(Re)thinking Orientalism

Using Graphic Narratives to Teach Critical Visual Literacy

by Rachel Bailey Jones (Author)
©2015 Textbook 238 Pages
Series: Minding the Media, Volume 12


(Re)thinking Orientalism is a text that examines the visual discourse of Orientalism through the pedagogy of contemporary graphic narratives. Using feminist, critical race, and postcolonial theoretical and pedagogical lenses, the book uses visual discourse analysis and visual semiology to situate the narratives within Islamophobia and neo-Orientalism in the post-9/11 media context. In the absence of mainstream media that tells the complex stories of Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world, there has been a wave of publications of graphic narratives written and drawn from various perspectives that can be used to create curriculum that presents culture, religion, and experience from a multitude of perspectives. The book is an accessible, upper level undergraduate/graduate level text written to give readers insights into toxic xenophobia created through media representation. It provides a theoretical foundation for students to engage in critical analysis and production of visual media.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Introduction: Bringing Theory to Practice
  • 2 Situating the Discourse: Orientalism and Islamophobia
  • 3 Visualizing Difference, Decoding Representation
  • 4 Post-September 11th and the Visual Regime
  • 5 Muslims in the American Media: The Muslims I Know, All-American Muslim, and Graphic Representations
  • 6 From the Inside/Outside: Persepolis, Nylon Road, and A Game for Swallows
  • 7 Graphic Narratives from Inside the Iranian, Egyptian, and Tunisian Protests: The Tunisian Awakening, Rise, Zahra’s Paradise, and Qahera
  • 8 Self-Reflexive Outsiders: The Waiting Room, The Photographer, and Palestine
  • 9 Habibi: The Outsider Looking In
  • 10 Graphic Narratives of Self and Other: American Born Chinese, Pyongyang, and Fun Home
  • 11 Conclusion: Lessons of Critical Visual Literacy
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Introduction: Bringing Theory to Practice

The purpose of this text is to present the context of the representation of difference and the way that students in American schools learn about those who are different from them. To confront and challenge stereotypical understanding, I argue that educators need to first present the problematic, stereotypical images and text for analysis to understand how and why more authentic representations can counteract bias and lead to change. The first four chapters of the book establish the theoretical and historical context for the analysis of media and graphic narratives that follow in Chapters 5 through 10. This introduction lays the framework for the media and texts that are analyzed in later chapters. This also presents the theoretical and analytical foundation for the rest of the text, including comics theory, critical visual analysis, critical visual literacy, critical race and feminist theory and pedagogy. The first chapter gives the historical context of colonialism, postcolonialism, and Orientalism that explicitly or implicitly informs all of the graphic narratives in the text. Chapter 2 goes into more depth about visual modes of representation of difference and the encoding of visual language in the service of narrative. The third chapter traces the fundamental impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11th on the representation of Muslims in the United States and global relationships. This dovetails into the fourth chapter that begins the analysis of contemporary works of fictional ← 1 | 2 → and nonfictional representations of difference, in the form of television shows, independent film, and comics that challenge the stereotypical tropes of Islamophobia. I choose to separate the graphic narratives into chapters based on the geographical setting of the text but also considering the relationship of the author to the narrative. In Chapter 5, I analyze several texts that are memoirs about the authors’ own experience in their cultural homeland(s) and the negotiation of identity and culture from their own perspectives: Persepolis (Satrapi 2003, 2004), Nylon Road (Bashi, 2009), and A Game for Swallows (Abirached, 2012). The texts analyzed in Chapter 6 are accounts of Western journalists who describe the experience of “other” with the intention of relating the real lived experience of others through graphic journalism: The Waiting Room (Glidden, 2011), Palestine (Sacco, 2001), and The Photographer (Guilbert, 2009). Chapter 7 focuses entirely on one fictionalized account of a distant and “exotic” land full of beautiful visual and verbal art along with problematic stereotypes and representations of gender: Habibi (Thompson, 2011). Other graphic narratives (in Chapter 8) are accounts of the author’s homeland in the form of fictionalized or true stories of the experience of others in their own culture: The Tunisian Awakening (Hussein, 2011), Rise (Shahin, 2011), and Zahra’s Paradise (Amir & Khalil, 2011). Chapter 9 broadens the scope of my analysis to texts that involve the complex representation of difference in multiple forms: American Born Chinese (Yang, 2008a), Pyongyang (Delisle, 2007), Burma Chronicles (Delisle, 2010), and Fun Home (Bechdel, 2007). The final chapter draws conclusions about the use of these narratives to teach critical visual literacy to students who are steeped in assumptions and flattened representations of difference.

