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Orientalism & Masculinity

Study Cases: “300” and “The Bachelor”

Oh & Kutufam (2014) argue that some media productions hide behind history to show “ideological support for the duty of Whiteness and masculinity in the United States, specifically, and the West generally, to protect itself from the external, invading forces of the Orientalized racial ‘other” (p. 149). The Arab, much like other people from Japan, Indochina, China, India, Pakistan, is shown through an Orientalist discourse. Most popular images and social science representations show the Arabs in simplistic terms: camel-riding nomads, people in headgear, a caricature of incompetence and easy defeat; the sheik standing behind a gasoline pump; in movies, he is associated with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty (Said, 2003 p 286). Alternatively, the Oriental is depicted as the oversexed degenerate, capable of devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low; slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, and/or colorful scoundrel (Said, 2003, p. 286).

One example of the media’s portrayal of the “Us” vs. “Them,” as Good Whites vs. Bad Others is the movie “300.”

How is the racial ‘Other’ portrayed in the movie “300”?

Said (1978) argued that the Europeans have built/constructed the “Oriental” as a nefarious force to legitimize colonialism as they spread across the world. The construction of the Orient and the Orientals therefore has been an ideological project. The movie “300,” shows this construction. Oh & Kutufam (2014) argues that, “in Eurocentric discourse, the imagined purity originates in Greece, which is constructed as the birthplace of civilization” (p. 151). Greece has also been imagined as a place for democracy, in spite of slavery being prevalent.

  • Race became a social construct originating in the west, a construct in which the “other” are always inferior; always on the losing side of every battle.
  • Islam is vilified as a barbaric religion, one whose believers are terrorist, and morally perverse (Oh & Kutufam, 2014, p. 151).
  • Eastern men are usually depicted in the media as hypersexualized and sexually oppressive, and the harems of old are a clear proof of this (Oh & Kutufam, 2014, p. 151).

White masculinity & Whiteness

Whiteness has moved from being a non-race to being a victimized identity, currently under threat as the “others” are moving in, through immigration (Oh & Kutufam, 2014, p. 152). Crenshaw (1997) mentions that “whiteness” is very rarely talked about by white people; so, often whiteness and its intersections with gender and class are “steeped in silence” (p. 254). While race is a “biological fiction,” it’s a very visible ideological construct (Crenshaw, 1997, p. 255).

  • - In the west, especially in the United States, patriarchy is sold as patriotism – must return to traditional values to save society as we know it
  • - Patriotism is the way to legitimize misogyny, anti-immigrant sentiment, overt homophobia
  • - Misogyny is legitimized by the idea that masculinity “has been emasculated, undermined, and feminized” through the work of feminists (Oh & Kutufan, 2014, p. 152)

Whiteness, in order to be desirable and valuable is also healthy, non-deformed, abled-bodies, male and upper class. In “300,” the whiteness associated with the disabled body of Ephialtes – a hunchback Spartan who wants to fight – is undesirable and therefore rejected (Oh & Kutufan, 2014, p. 157). The Spartans from “300” can be juxtaposed on today’s American (and allied) military. They are all white and even their war cry “ah-hoo” is a homage to “hoo-ah,” which is the U.S. Marines chant (Oh & Kutufan, 2014, p. 154). Hegemonic masculinity is “crude, danger seeking, impolite, self-interested, and primitively violent,” but when associated with militarism then it becomes “strong, brave determined, and patriotic” (Oh & Kutufan, 2014, p. 153). In spite of their extreme violence and roughness, the soldiers in “300,” much like real soldiers today, are surrounded in a shroud of “dreaminess” and are romanticized.

In the movie “300,” the outsiders, the Persians, have strength in numbers. This is in line with what Said (2003) says, which is that the Arabs have “generative power,” are “hot-blooded southerners,” and able to produce themselves endlessly sexually, while producing nothing else (p. 311-312). Ironically, in spite of being dangerous, Oriental men’s masculinities also come into question quite often. They are either “aggressive, fundamentalist or Asian gang members” or “effeminate and weak,” at least when compared to black masculinities (Barber, 2015 p. 442).

Xerxes: Dangerous & Effeminate

An example of this paradoxical masculinity is Xerses, the Persian leader who comes to conquer Greece. He is dangerous because he comes with a horde of wild people and beasts, but he also “embodies a homoerotic feminine masculinity,” as “he has neatly plucked eyebrows; uses cosmetics; wears jewelry across his entire body, draping himself in gold chains and wearing nose, ear, and other facial rings; has long, manicured fingernails; and is lean and muscular” (Oh & Kutufan, 2014, p. 156). Xerxes is also nonheteronormative and seems attracted to Leonidas, which makes him even more despicable to the audiences. This nonconformist outsider definitely needs to be destroyed. Sometimes we get the “Yellow peril” or the “model minority” stereotypes as a binary related to Asian males (Barber, 2015, p. 442). What is certain is that the Orientals are generally understood through a discourse that is ridden with stereotypes and misconceptions.

The Harem

The harem has been a symbol od the debauched lifestyle of the Oriental, so it is ironic that today the show “The Bachelor,” can be seen as a totally legitimate example of harem-living. Why is it acceptable for while, upper class, wealthy males to dabble in harem-like living when this practice is so hated in the “Others”? Dubrofsky (2006) explains that the Bachelors “explore the evils of the Westernized version of the Eastern harem before overcoming these excesses in the interest of sustaining a monogamous union,” so what he does is in fact reaffirm western norms of good, desirable behavior (p. 53).

References Barber, T. (2015). Performing ‘oriental’ masculinities: Embodied identities among Vietnamese men in London. Gender, Place & Culture, 22(3), 440-455.

Crenshaw, C. (1997). Resisting whiteness’ rhetorical silence. Western Journal of Communication, 61(3), 253-278.

Dubrofsky, R. E. (2006). The Bachelor: Whiteness in the harem. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23(1), 39-56.

Oh, D. C., & Kutufam, V, D. (2014). The orientalised “Other” and corrosive femininity: Threats to white masculinity in 300. Journal of Communication Inquiry. 38(2). 149-165.

Said, E. W. (2003). Orientalism. London: Penguin.