Essay: Orientalism in Western Media: I Dream of Jeannie and Sex and the City 2

Orientalism in Western Media: I Dream of Jeannie and Sex and the City 2

Western cinema and television have had a longstanding interest in depicting Eastern societies. However, their depictions have, more often than not, been done through an Orientalist perspective. Even before the birth of these forms of media, Western painters, like Delacroix, portrayed their imaginary ideas of Eastern cultures, homogenizing and exoticizing these cultures through the depiction of oppressed, eroticized, and hyper-sexualized women in harems, and dangerous, misogynistic men.1 Most of these painters were men, and so they would not be allowed to enter harems, proving that their depictions were reflections of their fantasies. However, certain female painters, such as Henriette Browne, who were allowed to enter harems, depicted harems as social spaces for wealthy women, not highly sexualized women in need of liberation. Orientalism is a Western rhetoric that homogenizes the geographies and cultural landscapes of North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Western media normalizes this orientalist ideology that it is permeated with by founding its depictions of “otherness” on cultural stereotypes. As Edward Said, an important cultural critic and the author of Orientalism, put it, “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).”

I Dream of Jeannie and Sex and the City 2, are two examples of how western, specifically American, media pushes forward the imperialist agenda by depicting the misery of the women of the Orient. I Dream of Jeannie is a popular television show that aired from 1965 to 1970. To this day, it remains a quintessential icon of the West’s orientalist and imperialist ideology. The sitcom revolves around an American astronaut, Captain Tony Nelson, who, after being stranded on a deserted island, finds an ornate bottle, which he accidentally rubs, releasing a beautiful, female genie. The crux of the show is that Jeannie’s supernatural powers and her playful mischief always land Tony in some sort of problem. In the Pilot episode of the show, after Tony releases her, the blonde, blue-eyed genie, who is dressed in a bright pink and red, ultra-feminized bustier and see- through harem pants, bows down to Tony, and greets him with a Namaskar, before proceeding to speak in Farsi and then to kiss him. In just the first couple of minutes of the pilot episode of the show, the West’s romanticization of the East is highlighted.

I Dream of Jeannie homogenizes Asian societies, not distinguishing between the different cultures that exist in the global East. The Namaskar is a Hindu gesture; however, Jeannie is presumed to be Persian. The Middle East and Southeast Asia are treated as one, flat cultural space, when they are in fact replete with multiplicities and cultural diversity. Physically, Jeannie does not resemble the vast majority of Middle Eastern women. Barbara Eden is white, blonde, and blue- eyed. The casting of a woman who fits Eurocentric ideals of beauty, yet still behaves in an exotic, foreign manner was essential to build interest in the shows intended audience: white, middle class families. Jeannie depicted the ideal fantasy of white men: a beautiful, white woman with the lewdness of the women of the orient.

Jeannie is a highly sexualized woman. She dons revealing clothing that has become widely known as an example of “Arabian garb”, although burqas and abayas are recognized as such, too. Jeannie’s first instinct is to embrace Tony and to kiss him. She fits the stereotype of the erotic middle eastern harem girl. Her sole purpose is to please Tony. The voice over at the beginning of the following episodes that explains what happened in the Pilot, objectifies and farther eroticizes Jeannie. The narrator says, “... He set Jeannie free. Only she didn’t want to be free...She wanted to have fun, and she wanted to have it with Captain Nelson.” The fictional women of the Orient are representations of the fantasies of Western men. Jeannie’s only purpose is to please her “master”, and she does this willingly.

