Tag Archives: orientalism

The Media’s 5 Worst References To Huma Abedin’s Ethnic Background

by Guest Contributor Lakshmi Gandhi, originally published at The Aerogram

Huma Abedin with Anthony Weiner. Image from NY1 via the Aerogram.

Huma Abedin with Anthony Weiner. Image from NY1 via the Aerogram.

As you’ve probably noticed, much of the media’s focus in its coverage of the current Anthony Weiner scandal has been on the candidate’s wife Huma Abedin. Over the past few weeks, it’s seemed like the media just doesn’t know how to cover the Michigan-born, Saudi Arabia-raised, South Asian former aide to Hillary Clinton. Each day brings another story full of assumptions about Abedin’s background and upbringing and endless speculation about how those biographical details have affected her personal choices.

Without further ado, here are the top 5 worst of the worst.

Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:

When you puzzle over why the elegant Huma Abedin is propping up the eel-like Anthony Weiner, you must remember one thing: Huma was raised in Saudi Arabia, where women are treated worse by men than anywhere else on the planet.

Typical reaction:

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Radio host Rush Limbaugh:

Huma is a Muslim. In that regard, Weiner ought to be able to get away with anything. Muslim women don’t have any power, right? Muslim women are beheaded, stoned, whatever if they drive, have affairs. In certain countries, Muslim women, if they’re raped, are killed — it’s their fault.

Typical Reaction:

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Table for Two: Kumaré, Or How A Guru Is Born Out Of Orientalism

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Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid with featured guest, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

Tami: Kumaré follows a filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who transforms himself into a fake guru to explore the concepts of blind religious faith and devotion to spiritual figures. It is interesting that Vikram and his assistants–all American-born and -raised–adopted accents in the subterfuge, playing off the magical brown person/foreigner trope.

Andrea: Would he be believable if he didn’t take on the accent?

Sikivu: Channeling the authentic brown magical mystery tour exotic (and I’m thinking specifically here of the sixties cult of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi legitimized in the West by mega-celebs like the Beatles) wouldn’t be complete without the right “Orientalist” lilt.

Tami: There are plenty of American religious/spiritual figures who inspire a devotion similar to that demonstrated by Kumaré’s followers. But I also think his race and faux accent provided a short cut of sorts.

Andrea: And I think that shortcut allowed the subterfuge to be more successful. Deepak Chopra wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t have his accent.

Tami: …or if he were named Bob Henderson. It’s the otherness that adds credibility.

Andrea: Great minds, sis! That’s why I see some white people adopt “exotic” names when they become gurus or get deep into yoga.

Sikivu: Yes, and the drooling idolatry of Kumaré’s mostly-white female acolytes underscores this—I know a number of lib/progressive white women who have adopted trendy “yogic”  names to buttress their devoutness and confer them with the Eastern mystic equivalent of “street” cred.

Tami: This ties into the biased belief that brown people (and I say that meaning all brown peoples–black folks, Native Americans, etc.) are inherently plugged into something

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi

Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi outside of his Kumare costume

beyond the physical world…some magic. And that “magic” can be positioned positively or negatively, but it is part of the mantle of “other.” By adopting guru “drag,” the filmmaker successfully plugs into that idea. A brown guy with short hair and a clean-shaven face in jeans and a button down, may be too Americanized (read: normal) to work his magical mojo.

We went to see this awful movie, The Last Exorcism II, and at some point (of course) the protag goes to visit a black roots woman in New Orleans. I commented to my husband about the character’s vaguely African headwrap and her exaggerated accent. But the viewer would likely not have accepted that part if she had a Queen Bey lace-front and sounded like a black Brooklynite or had my Midwestern twang. We like our magical brown people unassimilated.

