cultural imperialism/(neo)colonialism

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

In the article “And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels,” Jessica Taylor discusses the “sheikh romance,” a type of romance novel that, Taylor argues, follows the following basic formula:

In an exotic land where it is rumoured that men still rule, a tall, dark and handsome sheikh meets a white woman who teaches him how to be ruled by love. (p. 1032)

Sheikh romances are generally set in fictional countries in the Middle East, with a male character described as a “sheikh,” “sultan,” or something along the lines of “king of the desert.” He is, of course, invariably rich and powerful. The female protagonist, on the other hand, is a White woman, usually from the U.S.

The topic is popular enough that Harlequin has a whole series, Desert Brides:

Another popular option is the Sons of the Desert series:

Taylor argues that these novels present a masculinized, exotic, and ultimately pre-modern Oriental Other that is contrasted with the modernized West.

Some examples:

The blurb, from Amazon (elipses in original):

When Sheikh Khalid Fehr rescues innocent Olivia Morse from the hands of his country’s enemies, he guarantees her freedom by announcing she is his betrothed….Khalid has vouched for Liv with his honor… and this desert king is determined that his new wife will fulfill her marital duties, by his side as his regal queen…and as his captive virgin bride!


Abbie Cavanaugh’s brother is in jail. Abbie can obtain his freedom—but only if she marries the Sheikh of Barakhara. The explosive passion between Prince Malik and Abbie could turn a marriage of convenience into one of Eastern promise. But neither Abbie nor Malik knows the other’s real identity. Can their marriage survive once the truth is revealed?


After a whirlwind courtship, Sheikh Hakim bin Omar al Kadar proposes marriage. Shy, innocent Catherine Benning has already fallen head-over-heels in love and she accepts….

After their wedding day–and night–when the sheikh claims his virgin wife, Catherine and Hakim travel to his desert kingdom. There Catherine discovers that this is no love match for Hakim–he’s bought her!

For more examples, go to Amazon and search “sheikh romance.” Seriously, there are tons of them — Traded to the Sheikh, Stolen by the Sheikh, The Desert Prince’s Mistress, The Sheikh’s Virgin, Love-Slave to the Sheikh, The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride (notice the recurring economic transaction theme?), and my new personal favorite book title ever, Hired: The Sheikh’s Secretary Mistress, described thusly:

Sheikh Amir bin Faruq al Zorha lives in New York, but the desert is where his heart lies. Now it’s time for him to marry….Grace Brown, Amir’s plain but indispensable assistant, isn’t exactly queen material. No matter how tempted Amir is to take her innocence, she’s off-limits. Until he returns to his homeland, where the barbarian prince replaces the businessman—and resolves that Grace will be his!

Taylor argues that the themes of these books reflect concerns about gender relations while also setting up an East/West dichotomy in which Western (usually specifically U.S.) women tame the “barbarian” desires of non-Western men. The male love interests are too masculine for current U.S. cultural norms; they attempt to control women in an obvious manner, to force them into marriage, and/or to acquire them by purchase or trade.

But they are ultimately redeemable “barbarian princes.” On the cover, they’re darker than the (generally blond) woman, but only slightly so. They are usually described as having lived in the U.S. or Europe, often during college. They seek to “modernize” their countries, often signaled by their disinterest in or opposition to the harems still maintained by other men in their countries. Referring to harems clearly links this fictionalized Middle East to the past, while the individual hero instead chooses monogamy with one White woman, signaling his modernization.

A woman, and love, tame the dangerous but desirable hero. Interestingly, femininity here is presented as preferable not just for women, but for the male character as well, as a necessary element to balance his hypermasculinity:

…the man is brought to acknowledge the pre-eminence of love and the attractions of domesticity…the theme of category romance is female power…By getting the hero to give in and fall in love with her, and admit it, she brings him into the “feminine” world view…the heroine “civilizes” the Arab hero into a domestic love and he thus becomes an acceptable husband for a white girl. (p. 1046-47).

