The Dark Side of Orientalism

Whilst we find ourselves singing along to one of Katy Perry’s latest songs ‘Dark Horse,’ captivated by the glitz and glamour of her art-pop ode to an Egyptian deity, there are deep-rooted problems of Orientalism which must be addressed.

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Edward Said was a Palestinian/American theorist (Osborne, 2001), and coined the term Orientalism which he defines as ‘Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient’ (Evans, 2015). The Orient in this case, loosely applies to The Middle East (Egypt, Turkey, Libya), The Near East (Greece, Balkans) and the Far East (China, Japan) (Evans, 2015). My understanding of Orientalism put simply is, ‘the pre determined ways in which we think about the Orient which are sometimes limiting to our actual understanding of the true Orient.’ Orientalism is directly linked to colonialism. When European explorers traveled to the Orient, they brought back with them exaggerated and distorted paintings, depicting the Orient as ‘uncivilised, barbaric, spiritual, undeveloped’ (Evans, 2015). These distorted depictions were then used as a way for European empires to get away with colonisation, because after all, they were going to bring civilisation to these people.

Now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Katy Perry and Pop music. Well actually quite a lot. You see, based on these distorted depictions of the Orient, especially the Middle East that occurred during colonisation, the rest of the world’s perceptions of the Arab World and it’s people being distorted. Stemming from early reports in 1908 from a supposedly trusted, Lord Cromer who stated ‘untruthfulness, is in fact, the main characteristic of the Oriental mind’ (Evans, 2015), whilst living and writing about modern Egypt. One google news search of the word ‘muslim’ or ‘arab’ brings up an array of negative words such as terrorist, anti-muslim, ISIS, violence… the list goes on. And why? Because these negative stereotypes and Western control are continually perpetuated through the mass media.

Left: Egyptian woman painted by the Victorians Right: Katy Perry channeling Egyptian woman
Left: Egyptian woman painted by the Victorians
Right: Katy Perry channeling Egyptian woman

And bring in Katy Perry. Whether intentionally or not, her video clip for Dark Horse is religiously and culturally insensitive and plays on Orientalist views of portraying the ‘East’, in this case Egyptians as, traditional, uncivilised, spiritual and undeveloped. The worst part is that the video clip is completely unrelated to the song itself. Katy Perry, just like many other Hollywood celebrities (Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Rita Ora, Gwen Stefani), indulge in cultural appropriation, where they selectively borrow certain traits from a culture and use it to fit their agendas (Nittle, n.d), which if appropriated with respect, is acceptable. However, exploiting cultural traits from a whole nation and misrepresenting, it’s people, it’s history, it’s struggles and it’s stories into a costume and a 3 minute song is not.

Whilst I acknowledge that we’re not going to see a dramatic change in the music industry overnight of pop stars appropriately adapting cultural traits, it is something that we as consumers must be aware of. To challenge our own perspectives and question why we have these views of people. Instead of judging people based off of pop culture and Orientalist outlook, getting to know a person for who they are and not how the media represents them.

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The video below discusses Orientalism and it’s relationship with music. Skip to 10min30secs and you will see Mr Sheppard look at Katy Perry and her Orientalist approach to music and performance.

– See 10:33

Further Readings

References

Evans, N 2015, East vs. West: Orientalism, BCM232, University of Wollongong, http://Https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/386301/mod_resource/content/1/orientalism15.pdf, accessed 27 March 2015

Nittle, N n.d, What is cultural appropriation and why is it wrong?, About News, http://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/fl/What-Is-Cultural-Appropriation-and-Why-Is-It-Wrong.htm, accessed 28 March 2015

Osborne, R 2001, “Orientalism” in SAGE Publications Ltd, London, http://ey9ff7jb6l.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/summon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:book&rft.genre=book%20item&rft.title=Megawords%3A+200+Terms+You+Really+Need+to+Know&rft.au=Richard+Osborne&rft.atitle=Orientalism&rft.date=2001-01-01&rft.pub=SAGE+Publications+Ltd&rft.isbn=9780761974741&rft_id=info:doi/10.4135%2F9781446221532.n160&rft.externalDocID=10_4135_9781446221532_n160&paramdict=en-US, accessed 27 March 2015

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Orientalism

  1. Your Katy Perry example highlights the stereotypical ideas of Eastern countries, particularly conveying that some forms of media are often insensitive about such bias portrayals. Another film clip that I feel is of similar relevance to your example is that of Rihanna and Coldplay’s Princess of China. It is often this stereotyped interpretation that lacks true understanding of what the culture actually entails, depicting a pre-conceived idea that is not always correct.

    1. I completely agree, I feel that it would have been more sensational if Katy Perry portrayed the real Egypt with real Egyptians telling their stories, other than playing on insensitive stereotypes. I really love Alt-J’s song ‘Taro.’ Even though the images are taken from a movie, I feel that the images compliment the music and that’s what music should be about!

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