New York magazine has a new Anthony Weiner profile by Mark Jacobson. Somepeople are already giggling at what appears to be the writer's crush on Huma Abedin, Weiner's wife. Given that Abedin is strikingly lovely in every photo that's been circulated of her, that hardly seems all that noteworthy. But that's not to say there's nothing worth noting about the profile's descriptions of Abedin. Let's take a look at one of the paragraphs Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic highlighted as one of the "silliest/creepiest tidbits":
She approached in a knit white top and navy-blue business skirt, her dark, almost black hair down to her shoulders. She wore bright-red lipstick, which gave her lips a 3-D look, her brown eyes were pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race. The harsh, cheap buck lighting in the coffee shop couldn't lay a glove on her. By the time she sat down, the harmony of angels had vanquished the tinny background music from every corporate space on the planet. Of course, you'd seen pictures before. But you'd also seen pictures of the Taj Mahal. It didn't quite come up to actually being there.
Hold it right there. I hate to join the Internet outrage machine, but my problem with this paragraph has nothing to do with whether or not Jacobson is attracted to Abedin. (Who cares, and who isn't?)
My problem is that Jacobson couldn't have written a better paragraph to illustrate what's known as "orientalism" if he had tried. This reads like someone is trying to troll Edward Said.
Let's start with the red flag that should have alerted the editors that a little more work was needed here: comparing Abedin to the Taj Mahal, the icon of Indo-Islamic architecture. (Abedin is a Muslim whose parents were born in India and in Pakistan.)
First, this is crude. As an editorial matter, you probably want to strike out comparisons of Brigitte Bardot to the Eiffel Tower (for example) on your daily cliché watch. Second, though, in terms of racial sensitivity, this is less like comparing Bardot to the Eiffel Tower than comparing Tyra Banks to the Serengeti. As great as it may sound in the mind of a sleep-deprived writer on deadline, it should never, ever make it to print.
This is a tricky point to make delicately, because it's certainly true that there's a lot of manufactured indignation on the web, and I'm not convinced that much good comes from examining every written word in search of the politically incorrect just to have something to talk about. But that isn't a reason to ignore harmful stereotypes -- and what's remarkable about this particular paragraph of stereotyping is that people are not calling it out ... possibly because Internet sensitivity isn't set equally high for all ethnic categories.
Because I was an equal-opportunity skimmer of reading assignments in college, I never had much time for Said, just as I never had much time for Adam Smith. But somewhere along the line, probably while listening to female friends of South Asian extraction talk about feeling exoticized by American men they were trying to date, something sank in.
At the heart of Said's critique of Western treatment of the "Orient" is the observation that even romanticizing something is a way of diminishing it, rendering it two-dimensional. "Orientalism," according to the postcolonialists, is about emphasizing the differences between East and West, exoticizing them, seeing one, for example, as spiritual and the other as material: "By the time she sat down, the harmony of angels had vanquished the tinny background music from every corporate space on the planet." Or seeing one as ancient and the other as modern: "her brown eyes were pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race." In fact, Said was particularly cognizant of the way these trends manifested in Western perceptions of Eastern, Muslim women, in part because he felt the sexualization of the Orient was vital to Western justification for imperialism: the East was a female sex object ready for Western male penetration--the veil was made to be removed. Completely unintentionally, this paragraph, with its joint focus on Abedin's beauty and her otherness, is a classic of the genre.
Don't giggle at Jacobson for admiring Huma Abedin, and don't shame him for resorting to handy cultural references when trying to communicate with his readers, either. As a time-pressed editor myself, I'm reluctant to trash-talk editors every time something slips by. But this was a print profile, not a 20-minute or even two-hour post on the website. Next time, catch this. A paragraph like this has no business in a serious magazine. It certainly has no place in a piece seeking to illuminate a civic choice the voters of New York City will make at the polls this November.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.