The Continuation of Orientalism and the Hypersexualization of Eastern Women

10 Dec

Orientalism is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is not an old phenomenon either. Orientalism in music and other forms of art can be dated to the early 17th century and continues to infiltrate popular music today. 1McClary, S. (1992). Images of race, class and gender in nineteenth-century French culture. In Georges Bizet: Carmen (pp. 29–43). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166416.004 This paper will explore how orientalism manifests in Western pop culture, particularly maintaining that the Orient continues to be invoked for an exotic, hypersexualized aesthetic that simultaneously works to subjugate and fetishize Eastern women while demonizing the Greater Middle East.

As a disclaimer, I will analyze songs that take from both the Arab world and Southeast Asia, but I will not fundamentally distinguish between the two because Orientalism conflates the “Orient” into one mysterious and exotic space. The point is that it doesn’t matter what the country of origin is, the countries belonging to the East are collapsed into a single stereotype, and thus, the songs themselves support delocalized ideas of dance and sexuality through the inclusion of exotic sounds, dress, and behavior.

The following songs include Western female singers who appropriate Eastern sounds and an Oriental backdrop to market themselves as exotic, feminine, and sexy. This is concerning because it reduces Eastern femininity down to one selling point: sex. It perpetuates the view of Eastern women as objects of male desire and vulnerable to exploitation and plunder.

How does this occur? Let’s begin.

Selena Gomez released her single “Come and Get It” in 2013. Selena’s song samples “Soske Angleder Na Cinavgan Mancar,” released by Jevat Star, an Indian singer and music producer, in 2013.  The song features an Indian tabla drum throughout, as well as hypnotic singing and chanting, melismatic singing, and abrupt juxtapositions of romantic lyrical tunes and energetic passages to invoke images of the East and an exotic femininity. The use of the tabla drum and chanting is indicative of a trance-inducing ritual, which stands in opposition to goal-oriented Western composition. The abrupt juxtapositions of romantic lyrical tunes with busy, energetic passages imply both sensuality yet chaos, a trope often used to describe the East and its women as seen in Mcclary’s reading and is evidenced by Carmen’s character. Carmen is deeply in touch with her sexuality and she is abound with sexual intrigue, making every man fall at her feet. Yet, in comparison to her Western counterparts, she is unpredictable and can’t be tamed. Selena utilizes these juxtapositions to tell the exact same story, she lures her listeners in with slower, soft passages and then incites them with a busy, fast chorus. She portrays herself as sultry and seductive whilst simultaneously evoking a wild, untamed spirit.

The melismatic singing creates tension and adds to that sense of seduction. Melismatic singing dwells on one syllable as many notes are sung. This creates a longer period of tension before resolution. This also serves as a strong contrast to goal-oriented Western music. 2Pinson, Dovber. 2010. “Kabbalistic Music: The Kabbalistic perspective transcends Eastern and Western arts. Chabad. https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380577/jewish/Kabbalistic-Music.htm This feature adds to the idea that Eastern femininity is seductive, intoxicating, and leads to the loss of self as the listener loses themselves in the song.

The rhythmic drums and chanting also push for this concept and make Selena’s sexuality more overt. Bangla drumming and chanting suggest primitivity, which adds to the idea that Selena possesses a mature, yet deeply wild, beckoning sexuality that dares to be tamed.

Finally, the hypnotic background vocals push this idea of an exoticized other who is bewitching and unconstrained by society because they’re in an unintelligible language and sound mesmerizing yet mysterious. All of these musical indicators, along with the visual cues, work together to create an overtly sexual, mystifying sexuality that is associated with eastern women.

The music video also incorporates stereotypical images of the Orient by incorporating clips of barely clothed women dancing in the desert.

Finally, it should be noted that this was Selena’s first solo song (she previously released music with Selena Gomez & the Scene, a pop band that catered to pre-teens). 3Trust, Gary. 2017. Ask Billboard: Selena Gomez’s Career Album & Song Sales. Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/7793086/ask-billboard-selena-gomezs-career-album-song-sales/ This is notable because Selena chose an Oriental sound and image to appear more mature and thus, break away from her previous image as a demure Disney Channel artist. This shows that an Orientalist and hypersexualized attitude towards the sounds of the Other continues to exist. The musical allusions incorporated in Selena’s song are inseparable from metaphors in the Western conscience that objectify and sexualize non-Western women.

Selena is not the only singer who is guilty of exploiting Eastern culture in a manner that is consistent with orientalism. Beyonce has a long history of Orientalism that predates her solo career.

Beautiful Liar is a more obvious example of orientalism, however, Naughty Girl upon close analysis is just as guilty.

Steven Feld, in his work Music Grooves, critically analyzed “world music” a genre that is defined as being separate from the music of Europe and North America. Feld explores the concept of schizophonia, particularly studying the implications of removing sounds from their original contexts. An example of schizophonia can be heard in Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl,” released in 2003, in which one can hear a distinctive flute melody playing on a Middle Eastern scale. This often sounds foreign to Western audiences. Juxtaposed with Beyonce’s breathy tone and sexually explicit lyrics, the music transports one into a fantastical and alluring world. The creative layering of vocals provides us with an almost aural harem, adding to the mystical world in which “Naughty Girl” exists.

