to render someone or something different from oneself exotic.
There are many ways to treat difference and otherness: ethically, without presumption; unethically, with prejudice; and, in some cases, for better or worse, with desirous intentions. Many forms of difference — notably racial and physical difference — undergo exotification, particularly when this difference incorporates sexual desire. Though this exotifying desire arguably disproportionately applies to female-bodied persons, male bodies and other identities are also subject to this same tendency.
Yet how can we frame exotification in non-racial, non-gendered terms? Can we include geographic complications and genetic permutations to differences of race and ethnicity? While this may seem antithetical to the project of racial criticisms of colonialism’s exotifying tendencies, the matter of difference must be treated in less racial terms to better conceptualize and thereby understand how this tendency emerges and operates in postcolonial contexts. We must therefore trace the geographies of transnational desires and wonder how the question of “the other” arises in the wake of global differences.
To exotify is to aestheticize or sexualize difference, racial or otherwise, for sexual or nonsexual purposes.
Through and through, to exotify is not to engage in difference in a dialectical manner, meeting difference open-mindedly, aware of its partially necessary unknowability, but rather it is most often a prescriptivist fashion. It presumes some commonality amongst a group of people, rendering them identical and interchangeable, without realizing the disparities and differences of its members and (lack of) communities. It is to assume, for example, incorrectly, that all Asians all have slanty eyes, all Scandinavians are blonde, all African-American men are well-endowed, et cetera. These are vast generalizations. At its heart, exotification reduces a set of ideas about a particular difference, often ridden with stereotypes, to a narrow view of that difference.
Arguably, the only people, in the majority of cases, who are not subject to such exotification tend to be white, heterosexual, cisgender male-bodied individuals (though there are likely exceptions, in the case, for example, of the fetishization of “straight” guys in queer media, and other examples.) In terms of power dynamics, whoever depicts and decides the representation and value of these identities attains power or recovers agency in scenes of exotification. Since the ownership of media-makers today tends to be mostly white, male, cisgender and heterosexual, the representation of these categories’ constituents usually allow for greater complexity and nuance. Similarly, those who are “other” to these majoritarian categories of identity are more susceptible to passively becoming the object of exoticism, of a twisted queer kind of presumptuous yet oft-“endearing” desire. Since there exist spaces for people who cannot conform to the rigid, knowable, finite parameters of these category boxes, these groups are still exotified but these efforts rarely succeed in fully pigeonholing their identities. This inequitable distribution of media ownership is one of the many aftereffects of former colonial legacies, the transnational exploitation of labor and goods, slavery and servitude, and the lives lost to war or worse.
Exotification does not signal the erasure of difference or different people, but rather serves to mythologize a fiction of these identities. Identities that, for the most part, do not adequately mirror the reality of individual people nor the subtle complexities between a group of people with similar differences.
Thankfully, most of the rampant tropes of exotification have been critiqued adequately, though these issues rarely garner widespread attention. In, for example, “Exotification: I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower“, the writer critiques (white) men’s tendencies to exotify Asian identities and bodies, to envision a nonexistent pan-Asian ideal woman, and position themselves in colonially white terms. She cites a Tumblr, “Creepy White Guys“, that showcases many disturbing examples of this exotifying tendency from OkCupid messages, featuring mentions of Tiger moms, slips of nationality, and offensive messages in Asian languages. These exotifying sentiments attest to the existence of a pan-Asian desirability, resulting in a form of fetish. The problem with such a fetish, of course, is that it is rooted in denigrating and simplistic stereotypes, thrives on imaginative ignorance, and is not necessarily criticized as readily since they tend not result in overt forms of discrimination or violence, though the link between such exoticism and violence has not adequately been drawn. Similarly, Asian women have thus far theorized the link between these fetishized images of submissive Asian femininity and the racist-inflected sexual violence committed against Asian women and trans people.
It relates to stereotyping and essentializing, yet its problematic existence stems primarily from the ways in which this exotification is seen by exotifiers as a good, normal activity – and their fetish as just a matter of “preference.” What recurs in many of these (white) men’s sentiments, as is discussed as well in this article, is the notion that Asian women are somehow naturally more submissive and respond more subserviently to male-determined authority. These sentiments, of course, follow the colonial love of interracial fantasies and the politics of domination that usually accompany postcolonial relations. Chin Lu also distinguishes between preferences for Asian women as a type from the pernicious expressions of Yellow Fever.
In the article above, she argues that exotifying sentiments typecast these identities in a way that resembles the fantasy of the exotifier, not the reality of those exotified:
To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.
As an Icelandic-American, my nationality-ethnicity has too often been the subject of my sexual or interpersonal worth, with some individuals explicitly stating a preference for me on the basis of my Icelandic nationality or pan-Scandinavian representability. To an extent, this exotification resembles a Third Reich idealization of an “Aryan aesthetic,” which served to continually beautify certain identities-bodies while then devaluing other identities-bodies, resulting in a range of prejudice-driven holocausts against Jewish, disabled, queer, trans, gypsy, and politically radical people. Similarly, less care is taken to know my own birthplace (Los Angeles), language (Icelandic, English) or familial history (one-fourth Norwegian, three-fourths Icelandic) or that my parents view us to be first and foremost self-professed “American citizens”; instead, stereotypes of an all-blond people abound and incorrect assignations of my nationality are even more prominent. Attempts of mine to correct the pronunciation of famous Icelanders, such as sigur rós or Björk (my grandmother’s name), are sometimes read as pretentious or inaccessible, yet little care is ever taken to adequately try to use the language.
Like incorrect notions of a pan-Asian identity, too often have I been asked whether I speak Danish or Swedish or Norwegian, as if these countries and languages were all identical, and not without their own inter-Scandinavian conflicts and colonial histories. As an American and Icelander and bilingual person, my identity lies between three countries and in two languages, but those who exotify me do not always give me space to discuss the complexity of my identity or, worse still, do so with presumption instead of discussion. Therefore, in discussions of exotification, we need to look beyond race to understand how colonialism operates, historically and today, and reconsider how we deal with difference and alterity.