Eat, Pray, Love, Shop: on-screen soul-searching and the commodification of spirituality
In the latest instalment of her column, ‘Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower,’ Annika Blau looks at the commercialisation of foreign cultures through the various film tie-in products and packages for Eat, Pray, Love. What does it say about our culture, and is this the lasting legacy of the book/film phenomenon?
For those who like light-hearted travel books, there’s a new Bali diary in town – Balilicious. It’s from Becky Wicks, the author of Burqalicious, the Dubai diary which, in her own words, is about “the mental adventures of a celeb blogger and her married millionaire Arab boyfriend”. Yep. You get the idea.
This time, Becky’s gone to Bali on a mission to “find herself”, Eat-Pray-Love style. If you’re unfamiliar with Eat, Pray, Love, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of when she spent a year travelling to Italy, India and Indonesia after divorcing her husband, to do the three aforementioned activities.
So now Becky has mimicked the Bali leg of her journey, and as it turns out, so has everyone else. It’s been over two years since Julia Roberts hit our screens as the petulant lost soul Elizabeth Gilbert, but the mania continues. In the intervening time, as Becky describes, Bali has been swamped with soul-searching white women, some even arriving on Eat, Pray, Love themed package deals. For example, take “Spirit Quest Tours”, whose latest “Eat, Pray, Love: Spiritual Bali Tour” starts next week. On this tour, you get to visit Ketut Liyer, Elizabeth’s very own spiritual teacher. Ketut was once a poor and relatively unknown medicine man. But since the film, all that has changed. Two years later, he’s rolling in it. Everyone knows his name. Now, white-American-soulsearching-people, henceforth referred to as WASPs, queue for around three hours to have their palm read for fifteen minutes. With all these WASPS, he no longer has time for the locals. Nor will he begin talking before your $30US dollars are in his hands.
This is just the latest in the years of people making money from this film about abandoning material attachments and finding inner peace. Call me cynical, but it just seems wrong. And I know that this is nothing new, but I feel it’s time we talked about it. Is it okay to capitalise on another culture’s religion? Is it spreading and sharing enlightenment, or does it reduce thousands of years of spiritual learning and wisdom to a passing fad.
It’s one thing when the profits of these commercial exercises go back to the actual country whose culture is being turned into capital; for Ketut to be making money from this exercise considering it’s his own spiritual learning that is being appropriated. But what of the many commercial exercises connected with this film initiated by Western companies?
On the eve of the film’s release, every World Market department store in America opened a new wing devoted to Eat, Pray, Love commodities. There was everything from gelato machines to black tea, to a nice array of kaftans to wear during your next visit to the ashram in India. And the $4.99 rosewood prayer beads sold out completely. Home Shopping Network also launched a “72 hour Eat, Pray, Love shopping bonanza”, and if you were worried you might forget, you could get reminders sent to your mobile just by texting “MOVIE” to 47688.
Though they had no relationship to Italy, India or Indonesia, hotels around America and Australia started Eat, Pray, Love offers. All these lucrative deals generally consisted of was eating at the hotel restaurant and maybe getting a massage. At the Ellis Hotel in Atlanta, the “Love” component consisted of a night on the “women’s only” floor, which would seem to me to be a remarkably inefficient way to find a man, but there you go.
But the package I find most bewildering was that offered by Caves House in Margaret River, WA. Here, you got to visit a local cave, which is a sacred Aboriginal site.
Really? Are they really trying to suggest that an Aboriginal site can stand in for a Hindu ashram?
Is it not kind of culturally insensitive to suggest that they are interchangeable? “Oh well it’s all spiritual… They both fit under ‘Pray’….”
No. No they do not. You can’t just find a “fill-in” religion when the other is booked out.
There is a dichotomy in our Western impulse toward foreign cultures. On the one hand, there’s the “Western savior complex”, where we blindly attest that other cultures are inferior to ours and need “saving” by democracy, or capitalism, or an invasion, or all of the above. It’s this Western Savior Complex that inspired initiatives like the Stolen Generation, where we thought we knew what was best for generations of indigenous Australians, and which can be seen again today in our invasion of Afghanistan. We can debate the merits of that invasion until the cows come home, but the fact remains that many Afghans are furious at the notion that they need “saving” from themselves and their culture.
On the other hand, there’s the arrogant notion that when alternative cultures prove to be better than ours, we can just march in and adopt their practices ourselves. Is it really fair to make money from another culture and not return the profits to the people? Some would argue that it is fair, as the Balinese are profiting from this too. But it could also be argued that given the importance of tourism in their job prospects they might not be in a position to turn down the opportunity on ideological grounds.
To conclude, I’d just like to point you briefly to the scenes of Julia Roberts in the Indian ashram. I expected that once she got to India, there’d be this big epiphany as she watched kids starving in the gutter and realised her problems weren’t so bad. But no. Not once does she even mention the poverty, nor do we see any shots of the real India beyond the ashram, except out the car window as she drives in from the airport.
There’s another WASP in the ashram. Her name’s Corella and she’s taken a vow of silence. Just as Julia leaves for Bali, Corella’s vow conveniently ends.
“Elizabeth!” she screeches. “That was brilliant for my throat. Just brilliant. It’s like free botox!”
Yes. Yes she actually says that.
To be fair, Julia laughs in a kind of raised-eyebrow, “seriously?” way at this comment. It’s a strange moment of self-reflexivity, as the film briefly acknowledges that it could be perceived as holding the superficial spirituality that Corella does. But unfortunately it’s a moment wasted, because however deep and meaningful Elizabeth Gilbert’s original quest may have been, its legacy will forever be World Market’s $4.99 made-in-china prayer beads.
Annika Blau is a freelance writer from Sydney with a lot of opinions. Her writing explores what pop culture tells us about ourselves, and pairs the teachings of academia with those of the supermarket aisle. She wants to know why we don’t examine Kanye West with the same academic rigour as The Cantebury Tales, and finds Lady Gaga as revealing as the census. More of her writing can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Ed: As it happens, you can also re-watch a conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert, author or Eat, Pray, Love, recorded at Sydney Opera House in January and get her perspective. (It's also available on our podcast)]