Ultimately, then, the sheikh romance presents a backward East, a state signaled largely by gender relations. There are two types of Middle Eastern men: those who are redeemable, who can be modernized, and those who can’t. And adoption of a certain ideal of monogamous romantic love, which renders the hero’s hypermasculinity exotic but no longer scary, provides the key to modernizing otherwise barbaric cultures.

The article is in Journal of Popular Culture v. 40, no. 6 (2007), p. 1032-1051.

In this video, suggested by Dmitriy T.M., photographer Aaron Huey powerfully illustrates the history of the relationship between the U.S. and the Lakota of the Sioux Nation.   It includes the making and breaking of treaties, the use of the idea of private property to strip the Lakota of their land, the Battle of Wounded Knee, the stealing of the Black Hills, and the socio-economic (and related) disadvantages faced by the Lakota today.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Monica Y. sent a collection of vintage ads and cartoons illustrating how soap and cleanliness has been used as a metaphor for colonization.  The first two ads show how soap manufacturers and colonialists alike colluded in suggesting that the colonized were unclean/uncivilized and needed to be cleansed/enlightened.

This first ad for Pears’ Soap reads:

The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.  Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.

The phrase “White Man’s Burden” refers to the colonial-era idea that white men were burdened with bringing civilization to the uncivilized.  See our post on a modern-day Pamper’s commercial invoking a white woman’s burden for another example.

This ad for Ivory soap depicts Uncle Sam (I think) passing out soap to American Indians (in blankets, no less) (text transcribed below):


SAID Uncle Sam: “I will be wise,
And thus the Indian civilize:
Instead of guns, that kill a mile,
Tobacco, lead, and liquor vile,
Instead of serving out a meal,
Or sending Agents out to steal,
I’ll give, domestic arts to teach,
A cake of IVORY SOAP to each.
Before it flies the guilty stain,

The grease and dirt no more remain;
‘Twill change their nature day by day,
And wash their darkest blots away.
They’re turn their bows to fishing-rods,
And bury hatchets under sods,
In wisdom and in worth increase,
And ever smoke the pipe of peace;
For ignorance can never cope
With such a foe as IVORY SOAP.”

This political cartoon, circa 1886, uses the metaphor of washing to describe the cleansing of the Chinese from the U.S.  At the bottom it reads, “The Chinese must go.”

See also our set of vintage ads selling soap with depictions of African Americans as dirty.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows us the extent to which the recession has hurt the economic health of American households, especially the middle and working classes:

More than half of all Americans report some sort of work-related disruption:

Nearly half state that they are worse off than they were before the recession:

An additional four percent (since 2008) identify themselves as lower class:

Pew specifies:

Blacks, as a group, are an exception to this overall pattern. The share of blacks who now identify with the upper class has gone up during this recession, to 20% now from 15% two years ago.

Forty-eight percent have lost equity in their homes:

Sixty percent of Americans fear that they may have to delay retirement:

A larger percentage lack the confidence that they have enough income and assets for retirement, even compared to last year:

“Is America still a land of prosperity?”

The question in some historical perspective:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Adrienne K., who posts at Native Appropriations, let us know about the book Make It Work! North American Indians: The Hands-On Approach to History. Her friend Katie found it in the 4th-grade classroom library at the school where she teaches on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota:


As posted on Native Appropriations, Katie said,

The book purports to give a history of Native Americans and a guide to Native crafts, but what it ends up being is a veritable handbook for white kids to “play Indian.”  All the photos are of white kids dressed up as Indians!  I can’t find one picture (other than the historical ones, of course) of a Native American child.  Even more disturbingly, the descriptions make it sound as if these white kids are authentic representations of Indian clothing, etc.

Katie found it particularly odd that this book was in a classroom on a Sioux reservation. Some pages from the book:



The information is often rather vague. For instance, on one page a description of the Seminole tribe says, “The Seminole were a group formed by Creek Indians and other people from different areas.” Um, ok…that’s less than helpful.

