“Whenever, Wherever!”
The Discourse of Orientalist Transnationalism in the 
Construction of Shakira

By Adel Iskandar

When Shakira, the Colombian-Lebanese pop sensation, released her latest album and her English-language debut Laundry Service, American media consumers where introduced to an artist who had already been branded a ‘Latin sensation’. Shakira’s first single ‘Whenever, Wherever’ rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts, and its video clip was among the most frequently requested on American TV networks for weeks.

Shakira Mebarak Ripoll’s arrival also heralded a return to some of the more archaic and traditional Orientalist imagery that characterized colonial narratives. The exploitation of eroticized and gendered sensationalism has become an embroidered symbol of Shakira’s public image. Her multiethnic background is employed by the recording company’s image-makers as a transnationalizing and globalizing agent. At the center of this construction is a deep-rooted marginalization and oppression of the self and submission to the Occidental masculine voyeuristic curiosity.

Pepsi, one of Shakira’s top sponsors, describes the artist on its website as a voice representative of the new generation of Latin Americans. Filled with descriptions that present Shakira as an exotic other while employing some of the traditional Orientalist rhetoric, the sponsor argues that her mixture of “air of la danza Arabe” and Latin American vibe ensures that her plan to “conquer the world” through music will succeed.  Likewise, Shakira’s album title “Laundry Service” is almost emblematic of a transformation, a metamorphosis into another text. The album cover is a washing machine chocked with several items tumbling inside, each representing some aspect of her new identity. One of the items is an English dictionary heralding a new linguistic and cultural turn in her persona. The title is also suggestive of a cleansing process where the artist reemerges a new creature, transforming her image, with blonde hair, a new look and a new language. A transnational being of hybrid identity ready to take on the American consumer market. Shakira herself describes her debut English-language album in a Billboard magazine interview as a “rebirth.”

This paper analyzes materials collected from Shakira’s music, video clips, reviews, and marketing information from her recording company to reveal the thematized approach by which her identity-construction reflects both a traditionalist and revived Orientalism.  It is also an evaluation of how a neo-Orientalism discourse is constructed in this aesthetic text.

The research attempts to unearth the primary thematic discourses embedded within the popular representations of a contemporary pop “diva.” In essence, it is an exploration that encompasses a broad and variant archive, one that include internet newsgroup discussion transcripts and Shakira’s English language discography/videography, particularly that which is packaged for and geared towards the American market. The analysis also investigates material collected from official and unofficial website information, album and video reviews in newspapers, magazines, and other print publications. In addition, much of the recording company marketing information was also analyzed. The most pertinent component of the archive is a detailed textual analysis of Shakira’s debut English videoclip, “Whenever, Wherever.”

Also included in the archive are reflections collected from twenty-three students in an upper level communication class at the University of Kentucky. The students, all of whom are Americans, were shown the video of Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” and asked to write down any commentaries that came to mind. They are also asked to pay close attention to and identify gendered dimensions and elements of ethnicity from the music video. Furthermore, the students where also asked to reflect how attributes in the video, whether visual or literary appeared compliant with or different from their sense of self. This particular exercise was conducted in an attempt to reveal which characteristics used in the video were identifiable to the students and which were seen as exotic. In an investigation of occidental and oriental reflections of self, most students demonstrated the self as rational, civil, modern, masculine and with controlled sexual appetites, contrary to the video depiction of an oriental Shakira.

Manufactured identities:
The history of Orientalist logic, from Lord Cromer to Hollywood

“The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature skeptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description…[The Oriental’s] descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavor to elicit a plain statement of facts from an ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half a dozen times before he is finished his story. He will often break down under the mildest process of cross-examination.”


                                                                        An excerpt from Modern Egypt
Written by Lord Cromer, British Imperial Magistrate of Egypt, 1908. (Said, 1978)

Some of the earliest accounts of intercultural communication herald similar observations to those described by Lord Cromer, the colonial representative of the British magistrate to the Egyptian colony on the Oriental mind. The great majority of Cromer’s references are reflections associated with what he believed were the mishaps of oriental behavior, logic, and communication patterns. Although almost a century following the publication of Lord Cromer’s letter, much of the logic that it presupposes, articulates and entails is built on the same assumptions that still reside within the contemporary spheres of the public discourse.

Cromer’s report was manufactured as a logical research seemingly with the principles of the academy. Edward Said (1978) contends that this description is a mere reflection of an entire canonical arsenal of representations of the Oriental mind created by the colonizers. Said further argues that the body of research within colonial Orientalism was not only intentional, but structurally targeted. In doing so, the magistrates’ reports were used to capitalize on colonial administration. Essentially, these seemingly ethnographic accounts and illustrative narratives constituted manual aids, which assisted in the expansion of colonial interests (Said, 1978). However, perhaps the most drastic aspect of these recordings is their incorporation into academic discourse and their perpetuation as scholarly research.