Jeannie is grateful to Tony for having freed her, and later explains to him that she was imprisoned in the bottle two-thousand years ago by a jinn because she refused to marry him. The show further propagates the popular notion that Middle Eastern men are oppressive and violent. This idea is, once again, underscored when Jeannie tells Major Nelson that Ali, a man she knew back in Baghdad, hit her. He proceeds to say that no woman will be hurt as long as he is around. This is the classic example of western imperialist ideology that the feminist literary and cultural critic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, explains as, ”White men saving brown women from brown men.” This imperialist discourse continues to be used, to excuse colonialism and wars on terror in Eastern countries. Western men defend their actions by acting like crusaders who are after the liberation of the oppressed women of the Orient. However, their own women are far from being free. This is seen in I Dream of Jeannie as well. Tony’s fiancee forgives him after she finds Jeannie in his bedroom wearing his shirt. She even mentions this encounter in front of her father. It is clear here that Western women are expected to allow men to explore their “masculinity” in the hopes of achieving a perfect, nuclear family. Women are placed in a position of subservience. Both Jeannie and Tony’s fiancee must please him.

The origin of the West’s depiction of genies is yet another example that directly correlates to the post-colonialist rhetoric of the oppressed Middle Eastern woman. Genie comes from the jinn that is represented in Arab and Islamic lore. The Jinn predates Islam, but has become part of Islamic belief. The origin of the word Jinn comes from the word Janna, which means to hide or conceal, and so they are considered to be demon-like beings that are invisible to mankind as they are made of fire and smoke. Jinn are believed to have their own free-will and to be malignant. However, Western literature, television, and film have exoticized genies and turned them into mischievous, yet inherently harmless wish-granters. When Jeannie says that she was put in the bottle by a Jinn, it is a direct reference to the being of fire and smoke that many Arabs and Muslims believe in. This aids the promulgation of the idea that Muslim, Middle Eastern men treat women badly.

Orientalist ideology is essential for the West to able to depict the “reality” of the Other. Although, the “other” exists, it can only be identified as such if the West highlights the problems that saturate the culture. In I Dream of Jeannie, gender and sexuality are the factors that motivate this ideology. The show creates a clear dichotomy between not only the East and the West, but also between eastern men and eastern women. These depictions serve to underscore the social and moral superiority that white men believe they possess. The representations are central to the depiction of an inferior orient and so they are used to emphasize power dynamics. The white man must use his power to liberate the brown woman from the brown man; however, in doing so, he does not in fact liberate the brown woman, he merely takes her as his own captive.

Tony does not actually liberate Jeannie. He constantly tries to domesticate and Americanize her. Her supernaturalness, mischief, and promiscuity are not welcome in the West. In the first episode, Jeannie jumps on Tony to embrace him, and he stops her by saying, “ We don’t do that in America.” The women of the Orient fulfill sexual fantasies; however, their “otherness” is also feared. As the show progresses, Jeannie begins to become more “Americanized”. When she dons western clothing, she is complimented. In one occasion, Jeannie swaps her harem garb and veil for a long, blue dress and a western hairstyle. Tony says, “If it took 2000 years for you to look like that, it was worth everyday.” It is evident here that although the oriental woman is capable of providing the white man with pleasure, she is more desirable when she fits the image of a modern, Western woman. Oriental fashion is considered antiquated. It belongs in the past. There is no room for the Middle Eastern woman in the public sphere. Her eroticized sexuality; however, is longed for in the white man’s private sphere. This is what makes Western critique of the Middle East inherently hypocritical. The Occident has specific rules on what type of behavior is deemed acceptable for women in the public sphere versus in the private sphere. This is the same as what the Orient is assumed to do. Women are oppressed and veiled in the public; however, they are sexualized in private. I Dream of Jeannie is very dated and would not be allowed to air or even to be made today because of its blatant xenophobia, its orientalist depiction of The Middle East continue to permeate Western media, although more subtly. Sex and the City 2 is a romantic comedy that was released in 2010. It follows four women from New York who go on a completely sponsored trip to Abu Dhabi, UAE. As a muslim woman who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, I can attest that this movie paints a completely false picture of the “reality” of the Middle Eastern city’s cultural climate. Apart from the fact that the movie completely homogenizes oriental countries by incorporating languages like Hindi and Farsi and then stating that these are Arabic tongues, the film manages to visually depict a false “otherness”. Almost every single one of the Arab women shown in the film are dressed in niqabs, a form of muslim hijab, the Islamic dress for women, that covers all but the eyes. In actuality, not all women in Abu Dhabi don this type of clothing. They wear not only a variety of types of Middle Eastern clothing, but also South Asian, and even Western clothing. At one point in the movie, Carrie, one of the four women, sees a woman with a niqab and says, “ It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice.” Like moments in I Dream of Jeannie, this costuming depicts Middle Eastern men as misogynists and oppressors, and Middle Eastern women as oppressed and subservient.

