Exoticizing Ethnicity and Race

While western media has begun to incorporate racial diversity and representation, in TV shows or in advertisements, the efficacy of this incorporation is lost in the context that these racially diverse characters are placed in. Obvious or blatant racism and racialisation may no longer be observed, yet more subtle forms of it certainly exists that nonetheless exercises influential impact (52 Pearson). Women in magazines and pornography are systemically categorized according to their race or cultural heritage; Asian women into one category and Latina women into another. This effectively forces depictions of racially diverse women into highly exoticized niches, where their exoticism is fetishized and eroticized. By doing so, these women are demoted to an object which men may then project their desires upon and confined singularly to their racial definition.

Advertisements also tend to make the blatant and racist mistake of portraying non-white women in what advertisers believe to be their “natural habitat”. Black women are often dressed in animal print, alluding to the African Sahara and its primitive nature, which only serves to dehumanize the women that are wearing the clothes. Sometimes, black women are deliberately placed next to photos of wild animals, blatantly comparing them to an animal, exoticizing them as wild and savage, which further dehumanizes the female subject.

In the following front cover for the magazine Harpers Bazaar, model Chanel Iman is depicted wearing a turban.

Turbans a style of headdress that is prevalently worn by people that reside in the North African and Middle Eastern regions, and by people within the international diasporas of these regional cultures. That is not to say that all people who reside in or trace ancestry to these regions typically wear turbans. However, it is the image that western media often portrays; that all North African or Middle Eastern people look, dress and act a certain way, regardless of the vast diversity of physical appearance, culture and religion within these regions. This caters to the systemic notion in western nations that only white citizens are capable of individuality and complexity, while the foreign “other” is characterised by simplistic cultural affiliations and is one dimensional. In the case of the Harpers Bazaar cover, the model is poised in a way that is congruent with what advertisers believe to be what black women ought to look like and how they look in their ‘natural habitat’ of sub-Sahara. It makes little to no effort in illustrating the intersectionality of a racially diverse woman working in a western industry that glorifies Anglo-Saxon beauty or that Chanel Iman is not only African American but also Korean American. The cover debases her to nothing more than an institutionalized stereotype of what African American beauty ought to look like.

A 1986 commercial by the French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent for the highly successful fragrance named Opium is a prime example of how the depiction of culture can have an immeasurable impact on stereotypes and desensitization. The premise of the commercial is that the perfume is so good that it is addictive, like the opium drug. The use of opium was prominent in late 19th century China, essentially crippling the working ability of a large portion of the population. The smoking of opium was introduced by British traders, who were naturally furious when the Chinese government placed heavy import taxes on opium to circumvent the heavy reliance that the Chinese population had on it. This would eventually lead to the Opium Wars which spanned a period of nearly two decades. Yet YSL still chose to locate the commercial in what the audience can easily assume to be China; the commercial itself is shrouded in a cloud of smoke, presumably from opium, and the decorations within the commercial pervades a sense of hyper-Orientalism.

Through the depiction of hyper-Orientalism, the commercial effectively exoticizes Chinese culture. The commercial leads to an objectification of the historical context and the plight of two decades worth of suffering and warfare. By exoticizing opium and the negative impact it had on Chinese culture, the advertisement dehumanizes and reduces human suffering into the form of a mass-produced fragrance. By dehumanizing the historical context, advertisers can then feel little qualms about comparing the addiction of a fragrance to the addiction of a nation that lead to a war which resulted in exorbitant amounts of deaths. Because “Oriental” people are generally and systemically categorized as the foreign “other”, the significance of their suffering would be inferior to the importance of western hegemonic societies. Therefore, their deaths and suffering can be transformed into commercialism, and trivialized into a brand that can be bought and sold. Imagine for a moment if a brand decided to market its product in relation to the events of the Holocaust. The brand and marketing strategy would almost be immediately and severely condemned for its sheer insensitivity and intolerance. Yet, what makes commercials like the one for YSL’s Opium perfume not only perfectly acceptable, but also successful?

xoxo, Gossip Girl

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