The narrative excerpt above could be analyzed and deciphered where one would see evidence of familiar behavioral descriptions common to most collective populations categorized as antagonists. Edward Said’s argument (1978) emphasizes that criteria such as those employed by Cromer for the comparison and evaluation of both social and communicative competence were, historically, and continue to be albeit in a contrasting context, a means and justification for the subjugation of particular groups.

Said’s contention in his book, ‘Orientalism’, employs this Foucauldian notion of discourse to characterize Orientalist thought and scholarship. In doing so, Said essentially defines Orientalism as a systematic structure by which European culture was able to manage and produce the identity of the Orient. Hence, the structural discourse, according to Said, of Orientalism rests on the ontological and epistemological creation of categories and institutions that uphold them (Said, 1978, pp. 2).

In fact, what these supposed “anthropological” texts created and predisposed were a plethora of elaborate and standardized images and perceptions of Oriental peoples, their “collective traits” and subsequently their behavioral patterns. And with the texts’ target audience being an exclusively western one, the vivid descriptions of the exotic Orient helped shape the view of an entire region of the world on a comparative basis. In addition, some historians contend that these constructed perceptions were used to interpret, verify and justify the injustices implicated by colonization and imperialism (Said, 1978; Said, 1983). 

Furthermore, a few categorical attributes came to define people’s collective identities. Said (1978) claims that such these generalizations contributed to a common understanding that was not only logically convenient but also presented a more effective and efficient way of governing the respective colonies.  

This examination asserted on the Orientalist argument also spans a century to the modern day. Although Said emphasizes the existence of a very similar, if not the same body of knowledge and discourse, he explains that the manifestation of contemporary Orientalism is distinct from that of its traditional predecessor, traditional Orientalism (Said, 1978).

He asserts that a similar repertoire is being created consistently within a discourse of cultural subordination. This discourse is built upon the convenient stereotyping of Middle Easterners. Looking at the more current media genre, Said (1997) states that over 100 movies filmed in the past three decades revolve around a story-line where Middle Easterners are depicted as terrorists. Although Said (1997) ensures that this form of negative portrayal is not unprecedented for other ethnic, religious or racial groups, he argues that unlike any other portrayals in today’s media, these representations seem officially sanctioned.

“Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.”

Edward Said,
from Covering Islam (1997)


Not particularly different from these archaic depictions of the Orient in colonial archives and modern cinematography, a new orientalism seems to be in the making within the music industry, with Shakira appearing to be at the center of this revival of representative politics. First introduced to American audiences with her debut English-language video “Whenever, Wherever,” Shakira was reinvented for a foreign consumer market as an oriental Barbie characterized by some of the traditional Orientalist characteristics.

While Foucault argues that the individual text or author, in this case Shakira’s, comprises a negligible impact on a system, Said asserts that in the case of Orientalist structural discourse there is a dialectic between authorship/agency/choice (Anderson, 1996) and its formed collective product (Said, 1978, pp. 24). With this precondition in consideration, Said explains that unlike Foucault, he highlights the function of authorship on the collective bodies and repertoires of Orientalist texts (Ashcroft & Ahluwalia, 1999).

As seen in Rousseau’s scholarship, the prototypic figure-primitive man, or in this case, the oriental- reflects more that simply archetypal physical attributes, but also common identifiable social, linguistic, cultural and moral features (Said, 1978, pp.119) Levi-Strauss explains that the human mind requires a certain degree of order to be able to distinguish and differentiate. Likewise, Shakira’s narrative must be constructed for it to be identified. For this to occur, a first encounter must instigate characterization and definition within logical and rational parameters (Said, 1978, pp. 53). This first encounter for Shakira is her debut video. 

The shooting for "Whenever, Wherever" required moving mountains, and leaping off them. The director built a rugged landscape for a set, filled with sand canyons, tar pits and volcanoes, giving Shakira a daredevil feel. The singer herself describes the video as “earthy” and “free-spirited, seemingly describing herself as well. She goes on to explain how she “wanted to look as natural and real as possible." Her rugged leather ensemble, stray free-flowing tousled locks, bare feet, and wet muddy look is described by Shakira’s stylist as "very glamorous--in a primitive kind of way." Shakira's seemingly natural instincts are accentuated by a "glowy, sun-kissed look with dramatic eyes." Throughout the video, Shakira is a temptress, seducing the viewer with her sensual demeanor, revealing clothing, and pulsating gyrating movement of her belly-dancing hips. Her half-Arab half-Latin image is not only apparent, but also intentional.

This intentionality, Said believes derives from the dynamics of authority. Barthes’s ‘Mythologies’ (1972) offers a convenient assessment of the relationship between myth and power. He explains that once a myth has been formulated and consumed by the structure within which it is functional, it can reinvent itself ceaselessly. The same process is applicable to the individuals that control the direction of this myth, whom he calls its perpetuators. The process of reinvention, one that they singularly control and manipulate can serve as a subordinating tool employed upon the passive. By capitalizing on Barthes’s definition, Said positions the Orientalist as the author of the power text and controller/perpetuator of the myth (Said, 1978, pp.308). While it is not clear who the author is of Shakira’s orientalized text, its very existence points to the power dynamics described by Said.   

