The continuation of Orientalism: a product of Western media

The Middle East is ‘nearly always understood through an Orientalist framework’. Pictured: The Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

The West as the largest contributor to worldwide media and global pop culture has the ability to shape global prejudices and misunderstandings of different cultures and races. One region particularly affected by this power over representation is the Middle East. The Middle East is nearly always understood or represented through an orientalist framework and this frame of mind is instilled within Western people from a very young age.

Inextricably linked with this concept of a Middle Eastern misunderstanding is the term ‘orientalism’. Orientalism, as outlined by Edward Said, is a distinction between the ‘Occident’ (or West) as superior and more advanced and the ‘Orient’ (or Middle East) as backward and inferior. It involves the West viewing an unknown culture in a negative light from a superior standpoint. This concept is extremely applicable to the Western portrayal or interpretation of the Middle East as demonstrated by the fact that certain themes come to mind when discussing the Middle East. Buzzwords which are extremely prevalent in Western media include oil, terrorism, conflict and poverty. These associations lead to a prejudiced interpretation of the Middle East which is perpetuated by the media and pop culture through certain modes of communication.

One of the most shocking ways in which Western media is responsible for the continuation of an orientalist outlook of the Middle East is films and music which are aimed at children. A famous example of this is Aladdin whereby the most important characters in the film have American accents whereas the supporting parts have ‘Arab’ accents. This suggests to children that there is a rift or contrast between the familiar American/Western accent which encompasses the heroic role and the exotic ‘Arab’ accent which is unimportant. Not only does this create a hierarchy between the cultures but it also encourages children to view the Arab world as inferior. Furthermore, one of the main characters Jasmine appears in a hyper-sexualised manner thus perpetuating the view of Middle Eastern women as vulnerable to exploitation and objects of the male desire. Whilst this is not an article about the ways in which Middle East women are or aren’t objectified, the fact that Jasmine is sexualised in a children’s film appears to be encouraging a degrading and pitiful view of Middle Eastern women without further thought. This outlook can also be inferred from one of the lyrics in the featured song ‘Arabian Nights’. The lyric states “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” thus conveying the Middle East as an animalistic land which ‘the other’ views as normal whilst outright labelling their culture as “barbaric”.

Katy Perry’s video ‘Dark Horse’ features numerous references to Ancient Egypt, through which she encourages her viewers ‘to classify the Egyptian identity as an alien phenomenon.’

Costume and imitation is another way in which the media and pop culture encourages an Orientalist understanding of the Middle East. Middle Eastern culture and customs have become something to impersonate which enables the West to view the region as unfamiliar, exotic and something to be suspicious of. For example, the fact that people, in the US particularly, dress up as sheikhs for Halloween not only encourages stereotyping when most people don’t actually know what a sheikh is but also reduces a culture and identity to a humorous costume. Other examples include Katy Perry’s music video for ‘Dark Horse’ where she impersonates an Egyptian and encourages her viewers to classify the Egyptian identity as an alien phenomenon. This is a particularly pertinent issue for counteracting the spread of Orientalism as music videos have a young audience who may not have any prior understanding of the Middle East. They can thus be heavily influenced by music videos and films alike. Therefore, using Middle Eastern cultures as costumes or alter egos perpetuates the image of Middle Eastern cultures or any unknown culture to the West as ‘the other’. ‘The other’ being a less significant and poorly understood culture when it’s impossible to avoid the Western portrayal of the region as a corrupt and mysterious land.

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