within the media.”  The important part of Orientalism to understand is that even though the process explains how the western media depicts the Orient is that it is more about how the West defines its own culture, and sense of dominance through the media, in relation to a constructed and even subordinate "Orient."  Through global events of recent decades it even is argued that Hollywood films project this dominance as a means of propaganda to a subordinate culture.

Capitalist influences on the media force the network and production companies to compete in what they show, battling back and forth giving the viewer what they want to see.  This battle can create exaggeration, sensationalism and even fiction mingled with fact.  Hollywood films, I would argue but showing the Arab or Orient in a specifically constructed way are doing it to fulfill the subconscious of the viewer.  When a country is at war with another, the viewer is more likely to pay to watch something that will make them feel at peace instead of a threat.  For example, in True Lies the protagonist, Harry must find and catch a terrorist threatening the government with, of course, a bomb threat.  The American public has been propagated into automatically thinking that the Arab is automatically the enemy.  If Harry were to die or if the Arab antagonist were to have any sense of victory the director wouldn’t have fulfilled the principles of capitalism: give the people what they want.  It is typical of Hollywood to represent the Arab as an incompetent villain so as to make America’s purpose abroad seem like a simple task. News stations are in competition to give the most shocking, and often exaggerated story possible so people will chose to watch their more entertaining story over another’s.  This causes the media to continually report stories that elicit fear and in the case of reporting news of the “Orient” these stories only show the elements we should be afraid of as the necessary stories.  No one wants to live in fear, and in this way Hollywood gives the public peace of mind.  In partnership with the news, creating a desire for peace and the Hollywood film industry selling tickets for an aesthetic peace of mind, capitalism’s nature has created extremely racist depictions of the “Orient.”  I would argue that even though some viewers might be completely unaware of the stereotypes that are being put in place through the media, these viewers enjoy the ignorance of thinking that the Hollywood depiction of the Arab is accurate to satisfy their feelings of peace and conquering of the “other.”  Park (2005) summarizes that “For the majority of those within the US, ignorance of important cultural histories, as well as of global situations with direct domestic implications, may result. For others within the US who exhibit characteristics of cultural otherness associated with the "Orient," discrimination, abuse, and misunderstandings may result.”

Another point where Orientalism becomes problematic is when the Western view of the Orient is show in other places of the world.  For example, when True Lies or the many films just like it is shown in a theater or a bootlegged copy of it is purchased from a street vendor or rented anywhere else in the world it becomes obvious, even embarrassing to see how American Hollywood chooses to depict this typical Arab figure over and over again.  Across the world certainly a sense of embarrassment can be felt for how consistently racist Hollywood can be, but how does the Egyptian or the Iranian (two completely different cultures, and of course multiple subcultures within each culture) feel to see that they are being painted as being the same typical “Arab” to Americans.  Also how would it feel to see that the typical Arab is slaughtered and continually beat film after film?  Perhaps it would feel as if America is trying to send a message to its own people that this is how they feel victory should look like (the eventual death of the enemy, or the Arab).  Although peace of mind is what sells tickets, it is ironic that by selling peace of mind the Hollywood culture is sending a message of war through the distribution of film.  Park (2005) argues further that “for those within countries associated with the "Orient" outside of the US, military conflict, political intervention, and economic dominance may result. Media participate at each of these levels, whether in terms of civil harmony or international conflict, perpetuating problematic stereotypes that serve as justification for humiliating interpersonal dynamics as well as misguided superpower intervention.”  It is the ignorance of the common US viewer that allows this process to continue as we continue to participate and support these images, which can be argued have global consequence on multiple levels.

In summary, the motivations behind these cultural paradigms caused by Holllywood’s Orientalism have greater implications than a simple movie night.  The images chosen by Hollywood directors are seen across the world and distributed to various demographics, cultures and nations worldwide.  Park (2005) advises that “If we would like to move beyond our lack of understanding of cultural "others," then we must rethink how we organize access to the means of media and cultural production, offering a more participatory and shared experience across cultural domains.”  In order to do this we must deconstruct the motivations behind these images, which I have argued is due to capitalist intentions between media and film companies.

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