Orientalism is in the air!

Bonjour, Air France!

I’ve never ridden your airplanes because I don’t live in France. But, I hear you fly to lots of other countries, too — like Japan, China and parts of the US. So, maybe, some day, I’ll be contemplating booking a flight on your carrier.

Except, I also see you’re being kinda Orientalist, right now.

air-france-paris

See, you just launched a new ad campaign, called “France is in the Air”, and you’re really excited that this ad campaign will be released in 12 countries, as well as through the Internet and on social media. Your website tells me that in addition to 6 “visuals” that will tell me about all the awesome features of your airplanes (like gastronomy), your ad campaign also “is supplemented by 12 visuals depicting iconic destinations served by Air France (Paris, New York, Brazil, China, Japan, Africa, Italy, etc).”

12 visuals depicting 12 iconic destinations that you’ll be plastering all over those exact same 12 countries? How exciting! (Please note also that Africa is a continent, not a country.)

If only you hadn’t ended up with an ad campaign that actually features (mostly) White women wearing stereotypical racial and cultural drag to depict all those exotic non-Westernized countries.

How positively, fetishistically Orientalist.

Take a quick peek at that visual you created to advertise your presence in Tokyo. Compared to the smiling, humanized ‘Parisian’ woman in a beret (which, incidentally, is about as “iconically French” as an ironic hipster, these days), the Tokyo visual features a pouting angry White woman who looks like she stepped off the set of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Or, look at what you did to this model in trying to depict your flights to Beijing.

air-france-beijing

To sell Air France to the people of these countries, you show a picture of a woman wearing yellowface makeup to mimic the shape of my Asiatic eye, and looking fiercely off-camera as she triumphantly mounts the mutilated carcass of my Chinese culture on her head like a gruesome, blood-soaked trophy.

I understand that you just want to tell your customers that you fly to exotic locales. But, the problem here, is that the portrayal of the exotic locales you cater to — and the cultures that call these locales home — have been flattened in your ad campaign into a sensationalized, fictionalized, dragon lady caricature of our culture; and, one that is largely the invention of your imagination. In fact, it bears very little resemblance to me and my people.

It’s clear that your ad campaign may be running in the countries of my people, but you’re not actually trying to sell Air France to the people of these countries.

You’re trying to sell the people of these countries to your people.

And, whereas you gleefully grabbed at the low-hanging Orientalist yellowface fruit for your depictions of China and Japan, you were perfectly happy to offer more sophisticated and nuanced imagery for your depictions of countries that, I suppose, are more culturally familiar to you.

I mean, by the logic of your own ad campaign, the “Tokyo” model has about as much business being in a geisha costume as the “Paris” woman should be wearing the pasty white face-paint and black-and-white sweater of a French mime.

air-france-italy

The rest of your campaign also raises some more questions with me.

I mean, according to your ad campaign, the iconic cultural costume of South America is dressing up like a parrot furry?

air-france-brasil

And, also, what the heck were you thinking when you thought this was going to be an “iconic” image representing the diasporic African experience?

air-france-dakar

And, finally, while I’m really grateful that you actually did decide to include a beautiful Black model in your campaign, what exactly about a picture of her standing in front of some “urban graffiti” makes her representative of New York City?

air-france-nyc

How is the message of this visual not: “Fly to New York and meet your first sassy Black woman!”?

I get that no one really wants to fly any more, and you want to make it cool again. But must you use and misuse the cultures of other people to do it?

Next time I contemplate traveling to France, I’ll definitely be thinking about looking elsewhere; maybe at an airline that doesn’t treat cultures like costumes.

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4 thoughts on “Orientalism is in the air!

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