Eat, Pray, Love, Leave: Orientalism Still Big Onscreen

Julia Roberts in 'Eat Pray Love' i i

Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) solves her mid-life crisis with a visit to a brightly colored India and a mystical, mysterious Bali (among other locales) in Eat Pray Love. Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures
Julia Roberts in 'Eat Pray Love'

Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) solves her mid-life crisis with a visit to a brightly colored India and a mystical, mysterious Bali (among other locales) in Eat Pray Love.

Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures

In Eat Pray Love, Bali serves as Elizabeth Gilbert's hallowed sanctuary. It's an enchanted land where she finds emotional healing. But if her journey may in fact have been life-changing, the film version of the story she told in her best-selling book is filled with stereotypes about the East. Ketut, the Balinese medicine man she seeks out for wisdom and fortune-telling? You want to believe in their friendship, but his character is a caricature. At one point, she even jokingly refers to him as Yoda.

Eat Pray Love is just one of the recent movies to romanticize travel along the Silk Road. This year, movies about women awakening to their true passions while traveling to the Middle East include Cairo Time and Sex and the City 2.

The trope isn't limited to recent movies, or to stories about 40-something female travelers. There are epic dramas, explosive thrillers and lighthearted comedies, old and new, that don't teach you anything new about Asia or the Middle East. They rely instead on the stereotype that the East is someplace timeless, otherworldly, incomprehensible, waiting to be discovered by Westerners in search of self.

John Corbett and Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Sex and the City 2' i i

The Middle East provides a photogenic backdrop -- and not much more -- for Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, right, with John Corbett) as she and her girlfriends vamp through Sex and the City 2. New Line Productions hide caption

itoggle caption New Line Productions
John Corbett and Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Sex and the City 2'

The Middle East provides a photogenic backdrop -- and not much more -- for Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, right, with John Corbett) as she and her girlfriends vamp through Sex and the City 2.

New Line Productions

Geopolitical thrillers like 2005's Syriana employ the same stereotype from another angle. These movies attempt to portray the complexity of our Middle East involvement by showing us how difficult it is to know and trust the local people. Individual Arabs in these films are duplicitous; as a people, they behave irrationally.

Syriana does try to make the big American corporations the bad guys. But the film still tells you, directly, exactly who and where the real trouble is: "Everybody between Morocco and Pakistan is the problem!" insists the CIA boss (Viola Davis) who bluntly tells Bob Barnes (George Clooney) to get a clue.

'Reel Bad Arabs'

This 2007 documentary examines the depiction of Arabs in cinema from the silent era to the present.

Syriana is just one film that places the Gulf region at the center of global conflict. Others include Babel, The Kingdom, Traitor and Body of Lies. Then there are the epic swashbucklers: Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, 300, and Prince of Persia transport you to arid landscapes for action-packed sword-and-sandal crusading. But Alexander, like too many others, ultimately confirms the idea that the West is the birthplace of civilization and the East is a barbaric land: During one flashback, a young Alexander and his schoolmates are taught the difference between the reasoned West and the emotional East.

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Prince of Persia' i i

A muscle-bound hero (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) kicks some one-dimensionally villainous behind in Prince of Persia. Andrew Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Cooper
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Prince of Persia'

A muscle-bound hero (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) kicks some one-dimensionally villainous behind in Prince of Persia.

Andrew Cooper

"Orientalism" is the term academic historians and literary scholars like Edward Said have used to describe this age-old pattern of depicting Middle and Far Easterners as primitive Others. Onscreen, it crops up in art films, Hollywood blockbusters and family entertainments alike.

Nearly 20 years ago, for instance, Disney was criticized for its original Aladdin lyrics. The opening song, "Arabian Nights," was later altered following protests from groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Now, nobody's protesting Eat Pray Love, or saying that you should. After all, it's kinder, gentler and subtler than Aladdin.

But it operates with the same Orientalist repertoire. It may not warrant protest, but its proximity to Orientalist tropes should make you think twice.

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