Friday, September 14, 2012

Why Do Leaves Fall? Why are Pandas Martial Arts Experts?

I was watching football this past Sunday, and I saw this commercial for the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion pack--Mists of Pandaria.  Take a look:

I love the cinematics, and the voiceover about falling leaves is fantastic--Blizzard has always known how to make trailers for WoW that seem epic.  This post was initially going to be about how this trailer was almost enough for me to want to start playing again, in spite of a workload this semester that has me falling asleep every night by 9:30.

But then, as I was looking on YouTube for the video of the commercial I saw, I came across the full cinematic trailer that had been released.  And it was really concerning.

Sure, the cinematics are still amazing, and the voiceover continues to create an epic feel, but the whole depiction of the Pandaren is just unbelievable.  For starters, there seems to be a very blatant conflation of Japanese and Chinese cultural elements--and while it's certainly normal to draw from multiple cultural sources when writing/creating/doing anything, the depiction in Mists of Pandaria treats these sources as if they were the same thing, rather than acknowledging the multiplicity of their origin.

The whole thing just smacks of what Edward Said called Orientalism--that is, the way in which the West defines the East (and in turn, itself) based on the West's perception of what the East is (or should be).  And it seems that all the major cultural stereotypes about China and Japan are in the trailer.  Pandas? Check.  Pagodas? Check.  Cherry blossoms?  Got 'em.  Legendary martial-arts masters?  Double check. 

This idea of Orientalism also applies to the fact that these Chinese and Japanese elements are being made central to a fantasy video game.  In particular, I thought of literary scholar Yifen Beus's comment:

Fantastic folklore and legends are often used by Chinese writers or filmmakers [. . .] as tropes or motifs to carve out a space where cultural specificities are displayed, and whereby cultural identity is defined.  While these cultural specificities can be used as distinct markers of identity, they can also be used or even exploited by Western popular media to exoticize the Orient in the name of cultural authenticity. (Beus 428) 

The very fact that World of Warcraft is a fantasy video game serves to amplify the already blatant stereotypes that are seen in the trailer, using the supernatural to suggest cultural authenticity when in reality, it's another project of the West's understanding of the East.

I know I'm not the first one to write about this (just google "Pandarian Orientalism" and a number of interesting posts will come up), but given the imminent release of this expansion, I thought it might bear repeating here.  And while I'm not calling for a boycott, or even necessarily encouraging people to feel offended, I do think that we need to be aware of the way in which popular movies, video games, etc. use cultural imagery in their construction of difference.

And so perhaps, instead of asking, "Why do leaves fall?" or even "Why do we fight?", maybe the real question of Blizzard's new WoW trailer is, "What does this trailer say about our understanding of race in the 21st century?"

The answer is much less likely to help sell video games, but ultimately, much more important.

Works Cited

Beus, Yifen. “Oriental’s Orientalism: The Fantastic and Cultural Authenticity.” Zhong Mei wen hua shi ye xia de Mei Hua wen xue yan jiu Querying the Genealogy: Comparative and Transnational Studies in Chinese American Literature. Ed. Jennie Wang. Shanghai: Yi wen chu ban she, 2006. 428-436.

By Jen Miller