Once Upon a Wrong: How A Cinderella Story: Once Upon A Song Perpetuates Orientalism

A poster for the 2011 Movie “A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song”

The broad definition of Orientalism is a “genre of literature and painting that portrayed the non-western peoples of North Africa and Asia as exotic, sensuous, and economically backwards with respect to Europeans”.[1] However, this definition fails to acknowledge how Orientalism was able to be developed, the truths and falsehoods of that depiction, and the lasting impacts it has in modern media. That is what Edward Said sets out to cover in his 1978 book Orientalism. Said argues that the notion of Orientalism originated because of nineteenth century European imperialism. One topic Said discusses in the book is how Orientalism led to stereotypes, especially those in modern media.[2] These stereotypes are present in the 2011 film A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song. In this movie, the characters Ravi and Angela encapsulate Orientalism through their presentation as an “other”. Despite seeming like an innocent children’s movie, A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song perpetuates an Orientalist narrative.

Manu Narayan as Ravi/Tony, dressed in very different attire to Missi Pyle’s Gail and Matt Lintz’s Victor.

In A Cinderella Story, the characters define who they are based off of how they are different from Asian culture and people. Said writes that “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience”.[3] That is to say that the West does not define itself on its own characteristics, but simply what it is not — the traits that it assigns to Africa and Asia. In A Cinderella Story, this happens throughout. Gail, the evil stepmother of the movie, incredulously says “using Bollywood as the theme for the dance? That’s totally un-American”.[4] Throughout the movie, the characters act in opposition to the character who is the epitome of the Orientalist stereotype: Ravi. The movie depicts Ravi as someone spiritual and foreign; he meditates, he speaks in a heavy accent, and he dresses in traditional Indian clothing. The rest of the cast make Ravi the “other” by aiming their jokes at him and not bothering to include him in any of their conversations unless it is to make fun of his clothes or his spiritual practices. In addition, they never talk about their own spiritualities. They keep Ravi as the Orientalist “alien”, someone completely separated from their own culture.

This contrasting image of the Easterner as the “other” displays the disparity between the perceived rationality of Westerners and backwardness of Easterners. Paul Leroy’s 1891 book De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes is an example of that disparity. In his appeal for the French to colonize Africa and Asia in order to “modernize” their inhabitants, he calls them “little groups of ignorant, ineffectual men who are like feeble children”.[5] Said writes that this view was established as a way for Europeans to justify colonization and then solidified by nineteenth century literature.[6] Furthermore, he writes that the power dynamic of Europe being the conquerors and the East being the conquered allowed for this sense of superiority. In the movie, Gail has this sense of superiority by being Ravi’s employer and provider. This power dynamic allows her to degrade Ravi. In the movie, Gail not only calls Ravi a “table-cloth wearing Asian” but also immediately shuts Ravi down and tells him he “doesn’t make sense” before turning her attention back to Bev when Ravi begins to tell a story about the importance of patience and hard work in accomplishing one’s goals.[7] Throughout the rest of the movie, there are moments where the audience is supposed to laugh at Ravi’s tendencies and actions, especially in scenes in which he meditates or tells stories. In portraying him as someone who is backwards and ridiculous, the movie enforces stereotypes about South Asians.

Like Said argues, when the truth about the “other” comes out, it dispels all the distinctions Orientalism creates. He writes that Orientalism is, above all, “nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away”.[8] This concept of the thin veil created by the myths that Said writes about is a major plot point of A Cinderella Story. In it, Katie discovers Ravi’s secret — that instead of being the “guru” Ravi everyone thinks he is, he is a half-Italian, half-Indian man named Tony from New Jersey[9]. After that, in accordance with what Said writes, all of Katie’s preconceived notions of who Ravi is and what he is like fall away. She learns who he really is beyond the stereotypes she has seen him as, someone who is the opposite of them. While this realization that people do not neatly fit into stereotypes may seem obvious, the characters’ reactions and how easily they accepted these stereotypes at first show the pervasiveness of Orientalism. In exposing this divide between stereotype and real personality, A Cinderella Story does break the Orientalist narrative, but not without propagating it first.

Jessalyn Wanlim as Angela. In this costume, which is very revealing, Angela and Gail have a dance battle featuring suggestive dance moves and even a bed which multiple characters lie on.

Ravi is not the only character to whom Orientalist stereotypes apply. Angela, Katie’s best friend of East Asian descent, is also the victim of this treatment. She is an undeveloped character whose only purpose is to facilitate Katie’s relationship with Luke, especially in a sexual context. This is an example of another idea that Said writes about in his book. While discussing Gustave Flaubert’s portrayal of an Egyptian consort, Said exposes the “uniform association between the Orient and sex”.[10] Angela is a representation of this relationship. In her first introduction, she only flirts with a boy and then talks to Katie about Katie’s romantic life. When she comes over to Katie’s house on the night of the dance, she brandishes Twilight DVDs and talks about her excitement for “six hours of shirtless team Jacob”.[11] Angela’s dreams of becoming a choreographer are briefly mentioned, but not as a way to develop her character and provide humanizing depth. Instead, Gail uses her ability to destroy Angela’s dreams to manipulate Katie. That manipulation solidifies her as nothing more than a piece the movie uses for plot development. And while the movie allows for Ravi to have the stereotypes surrounding him fall away, it does not afford the same opportunity for Angela, who stays the same until the end of the movie.

A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song is not the first movie to have Orientalist themes and characters, and it will not be the last. That is because, as Said acknowledges in his book, Orientalism is an idea that since its inception has been deeply rooted in both Eastern and Western societies.[12] The inclusion of Orientalist tropes in something as innocuous as a direct-to-DVD teen movie is an example of just how deeply rooted the ideas of otherness and backwardness are in Western culture. While the casting of an Asian as a sex-focused character might have been incidental, it is still important to consider that out of three main characters of color in the movie, two of them are Orientalist stereotypes. The power dynamic of the movie between Gail and Ravi and Angela — with Gail being Ravi’s employer and the dean of Angela’s school allows for the movie to have an Orientalist narrative, even if it may not have intended to have one. Overall, its portrayal of Asian characters establishes A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song as an example of modern cinema enforcing and preserving Orientalism.

Bibliography:
Leroy-Beaulieu, Paul. De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes. Paris: 1891.
Pollard, Elizabeth, Clifford Rosenberg, and Robert Tignor. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart.
Concise ed. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2015.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Santostefano, Damon, dir. A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song. 2011; Burbank, CA: Warner
Premiere. Digital Download.
________________
[1] Elizabeth Pollard, Clifford Rosenberg, and Robert Tignor, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart,
Concise ed. (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2015), G-24.
[2] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
[3] Ibid.
[4] A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, directed by Damon Santostefano (2011; Burbank, CA:
Warner Premiere), Digital Download.
[5] Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes (Paris: 1891).
[6] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
[7] A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, directed by Damon Santostefano (2011; Burbank, CA:
Warner Premiere), Digital Download.
[8] Ibid.
[9]A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, directed by Damon Santostefano (2011; Burbank, CA: Warner Premiere), Digital Download.
[10] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
[11] A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, directed by Damon Santostefano (2011; Burbank, CA: Warner Premiere), Digital Download.
[12]Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

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Sydney Weiner

A student publishing essays, short stories, and other pieces I’m currently writing. Come along for the ride