Disney's Aladdin and Orientalism: time for a rethink?

Aladdin is a childhood favourite for many, but revisiting it in 2021 shows just how outdated the film is becoming

Tom Wrath
18th February 2021
The cult classic Aladdin is packed with energy, imagery, and charm, but is it reaching a point of irreversible outdatedness?

Whether intentional or not, every element of Aladdin illustrates and exaggerates stereotyping, both onscreen and in production.

Sitting down to watch the 1993 animation (subject of this article; the 2016 live-action is for another day), it is impossible to avoid being drawn into the narrators promise to transport the viewer to a mysterious, dangerous, and dark world. Alan Menken’s memorable opening number of sets the scene of a ‘far off’ and ‘barbaric’ place, so far removed from any Western reality that it is inherently ‘foreign’ to a viewer; with lyrics originally reading "Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face/ It's barbaric, but hey, it's home”. After some controversy amidst vehement opposition from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee these were replaced, but Disney/Menken’s desire to keep them in the film remain clear exemplification of the ubiquitous ‘othering’ of the Arab world through promotion of long-standing negative stereotyping. Whether intentional or not, every element of Aladdin illustrates and exaggerates this stereotyping, both onscreen and in production.

Image credit: IMDb

The city of Agrabah is a fictional construct chiselled in the form of great Middle Eastern cities, and although it accurately portrays small scenes of marketplaces and houses, there is an inescapable homogeneity and generalisation to the destination. Within the Middle East Tehran is an entirely different city from Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi is an entirely different city from Istanbul, and so on. By combining Orientalist aspects of all cities, Agrabah becomes a hyper-exaggerated and cynical reproduction of both outdated Western interpretations and assimilates micro-differential cultures into a single identity. The strong ostracism of Aladdin from real Middle Eastern culture is only further punctuated by the narrow streets of thieves, crooks and villains juxtaposed against the grandeur of the Shah’s palace, arguably commenting out of turn on the socio-economic wealth gap in the region. With limited diversity in practically every aspect of the films production, casting and direction; do Disney have licence to comment on such sensitive societal topics without communication, discussion, and proper research with residents of the region?

“Most of the Arab characters had exaggerated facial characteristics, whilst Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers”

Aladdin’s characters truly serve as the greatest indicator of Disney’s Americanisms, when examined against Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. For the unacquainted, it was argued in 1978 that the West visions the East as a place of exoticism and intrigue, before Orientalism became a seminal theory for critics of the Bush Administration post-9/11. Having a scheming indomitable personality, Jafar resembles the autocratic rulers of the Middle East, with Jasmine and her father playing the role of the ‘average’ citizens of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, in need of saviourship from Aladdin (the West). Said remonstrates that these roles are a product of the Occident (or the West), with lazy and offensive animation emphasising this, as the critic Roger Ebert noted in 1993, indicting “most of the Arab characters had exaggerated facial characteristics, whilst Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers”. Considering Disney’s perspective, perhaps it would not be unfair to suggest Aladdin is a piece of subconscious propaganda, produced and released at a time of heightened US-Middle Eastern tensions following the 1986 bombing of Libya, and end of the Gulf War.

Image credit: IMDb

The film is vital to understanding the evolution of Arab stereotyping in film, as it exists within a unique space in the Orientalist dichotomy, during a short period pre-9/11 where identities of the East in films were beginning to secede offensive stereotypes from less realistic films such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, and transition toward political commentary. This process of politicism became prevalent following 9/11, with the rapid increase of anti-Islamist rhetoric shaping new stereotypes, and an incomprehensibly one-dimensional, negative collective identity of the Middle East being hell bent on destroying the West. Aladdin’s featuring of both portrayals represents the shift in American views towards the east and has become a valuable socio-cultural lens through which to examine the beginnings of violent prejudices towards the Arabic community.

The values of the film are so far removed from the reality of 2021, and the age of true equality and inclusion

Aladdin was a seminal work for family entertainment and expanded on the success of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) within the Disney Renaissance, and although it is probably too far to state ‘indoctrination’, the values of the film are so far removed from the reality of 2021, and the age of true equality and inclusion, that its unsurprising hostile attitudes towards the Middle East were fostered. Considering this, is it any great surprise that in 2015, 30% of Republican voters hypothetically voted in support of bombing Agrabah - a fictional city?! I love Disney’s Aladdin, but from now on I will view it with a little less esteem, and a lot more awareness of its provenance as a product of American Jingoism, and its Orientalist stereotyping of the Middle Eastern.

Feature image credit: IMDb

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