Shakira’s embedded imagery is part of a recurrent repertoire of Orientalized representations described by Said. Like women in the Orient, Shakira appears willing to demean herself for the viewer’s pleasure. Like a sultan’s dancer, the only other interactant is indeed the viewer, to whom she speaks and performs directly, although in this particular case, Shakira’s performance is for the occidental gaze. Her lyrics appeal to a foreigner and her presence in the foreigner’s world is demonstrated as both transitionary and temporary.  Shakira’s only motive is to provide pleasure for a short period of time and will consequently return back to the ‘foreign” world from which she emerged in the beginning of the video. The imagery of the untamed wildness that is primitive, timid, and overly sexualized is a conveniently gendered Oriental depiction. While the inclusion and emphasis on belly-dancing is an outreach into the eroticized Orient that serves the primary purpose of satisfying a male voyeuristic gaze, her eclectically spontaneous demeanor and unpredictable behavior demonstrate an absence of rationality, often associated with Orientalist representations of the native. Obviously, the strategic decisions behind the depiction and characterization of Shakira as an oriental object in this video are meant to serve particular consumption demands, they also provide her entry into the US market and place her within the fabric of an ideological post-colonial narrative.

Said’s foremost contribution with Orientalism is a reasoning which conceded to such questions as: What were the motivations that drove the orientalist academicians to embark on orientalist research? What were the interests involved in accomplishing such scholarly gains? (Said, 1975) To Said, actions (beginnings) are often preceded and pre-requisited by reason and intention. In the case of Orientalism, Said purports that beginnings are camouflaged under the rubric of imperialism, whether consciously or otherwise, bringing him full circle back to a debate on agency and choice (Said, 1978; Kennnedy, 2000; Varadharajan, 1995). The challenge in the case-study of Shakira is the deciphering of the illusion of agency and the illumination of the imperialist logic behind it.

Perhaps part of this imperialist logic is presentation of the Shakira’s orient as a fragmented form, a decontextualized and transplanted subject. Even in situations where the occidental appropriates attributes from the orient, the process is a selective one, incomplete and leaves behind much of the cultural logic behind these appropriated characteristics. Although in a different light, Alan Watts alludes to this practice in his discussion of eastern spiritual quests.  In the preface of “The Way to Zen,” he affirms this by explaining that while one could benefit much from embarking on an intellectual or spiritual quest eastward, the wholesale adoption of another faith is out of the question.  Using this very logic, reflected through endless volumes of Orientalist literature, it becomes apparent that interactions between the Orient and the Occident are mere excursions, voyages to the exotic other that often reaffirm their differences, a travelogue if you will. Much the same way, Shakira’s debut video clip shows her emerging from the depth of the ocean representative of her world to a terrestrial land in which she engages in dialogue with the other. Once her excursion is over, she dutifully returns to her ‘natural habitat’. Shakira’s discourse presents an environment where the material motifs are more important than the culture itself. Her representation is also a form of exhibit of primitivity that resembles the recycled world fairs of 19th century colonial culture, this time a la Disney. A fast food-style cultural sampling of the orient packaged for quick non-contemplative consumption, making it palatable for the occidental. Loomba explicates this by demonstrating that such neo-Orientalist images present the other in fragments in order to tame it and once tamed, it is the west’s to excavate.

As Spivak explains, part of this consumption-driven logic is the false understanding within the colonialist discourse that exploitation is necessary for subsequent development and empowerment. In the case of Shakira’s discourse, the emphasis of the motif of a liberated woman through degrading overly-sexualized representations is one such example of internal inconsistency within the Orientalist narrative. Subalterity must be recognized before the empowerment project can be undertaken. While in Shakira’s case, subalterity is enshrined in her discourse, it is camouflaged under a thick skin of misplaced empowerment motifs. Without lending too much blame to the capital-driven system that drives the recording industry, even Marx remarked that colonialism is a brutal precondition for the liberation of society. He asserts that, as in the case of Shakira, capital objectifies human beings and robs them of their essence. Similarly Cesaire’s equation of colonization being equivalent to “thingification” is particularly relevant to the Shakira’s discourse. Her objectification is a symptom of a colonial thematic that is often invisible to the untrained eye, much like Foucault’s panopticon.

While post-structuralist theorists have concentrated primarily on the role of social structures on the inhibition or suppression of individual agency, it is this very notion of agency that is the panopticon of Shakira’s discourse. Her self-professed empowerment is a façade for a post-colonial Orientalism that cannot be deciphered without detailed and meticulous investigation of its post-structural dynamic. Hence Spivak's take on subalterity and voice demonstrated the double effacement of women in the history of the subaltern. As she explains and as demonstrated by Shakira’s gendered representation, “both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keep the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow" (Spivak 287). Therefore, before Shakira even utters a word, she is silenced by her colonial construction, and before she can look, she is captive to the colonial gaze. In that capacity (or lack thereof), Shakira’s narrative juxtaposes the self and the native in a position that not only fetishizes her nativeness but makes her selfhood identifiable to the occident, placing her in the realm of the imaginary and symbolic. Likewise, JanMohammed’s description of the Manichean Allegory seems fitting as Shakira creates “fetishized non-dialectical fixed opposition between the self and the native.”            

