Eat, Pray, Love, Leave: Orientalism Still Big Onscreen If you think Orientalism is a thing of the past, think again. Writer Mia Mask argues that some of this year's hit movies suggest that Hollywood still can't resist the temptation to look East and see a mysterious, impenetrable cipher of a place, rather than just a place with different -- but equally ordinary -- traditions.

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

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Many people bought the book and are now watching the movie of the journey of writer Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote "Eat Pray Love" about her eastward journey to Italy, India and Bali, seeking to find herself after a difficult divorce.

Film commentator Mia Mask says the movie follows a well-traveled path, one that may be shouldn't be traveled so much.

Professor MIA MASK (Film, Vassar Film Department): In "Eat Pray Love," Bali is Liz Gilbert's enchanted land, where she finds emotional healing. The local people are simple, primitive and mysterious.

(Soundbite of film "Eat Pray Love")

Unidentified Man #1: You will come back to Bali...

Prof. MASK: She even befriends a Balinese medicine man she seeks out for wisdom and fortune-telling.

Unidentified Man #1: You will live a long time, have many friends, many experiences. Also, you will lose all your money. Don't worry. You will get it all back again.

Prof. MASK: The journey was life-changing for Gilbert, but the film is filled with stereotypes about the East. It's timeless, otherworldly, incomprehensible, and waiting to be discovered by Westerners in search of self.

This year, movies about women awakening to their true passions while traveling to the Middle East also include "Cairo Time" and "Sex and the City 2." This trope is not limited to movies about 40-something women travelers. There are epic dramas, explosive thrillers and light-hearted comedies that don't teach you anything new about Asia or the Middle East.

Geo-political thrillers like "Syriana" work another part of the stereotype: The Middle East is a land populated by duplicitous people and irrational behavior. In the midst of this chaos, "Syriana" tries to make Big Oil the villain.

(Soundbite of movie, "Syriana")

Unidentified Woman #1: A merger between two U.S. oil companies is taking place in Houston. The new company...

Prof. MASK: But the film ends up telling you exactly who and where the real problem is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Syriana")

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm trying to get undigested information.

Unidentified Man #2: Well, to the best of our ability...

Unidentified Woman #2: India is now our ally. Russia is now our ally. Even China will be an ally. Everybody between Morocco and Pakistan is the problem.

Prof. MASK: Everybody between Morocco and Pakistan is the problem? "Syriana" places the irrational Gulf region at the center of global conflict, like the films "Babel," "The Kingdom" and "Traitor." Then there are epic swashbucklers, like "Alexander," "Kingdom of Heaven," "300" and "Prince of Persia." They transport you to arid landscapes for action-packed, sword-and-sandal crusading. But "Alexander" ultimately confirms the idea that the West is the birthplace of civilization, and the East is barbaric land.

(Soundbite of movie, "Alexander")

Mr. PETER WILLIAMSON (Actor): (as Nearchus) Master.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (as Aristotle) Yes, out with it. Out with it.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: (as Nearchus) Why are the Persians so cruel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: (as Aristotle) That is not the subject for today, Nearchus. But it is true. The Oriental races are known for their barbarity and their slavish devotion to their senses.

Prof. MASK: Orientalism is the term academics have given this age-old pattern of depicting Middle and Far Easterners as primitive others.

(Soundbite of movie, "Aladdin")

(Soundbite of song "Arabian Nights")

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (as Genie) (Singing) Oh, I come from a land, from a far away place, where the...

Prof. MASK: Nearly 20 years ago, Disney got in trouble for its original "Aladdin" lyrics.

(Soundbite of song "Arabian Nights")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) ...immense, and the heat is intense. It's barbaric but, hey, its home.

Prof. MASK: Groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested these lyrics. Well, 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.

INSKEEP: Mia Mask is the author of "Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film." She teaches at Vassar College.

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