Eat, Pray, Love
A Self-Help Guide for the Colonialist Neoliberal
by Madison Werner
In this paper, I examine the links between privilege and the gendered neoliberal notions of self-exploration via travel. In my analysis, I use Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel Eat, Pray, Love as a starting point to understand the complexities of neoliberal “spirituality” and self-help tourism. Through placing Eat, Pray, Love in dialogue with feminist thought, I argue that the Western-appropriated notion of spirituality has catered to privileged people within the Global North, all of whom have the economic privilege and geopolitical abilities to travel and participate in a consumerist system that frames spirituality and self-exploration within gendered terms. I draw upon the theoretical framework provided by ecofeminist scholars to demonstrate how privileged white women who travel to the Global South to “find themselves” can absorb culture in an apolitical way. The Global North is often framed in masculine terms while, in contrast, the Global South is feminized because the global capitalist system is inherently tied to gendered notions of consumerism, colonialism, and environmental degradation. Gilbert used her privileges (as being a citizen of the masculinized Global North) to juxtapose her newly accumulated spiritual mind against the bodies of people of the Global South. This intellectual/bodily juxtaposition is evident through how Gilbert chooses to portray the characters in her book. This sort of masculinized/feminized dichotomy also serves to position Gilbert within a realm of worldliness.
KEY WORDS: travel, tourism, colonialist, Elizabeth Gilbert, gender
“First of all, you shouldn’t do what I did. You don’t need to go do exactly the things that I did. The only thing you need to do is ask yourself the questions I was asking myself,” says Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The New York Times Best Seller, Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak about her widely regarded “feminist” novel in which she visits Italy, India, and Indonesia on a self-imposed journey of spiritual discovery. Eat, Pray, Love undoubtedly changed the way that American women thought and dreamt about world travel, as its brand specifically targeted women who were displeased with their immobile roles as mothers/wives/workaholics.
While Gilbert sought to chronicle her year of self-discovery within the context of international travel, it cannot be ignored that her positionality as a white woman from the Global North recreates what Diyah R. Larasati refers to as a “quest for otherness.” Through Gilbert’s masculinized privilege of transnational mobility, Gilbert reinforces colonialist power structures that position cultures and people of the Global South as feminized objects for Gilbert’s personal and spiritual discovery, entertainment, and consumption. In this essay, “masculinize(d)” refers to someone who has the privilege to travel, while “feminize(d)” refers to one who is marginalized because of gendered-colonialist power structures. Gilbert’s descriptions and interactions with people in Bali, Indonesia, vividly display these power structures. This form of travel-tourism enables privileged people of the Global North to be able to apolitically consume cultures of the Global South.
Through placing Eat, Pray, Love in dialogue with ecofeminist thought and “Third World”/Transnational feminist critiques, I argue that the Western-appropriated notion of spirituality via travel has catered to privileged white women within the Global North because they now have the geopolitical abilities to participate in a tourist system shaped by colonialist forces. I call this phenomenon “mobile spirituality,” the idea that one’s spiritual journey and self-discovery is simultaneously dependent on their ability to transcend borders and on the immobility of those whose culture is being consumed. According to Chandra Talpade Mohanty, many “feminist” writings from the Global North also “discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular “Third World Woman” – an image which appears arbitrarily constructed, but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse.” I extend Mohanty’s analysis to Gilbert’s exoticized travels, demonstrating that her masculine self-construction feminizes both men and women in the Global South as “other.”
The ecofeminist framework is one of the most useful for analyzing Eat, Pray, Love. Ecofeminism as a body of thought seeks to draw parallels between the injustices that men inflict upon the environment and the injustices that men inflict upon women. When colonialism is viewed through an ecofeminist lens, it becomes increasingly apparent that it is a masculinized entity. It exists as a domineering structure that rapes, pillages, damages, and traumatizes both the Global South’s environment and its people. If colonialism exists as the oppressive masculine side of a gendered binary, then those who were formerly colonized can be seen as occupying the space of the feminized “other.” Adjectives and common discourse reinforce these power dynamics; transnational discourse about the Global North revolves around its perceived economic and military power. The Global South and its tourist enticements, however, are commonly described as “beautiful, exotic,” etc., all gendered adjectives commonly used to describe women in relation to their bodies.
Ecofeminism, when taken a step further, also seeks to understand the associations between gender, the mind, and the body, the mind being associated with masculinity and the body associated with femininity. “Masculine” professions that involve the mind have also involved a degree of mobility; these professions take place in the public sphere. These professions include law, medicine, academia, writing and publishing, among others, and have historically been closed off to women. Women, in turn, often perform bodily work within the private sphere of their own homes, work that carries less prestige than professional work. Gilbert uses her self-masculinized status as an author from the Global North to objectify the bodies and labor of people in the Global South.