Said’s post-structuralist compatriot Roland Barthes, a semiologist of cultural discourses, argues that cultural characterizations are a means to ‘representation’. The formation of an idea/opinion/position about an element is hence dependent on its representation. Barthes further testifies by claiming that representations, as all operations of language, are ‘deformations’ more so than formations. Said utilizes this definition in his presentation of Orientalism by showing via an exhaustive collection of literary criticisms, that the way European scholarship deformed representations of the Orient (Said, 1978, pp.273). Likewise, although a neo-Orientalized view of Shakira is a deformation of narrative of self in the Orient through a set of standardized ‘representations’. This rendition of knowledge is the basic premise of Edward Said’s Orientalism and the logic behind Shakira’s imagery. It does so by showing the ways by which the construction of the ‘other’ configures the ‘mind’ and creates an incongruent and contradictory to the ‘self’ (orient or occident) (Said, 1978, Honderich, 1995). At this point, it is particularly useful to shed light on these Orientalized scripts in Shakira’s narrative. While traditional orientalist depictions showcase an irrational, barbaric, sensual, lazy, static, feminine, backward, primitive, quaint, oriental that lives far away from civilization, close to nature, Shakira is furthermore is offered as lacking in moral sense, excessively sensual, and promiscuous. The occidental gaze is particularly visible in the way Shakira is displayed, as a specimen, a museum exhibit, present for our leisure and entertainment.

Shakira as Orientalist text

 As mentioned previously, some of the main themes that emerge from Shakira’s narrative help construct her as an Orientalist text. One such narrative is that of the belly-dancer. Embedded in centuries of exoticized sexualized colonial history, the “harem fantasy” plays a monumental role in most of Shakira’s depictions but particularly in “Whenever, Wherever.” The single voyeur, one-man exclusive access directing helps appeal to a romanticized view of a dominant subject and subservient object centered on a singular male gaze. One TIME magazine article reviewing Shakira’s video was even titled “Shakira wants you to visit so she can play you her CD, personally!” and was accompanied by a scantily and seductively dressed photograph of the artist. It is a dyadic interaction reserved for one “man’s” eyes only, the viewer. She is there solely for his satisfaction, both visually and lyrically. Her constant reiteration of “I’m at your feet,” in the song’s chorus is a reminder of that subservience and submission to you, the viewer. No other character is anywhere in sight. Even the song title “whenever, wherever” suggests Shakira’s complacent, complaisant and passive submission to the male gaze’s every whim.

Furthermore, the harem fantasy is embedded in a seemingly nascent and innate desire to entertain, Arabian Nights style. It is in the oriental woman’s nature to submit herself. The belly-dance, the sultry and seductive orientalization of the native woman is expressed as characteristic of her alone. Shakira’s orientalized discourse also employs this narrative. In one interview where she was asked about her belly-dance, she described an incident from her childhood where she started to feel strange sensations inside her body at the sound of music. The feeling was somewhere in her gut. She explains how her father took her to a local Middle Eastern restaurant, where she “first heard the call of the doumbek”, the Arab drum used to accompany belly dancers. She began to writhe in her seat, experiencing, she says, "a natural instinct to move my hips and twirl my belly to the sound of the doumbek". Soon she was belly dancing for anyone who would watch. Not only is her sexualization naturalized, it is also culturalized. Her promoter says, "it's a cultural part of where she's coming from." "She'd tell me, 'I don't feel this music in my hips.'” Shakira credits her Middle Eastern-influenced dance moves to her father's Lebanese heritage. "I think it is something that is in my DNA," says explains. This type of logic is symptomatic of the Orientalized native and represents a larger body of discourse that naturalizes the native.

The Oriental as natural and wild is a recurrent thematic throughout colonial documents. This representation is often juxtaposed against its contrasting imagery of a modernized occident. In Shakira’s discourse, the bare feet, rugged clothing, animalism, instinctive, muddy, at one with nature, attitude can make sand erupt and the seas rumble and splash (as seen in the video). An Andean tribal tune demonstrates an earthy, nomadic, carefree, joyful, naked, regressive, and simple existence for Shakira. Stripped away from any modern notions of civilization, it is a raw environment, untamed, nascent, ravenous, predatory, and audacious. Untamed horses gallop against the backdrop of the Andes mountains and eagles fly overhead. Yet, the imagery goes beyond the video alone. Like all Orientalist discourses, the imagery is inextricably connected to the subject’s identity. One of Shakira’s producers, Tim Mitchell, once described her as both a “freak of nature” and a “freak from nature.” When asked about her defiantly unkempt blonde hair that tumbles to her elbows, Shakira responds that it makes her feel like “a lion in the jungle."