Graphic Representations of Difference

Graphic representations of difference are communicated visually and verbally, though it is the visual nature of the graphic narrative and the inextricability of the images from the narrative that make it a powerful tool for teaching critical visual literacy. Historically grounded images have been used to propagate racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppressive relationships. The power of bigoted images involves the relating of two or more people (often implicating the viewer) and highlighting the supposed normalcy and superiority of one while dehumanizing and degrading the other. Some derogatory imagery relies on ← 2 | 3 → taking a supposed physical characteristic of one group of people and exaggerating the feature to make them appear ridiculous and subhuman. The illustrations from Vaught’s Practical Character Reader (Vaught, 1902) include pages devoted to various types of facial features, including noses and what the length, size, and slope of a nose means about the nature and character of the person. Noses that were pointed downward, bumped, or “hooked” were labeled as “pessimistic” and “cunning” (Vaught, 1902, p. 9). An example of this from popular culture is the use of a pronounced hooked nose in the villains of Walt Disney. Playing off anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish noses, Disney started to illustrate his villains with large noses that had a bump and turned sharply downward. Infamous villains including Captain Hook (Peter Pan; Disney, Geronimi, Jackson, & Luske, 1953), Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas; Pentecost, Gabriel, & Goldberg, 1995), and Jafar (Aladdin; Clements & Musker, 1992) showcase the connection in Disney animation between evil and nose shape. The noses of villains subtly recall anti-Semitic stereotypes that young viewers may not consciously understand.

In one of the most infamous examples of the popular curriculum about difference, Disney created Aladdin in 1992, loosely based on the tales of the Arabian Nights. The film has been criticized as a prime example of how Orientalism (the fantastical Western creation of the Middle East as an exotic, savage land) is communicated to children. The introductory song “Arabian Nights” originally included the lyrics, “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Fox, 1993, para. 4). After the film was released in theaters in 1992, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested the clear racism and Orientalism of the lyrics. In a rare act of contrition, Disney rewrote the lyrics for the film’s video release. The revised lyrics were, “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (para. 5). Though the offensive lyrics were changed, the inherent racism of the film was not altered. The world of Disney’s Aladdin was full of racist stereotypes of Arabs, including conniving merchants, overly sexualized harem girls, violent punishment, and genies in bottles. Aladdin, the hero of the film, has an American accent, lighter skin, and more Westernized features, while the other characters (especially the evil Jafar) have darker skin, hooked noses, and vaguely foreign accents. The world of the film was an American fantasy of the Arab world that is part of a long history of flattened, stereotypical ← 3 | 4 → representations that both sensualize and vilify the Arab people. These animated motion pictures relate to the world of comics, though they reach a wider audience and have much larger budgets.

Comics as a Medium, Graphic Narrative as a Form

Many people of my generation were introduced to comics in the newspaper, especially the full color Sunday edition. Comics were short, sometimes funny, and sometimes part of an ongoing narrative that continued on the newspaper pages from week to week. Others were introduced to comics through the comic book, often associated with the masculine superhero that saves the damsel in distress and the world from evil. The medium of comics is vast, diverse, and made up of many different genres. Graphic narratives are a form of comics that are book-length narratives and that combine image and text in unique and creative ways. I choose to use the term graphic narrative rather the more widely used graphic novel because I analyze fictional and nonfictional texts (and others that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction).

