On the evening of Wednesday, February 2, three Boston College clubs highlighted the intersection of issues they fight and came together to educate the study body of Boston College about the presence of Orientalism in the media. FACES, BC Film Society, and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted an informal presentation and discussion about the extent to which misrepresentation in the media intoxicates viewers’ perceptions of the world.
FACES co-director Ivana Wijedasa, MCAS ‘22, opened the night by sharing author Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism, a term which he introduced in his 1978 novel Orientalism. Said wrote that Orientalism is “the academic discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, resulting in a collection of images and vocabularies in different forms such as museums, paintings, novels, movies, etc.” Wijedasa highly recommends Said’s books for more information on Orientalism.
In practice, Wijedasa explained, Orientalism taints media sources by perpetuating static tropes for creators to lean on. Rather than taking the time to realistically depict characters and settings, creators follow their predecessors in assigning stereotyped attributes to non-western cultures and races. This feeds into the warped idea that people from the Orient (generally referring to the eastern countries of Asia) are unable to depict themselves, thus outsiders may take it upon themselves to choose how an entire region of people are displayed.
The students’ presentation provided a high-level summary of the results of Orientalism, which goes as follows: this process situates the western hemisphere as rational and super, and all non-western races and cultures as irrational and inferior. The detriment of Orientalism in the media cannot be overstated. To quote Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “The new media are not ways of relating us to the ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”
The media we consume and support dictates the media that continues to be made. Additionally, by choosing to consume inaccurate portrayals of entire races and cultures, we allow ourselves to be saturated with harmfully false information.
As representatives from each club walked to the podium to share clips of Orientalism in film, news, and TV, instances of blatant stereotypes were extracted and then explored. The examples were not obscure by any means—from classics like Sixteen Candles and Aladdin to more recent productions including London Has Fallen and Isle of Dogs. Audience members then raised their hands to answer questions, share personal anecdotes or reactions, and engage with questions posed by the speaker.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 fictionalized portrayal of the Manson murders (among other storylines coursing through the three hour film), provides a recent example. The presenter of the clip, Chris Strohman, MCAS ‘22, explained that the role of Bruce Lee in the film played a significant part in the film’s marketing strategy. When the film was released, however, Lee’s “cameo” consisted of a five minute clip during which he was made to look like a fool next to Brad Pitt’s character. A room-wide conversation delved into why this was the effect of his appearance. For one, Lee’s cocky disposition feels like a tool to build up Pitt, and his lines are disappointing in their effectiveness, which knocked his presence down several pegs in terms of legitimacy. Unlike his persona in real-life, Lee comes off with an aggressive bravado and uncharacteristic silliness. Strohman shares feedback from Lee’s daughter, who watched the film with disappointment.
“I feel like [Tarantino] turned [Lee’s] confidence into arrogance and his intelligence into mockery,” she expressed. “I feel like he was picked on in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”
One audience member built off of this detail by noting that in interviews, Tarantino expressed a desire to perfect his portrayal of Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) in the film. Tarantino possessed the time and effort for accuracy, but he channeled it into characters unevenly—and the results blew up on the big screen. Rather than seizing the opportunity to honor the legendary Bruce Lee for his authentic personality, Tarantino’s film leaned into Orientalist stereotypes.
It might be perplexing to think that such obvious wrongdoings were not pre-vetted (and subsequently removed) by media executives, but the sad reality is that as long as racism and prejudice lives, Orientalism has a home in it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for example, earned roughly 375 million dollars in the box office and it won Tarantino the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay. Critics and viewers alike either chose to brush aside the unfair and animalistic portrayals of the late Bruce Lee, or–even worse–they went unnoticed.
This oversight is even more tragic in light of the presence that people of color hold in both consuming and producing media. UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, released in Spring 2021, found that “For 6 of the top 10 theatrically released films, minorities accounted for the majority of domestic ticket sales during opening weekend.” These communities strongly support box office revenues and then come face-to-face with hurtful and careless misrepresentations. Hollywood would arguably benefit greatly from the transferral of artistic power to people of color; in 2020, only 25.4% of directors and 25.9% of film directors were people of color.
Orientalism has a particular potency when considered in light of post-COVID racism. The origin of COVID-19 is still inaccurately traced to Asian communities, and as a result, the spontaneous and brutal murders of Asian individuals have been reported across the US. The willingness of people to believe (and act on) such racist misinformation demonstrates a deep need for truth and accuracy when depicting people of color. Instead of clumsily portraying races and cultures from across the world, Hollywood must consider working with people who understand them (or, at the very least, are willing to learn).
As college students in the 21st century, media is inescapable, and few of us would willingly wrench ourselves from its grasp. Broadcasted news is a necessary method through which students stay informed, and television/film provide outlets of both comfort and expression. Many hope to work in the field of media, to create their own content in the future (or they are already doing so). Hopefully, discussions like the one held at this event will send ripple effects into the world of media, and prepare the next generation of creators to clean up the messes created by Orientalism in the media.
Next to writing, some of my favorite ways to spend time include designing Spotify playlists for friends and making grocery runs to Trader Joe's. I'm drinking coffee or tea almost constantly, and my mantra is the classic yet undeniably basic, "If it's meant to be, it will be!"