As orientalist texts construct an incongruous other in which the occidental sees a reflection of self, the contradictions embedded in Shakira’s discourse demonstrate how elements of the occident are incorporated into her narrative. Most students asked to watch Shakira’s video clip consistently identified certain characteristics that connect Shakira to the occident. Some discussed the resemblance of her attire to that of a cowboy. The most recognizable symbols of the occident every student noticed where her blonde hair and the cross on her neck. Some felt these two motifs were symbolic of a counter-narrative that presented the native as self. As Said explains such appropriations of the occident into the orient are essential parts of the colonial discourse, whereby the native is tamed and brought to civility while still retaining his innate wildness (1978). And while contrary to her entire imagery, Shakira can still be showcased as an ordinary civilized occidental woman typified by being "a very sexy girl with very pure thoughts," explains her manager. He adds that, "she's a good Catholic girl."

But it is the innate wildness that makes the interaction between the occident and the orient a temporary one. The oriental resides in a parallel world, an exoticized, fantastical existence. The trip made by the occidental into this existence much like a dream sequence, allowing one to engage in the wilderness and fulfill one’s desires, albeit for a short period of time. But surely, like all dream sequences, the excursion must come to an end and each returns to his/her respective world. This characterization is evident in Shakira’s video where, like a mermaid, she emerges from the ocean and into a world where she can negotiate with the occidental other, then subsequently returns to her natural habitat. This locale which serves to negotiate identity is described by Said as the touristic encounter. Shakira’s lyrics further suggest that her lover, the occidental, will inadvertently leave.

Yet it is the distinctions between the native and the occidental that are most desirable for both interactants. They are depicted to both desire this touristic encounter. The oriental woman’s desire for the occidental can be seen as a reflection of the chauvinism of colonial narratives. Shakira lyrics read: “Baby I would climb the Andes solely, to count the freckles on your body.” The subject of disparate lands is reasserted repeatedly throughout the song where she addresses the occidental viewer with  “Lucky you were born that far away. Lucky that I love a foreign land.” Not only does this statement ossify the difference between the oriental and occidental, it also demonstrates the desirability of the occidental and the irrationalized sacrifice, emblematic of the same oriental mind described by Cromer earlier, Shakira is prepared to make.

The most recognizable defining feature of the oriental, however, is the motif of irrationality. Shakira’s often incomprehensible lyrics (a common critique of her music in countless album reviews), and her seemingly illogical screen theatrics, while part and parcel of the popular music industry, demonstrate a seemingly innate spontaneity. A highly changed sexuality is part and parcel of this irrationality. The oriental woman can openly touch and speak about her breasts. Students who watched the video all commented about their shock when Shakira mentioned her breasts. Although much of modern popular music has strong sexual undertones, few artists in the past have so comfortably addressed their anatomy with as much ease as Shakira. While this can be seen as a form of empowerment, its existence within a subjugating oriental narrative ensures that her sexuality is a product not of contemplative civility, but of naturalized nativity. 

As described in many colonial chronicles, the female oriental is often described in language that demonstrates desirability but also nativity. For this reason, there has been a recurrent theme throughout gendered oriental discourse that describes the female body using metaphorical references to land and landscapes. This approach can be seen as a colonial conquest mentality whereby the oriental female body is both a territorial entity to be conquered but also a material possession to be retained. Shakira discourse includes numerous references that embody this narrative. In one instance she compares her breasts to the mountains. In some respects, such references are a commodification of colonial cultural references to gender.

The envisioning of the other is always connected to a territorial scape that reinforces its differences from that of the orient. Often this territorial identity landscape is glamorized as a safe haven, a paradise refuge. Modern tourism relies on these relics of representation to draw in swarms of travelers seeking tranquility in the wilderness of the orient. This narrative is not exclusively manufactured by the imperial but is also reinforced by the oriental. Shakira too has taken it upon herself to represent her homeland the same way. Having grown up in Columbia, Shakira defies the modern stereotypes of her country.  Frequently in interviews she will make statements like “in the town where I grew up, people did not tell lies." She embodies a land where "people are not depressed the same way people are in America," a place where people have long communal meals times. “That is how Colombians are,” she reiterates. This imagery heightens the desirability of the orient in the eyes of the occidental. On the topic of the seemingly fantastical world from which Shakira came, one magazine reporter exclaimed that after meeting with her, he confirmed that: “the myth of Shakira is real.” Unlike the occidental desires of urbanism, modernity, and material fulfillment, Shakira demonstrates an orientalized connection to the land. At the end of her career she wishes to go back to her simple life, “get a farm and plant onions and tomatoes."


“Cheers to Shakira for not vying to have the size two body that is merely impossible to obtain. Her body isn’t quite as intimidating as Britney’s muscle toned legs, Christina’s tiny little stomach or Jessica’s full package. Shakira shows us you don’t have to be tiny to be beautiful.”

