Since the obsession with the Orient began, western civilization has created many misconceptions about the culture it has worked so hard to imitate. Edward Said describes the Orient as “an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (2), as it not only expresses but also represents a cultural and ideological mode of discourse. Said’s description helps better convey the desire for European society to immerse itself in what it perceives the Orient to be, primarily as it appears in art and other more eclectic images, but nothing deeper. Despite their desire to bring the Orient into their homes, western society had developed a false ideology of Orientalism, feeling that it was “essentially an idea or a creation with no corresponding reality” (5). This western ignorance of the Orient can be attributed to a superiority complex that the west felt it held over eastern cultures.
Whether many members of the western world were aware of it or not, the overall purpose of this superiority complex was for western culture to maintain dominance over the orient. In order continue this domination, the west feigned ignorance to the deeper essence of eastern customs and culture and instead focused on the shallower more esthetically pleasing aspects of the culture to imitate. This idea is further extrapolated as Said suggests, “Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be)” (6). Western civilization found itself more powerful by meticulously picking and choosing what parts of the Orient made its way into fashionable European society. This theme continued as the western focus shifted through different areas of the orient; earlier imitations reflected Egyptian and Persian styles, which gave way to a more Indian focused period. Most recently, the Orient has come to refer to the Asian Orient including areas such as China, Japan, North and South Korea, etc. Given that this is western civilization’s most current obsession with “Oriental culture” I find that the image below shows how little we have budged from our original misguided notions of the Orient.
The photo is titled, “Geisha Bride with Remington Typewriter”. By introducing the official label of the Geisha in the title, the artist evokes certain implications about the figure we then see. The first immediate and obvious difference that is apparent is the fact that Geishas are women of Japanese culture whose dedication to the art of performance is their being. The “Geisha” depicted in the photo, however, is very clearly Caucasian with little to no identifying Geisha markings. The cultural difference is most apparent in her unruly blonde hair. The Geisha customs expresses the pains taken to perfect and maintain the Geisha’s hair with intricate styles often professionally done. The woman in the photo appears to have purposely teased her hair into chaos, the exact opposite goal of a Geisha’s design. It is also important to note the dress being worn by the “Geisha” in the photo. As she is labeled the “Geisha Bride”, it is apparent that the photographer decided to westernize the Geisha by placing her in a traditional European-American wedding dress. In respect to the orient, there are a many concerns with this choice. Although Geishas could marry, they had to retire from their profession first, as active Geishas are expected to be single women for the sakes of the clients. Additionally, a Geisha would traditionally wear the kimono with an obi sash as their uniform. Although white may mean purity, oftentimes in oriental culture, white is the color that represents the act of mourning.
If aware of the lack in cultural respect often found in western depiction of the orient, the photographer could be mocking the idea of western ignorance, or perhaps is representing a marriage of oriental customs to the western culture. The bride is wearing traditional geisha makeup as her face is coated white with only parts of the lips painted. Her deliberate eye makeup also gives the appearance of a mask as is the Geisha custom. Despite this one key identifying mark of Geisha custom, as the viewer moves away from her face, the rest of her body moves further and further away from oriental tradition, as is seen with her hair and dress. She is positioned behind the Remington, with her arms around the typewriter, as if she is marrying the machine. The Remington is another symbol of western power – another deliberate choice over a Chinese or Japanese typewriter, as may have been more suitable for the Japanese culture.
By placing an American typewriter versus one of an oriental style, the photographer shows the western dominance over this cultural symbol of oriental society, so much so that she is westernized herself. There is also no ring on the bride’s finger. Also she is looking up with her eyes wide open, as if someone was going to take the typewriter away from her. It is also important to note that if there was a Japanese or even Chinese typewriter (a much more complicated machine that takes much more time to master than the American style) in this image, the typewriter would be massive and probably have to take up most of the image, compared to the American Remington that the photographer has chosen. Since the woman getting married in this image looks to be more “Americanized” by the photographer (as shown with her hair, eyes, and dress) rather than a true Japanese Geisha, perhaps it does make more sense for the photographer to use the standard American Remington typewriter as well. As the western world has shown for many decades of oriental interest, it appears to care little for the underlying facts and details surrounding the culture and more focused on the surface image that the Geisha and Remington evoke as one object. We may either praise the photographer for recognizing the clash of the two cultures, or as critics we may continue to see an ignorant portrayal of a culture the west has spent over a hundred years dominating as though the Orient were a toy.
The Antikey Chop Typewriter Blog.” The Antikey Chop Typewriter Blog. Tumblr, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. http://theantikeychop.tumblr.com/post/33569344656/geisha-bride-with-remington-typewriter-the.
Said, Edward. “Introduction.” Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 1-28
— Emilie Arsenault