Despite the progress made in spreading awareness of social injustices, the raging argument of where to draw the line in the “appreciation vs. appropriation” debate has led to a misguided understanding of the nature of Orientalism and how it looks in the modern day. By examining the criticism over Victoria’s Secret and comparing it to Air France’s “France is in the Air” advertising campaign, we can see that the goalpost for Orientalism has been moved from the idea that the East is a counterpoint to the Western norm to the idea that the West is explicitly mocking or disrespecting the East. Some may argue that depictions of the East as a counterpoint to the West are not inherently bad, but those who hold this claim fail to realize that in this specific case the West is upheld as the norm- and when something is being distanced from the norm, it becomes viewed as abnormal – and when the label of abnormal becomes applied to a group of people they begin to be seen as not fully human – and when people are seen as not fully human, then they become prizes to be won, or possession to be kept. This progression can be seen in the history of many minority groups ranging from West Africans to Native Americans, and as one of the primary motivators of the imperial “White Man’s Burden” Ideology. It is this “othering” created by Orientalism that is the main danger to the cultures and people it affects. Western corporations still knowingly take advantage of the Oriental “other,” and fetishize elements of these cultures for personal profit. But because of the uncertainty of where to draw the line between appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture, the social justice movement is unable to effectively rally people against the re-modification and restructuring of Eastern cultures since they cannot recognize Orientalism in all its forms.
In order to detect Orientalism in all its modern day forms, it is essential to define Orientalism and discuss its origin. Edward Said’s essay entitled “Orientalism” defines the term by describing it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, and ruling over it” (Said 3). This demonstrates that Orientalism arose to provide the West with a safe way to digest the intricate and complex history and cultures of the Orient, or what can be more broadly defined as the “other,” as well as establishing a system in which they can add or remove any elements that conflict with their own narrative or preconceived notions of other people groups. Understanding Orientalism through this “unbalanced relationship of power” emphasizes that Orientalism is not about mocking the East for its differences from the West, but about creating a lens in which the East can only be viewed through its differences to the West.
When the debate of “appreciation vs. appropriation” comes up, it usually reaches the conclusion that the distinction can be made based on the whether or not the company or person in question is respecting the culture they are depicting. This metric for determining whether or not something is appropriative is inadequate for addressing Orientalism because in most cases the othering of the East is not usually conducted with the intentions to disrespect or mock. Instead of investigating the intent, or the degree of respect, people or companies have when depicting the East, it is necessary to examine what elements of the East are being focused upon. This method for identifying Orientalism recognizes that in the modern day, Orientalism exists in a form that is more structurally ingrained than overtly flaunted, and it allows us to take steps towards rooting it out of society. The cases of Victoria’s Secret and Air France demonstrate the effectiveness of focusing on the two companies’ presentation of Eastern elements, rather than attempting to decipher their respectfulness.
Victoria’s Secret, America’s largest lingerie retailer, drew criticism over an outfit in its “Go East” collection which was “culturally inspired” by the geishas of Japan. The outfit, titled “Sexy Little Geisha,” consists of a bra and panties with a Japanese-esque floral design and a matching fan, chopsticks, and obi belt. In this case, using the metric of respectfulness is easy. In no way can the sexualization of a country’s culture be considered respectful, and the complicated history of geishas make Victoria’s Secret’s outfit all the more troubling. Racialicious writer Nina Jacinto critiques that products such as this perpetuate a narrative “that says the culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfill our fantasies of a safe and non-threatening, mysterious East.” The design of the “Sexy Little Geisha” is consistent with the “unbalanced relationship of power” that Edward Said mentions in his essay on Orientalism, and also tries to cement a certain image for the East’s sexual identity. While respectfulness does work here as a determinant of Orientalism, observing the presentation of the product achieves the same result. The “Sexy Little Geisha” outfit chooses to emphasize the strangeness of the East with its inclusion of the fan, chopsticks, and obi belt. Here, the presentation of the East depends on viewing it through the lens of the West. These items are not typically found in most lingerie sets and are meant to catch the eye of Western audiences through their exoticness and confirmation of Eastern stereotypes. They are not items meant to be appreciated on their own, but instead act as glowing neon signs pointing towards how Eastern the outfit is.
In order to sell its product to a Western audience, Victoria’s Secret modified and simplified elements of Japanese culture into a form that it believed fit the romanticized views and preconceived notions of consumers. This clear display of Orientalism did not go unnoticed, and hundreds made their voices heard on twitter and other forms of social media by calling out Victoria Secret for the outfit. According to the Huffington Post, Victoria’s Secret responded “tacitly” to the negative backlash it received by simply redirecting links to the “Sexy Little Geisha” outfit and the “Go East” collection to their homepage. This quiet, unapologetic response showcases how big corporations like Victoria’s Secret can get away with blatant displays of Orientalism with little to no consequences, and as a result nothing is done to make them learn from their mistakes. Though negative backlashes to Orientalism in obvious forms like this one are commendable, in order to truly uproot Orientalism from society and prevent the retooling of minority cultures, it must first be called out it in its more discrete forms.
