Western propaganda through art

Kimia Tahaei
November 18, 2021
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Yoohyun Park/Production Coordinator

From 19th century paintings to contemporary animations, Middle Easterners are over-sexualized

By: Kimia Tahaei, Staff Writer

Have you ever thought about the roots of stereotypes? Why are Middle Eastern women continuously depicted as sexual? Why is the culture of Easterners so heavily fetishized and exoticized? 

Palestinian-American cultural critic Edward Saïd gives a thorough explanation of this phenomenon in his renowned book, Orientalism.

Saïd argues that European colonizers provided distorted information regarding the Middle East, which led to a false production of "knowledge" — "knowledge" that instilled the erroneous belief that the West (also known as the Occident) was superior to the East (also known as the Orient). 

To spread their fictitious "knowledge" far and wide, the West decided to use art as a means of propaganda. At this point in history, European artists created numerous artworks with the primary purpose of advancing their political ideologies — European superiority. 

At this point in history, European artists created numerous artworks with the primary purpose of advancing their political ideologies — European superiority. 

KIMIA TAHAEI, STAFF WRITER

Due to the West's misrepresentation of the Orient, Middle Easterners are paying a steep price, even today.

As Saïd repeatedly states throughout his book, Orientalism and whoever followed its principles did so with intentions of falsely exhibiting the East. To better understand how Middle Easterners are suffering the consequences of these former European paintings, we first have to understand the depths of this flawed misrepresentation. 

To begin, Middle Eastern women were persistently sexualized. Gérôme, a French pioneer of the Orientalism movement, fetishized Middle Eastern women and portrayed them as exotic in his paintings. He did so by frequently illustrating them as nude or semi-nude and often participating in provocative acts. 

Not only did he fetishize women, but he also managed to hypersexualize integral elements of Middle Eastern culture, like belly dancing. I find it particularly frustrating how Middle Eastern women have to suffer stigmatization daily because of a French painter's Occidental fantasies of the East. 

Due to his lack of knowledge on Middle Eastern culture, he fabricated a mass amount of false "knowledge" that led to fundamental components of the culture getting fetishized — this "knowledge" portrayed Middle Eastern women as exotic commodities and intrinsically sexual beings. 

This stereotyping has led to the hyper-sexualization of Middle Eastern women in books, films and even Disney movies.

Beyond Hollywood’s exotic depictions of “sexy belly dancers,” such stereotyping can even be seen in innocent children's movies. 

For instance, Princess Jasmine, a 16-year-old, was represented as erotic and was overly sexualized in the Disney movie Aladdin. In the movie, Jasmine and other young Arab women are shown in tops showing cleavage and midriff. Astonishingly, in one specific scene, Jasmine even overtly takes advantage of her sexuality to seduce an older male character — Jafar. 

This portrayal is particularly problematic for me because Jasmine is one of the only princesses who is so harshly sexualized. Almost every other princess wears modest dresses that cover their head to toe.

Not only is this problematic because cartoons intended for a young audience are including sexually suggestive imagery and themes, but it is also just blatantly disappointing to witness such poor cultural representation. It is incredibly disheartening that Orientalism has ruined one of the few occurrences in media where a young Middle Eastern girl can see herself represented in some way.

It is incredibly disheartening that Orientalism has ruined one of the few occurrences in media where a young Middle Eastern girl can see herself represented in some way.

KIMIA TAHAEI, STAFF WRITER

I often imagine the lasting and destructive impacts that this misrepresentation leaves on a young Middle Eastern child. I wonder if they question whether they have to be sexual in order to receive a speck of representation in the media.

Overall, it is interesting to think about the evolution of propaganda that served colonialism in the promotion of Western domination. What was started by 19th-century European painters is still alive thanks to 21st-century directors. Although the form of propaganda has changed, the message of Eastern inferiority remains the same.

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