In another moment in the film, the women are at the hotel's pool, and they are appalled at the women wearing burqinis, a swimsuit that many muslim women choose to wear as it completely covers their bodies and their heads too. Throughout the film, these four New Yorkers are shocked at the sexual oppression of Middle Eastern women. In SATC 2, as in I Dream of Jeannie, Arab clothing serves as a metaphor for the backwardness of Arab society. Towards the end of the film, Samantha, one of the New Yorkers, drops her handbag, spilling out multiple condoms. Immediately, a crowd of Arab men, who are dressed in Moroccan kanduras, traditional Arab robes for men, instead of Emirati kanduras, surround Samantha and begin to shout at her in Arabic, condemning her actions as sinful. She proceeds to scream that she uses them to have sex. Although a scene like this would be strange in any part of the world, the film manages to depict the Middle Eastern men as sexually backward. After this a group of Arab women, who are, once again, all wearing niqabs, call the group New Yorkers into an old flower shop, in order to protect them from the mob of angry men. These women then unveil themselves to reveal their hidden western clothes, makeup, and hairstyles. The New Yorkers are impressed. Carrie says, “...underneath hundreds of years of oppression was this year’s spring collection.” The film claims that clothing is only acceptable, modern, and fashionable if it is Western. Throughout the movie, the American women criticize Arab and Islamic culture instead of attempting to understand it. Any non-western way of dressing is archaic and a sign of Third World-ness.

At the end, the women must leave in order to catch their flight back to New York. They are running out of time, and so out of fear of missing their flight, Carrie has a sudden idea to stop a taxi. She pulls up her dress to reveal her bare legs. Immediately, a taxi stops for them. This brings up the idea of Imperialist and Post-Colonialist feminism. The idea that unveiling a woman is the same as liberating her is false. Exposing women’s corporeality does not equate to their freedom. Colonialists completely dismissed any traditions and cultural practices that differed from their own, and used this Western, imperialist discourse of “eastern women’s liberation” as pretenses for their violent interventions in other countries. This same rhetoric is still being used. The Bush administration claimed that the war on Afghanistan was a fight for women’s rights. This statement by Laura Bush ignorantly disregards to patriarchal ideology that permeates American society as well.

Both I Dream of Jeannie and Sex and the City 2, depict the corporeal imprisonment of women, Jeannie was trapped in a bottle and the women of Abu Dhabi are veiled, in order to underscore the supposed superiority of Western society. Rather than attempting to understand the different cultural landscapes of these non-western societies, these moving pictures depict a false reality. It is true that many women in the global east are oppressed. However, it is important to note that even Western societies are blatantly patriarchal. Western media has created a dichotomy between the women of the West and the women of the East. One is determined to liberate the other; however, the former lacks this freedom herself. By depicting the Eastern hemisphere through an orientalist perspective, both I Dream of Jeannie and Sex and the City 2, objectify women’s bodies and vilify muslim and Middle Eastern men. They disregard the misogyny that exists in their own western culture, by exoticizing the women of the orient, depicting the exaggerated divide between their private erotic sexual lives and their public oppression, and using non-western clothing as a metaphor for oppression. The media separates itself and distances itself from the reality of non-western cultures and modifies the realities of those cultures into fictions from which the global west can, not only, derive visual pleasure, but also gain a sense of moral superiority.


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