Contextualizing Gilbert’s Internal Struggle
In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert grapples with her fatigue from being both a wife in a failed marriage and a liberated career woman. The issue that Gilbert struggles with in Eat, Pray, Love exists as a modern-day continuation of Betty Friedan’s “the problem that has no name.” Friedan details “the problem” as a cloud-like gloom that permeates the lives of [white] American housewives because of their dissatisfaction with their compulsory roles as mothers, housewives, and caretakers. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, spread like wildfire, predominantly effecting the domestic sphere of immobile women. However, a major difference exists between Gilbert’s problem and Friedan’s problem; Gilbert represents the economically independent woman who would seem liberated to Friedan. Gilbert dwelled both in the public and the private spheres. However, for Gilbert, a transnational spiritual journey was necessary to counteract her existence as a wife and a career woman.
Since Gilbert effectively personifies the post 2nd-wave feminist conceptualization of the liberated career wife, she uses her job as an author to facilitate her spiritual self-discovery. Gilbert effectively juxtaposes her life, experiences, and newfound spiritual understandings against the feminized and “othered” bodies of people in the Global South by taking on the masculinized roles of the mind and the geopolitically mobile Global Northerner.
Justifying Travel as Spiritual Journey
In order to validate her choice (and ability) to abandon her workaholic wife existence in search of inner peace, Gilbert must first justify herself within the context of her hard work and failed marriage. The first instance of Gilbert’s travel justification occurs when she asks herself, “why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and—somewhere in my stolen moments—a writer…? I don’t want to be married anymore.” The benefits of this justification are twofold.
First, if Gilbert frames her emotional and marital struggles in such a way that she rejects traditional notions of feminine norms, a nearsighted reading of this paints her as a groundbreaking and brave feminist, an image that aligns with media portrayals. A year-long vacation seems justifiable if she is both wife and worker because she feels deserving of reward after hard-work.
Gilbert’s claims also serve as the economic and moral justification for her year-long spiritual excursion. In the modern United States, capitalism and post 2nd-wave feminism designate a woman who is both wife and worker is usually expected to maintain finances and the home. Gilbert explicitly cites her own economic independence and a complete breakdown of her domestic sphere in order to justify her transnational mobility. Without this justification, her travels and self-discoveries could be labeled “selfish” because she neglected the home and family she was expected to maintain. Additionally, traveling on anyone else’s money but her own would imply that she is not hardworking enough to engage in her international travels. It should be noted that both critiques are gendered, and Gilbert’s increased subjection to critique is associated with her identity as a woman. Men have been able to abandon the home and travel for long amounts of time for hundreds of years now with little risk of social sanctions. In both theoretical scenarios the underlying critiques would be that she failed to perform the adequate labor for a “good” wife and a “good” worker. Through Gilbert’s justification, whether intentional or not, she is able to avoid both of those critiques.
Self-Masculinization and Colonization through Transnational Travel
Gilbert’s justification for her travels soon translates itself into masculinization when placed in a transnational context because the Global North is a masculinized colonizing entity and the Global South is subsequently viewed as a feminized item for consumption. Thus, Gilbert’s transnational mobility, her occupation, and her positionality all posit her as an extension of the male colonizer. For example, when meeting Ketut (the Balinese medicine man) for the first time, Ketut states that Gilbert is a world traveler, to which she internally responds, “which I thought was maybe a little obvious, given that I was in Indonesia at the moment, but I didn’t force the point…” While this statement could be written off as arrogance, this encounter foreshadows multiple instances of Gilbert’s attempts to visibly portray her mobile spirituality. Aside from Gilbert’s obvious note of condescension, she wrongfully assumes that all people should worship her as the travel-capable individual that she is. How dare Ketut not instantly praise Gilbert as a traveler, effectively refusing to transform Gilbert’s travel capabilities and her newly masculinized mind into a form of social clout for her own personal recognition. When bringing in ecofeminist critiques of mind/masculine/public sphere versus body/feminine/private sphere, Gilbert perhaps becomes annoyed at Ketut’s comment because his indifference towards her mobile spirituality could mean that he is actively choosing to ignore the hierarchies that exists between them.
