Orientalism in Media & Literature: Definition, Use & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You may have heard people discussing orientalism before, but what does this really mean? In this lesson, we'll discuss orientalism and its appearances in literature and media.


What's the difference between the Orient and the East? According to many academics, a difference actually exists. While the East is a rough geographic and cultural zone, the Orient is an imagined version of the East as depicted through Western eyes. At least, that's the theory of Edward W. Said.

Said, a literature professor, changed the way we look at the presentation of the East in Western media with his 1978 book Orientalism. In it, Said defined orientalism as a tendency in Western media to depict the cultures of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa in imperialist terms. Orientalism often relies on tropes that depict people from these cultures in patronizing ways. They are often seen as backwards, unable to grasp the modern world, and stuck in static traditions spanning millennia regardless of how grand those traditions are.

People in orientalist media also tend to be presented as entirely conflated with their culture. In other words, they are not members of a culture but its living embodiment. To add to that, these cultures are often seen as mysterious and dangerous, with orientalist tropes exaggerating themes of exoticism, otherness, and sexuality. According to Said, it was a way for imperialist nations to communicate a sense of superiority. But what does that actually look like in action? Let's check out some examples.

Orientalism in the Visual Arts

To start, we have to jump back a century prior to Said's analysis, back to the mid-19th century. The term ''orientalist,'' before it was used as it now is by scholars, used to refer to art that had Middle Eastern or East Asian themes. As trade routes opened in the 19th century on new scales and empires thrived, the first signs of orientalism emerged in Western art.

For examples of what this looks like, consider Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's Grande Odalisque (1814) or Jean-Leon Gerome's The Snake Charmer (1880). Both paintings are based on colors, textures, and figures from the Islamic world. Both present their scenes and subjects in ways that contrast with the conventions of the Western world at that time, in this case using nudity and exoticism to emphasize the otherworldliness of this strange and mysterious place.

The Snake Charmer (1880)

In the late 19th century as photography developed, it also became extremely popular for Victorian-era Europeans to dress up in Oriental costumes for portraits. These ranged from kimonos to Turkish robes, but were always a source of exotic fascination.

Orientalism in Literature

As European soldiers and merchants marched around the world during the 19th century, their stories often came to revolve around the mysterious and exotic dangers of the Orient. Orientalism entered literature in many ways. Sometimes it was a mysterious object. Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868) features a diamond brought back from India by British soldiers; W.W. Jacobs's ''The Monkey Paw'' (1902) features a cursed mummified monkey's hand which was also brought to England from India by soldiers.

Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) features a young Irish protagonist living in British India. In the story, Kim has learned enough of Indian culture to blend in well, giving the audience a chance to marvel at the white child's mastery of an exotic culture full of strange and seemingly ancient customs. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924) features British characters who are so eager to meet real Indians that the city tax collector hosts a party for this occasion. Orientalist literature tends to feature European protagonists in an Asian setting, presenting Asian cultures and peoples purely through this protagonist's Western eyes and worldviews.

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