10 Orientalism Examples

orientalism example and definition explained below

Orientalism is a way of conceiving & representing the Eastern World in a stereotypical, exotic, and patronizing way by the Western World. 

Originally, the term referred to the study of Eastern culture by Western scholars. However, after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), the term acquired its contemporary meaning.

Orientalism manifests itself in various ways: art, beauty standards, news coverage, etc. In all these, orientalist attitudes represent the East as backward, exotic, and despotic while characterizing the West in opposing terms.

But orientalism is much more than representation; it is a powerful tool of domination. Said’s work has been hugely influential in cultural studies but has also been criticized by many, as we will discuss later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.

Definition of Orientalism

In Orientalism (1978). Edward Said defined the term as:

“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”

Edward Said mentions that there are about three separate but interrelated meanings of the term “orientalism”

  • Meaning 1: First, it refers to the academic tradition of Western scholars who studied Eastern cultures.
  • Meaning 2: Second, it is the distinction made between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, which we saw in the quoted definition. This distinction, Said noted, works to champion the superiority of the Orient while characterizing the Occident in negative terms (exotic, backward, etc.). 
  • Meaning 3: Finally, orientalism is also a powerful political tool. One of the principal arguments of Said is that Orientalism is not merely about the West representing the East in negative terms. Instead, such representations served to justify the colonial projects of the West and continue to do so today.

Orientalism Examples

  1. Justification for Colonialism: One of the principal arguments of Edward Said is that Orientalism is not merely about cultural representation; it is a political instrument of power. By constantly depicting the Eastern world as primitive & irrational, Western colonizers could justify their imperial projects; “The White Man’s Burden” as Rudyard Kipling put it, referring to the supposed benevolence of the West in bringing “enlightenment” to the East. Even in contemporary times, orientalist attitudes serve as implicit justifications, such as for the Western military involvement in the Middle East.
  2. Unjust Representation of the Middle East: Because of Orientalism, the Arab-Islamic world has been historically represented through unjust stereotypes, and this continues to take place in contemporary times. The Middle East is represented as an “Islamic place bursting with villains and terrorists” (Chua, 2007). It is also depicted as a place of constant conflict, and little attention is paid to their actual diversity, cultures, and achievements. The term “Islamic terrorism” is also prominently used, which reinforces the false belief that all Muslims are inherently violent.
  3. Exoticized & Gendered Constructions: A key feature of Orientalist discourse is exoticism, which is often accompanied by the sexualized objectification of Eastern women. The East, as Said wrote, is represented as “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1978), and women are portrayed to be equally mysterious and alluring. Such gendered constructions were further exacerbated by the fact that most scholars and artists who created such representations were men, who brought their imagined fantasies & prejudices.
  4. “White” Feminism: While white men have been responsible for exoticized representations of Eastern women, some white women have also accepted such ‘problematic’ constructions. Postcolonial scholars like Mohanty, Lewis, and Bhavnani have analyzed how many female scholars use problematic racialized discourses to further “the Western and liberal Feminist Project” while seemingly liberating women from oppressive third-world cultures (Chua). In contrast, they uphold research that is sensitive to the complex histories and experiences of third-world women.
  5. Stereotypical Representation in Literature: In literature, Eastern people and their culture have historically been represented in negative & stereotypical (backward, exotic, inferior) ways. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is the aptest example of this. Africa is depicted as a primitive and savage land whose inhabitants are dehumanized; Western characters, on the other hand, are shown to be rational, but even they degrade under the “darkness” of the continent. Most literary texts reduce the Eastern world into exotic lands that are conducive to adventures (Groden et al., 1994; see also: social construction of race)
  6. Replacing Complexity With Binaries: Orientalism ignores the complexity of Eastern societies and instead uses a series of binaries to conceive and represent them. The Orient is seen as primitive, irrational, violent, etc., and the Occident is characterized by opposite terms like modern, rational, and benevolent. Moreover, the Orient is also deemed to be static—they are not just inferior but also unchanging. “Enlightenment” can only occur when the “traditional” values of the Orient are replaced by the “progressive” values of the West (Marandi, 2009).
  7. Western Beauty Standards: Orientalism also manifests itself in the way Western beauty standards have come to dominate the world. Susan Koshy argues that, through Orientalism, Eastern women are exoticized but still marginalized; only Western beauty norms are reinforced. Most global fashion brands like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder feature European models in their advertisements, which promote Western features (light skin, straight hair, etc.) as the only markers of feminine beauty.
  8. Biases in Contemporary Media: Not only classical texts but even contemporary media representations of the East are stereotypical and negative. Middle East news coverage is heavily biased, and Said accuses them of showing “Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab–Moslem life” (1978). In Hollywood films, Asian men are often depicted as weak and effeminate, while Asian women are portrayed as exotic and submissive objects of male desire.
  9. Underlying Assumptions in Sociology: Bryan Turner and Stuart Hall argue that Orientalist attitudes have shaped the underlying assumptions, concepts, and methodologies of sociology. They trace such biases in the works of early Western sociologists: Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, Karl Marx’s materialist analysis of “Asiatic” societies, Weber’s historical analysis of religion, etc. Moreover, such attitudes also shaped the development of US Sociology, which shaped much of public ideology and unduly assisted in justifying their expansion in the Philipines & the Middle East.
  10. Universalizing Western Knowledge: Orientalism has historically privileged Western knowledge over Eastern knowledge. Macaulay infamously said that “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”, which perfectly captures the Orientalist view of Eastern culture. Academic disciplines have been built upon Western frameworks, so they are shaped by Western biases (as we saw in sociology) and are often not applicable in the East. But still, the West tries to champion its ways of understanding as the only correct form of knowledge (see also: cultural universalism).

