Jennifer Lopez ‘s recent chinky photo shoot for TOUS jewelry has stirred up a cacophony of “Orientalist” alarms from Angry Asian Man to 8Asians. As a former student of postcolonial criticism, I have mixed feelings about these discourses. Although those photos do showcase a creative stylization of Asian themes and aesthetics that may not be culturally coherent and authentic, I don’t feel they are done with bad or politicized intentions to subjugate Asians or Asian Americans.
Even though I’m natively Asian or Asian American, who am I to be the arbitrator of other people’s taste, style and rendition of culture? Do I own Asian culture just because I’m Asian? Why should I feel threatened by other people’s liberal use of Asian culture? Even if it is misappropriated, does it reflect badly on me? Does it threaten my own identity and culture?
Let’s look at clothing from a place like Shanghai Tang. Isn’t Shanghai Tang as Orientalist as the TOUS photos as it uses the same Asian motives? What makes good Orientalism or bad Orientalism?
Is it fine then if we Orientalize ourselves just like African Americans use the N-word on each other for signification or irony?
One of my favorite music videos is Janet Jackson’s “If” which used not only highly stylized Asian themes but also fabulous Asian American dancers and actors. If you think about the video, none of it is culturally coherent or authentic in the sense that it is a total cultural imagination. But it’s nonetheless cool and marvelous to look at. Not only that, it’s fun, it features so many beautiful Asian American faces and bodies that the current cultural mainstream lacks.
Now is that good or what?
Then also look at one of my favorite films Big Trouble in Little China. It’s a Hollywood film as chinky as it can get, but it’s loaded with fun, cheekiness and excellent Asian American actors. As Orientalist as it may be, it’s also an homage to Hong Kong action movies. Can an homage be Orientalist when it’s paying respects to original Hong Kong culture?
Like many Asian Americanists, I have used “Orientalist” a million times. But really, Orientalism, popularized by Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism, refers to the system of Western discourse (from politics to art) that exotifies and essentializes the Middle East in order to subjugate nations and people of the Middle East for Western imperialist intentions.
Bad Asian American critique!
But then we are in a world of free speech, aren’t we? We certainly have the right to speak wrongly, which is the very good right that we fight for, right?