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Disney’s Orientalism (Aladdin I) | QTR

First published June 22, 2019.

I love Disney – or more accurately – I love Disney films, the company can be messed up, but I was raised on those movies. The animation is beautiful, and a lot of the earlier stuff was well ahead of its time. The characters are endearing and the songs are catchy as hell. But, Disney still has its flaws, and I’m not afraid to admit that. One big red flag that I actually wrote a paper on earlier this year is the 1992 classic Aladdin‘s blatant Orientalism. For the sake of this video I’m not going to talk about the live action remake, as that wasn’t out when I wrote the paper and it honestly deserves its own discussion video. So, let’s jump right into another Arabian night!

Part 1: What is Orientalism?

Orientalism, as defined by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, is “a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.” In art, this takes the form of an essentialist 19th Century art movement that makes use of this ‘way of seeing’, deeply rooted in studying and othering the Middle East, or ‘Orient’, including as a means of colonial control.

One common trope in Orientalist artworks is nude, suspiciously white-looking women with Middle Eastern knick-knacks, in a fetishised version of a harem setting. In her paper ‘Women and Orientalism: 19th century Representations of the Harem by European female travellers and Ottoman women,’ Thisaranie Herath provides a reason for the often sexualised, whitewashed aspects of these paintings. She states from the beginning of her work that “the inaccessibility of the Ottoman harems to European males helped perpetuate the image of the harem as purely sexual in nature and contributed to imperialistic discourse that positioned the East as inferior to the West.” Not only are there sexist connotations to these paintings, but racist ones, which at once fetishise the female body and degrade aspects of a foreign culture.

Another common thread is vagueness. While some paintings, for example those by Edwin Lord Weeks are pretty respectful depictions of India and the Middle East’s unique cultures informed by study, travel, and personal interest, others seem much more nonspecific. While this could be considered creating a fictional setting, it also gives off a feeling of the artist not really caring about accuracy or positive depictions of foreign cultures, and more about creating something that looks exotic and ‘plunder-able’.

Obviously, not every Orientalist artwork is like this, but an overwhelming amount are – and those little details like pipes and turbans on Caucasian women I mentioned before suggest a sort of fetishist nature, profiting off ‘exotic’ Middle Eastern motifs for a white audience and pushing narratives to that audience about a perceived superiority of the West. Coming back to our man Edward Said, he also said in his book on Orientalism that:

“From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”

Edward Said, “Orientalism.”

Part 2: How is Aladdin Orientalist?

You might say, “but Raven, Aladdin isn’t a 19th Century painting. Why does it still matter?” to which I’ll reply “okay, dingus, art still has repercussions, and this movie has the same ones.” And lots of other people agree with me on that one, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who said that they: “saw light-skinned, Anglicised features in the heroes… that contrasted sharply with the swarthy, greedy street merchants who had Arabic accents and grotesque facial features,” and that it perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes. But quoting one committee isn’t exactly proof, so let’s get into the context and characteristics that make Aladdin Orientalist.

Let’s start with what the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination committee pointed out. What Anglicising means in the context of Aladdin’s character designs is that the protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, were made to look and sound more appealing to a white audience – even with Jasmine’s beautiful nose and eyes and tan skin, and Aladdin’s medieval Arab getup and pet monkey named the Arabic word for ‘dad’ – their American accents and conventional attractiveness are unmistakable. In contrast, the street merchants and Jafar look much more stereotypically Arab, with hooked noses, and for the merchants thick accents, essentially coding these features as evil or degrading. This comes directly from the Orientalist worldview that we saw earlier, prizing white features and using them to celebrate the exotic beauty of the Orient while excluding representation of real Arab people. And on the topic of appearances, have you had a look at how Jasmine is dressed recently?

Hyper-sexualisation of women of colour has been an issue for centuries, coming from the intersection of misogyny and racist fetishism. The harem stereotypes I mentioned earlier are an obvious example, coming from Western males’ exaggerated ideas of what harems, and the women in them, were actually like. This is very clear in the case of Aladdin, where the women are scantily clad in stylised, belly-dancer-like outfits with bare midriffs and sultry eyes that seem to go against the Muslim values of modesty the fictional Agrabah – Allah is mentioned by the Sultan – would have, including Jasmine, who by the way, is fifteen years old! They’re sexualising a teenager! To the point of her making bedroom eyes at Jafar! Sure she was creating a distraction in that scene, but it still rubs me the wrong way, especially considering the West’s history of sexualising women and girls of colour.

