Orientalism is, in a nutshell, “the way that the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East” (Edward W. Said). Since colonialism, the West has perpetuated the idea that the eastern world is deeply rooted in tradition, exoticism, and is generally undeveloped. This is in order to create the picture of it being a problematic area that needs taming and therefore justifying colonialism as “the white man’s burden“. Using the word oriental to describe someone could mean they are from several different countries, including China, Japan, Turkey, India, Greece or Egypt just to name a few. All of which have very little in common culturally except for their geographical proximity to each other. This is why the term is out dated, inappropriate and possibly even offensive. Early orientalism is seen in European art and photographs like the one below on the cover of “The Thief of Baghdad” depicting two women on a flying carpet in exotic dresses and head scarves reflecting a long history of orientalist fantasies.
More recently, In 2014, Air France launched a new ad campaign featuring women dressed as different iconic symbols associated with the countries that it flies its aeroplanes to. However, the two cultural appropriations for Beijing and China have been criticised as being racist. As Asian-American feminist and activist Jenn Fang notes on Reappropriate , “If only you hadn’t ended up with an ad campaign that actually features (mostly) White women wearing stereotypical racial and cultural drag to depict all those exotic non-Westernized countries.”(Fang,2014). The ads are perfect caricatures of exactly what the West has made up about these two Asian cultures, both symbols of the geisha and the dragon have very little to do with Modern China or Japan. Further, they are representations of what the West thinks Asian women are or should be, the Geisha expresses the exoticism, sexual decadence, submissiveness and seductiveness in her gaze that Jenn Fang describes as the “white fetishization of Asian women“(Fang,2014).
The second ad for Beijing has the woman wearing yellow face make up and her eye liner mimics the shape of the Asiatic eye, how they didn’t think that would be offensive? – Who knows. Just like Katy Perry’s 2013 American Music Awards Performance where she performed as a geisha girl, they are just a way of depicting the East exactly how the West wants it to look, continuing the damaging stereotypes which have dated back as far as 1908 from Lord Cromer the consul general of Egypt who wrote, “the main characteristic of the oriental mind is untruthfulness”.
Many defendants of orientalism argue that it is a declaration of admiration and love for the oriental, but whether there is truth to this or not it still categorises the East as ‘the others‘ and portrays no sense of the universality of humanity. It is hard to know whether or not had this campaign been constructed by an Asian marketing team for an Asian company, would they still be offensive?, my guess is yes, because they are the symbol of an oppressive and anti-Asian sentiment that believes the West is the norm and the East, the abnormal.
Here are a couple of very funny adaptations made by twitter users of Air France’s advertisements, comparing it to some other stereotypical Asian images.