In this image, Adrienne points out that children dressed up as a Seminole and a “Plains Warrior” (?) are playing stickball, as though the game was played by all American Indian groups (rather than mostly confined to the Southeastern region of the U.S.):


As Adrienne mentions, throughout the book, only the past tense is used, as though Native Americans are relics of the past, no longer in existence (or at least, no longer interesting).

I have seen lots of books like this. In fact, I was once given a book like this when I was a kid. At the time I thought it was awesome. The books all seem to have a common theme: American Indians are part of history in the same way that, say, the ancient Greeks [note: several readers object that ancient Greeks aren’t gone, either, since there are still Greek people around–see below] are — something to study that is interesting but no longer exists. Native cultures are presented as neat art projects for non-Native kids to create, all under the guise of learning about the history of Native Americans. But as we see here, any educational benefit the books might aim at is undermined by the conflation of many different groups and cultural features into one or two generalized “Indians” who end up combining elements of Native societies that were separated geographically and temporally.

And almost all of these books present the “Plains Warrior,” as though there was a single Plains culture made up entirely of war-lovers decked out in feather headdresses. Even as a kid I wondered what a Plains Indian was, since I’d never heard of a tribe called the Plains.

Part of what is going on here is the romanticization of Native Americans as courageous, noble, but ultimately tragic figures of the past. Modern Native Americans, those living now and wearing blue-jeans and t-shirts and perhaps eating Wonder Bread as often as homemade fry bread, just aren’t interesting. They don’t fit into our romanticized narrative. They aren’t authentic. Authentic American Indians were culturally distinct…and disappeared about the time Geronimo became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. And that makes the cultural appropriation acceptable, because it’s referring to people in the past. Creating a “Plains outfit” with burlap and a stapler is no more problematic than using a sheet to create a Roman toga.

UPDATE: As I said above, a number of commenters have asked how it’s any different to dress up like Native Americans than it is to dress up like ancient Greeks, seeing as how there are still Greeks around. I think there is a distinction. When people think about ancient Greek civilization, no one is then making Greeks who live today invisible. We do not imply that Greeks disappeared because a particular Greek society waned in influence. And we certainly don’t imply that ancient Greeks were the same as every other European civilization, with a few sartorial differences here or there. We also don’t suggest that anyone living in Greece today who doesn’t, say, worship Zeus is inauthentic, not a “real” Greek. People living in Greece aren’t stuck in time the way many people who romanticize American Indians see them.

NEW (Apr. ’10)!  Jessica S. and Lucia M.M. sent in examples of “teepees” sold for fun.

First, from Jessica, a teepee by Land of Nod (a sister company of Crate and Barrell).  The copy reads: “Our roomy teepee is the perfect place for peewees to powwow.”

Second, from Lucia, a teepee sold by Design Within Reach:


Related posts: racist mascots, Canada’s “indigenous Olympics“, ice skaters dress up like aborigines, indigenous cultures in Avatar (spoiler alert), Halloween costumes, defining “Indian art”, “my skin is dark but my heart is white“, anachronistic images of Native Americans, “My Indian name is…“, the sports mascot Chief Illini, Playmobil’s Native American family, Howe Nissan dealership statue, the “crying Indian” anti-littering PSA, Italian political party uses images of American Indians to oppose immigration, and a Native American toy set.

These days, if you live in the West, thinking about Asia–whether it be Chinese labor, Japanese inventions, Indian demographics, or Korean politics–is taken-for-granted as part of knowing about the world.  During the colonial era, however, when “mass media” was largely limited to print, Americans and Europeans experienced being more-or-less newly introduced to different cultures.  This spurred an entire industry in which “Africa,” “the Orient,” and the “Middle East” were presented to curious Westerners.  These presentations, more often than not, were objectifying.  Westerners were able to enjoy reveling in the seemingly bizarre and unfamiliar people and customs of these Other places (with a capital “O”), as if Other kinds of people were new species of animals over which to fawn.  This accumulation of documents with which the average Westerner could try to understand their “foreign” counterparts were produced not only by travel writers, but anthropologists, artists, imperial employees, novelists, and others.

