SS3015 Key Concept – Orientalism

Edward Said (2001) Palestinian and American Theorist, coined the term Orientalism which he defines as “a Western style for dominating, restricting, and authority over the Orient.” Orient is often viewed as ‘different’, as the ‘other’, “the repository of all those characteristics deemed non-Western (and therefore negative” (Childs & Williams, 1997, p.101)’. In this case, the ‘Orient’ loosely applies to:

                                        1. The Middle East,

                                        2. The Near East

                                        3.  The Far East   

Said argues that Western Europeans were in fact able to gain power and identity through comparing itself to the Orient. The West accepted the “basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny and so on” (Said, 2001). The West became the normative centre of the white, Western, middle-class, heterosexual male. Said also contends that, “The Orient is not just a neighbour, but it is also the greatest, richest, oldest place for exploitation, the source of their civilization and language, cultural rival and the deepest, the most repeated ‘Other’ image, for Europe.” (Said, 2013)

Orientalism is directly linked to colonialism. According to Said, Orientalism initially dates from the period of the historic European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which the West constructed a biased view of the East as extremely different and inferior, therefore in dire need of Western intervention or rescue. When European explorers travelled to the Orient, they returned with exaggerated and distorted representations which depicted the Orient as undeveloped, uncivilised, barbaric and spiritual. These distorted representations of the Orient were controversially used as a way for Western European empires to successfully colonise inferior countries. Commonly known as ‘the white man’s burden‘, the West attempted to assist the claim that it was the duty of white men to civilise barbarians. They were going to bring civilisation to these native barbaric people.


Orientalism, in the modern day, exists much more than what we think. Take childrens movies as an example. When you think of a childhood film that you watched what movies come to mind? Disney? Pixar? Children’s movies are portrayed as innocent imaginary fairytales, often with a bit of creative writing to include segments of reality. It is without lie that I can say I enjoy watching Disney movies now more than ever. I recall a younger, more vulnerable me fantasising about Cinderella’s fragile glass slipper fitting my tiny foot, singing along to Hakuna Matata with Timon and Pumbaa, chasing through the forest with Pocahontas (Hello, BLATANT example of Orientalism!), or going on the adventure of a lifetime with Buzz and Woody. Whilst watching Mulan, I saw the most perfectly flawless young Asian woman going to war for her country. But, what my younger self did not notice or understand was why is Mulan portrayed as weak, just because she was a woman? Did she really have a dragon as a pet, and I stuck with my goldfish? And more importantly, why is it she must dress like a man before she is given the opportunity to stand up for herself? Whether we recognise it or not, Orientalism is evident in common Hollywood productions and ingrained in our understanding of the East.


Now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Hollwood productions, especially Disney’s Mulan. Well actually, quite a lot! You see, based on these distorted representations of the Orient, it has led to worldwide representations of the Arab World being distorted. These negative stereotypes and Western control are continually represented through the mass media. Mulan, filmed in 1998, was the first Disney movie with an Asian background. For those who are unaware of the movie, it is based on a traditional Chinese story about a brave young woman who went to war instead of her frail father for her family’s honour, through disguising herself as a man. The movie emphasizes the patriarchy and loyalty to both family and to the greater country.The movie focuses on the period of North and South Dynasties. Mulan clearly found it hard to adjust to the male army, however she plays a crucial role in successfully defeating the enemy. Disney attempted to view the story from the Easten point of view, but were slightly unsuccessful in overcoming Orientalism.


Loyalty and patriarchy plays a huge role in the movie. Mulan disguising herself as a man can be viewed as a self sacrifice. Collectivism was undoubtedly more significant than individualism in ancient Asia, but that does not necessarily mean that people had to sacrifice their values for others (Lee, 2012). This can be misinterpreted in the movie by viewers who are not well education with Asia and their values, that all Asians self sacrifice merely for the honour of family and country.

The depictions of characters also show aspects of Orientalism. The majority of characters in the movie have similar appearances; yellow dewy skin, thin lips and small eyes. But this is not the case in real life, all Asian poses different characteristics which differentiate them from one another. “I want her paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars.” It is no coincidence that the male soldier is describing a white woman as his desire, noticeably different from the typical olive skinned Asian woman. The West is able to exaggerate the differences between the developed civilised white Western woman over the primitive Eastern woman.


The characters walk bare foot, consume tea after dinner, and eat with chopsticks. Mulan’s makeup and clothing are much similar to that of Japan’s rather than that of China’s at the time. She wears cloth similar to that of the Japanese ‘Kimono’, and her hairstyle was a greatly popular one in Japan at the time (Lee, 2012). Disney portrayed the traditional Chinese belief about household gods, in a some what distorted way. The household gods were conveyed as prejudiced toward women and particularly narrow sighted, which can arguably be considered as disrespectful of traditional Chinese beliefs (Lee, 2012). Disney treated Mulan’s character as a mannequin with which they could do as they wish with, completely inconsiderate of the Asian values and tradition, specifically unique to their country of origin. The main flower used to emphasise the movies theme is cherry blossoms, which are actually the national flower of Japan, and not China.


Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (Said, 2001). Mulan showed a great example of this when she sang, “Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know!?” – Is it she is merely a character with no identity? A character constructed of unspecified mixed Asian stereotypes of the East? It seems as though Disney thinks depicting the Asian culture as ‘one’ is OK and failed to consider that often, when cultures get mixed up in the viewer’s mind it can cause severe misinterpretations. Instead of judging people (Orientalist outlook) based off of Hollywood films or the mass media, get to know a person or place for who/what they truly are and not just how the media may represent them. 

Céire McCarthy,


March 31th 2015.


Childs & Williams (1997). An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. Prentice Hall: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Disney (1998) Mulan

Lee, H (2012) Orientalism found in Mulan. Accessed online from:

Said, E (2001) “From Orientalism”, in V Leitch (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton, New York, 2001.


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