Exploitation and Orientalism in Salome

When we were discussing Salome’s character in class, I did not see her agency as much as I saw her exploitation and sexualization. The added conversation about approaching this story through a post-colonial Orientalist lens also made me think about the construction of the piece and the intentions of Wilde behind it.

As we discussed, Orientalism is the production of a romanticized version of the “East” that is not accurate and more of a projection of Western views on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It isn’t a true representation. There is a heavy focus on tropes and stereotypical or projected traits. It is shown in works of art and literature as barbaric, violent, sensual, exotic and emotional. 

The story of Salome, who we know is a young girl, was not inherently sexual in the Bible. As we read in class, her asking for John the Baptist’s head was her mother’s idea, not her own. She was not even named. Her dance could have been out of celebration, or spiritual in nature. I do think that this lack of information on Salome and her unnamed presence made her story attractive for Wilde and other artists to reimagine, as we connected it to the story of W.H. Perhaps she was an opportunity for Wilde to tell his own story, to represent himself in literature and history. 

However, Wilde made Salome into a femme fatale, a sexualised and seductive character who was killed for expressing such sexuality and villainized for having John the Baptist killed, although Herod was really the one who had the power to kill him. I think this is more exploitative of a young girl who did not have these traits in the original story. Her dance of the seven veils changes the nature of her dance into something more sexual, and her desire to kiss the lips of John the Baptist makes her the villain who was responsible for his death.

Thinking about how her story was changed by Wilde’s reinterpretation, and knowing the nature of Orientalism, I feel like the first thing that jumps out at me from Wilde’s version is Salome’s exploitation. Perhaps Wilde was acting on his own desires, wanting to create a popular story, or not thinking about the consequences of this characterization, but I don’t think it was a just choice to Salome.

What’s in a name?

While we were discussing Salomé in class on Wednesday, I was struck by the fact that her character is not named in the Bible. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible story before we discussed Wilde’s play in class, so I didn’t have many preconceived ideas when it came to the play. However, I was surprised by Salomé’s lack of a name in each version of the Bible that we looked at. As someone pointed out in class, a name is a sign of power. It establishes your identity outside of your relationship to anyone else. In the New Living Translation, Salomé is first identified as “Herodias’s daughter” and after that is only referred to as “the girl.” That language completely ties up Salomé’s identity with her mother. The value of having a name is that you have something to identify you irrespective of your relationship to anyone else. Wilde’s naming the play Salomé embodies the newfound agency that she has in his telling of the story. Instead of a girl listening to her mother, Salomé is strong enough to articulate what she wants and what is necessary to get it.

However, I think that it is important not to oversell Salomé’s agency in the play. Although she takes action to get what she wants, she does so in a manner that is relatively restricted and her course of action results in her own death. As we noted in class, Salomé is ultimately killed for expressing her sexuality. She does so in a confined system in which the only way to express her agency is to lean into Herod’s desire for her and perform a dance. Although Salomé has agency in doing what she thinks is necessary to get what she wants, I think that it is important to remember that she is still limited in how she can go about getting it, and that chasing what she wants ends in her death.

Regardless of how independent she is and how clear she is in her desires, Salomé is still restricted to the society in which she lives in which Herod has all of the power. She can try to carve out a space for herself, and is able to trick him into killing John the Baptist, but that is not enough for Salomé to truly be powerful because it only takes three words from Herod for Salomé, too, to be killed. The differences in power are clear throughout the play, and  acknowledging Salomé’s weak position is necessary to understand what happens to her in the play. A queer-desire reading of the play would suggest that Salomé is killed because of her sexuality, which is deemed wrong. In order for that reading to be clear, I think that it is important that Salomé is not the character with the most agency. She still must feel pressure to conform to the society in which she lives, which is why it is so offensive to Herod when she backs him into a corner in which he must kill John the Baptist. Salomé in Wilde’s play certainly has more influence than the character in the original story, but it is important that she is not a hugely powerful character. Ultimately, she is still the girl who dances and then dies.