Comment on from a Shakira fan

Central to Shakira’s empowerment discourse is the juxtaposition of sexual liberation and colonial objectification. The two create a caricature of emancipation apparent through the singer’s descriptions of self and the recording company’s framing of her. The recurring motif of the harem fantasy described earlier is one such narrative that negates her supposed emancipation. Instead, Shakira is capable of participating in self-colonization through the submission to the male-centric colonial gaze.

Yet, on the outside, Shakira seems to play an alternative role to mainstream depictions of gender in pop culture. Much attention has been paid to her curvaceous build. On numerous occasions Shakira talks of having no interest in stationary bikes or StairMasters. She is presented as the antithesis of an image-driven industry. "I used to obsess about my height, my size and my humble breasts," says 24-year-old Shakira. "When you see girls with the perfect cleavage, you think, 'Maybe I should get a little help.' But I realize that we cannot fall into that game. If I start with the implants, what's next?" She is market as the rugged all natural girl, a character the recording company hopes will resonate with her teenage fans.  “I’m definitely not the type of girl who loves to wear high heels and mini skirts,” explains in an interview for Billboard magazine. She ridicules the star lifestyle in her track Ready for the Good Times where she says “I don’t wanna look at fashion magazines while someone does my nails.”

Much like the industry she criticizes, Shakira’s image is marketed for the young and impressionable. One such example is the use of image as a prime promotional tool for a new line of clothes by Delia. To go with Shakira’s orientalized image, Delia’s fashion is now focusing on a line of styles that reflect the “desert rose” feel, a fusion of hippie, bohemian, and gypsy styles which Shakira helped popularize among young girls.

Shakira’s knowledge of her role-model image is enshrined in her knowledge of self-representation. “I try to represent only myself, but there are many women that identify with me,” she says. “I am definitely not a woman who washes her husband’s clothes everyday.” However, she is cautious not to alienate a constituency not prepared for any radical change in gender representation. She follows up with the disclaimer that she hopes she doesn’t “sound like a feminist leader saying these things.” Instead, she reverts back to the discourse she knows best, that of the “harem fantasy” with statements like "I have come to seduce.” The satisfaction of sexual fantasies therefore becomes a visual appropriation of luxury. In Shakira’s case, she reinscribes Orientalism by reducing sexual expression of a “new” woman to a mere cliché.

Embedded in this cliché is a perpetual contradiction, a contradiction that is among many that have characterized neo-Orientalist discourse generally and Shakira specifically. Said himself attests to this inherent contradiction in research postulation when he states that, “Orientalism is theoretically inconsistent, and I designed it that way” (Salusinsky, 1987, pp. 137). The essential questions that emerge include: Are these narrative structures, once they are created, stagnant, rigid and free of transformation? Or are they in themselves subject to restructuring? (Said, 1975). This restructuring is what characterizes the new wave of Orientalist representations in modern aesthetic texts like Shakira. One particular example of this restructuring, common to many post-colonial texts, is that of hybrid identity. Shakira’s discourse amplifies this notion of transnationalism and employs it extensively.

Shakira’s Transnational Discourse

Kipling once stated that “East is East and West is West, ne’er the twain shall meet.” Post-colonial studies has often contended that such an assumption is refuted by the confluence of multiple identities in the new transnationalism. Hybrid identities are considered a symptom of the colonial venture. Even in the construction of both the Orient and the Occident, although an exclusive binary is assumed, the negotiated intersections between the two are site in which the transnational emerges.

Interpretive and narrativistic research arising from communication, anthropology, and literary criticism have started to embrace more functional definitions of the cultural contestations created by global media. The emergence of the concept of transnationalism, which views culture not as a stagnant entity with nascent beginnings and a demarcated finitude, but as a ceaseless process of change and continual redefinition, is emblematic of this conceptual departure. Ien Ang (1990) contends that a negotiated dialogue between alien cultural values and the pleasure that a particular ‘media text’ provides is the primary process in the assimilation of cultural norms into the ‘hybrid’. The investigative notions of cultural ‘hybridity’, ‘cultural multiplicity’, or ‘creolization’, which have emerged out of this view

Originating in early accounts of immigration and recently used to describe economic networks and global commerce, transnationalism is a common term used in international affairs discourse. Used often to refer to multinational enterprises, global media, “global culture” and such border-defying institutions, the word has its origins in the canon of immigration studies. Basch et al (1994) define the word transnationalism as the “processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement.” They further describe the location of transnationalism as the complex and time-sensitive state of “in-betweenness” which continually challenges cultural, national and spatial identities. By inbetweenness, the authors refer to the discrepant situation these transmigrants are in. Their identities are defined by the nation-state identities of both the sender and recipient countries (Basch, 1994). This process of identity-definition is described by Hannerz (1987) as the “creolization” of the immigrant group. Regardless of the degree of integration and incorporation, these transmigrants continue to lead lives that transcend borders, and often find themselves confronted with and engaged in the nation-building processes of two or more nation-states.