Another instance of Gilbert’s self-masculinization occurs when she takes on the task of buying a home for her Balinese friend, Wayan. Gilbert seemed to feel a sort of compulsory protectiveness over Wayan, “I wanted to help them. That was it…I wanted to help the single mother with her daughter and extra orphans.” After sending out an email to her friends and family members abroad, Gilbert raises $18,000 USD to fund the land, materials, and labor necessary to build Wayan and her children a home. While Gilbert used her masculinized privilege as a Global Northerner to pay for Wayan’s new home, Gilbert also positions herself as Wayan’s economic benefactor. It should be noted that Wayan had been living without a husband and with her children for a while before Gilbert ever came to Bali. Thus, the traditional position of a provider and primary breadwinner is taken over by Gilbert.
While some might read Gilbert’s willingness to purchase a home for Wayan as an act of philanthropy, Gilbert’s intentions are questionable because she feels the need to let her extended group of friends and family know about it. This point is solidified when Gilbert later becomes frustrated with Wayan’s apparent reluctancy to buy land and build a home. Gilbert vocalizes her frustration to Wayan, “Wayan, it’s important that we buy something. I’m leaving here in September, and I need to let my friends know before I leave that their money actually went into a home for you.” While Gilbert condescendingly explains Wayan’s own housing situation to her, as if Wayan is not already aware, also inadvertently raising the question of who Gilbert bought the house for. Is the house truly for Wayan and her family, or is the house a way for Gilbert to materially demonstrate her mobile spirituality?
Feminizing and Othering— Colonization through Transnational Travel
Implicit in Gilbert’s self-masculinization is the subsequent feminization of people in the Global South. Since Gilbert appointed herself as Wayan’s financial caretaker, she effectively takes Wayan’s agency away. Gilbert continues her fascination by focusing on the demeanors and bodies of people in the Global South through her descriptions of Bali; women are more likely to experience this kind of objectification than are men. Gilbert insists that the “Balinese are famously friendly.” Gilbert also states that the hotel staff “is Balinese, which means they automatically start adoring you and complimenting you on your beauty as soon as you walk in.” Gilbert does not elaborate on either of these statements, nor does she explain that since Bali’s economy is dependent on tourism, it is literally the job of Balinese hospitality workers to be friendly to Westerners. Instead, Gilbert’s lack of explanation implies a frame of essentialism that would claim the Balinese are friendly because that is just the way they are.
Gilbert continuously feminizes both the men and women of Bali throughout the third part of Eat, Pray, Love, the most obvious of which she states, “beauty is good in Bali, for men and women. Beauty is revered. Beauty is safety. Children are taught to approach all hardship and discomfort with a ‘shining face,’ a giant smile.” These observations seem to be merely her own. This quote exemplifies how colonialist notions of exotification, eroticization, and the constructed “passivity” of people in the Global South are perpetuated through travel-tourism. Gilbert’s obsession with portraying the Balinese as beautiful and smiling mirrors Malek Alloula’s analysis in his book, The Colonial Harem. When describing the power dynamics between a colonialist photographer and his model, evident in the postcard “Algeria. Beautiful Fatmah,” Alloula states, “the forced smile [of the subject] is there to further emphasize the illusory complicity that the photographer steals from his models.” The constructed passivity of colonized peoples is a strategic tool that reinforces the idea of complicity. Gilbert’s constructed reality and subsequent perpetuation of smiling, sweet, and beautiful Balinese people was founded in racialized and patriarchal colonialism, which Gilbert is effectively perpetuating through her publishing of these thoughts. If the Balinese people are always beautiful and smiling, then Gilbert has no reason to believe she is doing anything wrong or question existing power dynamics.
Gilbert’s constructed reality of the beautiful and docile Balinese is soon shattered through her trip to the local library, where she learned about the genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. Gilbert states, “Wait—why did I come to Bali again? To search for the balance between worldly pleasure and spiritual devotion, right? Is this, indeed, the right setting for such a search?…The Balinese quite literally live off their image of being the world’s most peaceful and devotional and artistically expressive people, but how much of that is intrinsic and how much of that is economically calculated.” Here, Gilbert’s entire reality is destroyed. Gilbert seems to feel betrayed by her perception of the culture she wanted to consume. She was so convinced of colonialist stereotypes of the Balinese that she was shocked to find out that the Balinese are humans with a historically complex culture and thus similar to herself.