Sikivu:  And the noble savage sexuality of Kumaré goes hand-in-hand with the way the film trots out and parodies the West’s eternal fascination with the Magical Negro/Indian/Asian (take your pick) other.  The blond woman gushing in her living room about how Kumaré has “touched her life” looks practically orgasmic.  So much of this guru shtick is tied up with the charade of liberating the repressed uptight “rationalist” white folk from their shackles a la Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” paradigm pimping “black soul” as antidote to all that ails the modern white man.  A brilliant send-up on this theme is “The Couple in a Cage,” by Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco—they mounted a performance piece where they pretended to be indigenous primitives displayed in their “native habitat” for the delectation of mostly white museum-goers seeking authentic savage artifacts.  While there was no overtly religious element to it, the Western impulse to gain validation through the body/essence and “shamanic” wisdom of the other is similar.

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Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Mira Nair

By Andrea Plaid

Having watched several of Mira Nair’s films repeatedly, I swear her guiding directive is, “If you’re 1) brown,  2) grown, and 3) sexy, you need to be in my film.”

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Modern Love In Mumbai’s “Wild West”: A Critique Of Orientalist Fantasies In Contemporary Travel Narratives

by Guest Contributor Aditi Surie von Czechowski

Recently, the New York Times has been beefing up its coverage on India.

Presumably, there is no quality journalism about India that isn’t produced by an American news outfit. Associate Managing Editor at the Times Jim Schachter notes “…I don’t want to cast dispersion [sic], but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian.” The assumptions embedded in his statement are staggering. What would a “great media diet” look like? Is it only constituted by bourgeois forms of media consumption? Are NRI’s unable to seek out a “great media diet” for themselves? Must they be spoon-fed by the venerable New York Times? It appears that knowledge about India from India (or the Indian diaspora) just doesn’t cut it.

In addition to the new blog entitled “India Ink,” which has been operational for just under a year, I’ve seen an uptick in articles on India recently–a very unscientific and cursory perusal of the more recent articles reveals news on “dirt-poor farmers,” sex crimes, and corruption, or about how India is a growing economic powerhouse. This is of course, followed by discussions of how India is “between two worlds,” with respect to “tradition” and economic disparity–with no indication about how neoliberalism is complicit in the widening income gap, not just in India, but worldwide. Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.

So, I was naturally curious to see whether there might be an alternate, less polarizing narrative about India when I came across this New York Times Modern Love column; a Canadian woman’s account of her trip to India and how she (maybe) fell in love with an Indian man nearly twice her age. At first pass, I found myself caught up in her stylish prose. But there was something about her essay that unsettled me: Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now. Continue reading

M.I.A. And The Real ‘Bad Girls’

By Guest Contributor Thanu Yakupitiyage, cross-posted from Hyphen Magazine

Courtesy of TheGrio.com

By now pretty much everyone knows M.I.A. as the bad girl who flipped off the Super Bowl halftime camera. But her fans are more preoccupied with her new music video, “Bad Girls”, in which BMWs and Mercedes Benzes race in a desert we presume to be in the Middle East, tires burn in nameless oil states, Bedouin-styled men ride stallions à la Casablanca, brown rebel-types tote guns, and backup dancers appear in not-quite-accurate hipsterized niqab and hijab.
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I’m Not Your Habibi: Thoughts on Craig Thompson’s Graphic Novel

By Special Correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

Sir Richard Burton is most famous for sexing up The 1,001 Arabian Nights. Two centuries later, Craig Thompson has graciously provided some accompanying imagery.

I feel like I have no choice but to hate Thompson’s latest graphic novel, Habibi. I’ll admit that it was beautifully drawn, though some of the panels seem needlessly garnished with alchemy symbols or random Arabic letters. But I’ll let Robyn Creswell’s review for The New York Times handle the fact that Thompson clutters his story—my beef with Thompson is about his staggering Orientalism, which I’ll get to shortly.