Though the field of comics studies and theoretical approaches to reading comics is relatively new, some interesting work is being done on how to apply the theoretical perspectives of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, and border theory to graphic narratives. In adapting theoretical approaches that were originally used to analyze traditional text-based books, it is important to highlight the unique qualities of production, representation, and reception that are possible with graphic narratives; these are not simply books with pictures added in. The work is to determine how visual and verbal codes that are culturally and historically contingent function to create and disturb meaning in graphic narratives. The extended length of the narrative form and its visual storytelling over space is unique; most of our encounters with the visual are presented in still photos or artwork or predigested in film and television. Though certainly there are stories and visual codes present in all of these media, the graphic narrative must be experienced and read over a greater length of time; the visual codes repeat and evolve throughout the text. They involve a significant commitment on the reader’s part to decode text and image and to make meaning of difference.

The visual language of comics varies based on the individual voice and hand of the creator, generally ranging from realistic to iconic. Realistic images use a lot of detail that tries to copy elements of the real object world ← 4 | 5 → in the panels of a comic world. Iconic images use basic shapes and lines to suggest reality without trying to copy it directly. In realistic comics, the creator does most of the work in translating the images from reality to the page, while the iconic style leaves more interpretive and translational work to the reader. The relationship between realistic comics and the real world of objects is closely aligned; therefore the images are read as images rather than as mental concepts. McCloud (1993) lays out a triangular matrix of the visual language of comics with “the picture plane,” “language,” and “reality” with all comics images fitting along these matrices. In the recent history of comics, the cutting edge, underground comics tend toward the more iconic, language point of the triangle. The comics that tend to strive for greater realism are the mainstream superhero and dramatic comics.

There has been a recent surge of interest in graphic narratives as pedagogical tools and in comics theory as a means of analysis, but the field is still emerging. In “Workshop I: Toward a Toolbox of Comics Studies,” Kukkonen and Haberkorn (2010) attempt to collect a set of analytical tools that could be used to approach the wide variety of comic forms. They critique much existing comics theory as too reductive, “the hammer of simplification,” which focuses on one element of comics as central; either the words are central while the images function simply as illustrations or the images are primary and the words are mere caption. The authors suggest moving away from a single, catchall approach and urge scholars to create a useful set of analytical tools and approaches to analyze comics. The first lenses for inclusion are production and reception, examining the context of production of the comic and how the audience/readers receive the comic. As cultural artifacts, comics are written, produced, and reproduced by a range of authors and artists, published by small and large comic and literary publishing companies that have stakes in the content and context of the comic. Authors and publishers have cultural positions and background knowledge and values that inform the production and distribution of the work. Once published and distributed, looking critically at audience involves analysis of who reads certain comics, how they are read, and what reaction or learning takes place as a result of the consumption. The second pair of tools in the analytical box are form and content, intertwined elements in comics. Many theorists in the field (including Groensteen, 2007) focus on the form of the comic panel elements and the formal sequencing of panels to create a narrative flow. The formal elements clearly impact the content and the ← 5 | 6 → reception of the comic’s audience, with some authors purposefully manipulating the formal elements to drive their content while others consciously keep the form standardized to fade out of discussion of content. The final elements for toolbox inclusion are poetics and rhetorics. “Both have established a catalogue of devices used, in literature and oratory respectively, to achieve certain effects and to express certain contents” (p. 241). These traditional devices are useful in analyzing elements of discourse, character, and expression. The toolbox is broad enough to capture the variety of approaches to scholarly analysis of comics while not prescribing certain ways of reading or writing about comics.

Comics Terms


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (December)
Pedagogy Muslim Postcolonialism Media pedagogy Islamophobia xenophobia
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 238 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Rachel Bailey Jones (Author)

Rachel Bailey Jones (PhD in Curriculum and Teaching from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) is Assistant Professor of Social & Psychological Foundations of Education at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. She also serves as the Program Director for the program in Women and Gender Studies. She taught art at the elementary level in North Carolina. Her first book is entitled Postcolonial Representations of Women: Critical Issues for Education (2011).


Title: (Re)thinking Orientalism