Characteristic to the migrant process is the transplantation and relocation of people (“cultural indicators”) from their local and/or original habitation and environmental context to one that is recognizably variable in its definition of identity. The consequent integrative process that immigrants will undergo over a variable period of time is one characterized by the confrontation between the native identity and the culture, which predominates in the “recipient” environment. In the process, the mosaic end product, some argue, is not one or the other, but a novel newborn hybrid (Featherstone, 1995; Barker, 1999).

While immigrants in the past were expected, and in some circumstances forced, to relinquish their connection with their homelands due to inability to cross boundaries and surpass community demarcation, today this is no longer the case. With a complex and effective global communication networking, these migrant communities can continue to situate their multiple identities in various geographic and conceptual cultural locales (Buell, 1994). Global communication and transnational migration have juxtaposed distant communities and ecologies, in the process reinforcing diversity and collective intersubjective identities that traverse and interweave through one another.

In a collection of short novels entitled East, West, Salman Rushdie (1994) explores through literature the immense distances and enormous intimacies between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ experiences by effectively fictitiously creating a narrative of ‘hybrid nomadism’. At the core of these writings is an actualized negotiation between two mythologies. His last two stories reveal the extent to which the two overlap, intersect and intermesh. In one of the stories, Mary, a tiny sixty-year-old Indian woman residing in London, finds fancy in a Slavic porter, Mecir. The mutual interest that draws the two closer together despite their distant backgrounds is their shared experiential appreciation for crumpets, English tea, a game of chess, and more importantly TV cartoons such as The Flintstones. This shows media’s ability to create commonality, defy space with their products, and identify intersections in seemingly disparate identities. Interwoven into the fabric of the story, Rushdie craftily places the non-linear and multi-dimensional moments that characterize communication in its naturalistic ecology; a pseudo-ethnographic description of the irregularity through which Mary and Mecir’s identities are being brokered is particularly pertinent to our discussion of the entanglement of the transnational experience. At another point in the story, he illustrates the role of the mediated narrative with a description Indians singing lullaby versions of Chubby Checker, Elvis, and Pat Boone hits to the narrator’s one year-old sister, Scheherazade.  

The exploration of identity in space and its definition in the transnationalized context have been problematized by the absence of descriptive categories. While traditional descriptions of spatial-cultural associations on the powerful relationship between one’s ‘native soil’/homeland, hybridity offers new conceptions on spatial borders and their chiasm with multiple identities. This connection with territoriality, while still existent in the global, has been altered by globalization to include more than one locale of identity.

The fundamental abstractions relayed by Kraidy (1999) in his description of ‘glocalization’ can be encapsulated into two terms that are representative of the realities of lived experience. Kreuzung refers to the crossing of traits, characteristics and perceivably properties of identity to create a creolized hybrid or mosaic. In spatial terms, it is suggestive of a cross-over or meeting between two or more properties which is indicative of defiance against the demarcated border of an entity. This cross-over effect, however, cannot be considered without its contextual framework of which it is a component. This framework, grenzüberschreitend, literally describes the action of “walking over a border.” Grenzüberschreitend’s versatility lies in its ability to describe not only transnationalism and the redefinition of space and territory, but also tackles the contentious universality of the process with a connotation for commonality shared qualities. While the vehicles and outcomes of glocalized identity may be variant depending on the socio-cultural medium, the acculturating processes of global/local negotiations are similar and perhaps even generalizable. This may suggest that transnationalism itself can be seen as a transnational universal trend. With subsequent revision, American conceptions of identity described by Buell (1994) must be reconfigured to suit a new era of grenzüberschreitende Kreuzung that does not abide by the principles of adaptive discourses that often implied that assimilation is equivalent to Anglo-conformity.

However, absent for the discussion on grenzüberschreitende is the power dynamic embodied in the post-colonial experience. As Ania Loomba explains, the striking contradiction embedded in colonialism and its discourses is that it both needs to civilize its others and “fix them into perpetual otherness.” Thereby, the other may mimic the self but will never become the self. This dialectic is the crux of the logic behind depicting Shakira as a transnational hybrid of self and other. 

In the exercise described earlier where students where asked to identify notions of self and other in Shakira’s video, there seemed to be a great confusion about which attributes were indicative of the occident and which of the orient. This very confusion in the representation of Shakira is emblematic of her transnational and hybridized identity, one that while retains the properties of its original components, is chimerized. As the recording company exalts, the argument that Shakira can appeal to American public without losing her authenticity creates a tension between the attributes that make her attractive to her audience. Is it her reinforced difference from or symbolic similarity to her American public? Hence its is useful to comprehend that American post-coloniality is a cultural mestizaje. Its multicultural discourse allows for and embodies the transnationalized hybrid. This nullifies the very notion that American represents whiteness. However, hybridity and liminality are still considered essential components of the colonial condition and have often been seen as the sites of resistance to colonial discourses.