Themes of longing and survival permeate Habibi. The protagonists, Zam and Dodola, long for each other, likening this to a yearning for the Divine – Middle Eastern poets have done this for centuries. Zam and Dodola endure horrible events in the name of survival, perhaps tying in with Thompson’s conservationist theme by implying that our disregard for the earth is tantamount to rape and castration of the planet. These themes, however, are often drowned out—no matter how much Thompson underlines them—by the towering gaffes of his misrepresentation. The country of Wanatolia may be fiction, but the cultures it mimics and clumsily muddles together are real.
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Magtrabaho Ka!: Manila Luzon, Drag, and the Politics of Self-Orientalization

By Guest Contributor Eric Zhang

“I am the beautiful Asian who’s taller than 5-foot-2,” Manila Luzon (né Karl Westerberg) says in her introduction video. She is one of 13 contestants competing on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race to win $75,000, a lifetime supply of makeup, a headlining drag tour, and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.* She is also one of four Asian American contestants to have been featured on the series – the others include Ongina from Season 1, Jujubee from Season 2, and fellow Season 3 contestant Raja.

While drag performance has historically been tied to working class communities of color – the documentary Paris Is Burning in particular follows the tradition of drag balls in 1980s Harlem, and the significance of drag subculture in the lives of queer African American and Latino men – Asian American queens have not been very well represented in the drag circuit. The prominence of Asian American contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, thus, caught my eye. As a queer Asian American man who has dabbled in drag (inspired in no small part by Drag Race), I became interested in the ways in which these queens were represented – and chose to represent themselves – on television. While these queens are, of course, not necessarily defined by their race, two of the contestants use a rhetoric of race in their performance: Jujubee and Manila Luzon. Because Manila is competing on the current season, because her drag persona centralizes a racial discourse to a heavier extent than Jujubee’s, and because the racial politics of her performance has actively been challenged on the show itself, I will narrow my focus on her.

Manila Luzon’s persona makes heavy use of a kind of pan-Asian motif: a quick glance through her website reveals images like sushi, chrysanthemums, and Japanese katakana; costuming choices that include a cherry petal dress with an obi, a cheongsam, and a Thai headdress and brass fingernail extensions; and a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chinatown. On the other hand, her drag name explicitly marks her as Filipino – Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Luzon, the island on which Manila is located. The discrepancy between Manila’s pan-Asian character and her identity as Filipino American, in fact, provides a key source of tension in her performance: is she relying on Orientalist stereotypes and tropes to build her character, or is she using drag to perform her Pinoy pride?

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History and the Harem Pant

By Guest Contributor Mimi, originally published at Threadbared

Whether deemed a “must have,” as some contestants on The Fashion Show insisted, or a hideous mistake, the so-called harem pant is back in a big, billowy way. But the resurgence of the harem pant in the long shadow of war in the Middle East –specifically, those conflicts being pursued by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan– should prompt a raised eyebrow for more than its unconventional shape.*

While I enjoy the intellectual and artistic transformation of the shape of the body through clothing (see Issey Miyake’s Pleats, Please!), I also find it useful to be skeptical of the ways that geopolitical rubrics of race, nation, gender and sexuality are mapped through such transformations (think bullshit Orientalisms perpetrated by hostile fashion journalists about the so-called “Hiroshima bag lady” of 1980s Japanese designers). The most obvious yet often unasked question –why the term harem to qualify this pant?– requires a history lesson.

At the turn of the 20th century, Western imperial forces were busily carving up the rest of the world into territories, colonies, and protectorates. In between the 1880s and the First World War, the “race for Africa” and Western Asia proliferated claims among the European powers for political influence and direct rule in Egypt, Turkey, Persia (now known as Iran), and Morocco. In 1911, the same year that Morocco was named a protectorate of France, famed Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret “introduced” the harem pant to avant-garde aesthetes alongside caftans, headdresses, turbans and tunics in an Orientalist collection. Those items deemed “traditional” and “backward” when worn on a native body were thus transformed as “fashion forward” when worn on a Western one, in what amounted to the blatantly uneven, and undeniably geopolitical, distribution of aesthetic value and modern personhood. In a Pop Matters column on bohemian fashion (or what she hilariously calls “a competition for Best Dressed Peasant”), Jane Santos details how Poiret both drew from the imperial fashion for Orientalism** as well as contributed to it:

In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret’s designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish “Thousand and Second Night” party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, “The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East.” According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet’s performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret’s fashions further whetted the public’s appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret’s designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion.

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