August 15, 2014
Orientalism: There are No Limitations
When one first crosses paths with the term orientalism, assuming there have not been any prior experiences, one’s initial response may be that it is an offensive term that should not be spoken let alone repeated. Arguably that initial response may also be fairly accurate according to Google’s definition which defines orientalism as “the representation of Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotyped way that is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude.” Such representations, for example, may include religion, culture, language, history, texts, etc. The vital point to be remembered is that these representations are said to be the interpretational views of those, more specifically Westerners, looking in through a window from the outside, so to speak, who go on to write and/or talk about their views only leading others hearing and/or reading the views to assume just accuracy. It is this process that warrants the interpretations to be regarded as stereotypical and racial thinking.
Edward Said, a Palestinian American literary theorist who wrote the book Orientalism (1978), was of the opinion that orientalism “is a general group of ideas impregnated with European superiority, racism, and imperialism” (Barker, 273). In comparison, Said’s 1978 definition and Google’s 2014 definition of orientalism do not appear to be all that different despite the difference in years. It is clear that the concept of orientalism is simply not limited to geographical differences and restricted only to the constructions of East and West.
To choose one primary text as reference and evidence of orientalism having no limitations is rather a challenging task due to there being so many to choose from. One could use the Disney movie, Dumbo, which displays orientalism as White verse Black by Walt Disney displaying the crows in the movie as being, what Donald Bogle (1973) argues to be one of “five distinct stereotypes which derive from plantation and slave images”, Coons, “slapstick entertainers, gamblers, ‘no-account’ ‘niggers’” (Barker, 272). One could also use the music video ‘Dark Horse’ by artist Katy Perry featuring rapper Juicy J or the music video ‘Check it Out’ by Nicki Minaj featuring Will.i.Am, from the Black Eyed Peas. Perry’s video portrays, what appears to be, an Egyptian or Middle Eastern theme, which displays orientalism in the traditional West verse East manner. Upon looking up this video on YouTube to watch, one can just scroll down the page to see controversial comments left by fans and those offended by inaccuracies in the video. Minaj’s video “was intended by her to be ‘an ode to Japanese culture and Japanese Afro-Samurai: techno-Orientalism and contemporary hip hop 269 anime’ (MTV 2010). This is contradicted, however, by both the spoken introduction and the words that pop up during the video which are actually in Korean Hangul” (McLeod, 260–270). This contradiction clearly shows the traditional essence of orientalism. Hence, this essay will use the movie, Good Will Hunting, as the primary text as reference and evidence of the concept of orientalism having no limitations, not even geographically.
In a nut shell, Good Will Hunting is about Will Hunting, a working-class genius caught up in his deep rooted fears and insecurities caused by his childhood, and his last shot of saving himself from self-destruction with the help of a psychology professor. On the surface there may not appear to be any connection with orientalism, however, one only need to dig a little bit deeper in their analysis to really see the connection. This movie isn’t about race and ethnicity. It is about social class and status. It is about what it means to ‘judge a book by its cover’. The latter is what orientalism is truly all about. Orientalism is looking at someone or something and making interpretations based only off of face value. The movie provides evidence of this in several scenes, but perhaps the most powerful example is Will’s first encounter with Sean, the psychology professor, where Will does nothing but judge Sean based off of Sean’s office. In doing so, Will does extreme damage to Sean and his persona. In a later scene Sean addresses Will’s hurtful rant by telling him that he himself could not possibly know what it is like to be an orphan by comparing Will’s story to that of Charles Dickens’s, Oliver Twist. One can interpret this scene as Sean’s character subliminally taking a stance against orientalism.
More evidence of orientalism can be seen in the difference in social class between Will and Skyler. Will is a working-class genius, as stated before, who also repeatedly gambles with his run-ins with the law by using his intelligence to his advantage by, usually, dodging a hard sentence. Skyler, on the other hand, seems to come from some kind of background of wealth due to her inheriting, seemingly, a large amount of money after her father’s passing. Once again Will uses orientalism in the way he hangs onto his interpretations of the differences between he and Skyler. Throughout the movie Will makes comments here and there about their differences in social class and hangs on them as a defense mechanism to, ironically, protect himself from getting hurt. His harshest reference is after Skyler asks him to come to California with her and Will accuses Skyler of being a rich girl from Harvard whose only interest was to have a fling with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Will is not the only character to use orientalism in all its glory. Prof. Gerald Lambeau is also guilty of doing so, and once again Sean’s character comes to the rescue to correct it. In a confrontation that breaks out between Sean and Gerald, who happen to be old friends, over what is best for Will, Gerald uses orientalism by seeing Will’s genius in mathematics as only Will’s face value and a gift that Will is not only misusing, but also throwing it away. Sean, again, comes to the defense arguing with Gerald that Will is more than a genius and needs stability and help because of his traumatizing childhood. Although Gerald seems to really want the best of opportunities for Will, he expresses so inaccurately, thus presenting himself in a selfish manner. Between the two characters, Sean seems to be the only one that sees all of who Will really is. It can be argued that Sean is a representation of anti-orientalism in the way he battles the orientalism spewed by Will and Gerald.
It is of the opinion of this writer that the movie, Good Will Hunting, proves that orientalism is not geographically limited nor is it limited to the constructions of East verse West. Orientalism can be refer to homosexuality verse heterosexuality, to women verse men, to birth children verse adopted children, to Catholic verse Muslim, and so on and so forth. The concept is not limited to people verse people but can also be used for ideology verse ideology because the key to remember is how it is misinterpretations that are taken at only face value by an outsider looking in through a window. Anyone and anything can take the place of the outsider just as easily as the place of the person or thing being misinterpreted. It is these misinterpretations, and often unwarranted fears, that seem to fuel the fire of prejudices and racism. The real, and arguably, more important question should be how orientalism can be stopped and prevented, not where or not it has limitations.
Barker, Chris. “Ethnicity, Race, and Nation.” Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 4th ed. London: SAGE, 2012. 273-274. Print.
“Google.” Google. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
Good Will Hunting. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, and Minnie Driver. Miramax Home Entertainment, 1997. DVD.
Mcleod, Ken. “Afro-Samurai: Techno-Orientalism and Contemporary Hip Hop.” Popular Music 32/2 (2013): 259-75. ProQuest. 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2014. <http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.csun.edu/docview/1437185569?pq-origsite=summon>.
“YouTube.” YouTube. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.