Continuing with visual design for a little longer, I’d like to talk a bit about the backgrounds and buildings in the film. Don’t get me wrong, they’re gorgeous, but in some places seem to… Take us out of the Middle East, adding Indian architecture into the mix. Now, there’s no denying the strong historical connection between Arabia and the Indian subcontinent – trade on the Silk Road, the spread of Islam, and travelling scholars, merchants, and of course architects, but when thinking back on it, it’s a bit odd. For example, take the Sultan’s palace. It’s pretty clearly a nod to the Taj Mahal, which – I’ll grant the background artists – was built by Persian architects for a Muslim prince – but… The Taj Mahal is in India nonetheless. And when the opening song very clearly situates Agrabah on the Arabian peninsula that’s a bit off-putting to someone like me, who nit-picks everything.

Let’s keep talking about the opening song, actually. Arabian Nights is pretty good in a musical sense. It flows, and the instrumentals are beautiful. But the lyrics are… Eeeeuhhhhh (show highlighted lyrics)… They’re a mess. “Barbaric.” (Play original slow) Nice. Cool. Also, the accent and the visual design of the merchant take us back to the first point I made about negative stereotypes in character design. But Arabian Nights doesn’t stop there. The DVD version of Aladdin was actually censored after backlash from the original cinema release. At first, the song contained the lyrics “where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face,” oof. And someone posted a video with the original line to YouTube too, so you can hear it for yourself – the link will be in the references below and it starts around the 33 second mark.

Another thing, though not a negative stereotype, is a line in Prince Ali, about Sunday salaams. This is probably nit-picking too, but referencing Sunday clothes – which are for Church – in a place where the main religion as established by dialogue and geographic clues is Islam, which has Friday as its special prayer day, is a bit careless to me.

Part 3: What did we learn?

In this part, I feel like I should mention the context of the movie and how it influenced all these decisions. I mean, 19th Century artists were conditioned by their imperialist countries of origin and as a result, intentionally or unintentionally made art of the Orient that was negative and fetishised, vindicating conquering the Middle East for control of its people and resources. You’d think people would have known better in the 90s, right?

But the thing is, history repeats itself. In the 2 years leading up to Aladdin‘s release, The United States – where Disney is of course based – found itself at war with Iraq. The fact that the movie seems to fall back on Orientalist tropes isn’t an accident, it’s a result of othering and attempting to control how the Western world perceives Arab and other Orient communities. Even if this was not Disney’s intention – though knowing their history it probably was – it’s pretty evident from how Islamophobic much of the Western world has been over the last 30 years or so that these stereotypes have become heavily embedded in our society.

As for what I think we can learn, I have this to say: racism breeds racism. The 1992 version of Aladdin is inherently Orientalist because Western interactions with the Middle East and beyond have largely been based on imperialism, xenophobia, and trying to seize control, resulting in botched representation in whatever media was popular at the time. I believe that through going back and analysing what we consume and seeking to learn more about the worlds’ amazing array of cultures, and of course allowing more people of colour to tell their own stories through big media platforms, will greatly improve representation and cultural understanding, undoing the cycle of racism we’ve been stuck with for centuries. Of course, this doesn’t change the past, and change won’t be instant, but I believe a better world for future generations is possible if we really work on it, including in the arts.

So, despite how much I enjoy Disney – or anything, really – I still find stuff to criticise a lot. Maybe that’s just how I show love. I stand firm with the belief that the 1992 Aladdin is, at its core, Orientalist and Imperialist fanfare even if Friend Like Me goes hard over 20 years later. There’s plenty more to be said about this year’s remake, which I enjoyed by the way, and I still love the original movies, but I feel like it’s important to understand that movies like Aladdin are still… Kinda racist because of the people that made them. But, this doesn’t mean we can’t improve! With a little retrospection and research, we can make the media include better representation for everyone, and I’ll probably touch on that in my part 2 on the live action.

By draweththeraven

My name's Raven, and I'm a writer, animator, and theorist.

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