Palestinian Scholar Edward Said, the founder of Post-Colonialism studies, presented a critical analysis of the way in which the West studies, perceives and portrays the East, or the ‘Orient’: Orientalism. How we as Westerners portray other cultures is bound to be culturally inaccurate, however Saids argument was that Orientalism was not only an inaccurate portrayal, but is ‘ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them’). Steven L. Rosen from Hiroshima’s Women’s University expands on this definition further- describing Orientalism as a form of ‘ethnocentrism which has evolved into cultural myth, invariant in its imaginings, and imperialistic in its aims.’ (2000, pp.1).
Depictions of the other that are not only inaccurate, but also insensitive are clearly problematic. For a modern take I wanted to use the X-Men character Psylocke as a case study. When the character first appeared as a member of the X-Men she was a English telepath, wearing full body costume, and sometimes armour to protect her in battle.
But her fighting ability seemed always ineffective- she had her eyes cut out and made blind in an early battle, she then had her eyes replaced with bionic ones, only later it turned out that she was being manipulated as the ‘eyes’ were camera’s used to spy on her team. Even her telepathic abilities were always second best when compared to the all powerful Professor X or Phoenix. During one battle she was forced to save the X-Men not by winning, but telepathically forcing them to flee and run away through Siege Perilous: a magical gate that once you walked through you changed into something else. And change she did.
This is where Psylocke becomes an example of Orientalisim, She reappeared near China, but her mind and body had been merged with Kwannon- a Japanese Ninja who also possessed telepathic powers and purple hair. Psylcoke ended up retaining the ‘Asian body’, and had new parts of her personality. She was now much more sensual- she actively pursued married men, she wore a costume that had no armour- and was basically a swimsuit, and was much more aggressive- preferring to fight enemies up close even though she could use her psychic powers to attack from a distance.
This kind of Orientalism carries with it the implication that Asian people are much more conformist than they are- (she was in a Japanese body- but found in China, because they are basically the same country right?) Orientalism highlights the cultural, and gendered relationship of the East-West, where the Asian woman satisfies the popular Western imagination of primitive China (Yang 2014, p.248). As a result Asian women ‘have been employed as means of belittling China and satisfying the Western gaze, with Chinese men being reduced to sidekicks’ (p.249).
Psylocke’s transformation from upper class British telepath to Asian psychic ninja is clearly a explicit feitishization of Asian women. She is now due to her ethnicity and femininity, presented as exotic beauty, who is ‘additionally aligned with stereotypes related to nature, mysticism and totemism’ (Brown 2015, Chapter 4).
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that people’s experiences are not interchangeable, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. If you’re going to drop a white character into an Asian body, I think it behooves you to explore how that character’s life would change — how she would be treated socially, how she would deal with microaggression, how this might alter her perceptions about the world. If you take a story in that direction, you’ve gotta do the work. Otherwise it’s just tokenism.”
By positioning Psylocke in this way ‘now that she is Asian’ is not only a perfect illustration of cultural appropriation– but it also shows us how the West perceives the Orient. By constructing itself in opposition to an exotic but inferior culture, it marks the other as posing a constant threat to the West.
Said states that this is not some ‘nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world, but rather a ‘distribution of geopolitical awareness into the aesthetic…. an elaboration not only of geographical distinction’ which creates and maintains a intention to control what is manifestly different.” (2001, pp1999).
Brown, JA 2015, Beyond bombshells : the new action heroine in popular culture, Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Pulliam-Moore, C 2015, Betsy Braddock: A Brief History of Psylocke’s Complicated and Racially Problematic Origin Story, Fusion, 21st August, viewed on 1st April 2016, <http://fusion.net/story/182560/psylocke-race-origin/>
Rosen, S L 2000, ‘Japan as Other: Orientalism and Cultural Conflict’ Interculutral Communication, vol. 1, no. 4, pp.1404-1634.
Said, E 2001, ‘From Orientalism’, in V Leitch (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W. W. Norton, New York, pp1991- 2012.
Smith, A 2006, ‘Color of violence : the Incite! anthology’, South End Press, Cambridge.
White, B 2015, “Uncanny X-Men’s” Bunn Addresses Psylocke’s Racial Identity, Comic Book Resources, 12th August, viewed on 1st April 2016, <http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/uncanny-x-mens-bunn-addresses-psylockes-racial-identity>
White, B 2015, X-Postion: G. Willow Wilson Illuminates “The Burning World” in “X-Men”, Comic Book Resources, 12th April, viewed 1st April 2016, < http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/x-position-g-willow-wilson-illuminates-the-burning-world-in-x-men>
Yang, J 2014 ‘The reinvention of Hollywood’s Classic White Saviour Tale in Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Pavilion of Women and The Flowers of War’, Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies. 2014, Vol. 28 Issue 2, p247-263.