Eat Pray Love: An Orientalist Joyride in the World of Enlightened Consumerism
Dearest friends, I have a confession to make: I just watched Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts.
*needle screeches off record*
Look – I saw it as part of a family outing, OK?
DON’T JUDGE ME.
I know, I know. I should have just picked up a knife and ended my misery early. No George Strait song – no matter how catchy – should last 140 minutes. I don’t care how many sitar solos and gamelan synths you toss in.
And that’s really all the film is: an extended theatrical adaptation of “She Let Herself Go” – but with Italy, India and Indonesia replacing Las Vegas, Honolulu and New York City. Sound far-fetched? The film’s website is Letyourselfgo.com.
Self-absorbed spending sprees aside, the worst thing about Eat, Pray, Love is the film’s portrayal of its Asian characters.
When the protagonist, Liz Gilbert, visits Italy, she meets a group of interesting locals and spends time learning and traveling with them. She meets old Italians and young Italians, conservative types and liberals too. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head!
After the first segment of the film, though, interaction with locals seems to taper off. In India Liz spends most of her time with a bespectacled Texan. She manages to make an Indian friend, but their relationship is not one of equals.
Tulsi, an endearing teen with cracked glasses, for some reason confesses within seconds of meeting Liz that she’s being forced into an unwanted marriage by her family. “It is the custom”, she explains. From that point on, Tulsi only exists as the symbol of an impending arranged marriage. The rest of the Indians are either carrying Liz’s bags or serving as background texture.
It gets worse.
In Indonesia we meet Ketut, a Balinese fortune teller, and Wayan, a healer. Neither are equals to Liz: Ketut is utterly one-dimensional and Wayan is (again) an imperiled brown female who Liz helps to ‘save’. Both speak broken English, but they do it in such a contrived, “playing-the-native” fashion that it is almost intolerable to listen to. (I say this as someone who has spent considerable time living in Indonesia.) At one point Julia Roberts patronizingly smiles at Ketut as though she wants to pat him on the head and take him home as her pet. I threw up a little.
Virtually all the rest of the Balinese are colorful cultural props: anonymous women carrying fruit on their heads, merchants, a couple of men with their roosters… They serve the same function as the rice paddies: to convince western consumers that they are in a magical, timeless wonderland. You never see a Balinese doing anything modern – not even riding a motorbike. You also do not see any men, other than an enfeebled, toothless old soothsayer. Bali is feminized and pre-modern: just as tourists want to imagine it.
“I want to go where I can marvel at something”, Liz laments in the start of the film. She interacts and dialogues with Italians, but it seems Indonesians are only objects to be marveled at. Liz beams as they spoon-feed her their primordial wisdom. Then she goes to the bar and gets drunk with expats.
It was obscene to see Bali so blatantly promoted as a sexual tourism destination. You may not have guessed it from the film, but Bali’s two largest tourist hubs, Kuta and Nusa Dua, are among the trashiest places in Indonesia, rife with prostitution and full of hideous kitsch marketed to the type of people who think Eat Pray Love is profound. Judging from the bonanza of tasteless marketing being fueled by the film in Bali, Ubud (the film’s location) will be heading the same direction. “Ubud’s gridlock, horrible sidewalks and inflated prices might mean that none of the hundreds of tourists who come here every day will ever come back – but there are still several billion people on earth who haven’t been to Ubud yet, and tour agencies will keep trying to capture them and send them uphill,” says Diana Darling, a longtime resident.
In the film, Bali is like an exotic escort: in her charming accent, she whispers sweet nothings into the ears of her visitors before yielding to their carnal desires. Eventually some foreign currency changes hands, and the visitors head home happy and hungover while she lights an incense and fixes the flowers just right for the next batch of pleasure-seekers. Really sickening stuff.
Back to those self-absorbed spending sprees.
There is nothing profound about Eat, Pray, Love. The driving force behind Liz’s “quest” is to rediscover a sense of pleasure: a desire to learn how to desire again. Liz wants to be in love, to enjoy her food again (she actually says this), and to “marvel at something”. The spiritual platitudes she gathers along the way help her do this without feeling guilty. This, in fact, is the purpose of her stop in India. As the sagely Texan from the ashram tells her, “Here’s the deal, you’re going to stay here until you forgive yourself, you hear me? Everything else will take care of itself.” … Shades of Adi Shankara.
Liz’s story, to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Žižek, is nothing more than aestheticized hedonism. It’s Sex and the City with rudraksha beads.
A recent article in the Daily Mail exemplifies the narcissistic nonsense that is Eat, Pray, Love and shows just how meaningless its brand of pop spirituality is. The author, Flora Stubbs, chronicles her attempt at recreating Liz Gilbert’s quest. (Make note, my fellow humans: our civilization has reached a point where we now purchase other people’s experiences.)
This journey, she writes, is “in pursuit of a sensual and spiritual awakening”. “I hoped to combine a detox of body and mind with a pleasurable holiday,” she says. This all makes sense, of course, because in Liz Gilbert’s world, the sensual merges with the spiritual and pleasure is worship. Shopping is meditation. God is gratification. Romance is meaning of life and enlightenment is an oil massage.
In Ubud, Stubbs checks into one of the many upscale foreign-owned resorts that now offer an Eat, Pray, Love package. You know – precisely the kind of place that sucks revenue out of Bali while driving up real estate prices and perpetuating the privatization of land that has demoralized Bali’s traditional agricultural system. (But you needn’t fret about that. Chant the Guru Gita and still your mind. Forgive yourself, and everything else will take care of itself. You’re not a bad person – you do yoga, remember?)
The posh Ubud hotel makes “detox a pleasure” and its “cleansing” routine feels “like pure indulgence”. The Singaporean owner, Stubbs writes, has managed to create “that elusive thing: a spa retreat that doesn’t feel like one”.
Here, my friends, we have the essence of Gilbert’s journey: a consumer experience that doesn’t feel like one.