Air France’s 2014 advertising campaign “France is in the Air” acts as a perfect example of how the respectfulness test fails to find Orientalism in its more subtle forms. This advertising campaign consists of a collection of images showcasing the different destinations to which Air France has flights. In trying to gauge whether or not Air France’s depiction is respectful or fair, it makes sense to look towards its representation of Western countries and then compare it to how it handles the East. In doing so, it is very easy to dismiss the presence of Orientalism in the campaign due to the fact that all of the advertised locations were played up, with the Miami poster highlighting its beautiful beaches with a woman in a swimsuit, the New York poster emphasizing Broadway with a classy African American singer, and the Paris poster sporting a smiling woman in a beret with the Eiffel Tower in the background. This seemingly equal treatment of the flight destinations would lend people to believe that Orientalism is not at work in this instance if the determinant of “respectfulness” was used; however, if the emphasized traits are focused on instead, a different conclusion is reached.
When examining Air France’s “France is in the Air” campaign with the intent of seeing whether or not the East is being depicted only as a counterpoint to the West, the appearance of Orientalism in the campaign is much more apparent. For example, compare the poster for Paris to the one for Tokyo. The Parisian poster has a young, smiling French woman in a beret, while the poster for Tokyo has an angry looking white woman dressed up like a geisha. The outfit of the model in the Paris poster is modernized, and though a bit exaggerated, is something that you can conceivably picture people wearing in France. In contrast, you would be hard pressed to find people casually walking around in geisha outfits in Tokyo. The picture of the white model in full geisha gear is consistent with Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism as a Western institution for simplifying the East. Air France even draws on the same elements as Victoria’s Secret, right down to the geisha outfit worn by a white model. Though the degrees of respect are different, it is obvious that both companies are drawing from the same Orientalist image of a Japanese woman.
This simplification of Eastern cultures can also be seen in the poster for Beijing, in which another white model wearing exotic eye makeup wears the head of what appears to be a Chinese dragon. While it can be argued that the depiction of France as presented in the Paris Poster is stereotypical, it is in no way as sensationalized or border-line fictionalized as the dragon-wearing model photographed for the Beijing poster. In this instance, China is represented in the most simplified way possible, with the head of a dragon, and striking eye makeup attempting to resemble the Asiatic eye shape. The elements chosen to represent China scarcely resemble its culture or history, and instead lean on caricatures matching the preconceived notions Westerners have regarding China. The presence of Orientalism is clear through the emphasis on the fantastical, which is highlighted in the dragon head, and the differences of the East and the West, showcased by the attention given towards the eyes. This is the type of structural Orientalism which is not consistently caught by discussing the intent and respect given by the companies in question. It uses imagery that we, as Westerners, have become comfortable with, and presenting it alongside other exaggerated depictions of countries and cultures can make it almost invisible. This form of Orientalism is what allows othering to occur. It keeps the spotlight on the differences between cultures while having the viewer peer at them through a Western lens in a fashion that is easy to miss.
Edward Said describes Orientalism as an idea that has been given life through being given a history and a vocabulary. Overtime, it has embedded itself within the culture of the West, and though it is not always carried out with malicious intent it leaves people with a misguided perception of foreign people, foreign cultures, and reality itself. Recent social justice movements have done a good job of calling out blatant displays of Orientalism where Eastern cultures are being obviously mocked or sexualized, and of shaming the companies who attempt to benefit from this exploitation. However, if Orientalism is to be truly eradicated from society it must be identified and corrected in its structural forms. We must be able to recognize the complexity present in foreign cultures and how simplifying them to abstract ideas such as dragons and geishas strips them of their rich histories. In order to do this, the notion of respectfulness as a determinant of Orientalism brought up in debates of “appreciation vs. appropriation” must be set aside and replaced with a critical eye for what elements are being highlighted and the purpose behind it. The East is not simply a foil to the West, and to present it as such is dehumanizing for a large swathe of cultures and props up an ideology that has far outlived its usefulness.
Jacinto, Nina. “Victoria’s Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion.” Racialicious. N.p., 6 Sept. 2012. Web.
Krupnick, Ellie. “Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Little Geisha’ Outfit Sparks Backlash (PHOTOS, POLL).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 12 May 2016.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.