Gender Binaries and the Apolitical Consumption of Culture
Gilbert’s reaction to Bali’s 1965 genocide and her subsequent justification for remaining in Bali displays the dangers of remaining apolitical for one’s own comfort. After “accepting” that Bali had a bloody past, Gilbert states “whatever the Balinese need to do in order to hold their own balance (and make a living) is entirely up to them. What I’m here to do is work on my own equilibrium, and this still feels, at least for now, like a nourishing climate in which to do that.” Some might argue that this revelation marks a positive change in Gilbert’s consumption of Balinese culture. Most tourists are not exposed to (or choose not to be exposed to) unsavory political histories while vacationing, so at least she is educating herself and now recognizes that her spiritual growth should not be dependent on an idealized culture. However, while educating oneself is important, Gilbert uses individualism as a way to shield herself from the recognition that she ihas been relying on colonialist power structures to produce her own personal fulfillment. Gilbert chooses to ignore Bali’s less desirable history so that she feels no responsibility for her actions and so that it will not hinder her spiritual journey. She can continue apolitically consuming culture without concern for the issues that her feminized objects of consumption face. Through operating within the implicit system of Global North/masculine and Global South/feminine binaries, Gilbert is effectively able to transcend responsibility for her participation in the system that positions people of the Global South as “other.” For Gilbert, there is an immense privilege in being able to simply look away.
When analyzing how Gilbert apolitically consumes the Global South to aid in her own mobile spirituality, it is important to note that more ethical forms of tourism such as staying at a locally-owned homestay and eating at local restaurants can queer, or deconstruct, the gendered-colonialist binaries implicit within the power structures of the tourism industry. However, tourism and transnational mobility are still inherently dependent on categorizing the Global South as exotic in order to procure profit. To the critics of my analysis who will ask why I am being so critical of Gilbert, who claims to be a feminist, I would say: why do we want to hold white women to a different standard when analyzing transnational colonialist discourses? Feminism must remain intersectional and critically examine the legacies of racism and colonialism, both of which Gilbert remained blissfully unaware of.
If we are to continue traveling and participating in global exchange, it is imperative that those with transnational privilege acknowledge their privilege and critically examine the origin of their drive to travel. As Lisa Heldke points out in her article Let’s Eat Chinese, “I could not ignore the fact that underneath, or alongside, or over and above all these other reasons for my adventuring, I was motivated by a deep desire to have contact with and somehow to own an experience of an Exotic Other to make myself more interesting.” Heldke’s self-criticism must extend beyond the world of food and encompass the travel-tourism industry. Raising awareness and critically self-examining power structures implicit in the cultural tourism industry, and how individuals perpetuate existing power structures, are the first steps to the deconstruction of gendered and racialized hierarchies.
Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love. New York: Penguin Group USA, 2006.
Heldke, Lisa. “Let’s Eat Chinese! Reflections on Cultural Food Colonialism.” Gastronomica 1, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 76-79. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2001.1.2.76.
Larasati, Diyah R. “Eat, pray, love mimic: Female citizenship and otherness.” South Asian Popular Culture 8, no. 1 (April 2010): 89-95. https://doi.org/10.1080/14746681003633275.
Mohanty, Chandra T. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” boundary 2 12/13, no. 3-1 (Spring-Autumn 1984): 333-358. https://www.jstor.org/stable/302821.
Winfrey, Oprah. “Eat Pray Love 3.” Youtube. Accessed April 19, 2020. Video, 9:58. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIzH3nIlrc8.
 Oprah Winfrey, “Eat Pray Love 3,” Youtube, Accessed April 19, 2020, video, 9:58, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIzH3nIlrc8.
 Diyah R. Larasati, “Eat, pray, love mimic: Female citizenship and otherness,” South Asian Popular Culture 8, no. 1 (2010): 89, https://doi.org/10.1080/14746681003633275.
 Chandra T. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” boundary 2 12/13, no. 3-1 (1984): 334-335, https://www.jstor.org/stable/302821.
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963).
 Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love (New York: Penguin Group USA, 2006), 11.
 Gilbert, 27.
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 Gilbert, 215.
 Gilbert, 217.
 Gilbert, 227.
 Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 34.
 Gilbert, 238.
 Gilbert, 239.
 Lisa Heldke, “Let’s Eat Chinese! Reflections on Cultural Food Colonialism,” Gastronomica 1, no. 2 (2001): 78, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2001.1.2.76.
Acknowledgements: This paper is dedicated to my close friend, Miss Jamila Moses (aka Jam), who has listened, supported, and participated in my rants on gender and politics. So many of my thoughts and so much of the confidence I have developed stems from the conversations that we had while we bought sandwiches from Lay-Z-Shopper and went for late-night walks down East Broad Street. I am so grateful for you. I would like to thank Professor Cecilia Herles, Professor Patricia Richards, and Professor Pete Brosius for facilitating spaces where I could think critically and develop an analysis such as this one. I would like to thank my Bahasa Indonesia professors, Ubed Zubaidi Amrullah and Nahar Nurun Nafi, for being supportive and helping me become a more well-rounded person. Finally, I would like to thank Bon Bon, my parents, my little brother, and my close friends, all of whom provide constant emotional support.