Written by Edward Said, a Palestinian American academic and political activist, the 1978 publication 'Orientalism' shows the image of the "East" from the viewpoint of the West, exaggerating the superiority of the latter. This concept has also arisen in some of the most popular Western music videos.
Colonialism plays an essential role in creating the definition of a gaze in which the West sees the Eastern world. It is a strategy of constructing and preserving colonies through violence. Colonial policies offer numerous advantages to the motherland, such as the growth of certain domestic goods, which are enormous sources of income from industrial products. This dynamic is most often mentioned in the period between the 15th and 20th centuries when many European countries such as England, France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal competed to build their colonial empires.
After regaining independence, the once-colonised countries developed complicated problems. These included the difference in physical and spiritual origin points in the pre-colonial period; the existence of many cultural-civilised values with their own identity born pre-colonisation; the difference in social organisation and governance that each colonial country practised in their colonies; and relationships with the "motherland" as the colonial powers infantilised invaded regions. Such complexity and diversity can be identified through the Christian situation in the once-colonised countries. Postcolonial ghosts or legacies can be seen as the effects of the invaders on nations that were conquered as witnessed in the cuisine, landmarks, laws, attitudes, language and architecture.
Orientalism and the Postcolonial gaze
The general description of "alienated", or "mystical" lands, societies, and people in general from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, is called "Orientalism" by the Western academic world, as the word "Orient" refers to the East while the "Occident" represents the Western world. This concept was first described in 1978 when Professor Edward W. Said (Columbia University) published a book with the same title in which he criticised the way the West saw the Eastern world with disdain and prejudice through the eyes of the "civilised". In fact, most of this knowledge comes from an imagined and exaggerated view of the way people dress, walk, communicate, and behave, as well as their religion and rituals. Despite most Westerners having never been to the region, or even met a person from that land, this distorted view of reality prevails.
When people think of the Middle East, there is a biased message about culture, civilisation, and politics since most of this knowledge comes from the West and thus reflects Western values. More importantly, it is viewed through a distorted lens to legitimise colonisation. Said describes Western countries as the "Self", while the Eastern world has been seen as the "Other". This is because the Western Occident sees the Orient as "something else" - less important, strange, powerless and needing to be changed and characterised by the Occident. In other words, the "Self" has the power to dominate the "Other". The Postcolonial gaze is part of the “Orientalist” study. This gaze has the power to define, shape, and force colonised people to remember their inferior position and identity.
Fatima Tanimu, 19, from Nigeria, said: "When I think about the Middle East, the first thing that comes to my mind is the narrative of Arabs living in the deserts, flying carpets or belly dancers, as they are always portrayed that way by the media, especially the negative stereotype of them being associated with ‘terrorism’." This typifies what most people envision about the Middle East: a wild, unfamiliar land, with strange, mysterious behaviours, confusing customs, and unfriendly people.
Katy Perry reiterates this Orientalist notion when she sets her 2014 ‘Dark Horse’ music video in the Egyptian world, leading the viewer into spiritual, less civilised Western concoctions, and presenting the legend of the mysterious and fictional Eastern world. If cultural appropriation is defined as when individuals assume cultures that are not their own, then this music video has brought stereotypically racist features of other cultures to attract viewers. The exotic fetishisation, which is rooted in a colonial mindset, is a sexual fascination with things not inherently sexual. Here, Katy Perry has used cultural appropriation to make it look sexy, dark and mysterious. The singer is from California, where she had a Christian upbringing. Therefore, she has no connection with Egyptian culture. Displaying the features of a culture that does not relate to her and of which she has no knowledge can be seen as offensive and disrespectful.
The "Egyptian culture" she portrays in her video makes viewers think of the Eastern world as bizarre, different, and completely separate from normal life. It also does not relate to the meaning of the song, yet Katy Perry still misapprehends the culture, human traits, history and features of a nation. However, this is not the first instance of a pop music video featuring all the exotic visual elements which resemble the Eastern world.
The ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ music video by The Bangles in 1986 parodied Egyptian culture and cheapened it. It is worth noting how the 28-year period does not change the misconceptions and Orientalist gaze of the West. Another earlier example of Orientalist gaze in films is Theda Bara in the 1917 production of 'Cleopatra'. American women dressing exotically with fake Egyptian features shows how offensive they are to the beautiful Egyptian culture.
The image of Katy Perry and the orientalist painting by Alexandre Cabanel show that there is a direct link between 19th-century Orientalism and the 21st-century Postcolonial gaze. The extermination of Orientalised men of colour in Dark Horse reveals the image of Egypt as an incompetent nation built for consumption and the story depicts men of colour as a danger to the liberated and modern Western Pharaoh of Perry. Before destroying all men of colour by turning them into diamonds and exotic animals, Perry's eyes get bigger and she wets her lips in advance, as the men are the objects for her to taste.
The West has always been in the position of "the centre", while the East is on the "different periphery". The Postcolonial gaze is displayed through a whitewashing performance in which Katy Perry, a powerful contemporary Western woman, is masquerading as an ancient Egyptian, who sees the people of the East as fragile and dull objects.
The pieces of Western media explored throughout this article clearly illustrate Edward Said’s notion of the "Other" as interpreted through the eyes of the West. The colony might be gone, but the Postcolonial gaze still exists, as evidenced by the works created almost 100 years apart. It is perhaps more understandable in the early 20th century when colonies existed and attitudes reflected this but for it to be the same and alive in the 21st century is damaging society’s values and continuing racist attitudes. Clearly, the Postcolonial gaze is still present in the modern age and we still have more to learn as a society.
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