Bluish Women

And speaking of exotic Orientalism, how about these?

When I first looked at them, I thought that they were supposed to the sort of imaginary Africans who used to appear in the cartoons and comic books of my long-ago youth–the kind whose strange customs included various sorts of bodily mutilation, including the use of too many necklaces to elongate their necks.  A short Google search, however, reveals that the originals of this cartoon stereotype were not African at all, but rather, Burmese  (thus confirming the extent to which Ortentalist thinking removes distinctions like those between Africa and South East Asia and as in those old cartoons, just turns everything Out There into the mysterious East).  In Burma, according to Wikipedia,

Women of the various Kayan tribes identify themselves by their different form of dress. Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well-known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. The women wearing these coils are known as giraffewomen to tourists.

Girls first start to wear rings when they are around five years old.  Over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one, and more turns are added. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened; the appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.

Here’s an example:

The Wikipedia article goes on to offer a range of explanations for this practice, none of them necessarily accurate, and so I won’t repeat them here.

So maybe my shaker set is not so completely Orientalist after all, but merely anthropological.  Except for one thing:  they make no claims to being Kayan or anthropological or anything else specific at all.  They exist in a void of specific explanation easily filled by generalized assumptions like those of my memories of Africans in cartoons.

Oh, and one other thing: unlike my shakers, the Kayan woman in the Wikipedia photograph is not blue.

So why are my shakers blue?  Good question–and one for which I really don’t have an answer.  Except, of course, that it makes the women depicted yet more exotic, yet more alien (and these shakers were, I’m sure, made long before the James Cameron movie Avatar raised blue exotica to new heights and new popular acceptability).

Another possible answer also occurs to me: making the shakers blue is an additional way of dehumanizing them, of making them into ornamental decor that elides their reference to an actual existing group of people, none of whom are actually blue–thus allowing the kind of responses to them that my parents had and expected others to have to the wall plaques I discussed in a previous post.  My parents didn’t see those plaques as actually representing real people in any important way, but just as the kinds of things you hang on a wall because they’re sort of like art, sort of just vaguely mysteriously Eastern and sort of like what people usually do hang on their wall as artistic decor. Not buying into their stereotypical nature, then, but implying the perhaps even worse sin of erasing the actual humanity of the kind people they claim to represent altogether and not even thinking about the real people they supposedly depict even enough to be aware of a stereotype.

And truly, these bluish women would go so well with a modernistic 1950’s turquoise colour scheme, on top of a kidney-shaped coffee table, maybe.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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