Beyonce and Shakira made similar aesthetic choices in their single “Beautiful Liar,” released in 2006 to evoke the notion of Eastern sexuality. The song is set in a Phrygian mode, mixes feminine and Eastern instruments, including the tambourine, oud, ney, and viola, incorporates whisper singing, flamenco-style clapping, and the same abrupt juxtapositions of romantic lyrical tunes and energetic passages Selena used. Traditionally Eastern modes and instruments evoke a sense of difference and exoticism that brings about a sense of timelessness associated with the Orient.  The oud and ney evoke romantic feelings, paired with the high-drawn-out vocals of the two singers create a sensual fantasy for the Western listener, as their voices linger onto the words and the sexual tension increases through their high, breathy delivery. All these musical aspects show an intended Orientalist sound. They elicit the overtly sexual, mystifying sexuality that is associated with Eastern women.

The two singers, similar to Selena, incorporate Eastern style dress and dance to take on a sort of Arab-face for an exotic aesthetic. The two singers also showed blatant disdain for Eastern culture during the bridge of the music video. The two are seen belly dancing in a closed-off room with an unknown language written on the walls. As a native Arabic speaker, I can confirm the writing is not translatable and in fact uses characters that don’t exist in Arabic, Hindi, nor Urdu alphabets. It appears that random letters from multiple languages are scrawled onto the walls, evidence of my assertion that Orientalism conflates and reduces vastly different regions into a faceless “Other.”

We similarly observe the same Orientalist musical choices in “Jai Ho,” a cult favorite by the Pussycat Dolls released in 2008. Nicole Scherzinger is overtly sexual in this video and utilizes indicators that are consistent with the Oriental interpretation of Eastern sexuality. Nicole beckons and teases the listener/watcher, flirtatiously gazing behind beaded curtains, singing inviting lyrics in a breathy and scratchy purr that conveys intimacy.  With her tightly kohl-lined eyes, bindi, dupatta, and saree blouse, it is blatant that this bewitching sexuality is meant to be tied to the Eastern identity she is attempting to relay to the audience.

Through their eroticization of the Orient, these artists encourage a degrading and pitiful view of Eastern women without further thought, that works to subjugate these women in real life, justify violence towards them and their countries, and demonize Eastern men. 

The use of orientalism to perpetuate an over-fetishized Eastern sexuality doesn’t just manifest in Western media, it has sprung in Eastern music as well.

A concerning phenomenon that can directly be tied to the continuation of orientalism in Western music is Self-Orientalism, in which Easterners cast themselves as exotic commodities for the benefit of white people and institutions.

Cheb Mami is an Algerian singer and a pioneer in Arabic music. He, along with Cheb Khaled, spearheaded the Raï movement in Morocco and Algeria. Raï is generally considered by Western scholars to be “North African punk,” a genre of music for expressing rebelliousness against the government in the West. However, this music plays a very different role in the life of the North African diaspora in France. Although raï does include narratives of the various struggles of this community against North African governments or against the forces of tradition, it is also the “music of the racialized Other” which chronicles struggles with racism and identity of North African people in France.

Despite this, Cheb Mami engages in self-Orientalism, whether consciously or unconsciously, as he sings alongside Sting in “Desert Rose,” released in 1999.

Although Cheb Mami sings many of the vocals in this song, he’s almost a prop in the music video, appearing here and there. In the beginning, he leads to set the scene and to transport the audience to an enchanting world in the desert. He appears once again during the bridge and is juxtaposed with sudden hot and heavy sexual clips that push this idea of an erotic and carnal Middle East. In contrast, Sting is the main character and is shown in contrast to clips of a static Middle East.

This is also seen in a recent international hit, “Dilbar,” a Bollywood song released in 2018.

As you begin to listen to the song, you’ll notice it incorporates many musical and visual elements that are reminiscent of orientalism that I discussed in this web essay. Although the song is set in India and sung in Hindi, it conflates Arab and Desi culture by incorporating a Moroccan actress, Arabic style dress, and belly dancing. The singer speaks in a soft, raspy tone, inciting the viewer to come close as she dances seductively. The song also incorporates the same melismatic singing to build tension throughout the song and Middle Eastern instruments that indicate the viewer is being transported to a different world, one that is barbaric, exciting, and unconstrained by Western morality. The women in the video are used for sexual consumption; they are appealing to the eyes and the director of the video displaces overt sexualities on the women.

This reveals that imperial ideology has been internalized by the Orient and that there is a rising tendency to self-Orientalize under western economic pressures to satisfy consumers’ fantasies.

Additionally, these videos rely on Orientalism. They aren’t made for eastern eyes, they are made for the Western gaze because they fit with how the East is conceptualized through Orientalism.

The continuation of this oversexualized and fetishized eastern sexuality into the 21st century indicates that we have not progressed as much as we should’ve and that we need to reconsider our artistic choices. Furthermore, we need to understand the troubling link between orientalism in pop media and the disastrous political condition of the Orient today. The ruins of the Orient and continued conflicts are the legacies of orientalism and when we allow and celebrate songs like these, we begin to accept, justify, and sometimes encourage violence in the Orient.

References   [ + ]

1. McClary, S. (1992). Images of race, class and gender in nineteenth-century French culture. In Georges Bizet: Carmen (pp. 29–43). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166416.004
2. Pinson, Dovber. 2010. “Kabbalistic Music: The Kabbalistic perspective transcends Eastern and Western arts. Chabad. https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380577/jewish/Kabbalistic-Music.htm
3. Trust, Gary. 2017. Ask Billboard: Selena Gomez’s Career Album & Song Sales. Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/7793086/ask-billboard-selena-gomezs-career-album-song-sales/