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Disney’s Orientalism (Aladdin II) | QTR

Published July 10, 2019.

In my last video, I talked about Orientalism – the objectification of the Middle East, India, and other parts of Asia in art – and how this relates to Disney’s 1992 classic Aladdin. Spoilers, the movie was racist. But I also mentioned that I’d discuss the live action remake released this year, which came out after I presented the paper my video was based on, but before I actually made it into a video. So here’s part 2!

I’m going to be honest, I thought it was a really good movie. Like, I knew I’d enjoy it no matter what, but I still went in with low expectations for things like cultural sensitivity because of uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh……. (white extras) and um. (Ahh that’s hot!) And yet, I left the movie blown away. It was good! It was tasteful! It was – as far as my white, uneducated ass can tell – respectful! So today I’m not only gonna go into why I was scared going in, but how the live action film significantly improved its representation of the Middle East in a really politically charged time…

Part 1: Why was I worried?

My main concern going into the movie was casting. Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in roles that are more suited to people of colour, and this was the case with some of the extras on the set of Aladdin. One extra, (I’m gonna mispronounce this), Kaushal Odedra, said that he saw many of his crowd scene colleagues were being ‘made up’ to look Arabian, critiquing Disney as ‘out of touch.” This observation made me understandably worried, as it’s as a weird intersection of whitewashing and whatever the Arab version of blackface is. Obviously, this is the concern I had with the movie that wasn’t changed, as it isn’t redeemable. Being racist and lazy by using white actors made up to look like another race or ethnicity is…racist and lazy, even if it’s extras for a crowd scene.

Staying on the casting bandwagon, a few people, including me eventually, had concerns about Naomi Scott being cast as Jasmine. The issue with Naomi wasn’t white-washing, but cultural vagueness in Western media. I mentioned in the first video that I made that the use of Indian architecture in an Arab sultanate confused me. That’s the same issue with Naomi – despite playing a supposedly Arab princess, she is Indian. This created an assumption that the movie creators yet again did not care about correctly representing Arabian or Indian cultures, just about what looked good enough on a surface level.

Some other people were also critical of the casting choice not only because Hollywood seems to see brown actors as interchangeable, but because Naomi may have been chosen for looking “white enough,” referencing a long and disgusting history of colourism, something that of course goes hand in hand with racism. This is also a call back to arguments about Orientalism in the 1992 original, where the heroes of the story were anglicised and actual Arab and Indian features like big noses and darker skin were demonised.

I have nothing against Naomi as a person or actor, I just thought the casting was iffy in this case. Although traditional Arab and Indian cultures have a few similarities and a long history of communication and trade, they are still very distinct and I didn’t know whether Disney would actually try to reference that cultural diversity properly or not.

Other details I had concerns about included the fact that they were adding new elements to the story, including the character Dalia, Jasmine wanting to be the next sultan as a key plot point, Jasmine’s own song, and my mans Will Smith as a bad CGI genie. None of these actually have anything to do with Orientalism, or opinions on the actors, it’s just that all of this stuff could have gone two ways. I didn’t know if they’d contribute to, overcrowd, or straight up ruin the movie.

Part 2: What saved Aladdin?

On the first thing I mentioned: I believe wholeheartedly that making up actors as a race they’re not, especially white actors as people of colour, is a terrible and racist thing that shouldn’t have been done. However, casting Naomi Scott as Jasmine seemed to work in the movie’s favour. The reason I say that is because of how, instead of being really vague and not caring about accuracy, the Aladdin remake pretty sincerely reflects a long tradition of cultural diversity in the Middle East that goes back centuries. I touched on this cultural link to India – where Naomi’s family is from – in the first video, where I mentioned Persian architects working on the Taj Mahal, and the Mughal style it’s a part of reflects that further. Although they were very distinct cultures, Indian and Arab communities had a lot of cultural and religious interchange and as a result, a lot of diversity. This is presented in the film; Jasmine mentions her mother coming from a foreign kingdom, and there’s plenty of Bollywood elements throughout, so instead of just casting an Indian woman as an Arab character, they actually worked her cultural background into Jasmine’s own. I’d like to briefly say again that I am white, and I could be totally off the mark, so it’s definitely worth looking into what actual Arab and Indian people have said about this.

Continuing with my train of thought, strong cultural diversity was present throughout the whole Islamic Golden Age – including much of East Asia and North Africa – and set designers actually referenced Moroccan architecture for 2019 Aladdin. Other little details in casting and character design, such as other major characters being accurately casted, the more-diverse-than-expected background characters, and Arabic text in books were also important choices.

