Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Diva Orientalism: It's all about you! (Part 1 of 2)

The other day I was standing in the checkout line at Trader Joe's when this caught my eye:
Card designed by Rachel Newcomb

At first glance I thought that TJ's, perhaps realizing a niche market, had crafted a card to celebrate Diwali (a little early sure, but for only $.99)! Looking closer, I realized that the card was actually celebrating a birthday, and that the "you" who "it's all about" was in fact a slinky strawberry blond. Perched in a gold palanquin atop a bedecked elephant, our heroine (the "Diva of the Day") holds up a luscious piece of layered chocolate cake while Indian servants and harem dancers form a train of revelers below, strewing the ground with rose petals, fanning our be-jeaned beauty lest she sweat in the hot sun, and carrying what we may presume to be a sultan's treasure trove of presents behind her.

Now clearly, strawberry blonds, like every other consumer niche, deserve birthday cards too (in fact, I have a few recipients in mind already!). What is striking however, is the choice of scene and the details of her special birthday celebration. Is it simply that the Indian-inflected motifs make for a pleasing, eye-catching aesthetic? I would argue that when we take into consideration the prevalence of this scene in popular culture, particularly fashion photography and film, and then, when we look at the long history of this scene (stretching back to the late eighteenth century!), we are talking about something that has sustained cultural currency - that is telling us something about how the relationship between West and East, between the white woman in the palanquin and the Indian people on the ground below is understood.

Edward Said famously coined the term "Orientalism" in 1979 to demonstrate the manner by which an idea of the "Orient" (variously North Africa, Middle East, and South Asia) was consolidated in the nineteenth century as European colonial expansion in these areas ramped up. A confluence of historical, literary, medical, and juridical discourse, along with other popular cultural forms like drama, music, and art interwoven with one another through citation, plagiarism, and references produced tropes and stereotypes of a despotic, oppressed, static, traditional, sexually depraved monoculture that served to justify colonialism. Clearly, this version of the Orient had little to do with realities on the ground, and had much more to do with European ideas, hopes, and fears about itself, as well as the need to rationalize European notions of its own superiority and the atrocities being committed in the name of empire. One of the most abiding Orientalist myths is the notion that the West's treatment of its women marks it as the vanguard of progress and civilization, while the East's "universal oppression" of its women (symbolized most powerfully by the harem and later the veil) indicated its lack of progress, civilization, and modernity.

In his later works, Said calls our attention to the continuance of Orientalism in post World War II United States. Since 9/11 in particular, feminist scholars have powerfully challenged the new brand of Orientalism that sought to justify U.S. actions in Afghanistan by making a very similar argument. But what of the types of seemingly less politically minded images seen in pop art, fashion photography, and film? Gwen Sharpe and Lisa Wade do an excellent job exposing the stakes of this kind of imagery in fashion photography, the kind you see quite often in the pages of Vogue, Elle, and the Anthropology catalog (all frequent offenders):

"Indian Summer," Vogue UK, September 2007
Sharpe and Wade point out the way in which these images use Indian people interchangeably with Indian architecture or natural life to place emphasis on the white model who represents the modern consumer accessing "exotic" locales while never quite succumbing to them. The behind-the-scenes video of the shoot on Vogue's website demonstrated ample evidence of busy modern life in India's booming metropolises, but as Sharpe argues, the photos themselves are edited to present India as stuck endlessly in a pre-modern mode of existence (how Hegelian!).

Anthropologie Catalog, May 2010
I would also add that the "clean, rich, white woman" (to use Wade's phrase) is made exceptional not just by somatic contrast or by her contemporary clothing, but (in that the white model is an idealized stand-in for the magazine or catalog's intended viewers/shoppers) by her status as a savvy consumer of fashion. The viewer/shopper's decisions to purchase tasteful, stylish clothing, and her ability to incorporate "ethnic" styles into a modern wardrobe identify her as a discriminating and cosmopolitan consumer. The Indian men, women, and children, whose labor may very well be expended and exploited to make the clothing worn in the shoots are made effectively invisible as subjects to the same degree the model emerges as an idealized global citizen, their labor hidden by the smiles on their faces.

Sex and the City 2 (2010)
Let's look at another representation of this "Oriental scene." This one comes from Sex and the City 2 (2010). In it, Carrie et. al. make their way through the "Arabian Desert," dressed in avant garde couture that incorporates all manner of "Oriental" motifs (turban, embroidered and mirrored chiffon sleeves, layers of colorful, patterned textiles), perched atop elaborately decorated camels led by native servants. "Arabian" music plays in the background. As in the Vogue and Anthropology shoots, the setting serves to highlight the women's cosmopolitanism and status as savvy consumers. Furthermore, it identifies them as "divas" - women whose empowerment and self-styled importance comes as a result of their consumption practices and power over a retinue of service workers (stylists, assistants, housekeepers, chauffeurs, personal cooks, even camel trainers!). And although the card, and most popular cultural examples portray white women as their heroines, I would argue that access to the status of diva has perhaps more to do with class and economic security than race necessarily (how this might change the power dynamics or narratives at play is something worth more consideration).

This brand of "Diva Orientalism" is representative, I think, of the postfeminism we're being sold by popular culture today. It traffics in a particular and limited brand of female empowerment through consumer choices, and reduces the complexities of globalization - the inequalities between women of different classes, races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities produced and reified by changing labor patterns, liberalization and the rise of multinational corporations, shifting national borders, and increased militarism, to name just a few transnational trends - to the question of the personal taste, glamour, and financial acquisition of a relatively limited number of privileged women. Like the card says, "it's all about you!"