Writing 305: The Politics of Visual Rhetoric

Ella Shohat: Gender and the Culture of Empire

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In this chapter, Ella Shohat, a professor of cultural studies at New York University, explores the intertwined concepts of race, gender and culture within post-modern feminist film theory. Through her analysis, Shohat counters post-colonial narratives that, as she argues, have dominated Western cinema beginning in the late 19th century and have been crucial in constructing the famous “subaltern” (as introduced by G. Spivak).

Shohat convincingly argues that Western cinema has aided colonial discourses’ subsistence along with creating a network of film distribution particular to neo-colonialism. She explores the dynamics of race and gender and shows they have been implicitly “otherized” within Western cinematic production. To demonstrate this, Shohat provides examples of “gendered metaphors,” such as in the Biblical narrative about Adam and Eve or stories of European explorers. For instance, she writes that, in this sense, “a ‘virgin’ land is implicitly available for defloration and fecundation (p. 7).”

Shohat continues her examination by moving on to “geographical and topological tropes,” tropes revolving around the peoples of the “dark continent” (mainly Arab countries), especially women, and textual neo-colonial strategies. Her analysis is an important contribution, elucidating some aspects of film unknown to myself before. For example, a film where any Western heroic figure is absent can still operate within a Western neo-colonial narrative (p. 91).

At times, Shohat might have gone one step too far, however. For instance, she ascribes statements such as “the shrinking of the world” to British imperialist control (p. 91), while it may simply reflect developments in global trade and transportation technology. Similar arguments could be made for what she calls capitalist values imbibed in disciplines such as archaeology.

Still, Shohat’s analysis provides the reader with a in-depth insight of great value. Hierarchical, neo-imperialist narratives and power relations continue to permeate modern cinema, as shown on the examples of Star Wars or The Mummy. “Western cinema,” Shohat concludes, “has operated on [a] Eurocentric discursive continuum […]” (p.97). The “Western gaze,” penetration and seizure of exotic lands are only few examples of what post-colonialists battle in Western cinema and beyond.

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