Indiana Jones, COVID-19, and Orientalism

By Megan Byrom - HSPS Student @ Queens' College, Cambridge

What can Indiana Jones tell us about the Covid-19 pandemic? Film franchises like this are catered to Western audiences in terms of its villains and blonde bombshells, but also in their depictions of Asia and Asian people. Such a relationship is found throughout Western media; for example, as Jones becomes a white saviour of the ‘savage’ native. His American intellect, masculinity, and skill set are no match for his opponents, and Asia becomes a space where Jones escapes Western civilization into a lawless land of ‘other’.


The franchise fulfils ideas of ‘Orientalism’ as described in Edward Said's 1978 book of the same name. Orientalism is a Western tradition, perpetuating the ‘east’ as an opposition to the West through prejudiced interpretations that essentialise them as undeveloped, primitive and fundamentally less than. Such a dynamic continues to justify colonial and neo-colonial projects, shaping the global south as reliant on the civilization of the West and preserving Western power through this.


But these ideas are not resigned to the Indiana Jones franchise or similar media that portray the otherness of the east. These ideas are products of historical actions and current policy decisions.


The full impact of Covid-19 is yet to be fully comprehended, but looking back to early 2020 and the media portrayal of the virus, Edward Said's ideas are useful to not only understand the slow response of the west but to unveil the lie of western superiority also.


From January 2020, as the situation became apparent in Wuhan, Western nations were slow to respond. Much of the discourse around the accelerating situation did not detail the virus itself: instead, Covid was taking on a racialised form as a product of the oriental ‘other’. Commentators and journalists discussed Chinese cuisine with a form of thinly veiled racism, blaming the consumption of bats as the issue of the pandemic. Such discussions belittled the pandemic response, with leaders like President Trump aligning themselves with this coloniser's view. To many Western governments, this was an Asian issue, created by these cultural differences. As a result, this invoked a sense that the West was not only beyond the virus’s physical reach but also culturally above it.


Furthermore, when Covid-19 reached many parts of the West, government responses were largely inadequate. Whilst nations such as South Korea and Japan succeeded with track and trace facilities, extensive mask mandates, and effective pandemic strategies informed by the earlier Sars epidemic in the region, the West appeared inferior in several metrics. It can be argued that Western arrogance meant preparation was scarce, and that the coloniser's view of backwards global south viewed successful strategies prior patronisingly, instead of as effective policies.


Will this unequal narrative be undone or preserved due to Covid-19? On the one hand, the failures of the West and the future of financial recession question how long the West can hold onto a dying narrative of political, economic, and cultural superiority. However, the hoarding of vaccines and perhaps a trial of vaccine diplomacy may be a tool to reinforce the white saviour narrative by many Western nations. From popular media to contemporary policy decisions, orientalism is a global problem of its own beyond the pandemic.


Further reading:

  1. Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Vintage, 1978)

  2. Meghana Nayak, ‘Orientalism and “saving” US Identity after 9/11’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 8, No. 1 (2006): 42-61

  3. Article: Why the East beat the West on Covid-19 https://asiatimes.com/2020/05/why-east-beat-west-on-covid-19/

  4. Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’, American Anthropologist 104, No. 3 (2002): 783-790