It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home!

Orientalism was originally the term used to describe an academic study of the “orient”.  But what is the orient? Professor Edward Said argues that the orient is a European invention, created to be the “ideal other” to the West (Said 2001, p. 1991). The West portrays the orient as all of the things that it doesn’t want to be, and frequently in a negative way. Depending on who you talk to, the orient could mean India, Japan, or Greece, or Afghanistan. All of these different countries, with very different cultures are all branded under the umbrella term “the orient” by the West, and the characteristics we associate with them are very stereotypical and, often, inaccurate.

Despite these inaccuracies, the orientalist stereotypes held by the West are so common and solidified now that they make appearances in children’s animation, particularly the 1992 Disney film Aladdin, which has orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East.

In most depictions of oriental characters (not exclusive to “Middle Eastern” oriental characters), they are usually portrayed as at least one or all of the following:

Magical and mysterious

The villain, Jafar, who has a magical staff he uses to hypnotize, seeks the Genie in the lamp, which is located inside the cave of Wonders.

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Hedonist and self-indulgent

Jafar is devious and seeks the Genie for his own selfish reasons. The Sultan, Jafar and Princess Jasmine are extremely rich. The Cave of Wonders is full of treasures and while in the Cave of wonders, Abu the monkey is awe-struck at a jewel and his indulgence in this jewel backfires on him.

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Sexual

Princess Jasmine is overly sexualized and wears a belly dancer costume throughout the film, and “belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available” (Arab Stereotypes 2011). This is contrasted against the more accurate and traditional coverings she would have been wearing in that area of the world. The over-sexualized presentation of Oriental women in Aladdin is continued in the women from the balcony, and the women from Genie’s first song.

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What women in Aladdin wore
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What women in Aladdin would have more likely worn

Barbaric or evil

When Princess Jasmine takes an apple from a shopkeeper, he threatens to cut off her hand. The guards always have their swords out. Jafar tells Jasmine he has beheaded Aladdin.

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These are all traits associated with the Western view of the Orient as a mysterious, decadent, sensual and tyrannical place, and all of them can be seen in Aladdin.

The orientalist stereotypes in Aladdin did not all go unchallenged. The opening song “Arabian Nights” originally had the lyrics

Where they cut off your ear

if they don’t like your face,

it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home.

Disney changed the lyrics for the theatrical release but the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” remained. They took away the example of the barbaric Middle East, but kept the words there. The idea of the Middle East as barbaric was not removed, and as noted above, is a recurring theme throughout the film.

Interestingly, the “good” characters in the film are portrayed as more Western than the obviously Middle Eastern “bad guys”. Aladdin is a brave, heroic man who challenges the ideals of his unfair Middle Eastern world. He also has very light skin and soft features. Jafar is the embodiment of negative Arab stereotypes projected by the West; he is a dark, lying, deceptive, magical, twisty, evil tyrant (Evans 2016) and he has darker skin, sharp features and menacing eyes. If anything cements the West’s view of the Orient as the negative opposite “other”, is the the western appearance and ideals of “good” Aladdin against the Middle Eastern “bad” Jafar.

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Compare the pair.

I am in agreement with Said, who wrote that “so far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the… imaginative demonology of the mysterious Orient”. This view of the Orient (particularly the Middle East portrayal) is deeply rooted in the minds of Westerners, which has only been reinforced further because of films like Aladdin. All of the traits applied to the Middle East by the West are also applied to other areas branded under the Orient label.

 

REFERENCING:

Said, E 1991, ‘From Orientalism’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W Norton, New York, pp. 1991-2012.

Evans, N 2016, ‘East vs West: Orientalism’, lecture, BCM232, University of Wollongong, delivered 21 March 2016.

2011, Veils, Harems and Bellydancers,  Reclaiming Identity: Dismantaling Arab Stereotypes, viewed 8 April 2016, <http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism/veils-harems-belly-dancers>

 

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Mapping Social Justice

There are three things about maps that are important to understand when deconstructing what mapping can do to promote social justice. Maps make things happen, maps are never neutral, and people tend to map what they want to see (Evans 2016).

The most basic understanding of a map is a representation of an area of land or sea.

But even this definition is not completely accurate. Yes, it’s a representation, but the Mercator world map isn’t an accurate depiction of the world like you are lead to believe. The 1569 creation of a Flemish cartographer and geographer, Gerardus Mercator, the map has Europe as the top centre land mass of the world. Except, there is no real reason for Europe to be placed here, and was only done so because Mercator was European and he decided that it was the most important part and so should be represented right on top.

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Europe, front and centre. Google Images

Once you realize that maps aren’t just representations of area that someone might use to get from point A to point B, it becomes clearer that “maps are cultural artefacts that are deeply implicated in the history of ideas; intrinsically linked to our conceptualisations of space; and inform our political and personal subjectivities” (Strom 2011, p. 1). They can be used to change opinions, show specific information tailored to an individual (Mercator), or make a political or social statement.

An example of a map that makes a certain political and social statement is the collection of maps at Equaldex.com. It aims to “crowd source every law related to LGBT rights to provide a comprehensive and global view of the LGBT rights movement”. There are 11 maps of the world that visually represent certain information regarding LGBT people.

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Countries where Same-Sex Marriage is Legal. Source: Equaldex.com
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Countries That Legally Allow Change of Gender. Source: Equaldex.com

 

It can be argued that these maps promote social justice because they show the state of equality for LGBT people across the globe in 11 different areas of life, and it is visually evident what countries need to make changes to make that place socially just for this group of people. This map aims to make things happen. Looking at the map of where homosexuality is still illegal, showing the handful of countries that still have laws against homosexuality (not many), puts pressure on those countries to make a change.

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Homosexually Legal/Illegal. Source: Equaldex.com

But, as mentioned above, maps are never neutral. Just like Mercator had an agenda to his map, the Equaldex map does as well. Maps can represent an opponent as the bad guy, and can show themselves as the good guy (Monmonier 1996, p. 105). These maps are created by and for LGBT people, and they obviously have the agenda of equality. The maps in which the same countries are shown again and again as being discriminatory towards LGBT people and limiting their rights are “the bad guys” that are standing in the way of social justice for all.

Lastly, people have used these maps to show what they want to see. It is a handy visual resource for people to use who want to know global information about LGBT rights. It holds a lot of diverse information in one place and could, for example, inform a LGBT person on where they might travel based on what rights they have in that country. More importantly, it is crowd sourced, and is a collaborative project, meaning a group of people wanted to see this information on a map, and so they mapped it.

There is power in a map beyond how amazing it is that Google Maps can tell you how long it will take you to drive from Wollongong to Bathurst and where the traffic is congested. There is a real possibility that maps can make changes to social justice across the world, and Equaldex is just one example of many possible examples.

 

REFERENCES:

Evans, N 2016, ‘Mapping the Planet’, lecture, BCM232, University of Wollongong, delivered 14 March 2016.

Monmonier, M 1996, ‘Maps for Political Propaganda’, in How to Lie with Maps, 2nd edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 87-112.

Strom, T E 2011, ‘Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps’, M/C Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 1-6.