Orientalism, in ideology, is an “othering” device. To be more clear, in a Hegelian binary, it was a way for “civilized” and “intellectual” Europeans to define themselves through a contradiction of a created lesser being. It defamiliarizes an entire continent into the unprivileged. “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’ (Said 1867). In every binary relationship, all the parts are quintessential for the construction of the identity of all the others. Edward Said says “[t]he Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said 1866).
These images and identities that are created in the ideology of Orientalism are found constantly in Western popular culture. A 1919 silent film entitled Broken Blossoms, but also went by names such as The Yellow Man and the Girl, relied heavily on the ideologies that arose within Orientalism. This movie was one of the first to feature yellow-face, which was a Western depiction of a person of Asian descent or at the time, Oriental. Orientals were considered uncivilized, exotic, passive, cheating, feminist, etc. For the most part, they are viewed as being backwards in relations with their Western counterparts. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another example of the film industry’s Orientalism. Under scrutiny, the film industry and advertisement industries continue this tradition as well. Take, for example, the film Prince of Persia starred Jake Gyllenhaal, or Rodrigo Santoro portraying Xerxes in the film rendition of Frank Miller’s 300. Both actors are not of Persian (Iranian) descent, yet they both were casted to portray roles of Persians. This might be overanalyzing Hollywood’s casting procedures, but it could be contributed to the idea that the identity of the other is still crafted by the self.
A Westerner portraying a person of Asiatic descent supports Said’s theory that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar [or actor], makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West” (Said 1882). This is to say that no person within the Orient actually aids in creating an identity for themselves. In the Occidental/Oriental dialectic, all mediation of the Oriental is overseen and controlled by the Occidental. The film portrayals, when analyzed, could be seen as silencing the voice of the other, restricting the “Oriental” from gaining a place in constructing their own identity. Othering is still a device used throughout all societies and lingers from the days of Imperialism.
Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2010. 1866-888. Print