Criticism of Orientalism

Edward Said’s work on Orientalism had a huge influence on cultural studies, literary theory, and human geography; however, it has also been criticized by many scholars.

Vivek Chibber argues that essentialist portrayals of foreign cultures can be found in all societies, including pre-colonial Eastern civilizations. So, Said’s argument that the West’s essentialist views (the supposed inferiority of the East) were a cause of colonialism is quite weak.

Chibber points out that economic and political factors are universally accepted as the primary causes of colonialism, and they are enough to legitimize the colonial project. Therefore, Said’s contention that latent orientalism was indispensable for colonialism is unconvincing. 

O. P. Kejariwal attacked Said for ignoring the differences between Orientalists. Said did not acknowledge the positive contributions of many who sought to bring the East and the West together. The British philologist William Jones was one such figure, who argued that Indo–European languages are interrelated (1988).

Finally, some critics also criticize Said’s use of the notion of discourse. D.A. Washbrook says that this kind of intellectual excess traps scholars in “a web of solipsism”, which limits conversations to “cultural representations” and denies the existence of any objective truth. (1998).

Conclusion

Orientalism refers to the stereotypical conception & representation of the East by the West. 

The term originally referred to the study of Eastern culture by Western scholars; it also referred to depictions of the East in art. But, after the publication of Edward Said’s book in 1978, the term acquired its current meaning—the West’s unjust representation of the East.

As per Said, Orientalism was not just about cultural representation but it was also a powerful political tool. It justified the colonial projects of the West and continues to do so today. While Said’s work has been hugely influential in cultural studies, it has also been criticized by many.

References

Chua, P. (2007). “Orientalism” in Ritzer, George (ed.) The Blackwell Encylopedia of Sociology. New York: Blackwell. 

Chibber, V. (2020). “Orientalism and Its Afterlives”. Catalyst. New York: Jacobin Foundation.

Groden, M. and Kreiswirth, M. (1994). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. USA: John Hopkins University Press.

Marandi, S.M. (2009). “Constructing an Axis of Evil: Iranian Memoirs in the “Land of the Free”. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).

Kejariwal, O. (1988). The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New Delhi: Vintage.

Washbrook, D. A. (1998). Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire. In Historiography, The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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