orientalism #1: wheel of fortune.

I usually turn off Wheel of Fortune before they can get to Fortune (you know: Wheel! Of! TV off.) and I tend to think of its guests as people not smart enough to be on Jeopardy, Wheel’s 7:00 syndicated lead-in, but every once in a while I leave it on long enough to watch Vanna walk all the way across that stage and to hear Pat introduce the first glorified Hangman puzzle of the night, and then sometimes it just stays on til the end.

The other night, when such a thing happened, one of the themes or special trips or whatever the hell they do on that show produced a particularly offensive graphic called the “Exotic Far East.” The lettering approximated bamboo and was set against some kind of rice-paddy background. And was there a gong* or does my memory insert one? After this little display of Orientalism the camera cuts to Pat Sajak (in banter, a far superior host to Alex Trebek, but he lacks Alex’s socially inept brand of charisma—my family and I like to make fun of Alex but I think we’d all be very, very sad if he left) and Pat, glib as ever, muses, “Do they call us the Exotic Far West?” Pause. “Anyway–“ and the show went on.

Asian fonts, writing, bamboo, Orientalism

This is exactly what it looks like when Asians write in English.

It was the briefest moment of lucidity in what I guess I’d call the realm of mainstream culture as opposed to what I guess I’d call the realm of cultural criticism. Words like “exotic” and “mysterious,” images like chopsticks and dragons and fortune cookies, sounds like gongs* (Andrew Ti knows what I’m talking about) remain entrenched and are the lazy man’s racist stand-in for East Asia (and, at ESPN, for Palo Alto). I both abhorred and appreciated this game-show moment because, while the graphic and segment title were annoying, for just a second, Pat shook himself as if awakening from a dream, looked around, and said, “What is happening? Where am I? Why should the East be exotic?” And then sold some vowels.

Pat, it’s appreciated, now keep on hosting your mediocre game show. Vanna, you anti-feminist icon, don’t even get me started on you.

– “Community” Season 1 Episode 1: intro to Senor Chang
How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover, by James Morrison (The Society Pages)
“Message from a Nightingale” scene, The Drowsy Chaperone, 2006 Broadway musical

*Musician’s Note: The type of gong used to produce the sound that typically accompanies terrible stereotypes is called a “tamtam.” It makes a crash-like wash of noise, as opposed to the “nipple” gong which has that Zen-like (dang! now I’m doing it) low-pitched ring.


2 responses

  1. I remember experiencing some uncomfortable disillusionment a couple of years ago when Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak appeared on each other’s shows (maybe for April Fool’s?) and it turned out Pat Sajak is really good at Jeopardy!

    Anyway, I think Pat was gesturing at a subtler idea—one that escapes a lot of people who revealingly refer to themselves as “crits.” This despite the fact that it’s a point that’s been made for a couple centuries by obscure philosophers like Hume, Nietzsche, or in our own day, Stanley Fish. And here it is: Recognizing the Other as a subject with its own reciprocal perspective has zero implications for whether we should respect, much less ratify, that perspective. As I said, it’s not a new idea; you can see it operationalized in the 1840’s in the famous story of Sir Charles Napier and the suttee. It’s the blue team against the green team, and we were born on the blue team.

    What is new is the insistence that the West (alone of all societies, usually) adopt a universalistic stance that rejects the very notion of the “exotic” or “mysterious.” In its own way, it’s every bit as Eurocentric as your average 19th century imperialist; it implicitly reduces the non-Western to a foil in the same way Cyril from The Decay of Lying did explicitly. To paraphrase Cynthia Ozick, “Universalism is the parochialism of the West.”

    Also, Ken Jeong is hilarious. I never noticed before that Britta (britta@impeachbush.radiohead) was nodding along the whole time.

  2. I don’t think *recognizing* an essentialized prejudice is the same as promoting universalism, though of course it might be undergirded by that Western worldview (so hard to avoid as it is). Pat Sajak’s question isn’t aimed so much at ascribing the Other an identical humanity as it is challenging the way in which we depict the Other, in this case the “exoticism” of the East inherited from European orientalism and still, despite an increasingly globalized world and an increasingly diverse racial makeup in “the West,” so casually and unquestioningly bandied about. (Yes, I’m a little embarrassed to be critically analyzing the offhand remark of a game show host. Especially one from fucking *Wheel of Fortune*.)

    The reproduction of tired centuries-old Orientalist tropes, so removed from the context of their origin– I mean, what is the East now? Who belongs to it? What do we mean when we call it exotic?– is in my mind definitely worthy of criticism. And speciously equating the Western practice of “exoticizing” a foreign Other and the Western practice of studying and understanding a foreign culture (or even just, you know, trying to be accurate about it) is ridiculous, and even more so, doing the same to the practice of simply *questioning* such exoticizations, stereotypes, Otherings. “Crits” (ugh) maybe can’t expect the general populace to cease and desist, but anything that challenges some kind of embedded societal racism is worth saying. If nothing else, for the improvement of our own society– e.g. the persistent conflation of Asian Americans and Asians, still too exotic to be American.

    btw, this is all a practical discussion of the issue at hand… Obviously, when the Western liberal project’s gaze faces outward, to other societies, to the non-West, there’s a whole host of problems that crops up, with neo imperial ventures and humanitarian interventions and whatnot– the assertion of a common humanity can have very evil implications. But that doesn’t make engaging in the Western practice of subjectivizing the Other (in response to the Western practice of creating it) inherently negative or without value.

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