Edward Said, in his powerfully influential book, Orientalism, first articulated the way that efforts of these actors coalesced into a mythology about “the Orient.”  A mythology in which the East and the West were set in opposition and the East was used by the West to define its own, superior identity.

Katrin sent in one example of this traffic in Orientalism.  It’s a postcard from the early 1900s that depicts a “Burmese Beauty.”  It was painted by Robert Talbot Kelly and originally published in his book, Burma (1905).  The caption reads:

A Burmese Beauty. The Burmese women are generally attractive, much more so than the men, and present a pretty picture as they walk about attired in their gaily coloured skirts and shaded by their quaint umbrellas. All the ladies smoke in Burma, large cigars being the favourite ‘weed.’

Here, the people themselves are seen as objects for a (distant) touristic gaze, kind of like the generic mostly-naked-woman-in-tropical-paradise postcard that we still see today.  More examples of colonial era Orientalist postcards depicting Burma (from Images of Asia):






Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Martin M. pointed out some ironic happenings in Peru that illustrate the complexities of trying to deal with long-term stereotypes and prejudice. Back in November 2009, the Peruvian government officially apologized for discrimination against AfroPeruvians. So far so good–a step toward acknowledging that AfroPeruvians have suffered both economically and socially because of social attitudes and government policies.

But, of course, long-held stereotypes aren’t that easy to change. Peruvians of African descent have often been portrayed as backward, uncivilized, and possibly cannibalistic.

Just a few days after the government’s apology and declaration that poor treatment and negative stereotypes of this ethnic group needed to end, the newspaper El Comercio began advertising their new section on healthy eating with a TV commercial that draws on all the old stereotypes. The video is in Spanish, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the gist of it, and I describe it below:

El comercio- Los canibales from Pao Ugaz on Vimeo.

What’s going on here? The mother is mad, not because her younger son ate someone, but because he ate someone who was too fat, and thus not good for them to eat. They need to eat less fattening people to improve their health. She warns him about his cholesterol. The caption says, “You eat healthy, you are healthy.”

According to Reportaje al Perú, the newspaper pulled the spot after receiving complaints and apologized for it.

As with any society with a history of widespread, blatantly racist stereotypes and discrimination, attempting to heal racial wounds will be a very long, painful, and difficult process. It’s one thing to officially apologize. It’s another to convince citizens that prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable and that everyone must play a part in ending them.

See also: El Correo ridicules Quechua speakers in government.

Larry of The Daily Mirror sent in an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times on January 26, 1920. Here are some screencaps of the most interesting sections:

Not surprisingly, civilization means only one thing: assimilation into Anglo culture. The other option? Extinction. How do we know a tribe isn’t civilized? They still live like their “forefathers” did. It’s a theme we see a lot in terms of Native Americans: in order to be authentic (which in this case means “uncivilized”), they must not change any cultural practices. There is an expectation that “real” Indians are culturally frozen in time, as though their cultural practices and lifestyles had not changed throughout history just like every other group’s has.

And also, I’m pretty sure lots of groups have combined elements of two or more religions “without any difficulty or embarrassment,” but whatever. I’m sure they were, indeed, of immense interest to artists, scientists, and writers (also, physiognomists). And since they are of interest to them, that should definitely be taken into account when we decide what to do with them. Taos still loves Indian art.

Still, Native American cultural customs are acceptable only to the degree they are compatible with assimilation. And learning to read and write, use a stove or a sewing machine, mean giving up “the Indian life.” Again, modernity cannot be combined with existing cultural practices.

It’s a great example of how Whites felt entirely comfortable discussing what the future of American Indians should be, either romanticizing them as noble savages or insisting on their cultural backwardness, without any sense that Indians themselves might have any ideas on the issue worth paying attention to.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.