Orientalism in Pop Culture

Orientalism is a way of seeing which distorts the differences of Eastern cultures by comparing their way of life to Western civilisations. It is a concept which depicts Eastern countries, particularly Arab culture, as backward, exotic and uncivilised. Orientalism serves as justification for Europe and the U.S “helping” less civilised and dangerous countries of the East. Often known as a period of ‘European Enlightenment’, they would emphasise the poorer qualities of Arab culture so that it would rationalise their colonisation of the Eastern world. Orientalism is often present in pop culture as many artists appropriate aspects of different cultures to make their music videos seem exciting or different. Most of the time the cultures shown in the music video aren’t mentioned at all the lyrics of the song but are merely there for the entertainment factor. An example of this can be seen in Katy Perry’s music video for Dark Horse where she incorporates Egyptian factors but modernises them. Katy Perry has a track record when it comes to cultural appropriation in music videos and performances. Perhaps for the singer it is just used to make her performances seem more exotic and exciting but regardless of the purpose by depicting other cultures in an orientalist fashion she has offended people. During her performance of Unconditionally at the 2013 AMAs she appeared as a Japanese geisha (Derr, 2013), her music video Dark Horse is just her latest representation of orientalism.

In this particular music video one of the main issues was that Muslims believe it to contain blasphemy. Shazad Iqbal, a resident of the UK, started an online petition for the Dark Horse music video to be removed from YouTube after he recognised one of the suitors being burnt whilst wearing a pendant with the Arabic word for God on it. (BBC News, 2014) Iqbal (2014) wrote that, “Blasphemy is clearly conveyed in the video, since Katy Perry (who appears to be representing an opposition of God) engulfs the believer and the word God in flames.”

Depiction by an Orientalist artist during the Victorian era.
Katy Perry in the music video.
Katy Perry in the music video.

Throughout the video Katy Perry emphasises the sexualisation that may be associated with Egyptian queen, namely most people would think of Cleopatra who is historically famous for her beauty. By doing so she very much depicts an orientalist view of Egyptian women, as seen in the images above. Katy Perry is definitely not the first pop musician to culturally appropriate, however you would think that people who have so much publicity and opportunity to do good would consider and respect other religions and cultures, rather than choosing to exploit and wrongly depict them for commercial gain. The pop industry is constantly portraying the orientalist view of cultures by depicting interesting and otherworldly costumes along with the ‘exotic’ dancing and allowing these misinterpretations to be viewed by millions across the world.

References: BBC News, 2014. Katy Perry Dark Horse video ‘portrays blasphemy’. [online] Available at: <http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-26359917&gt; [Accessed 11 Apr. 2015].

Iqbal, S., 2014. YouTube to remove Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ video depicting name of God: Allah: Youtube to remove Katy Perry’s video ‘Dark Horse’ from their website. [online] Change.org. Available at: <https://www.change.org/p/youtube-to-remove-katy-perry-s-dark-horse-video-depicting-name-of-god-allah-youtube-to-remove-katy-perry-s-video-dark-horse-from-their-website&gt; [Accessed 11 Apr. 2015].

Derr, H., 2013. We Need to Talk About Katy Perry: Why Orientalism in Pop Culture Matters?. [online] HowlRound. Available at: <http://howlround.com/we-need-to-talk-about-katy-perry-why-orientalism-in-pop-culture-matters&gt; [Accessed 11 Apr. 2015].


5 thoughts on “Orientalism in Pop Culture

  1. Hi Jarrah!

    Can I just begin by saying I loved the post! It was actually really refreshing to see someone go out and find their own examples of orientalism within pop culture, rather than just blogging about examples presented within the lecture! You very clearly explained the ways in which ‘the West’ distorts and stereotypes the ‘East’ as well.

    The blog post flowed incredibly naturally and was very easy to read. I also liked how you have a thorough explanation of orientalism in the first paragraph, rather than just diving straight into your example!

    Whilst I am a fan of Katy Perry, I found this music video to be a little shallow with the way that it implements the stereotypes. Did you actually know that when the production team were critiqued over the appropriations of Egyptian culture, Mathew Cullen, the director of the clip, defended the choices by stating that, whilst he does believes it is dangerous to rip things directly from present cultures without adding anything to them, Ancient Egypt and the Egyptian culture is part of what he calls our “shared collective mythology”. He also further states that they researched the culture to furthermore ‘respect the symbolism’. This can all be seen in the interview he did with ‘Time’. I have linked it just below!


    I think it is really surprising to see that orientalism is so embedded within our contemporary society! Even when you are listening to the song itself, the actual music in sections contains elements of orientalism! It seems they really do not want to leave any stone unturned!

    Once again! I really enjoyed the blog! Keep up the good work!

    – Blake

    1. Thanks for the great feedback! It’s really interesting to hear what the director of the video had to say in defense of the video clip, I don’t think that quite justifies the cultural appropriation in the video though!
      I think orientalism is so much a part of our society that a lot of the time we’re not even conscious of the fact that we’re being orientalist, because we’ve grown up with it, so we might not realise we’re offending Eastern cultures. However, when it comes to the entertainment industry they definitely milk orientalist stereotypes a bit too much just for commercial gain.

      1. I completely agree with you. When I saw that he said that I was like ‘Seriously? That is the way you are going to defend it?’. You even look at the album artwork for the Dark Horse single and it too has elements of orientalism. Though this time it even has nothing to do with Egyptian culture, but is more focussing on Asian culture. Katy when is enough, enough?!


      2. Wow, I hadn’t even seen the cover artwork, it’s honestly bizarre that she’s interpreting so many cultures when it doesn’t even hold any relevance to the song? Katy definitely isn’t the only one to do this kind of stuff though, most artists do which is kind of sad.

  2. Hi Jarrah!
    Orientalism in pop culture this is a very interesting topic to talk about especially base on the popular culture that is happening at the moment. You have discussed the Arab culture and how orientalism serves as justification for Europe and the U.S helping less civilized and dangerous countries of the East. Orientalism is often present in pop culture, I am strongly agree with this point. I have discovered that in Avril Lavigne’s ‘Hello Kitty’ she stereotypes Japanese women by using her dancers (four Japanese women) as props, stripping them of any kind of personality or individuality in contrast to her own. And Katy Perry is often use to make her performances seem more exotic and exciting while depicting other culture in an orientalist fashion.(such as her music video “Princess of China” in which the lyrics have nothing to do with China, it even have Japanese components in it.) you have used several culture appropriate examples ( Egyptian) throughout the blog, you have demonstrated the point correctly and specifically. Overall, it’s a great piece! 

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