The bottom-line is that Shakira is a hybrid, whether in reality or construction. A recording company official expresses it so eloquently in saying that “she balances a Latin thing, a rock thing, a pop thing and then an Arabic-belly-dancing thing.” At times she avoids the labels and staples of ethnicity. Instead she has no homeland. Her deterritorialized self was constructed to help assimilate her discourse wherever is may go. Some of her Latin American fans have accused her of selling her authenticity by appealing to a global market and changing her image. One fan posted a message on an online Shakira newsgroup where he drew the analogy of the album title “Laundry Service” to a “whitewashed” form of cleanliness and purity that Shakira embodies. In other instances, Shakira emphasizes her Latin American and Middle Eastern roots in an attempt to appeal for authenticity. Her fear of alienating any public constituency may also be the motive behind her half-hearted attempt to represent gendered emancipation. She is torn between a strong mainstream anti-feminist discourse and a growing body of dissent towards the industry. By simply towing the line, Shakira’s discrepant discourse is itself hybrid. Kraidy’s description of glocalizated identity mentioned earlier reflects a dialogic negotiation of counteracting selves between oriental and occidental. A common experience reflected by Shakira’s transnationalism is likely to be a result of her ability to ‘travel’ freely from one definitional and territorial identity-scape to another, what Kraidy refers to as hybrid ‘nomadism’. In an interview where she was asked her place of residence, she replied, “its kind of scary for me to commit myself to live in one place. I’m a nomad. I have this gypsy soul.”

Her rangy and robust mezzo spiked with yodel-like shadings suggests the vocal influence of her Arab ancestors, but Shakira insists that any resemblance to Middle Eastern singers is coincidental. This denial goes contrary to other assertions she made about her Middle Eastern roots. This back and forth cultural identity contestation is characteristic of transnational identity negotiation within the hybrid narrative. At one point she may assert that her “roots are planted in the Latin American homeland” and at another she is fearful that her labeling may prevent her music from “transcending all barriers.” In one interview with Rolling Stones magazine, Shakira explained that “the spirit of conquest is a trait that has survived in human beings from the beginning.”  She goes on to say: “I want it for the same reasons the Spaniards wanted to come to America. I have to cross the oceans to be able to sink my flag in this land. That is motivation.” However, the only way Shakira’s motivation can materialize is through the creation of a discourse of hybridity.

"We are made of fusion," says Shakira in an interview with a Los Angeles Times. "It's what determines our identity:” While reviewers struggle to brand her music into a genre, she is content with situating the gray areas. Described by some as an eclectic combinations of Alanis Morissette, reggae, Mexican mariachi, with Middle Eastern flourishes thrown in, Shakira’s hybrid music is what her recording company hopes will catapult her into global superstardom. As the artist sets her sights on the U.S., she is mindful of a larger audience worldwide. "It means the possibility of enlarging my world," she says, "to reach other cultures." And in hybridity comes potential for her ambitious plans. Everyone can relate to some aspect of the hybrid. Yet Shakira’s musical hybridity is only a small component in her overall transnational discourse. One article described Shakira’s hair as “disorderly bleached-blond hair and highlighted by an artfully placed streak of black that accents her dark roots.” The fusion in Shakira's hair color, blond for the past few years, has been the subject of much speculation, and some disgruntled longtime fans have accused her of trying to downplay her Latin identity. In fear of losing her Latin constituency, Shakira refutes, "maybe people think I dyed my hair blond to meet a certain requirement of the Anglo market, but I didn't."

A political economic view of Shakira’s marketing campaign sees this transnationalism of identity as a strategic endeavor motivated by capital gains for the artist and the recording company. Epic Records president is quoted saying that Shakira “lends to the intrigue and the exotic nature of the whole [marketing] campaign.” Likewise, the singer herself reinforces her hybridity by taking ownership of it. “Somehow I’m a fusion of all kinds of passions, and my music is a fusion of elements that I can make coexist in the same place, in one song.” Somehow, her transnational discourse is meant to articulate a Shakira whose hybridity needs no translation and can travel seamlessly across boundaries of identity.  She is a hybrid being in a hybrid world. Epic records president continues to say that: “We’re more of a melting pot as a culture than ever before and I think we’re more curious than ever before about different things.” He argues that a 20-year-old is exactly that regardless of where she is from, thereby undermining the very essence of cultural representation and its relevance and vitality in the construction of Shakira. If identity politics was never an issue, why then does so much care go into Shakira’s manufactured imagery?

Of course, in America, pop success depends more on promotion than on prophecy which speaks to a hegemonic structure that reinforces particular agendas and constructs identities to fulfill them. And while some post-colonial narratives, especially those that identify and employ hybridity have empancipatory objectives (Sharpe, 1989), Shakira’s discourse appears to fall short of accomplishing this. Instead it seems to negate it.  Since discourse constructs realities, Delia and other companies invest in the hybrid orientalized imagery of Shakira for financial gains that reiterate and ossify the underlying hegemonic system. By reducing the images of the orient and the hybrid into simple and manageable fragments, the consumption and impact of Shakira’s discourse is realized.


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Adel Iskandar is the editor of The Ambassadors Magazine. He is the co-author of the book, "Al-Jazeera" published by Westview. He teaches communication at the University of Kentucky. His email is


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