“The Problem That Has No Name” – Betty Friedan (the title of the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique.)
As I have thought about archaeological illustration, I have tried to grasp and describe a problem. It bothered me, and I could see it all around me, but I couldn’t quite grasp it or describe what it was. It was just beyond my mental reach.
Finally, in class, it came to me.
The Problem is called exotification.
Exotification objectifies people, turning them into cardboard fantasies built around their otherness and cultural novelty.
The problem is not that other cultures are exotic. Human diversity is something to celebrate and explore. Without it, the world would be a dull place. And without it, archaeology and anthropology would have nothing to study.
Our curiosity about each other’s lives and thoughts, when coupled with respect, can be a builder of ties and an impulse toward understanding.
Exotification, however, does not allow the other to be a whole person. In subtle or dramatic ways, it reduces their full humanity, and turns them into things or concepts.
We see two of these stereotypes in the portrayal of Neandertals in Life Magazine’s 1961 book The Epic of Man:
The hunt is a scene of general panic and confusion. One poor soul is about to be crushed (perhaps he is a remote ancestor of a Star Trek redshirt officer). Everyone is yelling. The caption describes their strategy:
While two men hem it in with fire, another drives his spear into its belly, and others hack at its leg tendons or thrust at its open mouth.
In spite of this, in the picture they do not look very organized or even intelligent. It is purely Brawn and the Beast.
I realize that hunting a mammoth with only spears would be a risky and adrenaline-filled endeavor. However, I have seen descriptions of twentieth-century spear hunting of elephants by the Mbuti and of lions by the Masai. Both were highly dangerous, but there was none of this sense of chaos.
Fifty years ago, a portrayal of Neandertals as truly skilled perhaps did not seem plausible.
In the background of the painting, the Neandertal women stand as spectators, in positions of resignation, curiosity, or dismay. A woman’s job is simply to wait and see whether she will receive the reflected glory of her triumphant mate or the sorrow of widowhood.
This has been a very long-lived stereotype. As Sally Slocum put it in her 1975 article, Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,
So, while the males were out hunting, developing all their skills, learning to cooperate, inventing language, inventing art, creating tools and weapons, the poor dependent females were sitting back at home base having one child after another (many of them dying in the process), and waiting for the males to bring home the bacon.
Stereotypes are often built around truths. Hunting may have often been something like this. The trouble here (the exotification), is that it is difficult to look at this painting and imagine that their lives consisted of anything beyond this.
Just twenty years later, Jay Matternes's Neandertals in the Pyrennes gives a very different portrayal. It is definitely exotic; no one we meet today in North America looks, lives, dresses, or makes their living like this.
Exotification can take more dramatic and destructive forms.
National Geographic's December 1962 article, "A New Look at Medieval Europe" was a four-year labor of love and scholarship. Its text seems to steer clear of exotification:
You will find writers who make sweeping references to the whole medieval period as the "Dark Ages." The term is inappropriate; most of the darkness lies with the writers themselves. Many imagined shadows disappear under the spotlight of research.
However, the editor's introduction speaks of "a series of dramatic canvases." Here is one of them:
Now, the sack of a city is never pretty. Rape and pillage happen. But what does history actually tell us about this particular instance?
“For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events. Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean. Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic. Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed. They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).”
In this painting, there are four types of people: proper Roman matrons, provocative and sexually vulnerable girls, nobly dying Roman men, and berserk barbarians.
All are exotified.
The matrons are composed and fatalistic. Their heads are modestly veiled; not a hair is out of place. They all stand their ground. All protect their children.
Their daughters, however, seem to have somehow lost their clothes. They are partially or totally naked. In Rome, even a prostitute would never take her brassiere off, but here they wear no underwear. They are shown as both rape victims and seductresses, a combination which never can exist except in the male mind.
The men are stoically standing or nobly dead.
And the barbarians! They shout, brandishing their swords in menace. They are magnificent specimens, muscled, limber, and powerful like panthers. They gloat over their plunder and their prey. They are the other. They are destruction personified.
Most of the details are accurate. I have drawn the Roman forum myself. I’ve checked the Visigoth’s weaponry and hairstyle. But what about the picture as a whole, and its message?
- Racism (National Socialism’s nearly-superhuman Aryan “blond beast”)
- Female exploitation
- Glorification of the past (the death of noble Rome)
- Xenophobia (the foreigners will destroy us all)
- Romantic sensationalism (it reminds me strongly of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus.)
Everyone is made to fit a stereotype. They are totally noble, or totally voluptuous, or totally animal.
They are not like us or anyone we know.
Their full humanity has been taken away.
They are merely exotics.