Something else I mentioned in my first video was song lyrics and what they implied. They updated the racist and ignorant lyrics, taking out stuff about being barbaric from Arabian Nights and changing the worship day from Sunday to Friday in Prince Ali. These changes are easy to hear for yourself, as the new songs are online on like, a million different Vevo accounts. These changes, though they seem minor, take out messages that disregard the nuances of Oriental cultures. The need to respect cultural diversity is an important message to give to the audience, especially as Disney films attract fans both young and old.

Another welcome change was the desexualised costuming, especially with the leads, Aladdin and Jasmine. In addition to being aged up from young teenagers, their outfits actually cover their chests. Not that being shirtless or showing your midriff is a bad thing, it just seemed oversexualised in the Orientalist context of the original movie. I also loved all the details in Jasmine’s clothes, some of which were lovely homages to the 1992 version without being exact replicas. And I could be wrong on this, but some of her accessories seemed to reference not only medieval Middle Eastern fashion but traditional Indian outfits, yet another example of how cultural merging can be done properly.

The movie opens with a mariner who is quite clearly the Genie, who begins to tell a story to his children through song, leading us into Arabian Nights, with the movie essentially ending in a loop, as the genie was telling the children a story about his own time with Aladdin. I actually really liked this; it parallels with something that was speculated but left unexplained in the original movie- the merchant who opened the film with Arabian Nights, according to the writers themselves, was actually the genie. So the fact that they made it a little clearer in the remake was cool to me, and I liked that it tied it all together. And Will Smith, in my opinion, was actually a very good genie. He and the producers did not try to recreate Robin Williams’ genie, instead bringing his own unique flair, and the CGI ended up looking wonderful. Of course the core elements stayed the same, but he was still a unique genie with his own manner of speaking and interacting with others.

Another key difference in the movie was of course that the genie had kids at the end-slash-beginning of the movie, and people with a keen eye for Disney tropes probably predicted by the time it happened that the genie’s partner after being freed was Dalia. Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad, is Jasmine’s handmaiden and friend – don’t worry, Rajah is still there – and I actually liked Dalia a lot more than I thought I would. She was funny, and she was determined to support Jasmine as much as she could while also not abandoning her own dreams. I definitely don’t think it was necessary for Dalia and the Genie to be love interests, but it was handled very well, and I really liked both characters. I thought the changes and additions were fun and enabled the 1992 and 2019 movies to stand out from each other.

One final thing I want to mention is another plot addition that I didn’t think was 100% necessary but was definitely a good touch: Jasmine’s personal goal in the remake was to become the next sultan. She even sang a song about it. Quick sidenote, I thought the song was nice. I didn’t think it was necessary for plot progression or character development, the rest of Jasmine’s role was very clear, but I still really liked it as like… a song. Okay, back to the story – Jasmine being motivated to become the next sultan and continually defying the roles she was born into by refusing to marry a prince, and instead speaking up, and expressing how capable she is of looking after the land and people she loves, was very important to me. It felt like a natural progression from Jasmine’s character in the 1992 version. I also know that, even though she was portrayed by a light skinned Indian woman – which can be problematic for reasons I went into earlier – there’s no doubt that seeing a brown woman who is strong and clever and beautiful will be important to a lot of kids out there, especially little girls.

So, yeah, there’s my opinions on the Aladdin remake before and after watching it. I actually watched it a second time when I was almost done writing this, that’s how much I liked it. This is a really general overview of what I thought of the movie and I have a lot more I could probably say, not just about Aladdin but other Disney movies. The Lion King was just released and we’re already seeing stuff about the live actions of Mulan and The Little Mermaid, and there’s plenty of other Disney movies – both original and remade – that can be talked about in terms of things like Essentialism and just general quality, but I might come back to all that another day. For now, I just want to say thank you for sticking it out ’til the end, and have a great day.


Footnotes

1: Newsbeat, “Aladdin: Disney defends ‘making up’ white actors to ‘blend in’ during crowd scenes” BBC, January 9, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/42601893/aladdin-disney-defends-making-up-white-actors-to-blend-in-during-crowd-scenese.

2: Sima Shakeri. “Disney Criticized For Casting Naomi Scott As Princess Jasmine For ‘Aladdin’,” Huffington Post, July 18, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/07/17/disney-aladdin-jasmine-naomi-scott_a_23034316/.

3: Erum Salam, “The fairest of them all? Two cheers for Aladdin’s browner Princess Jasmine,” The Guardian, May 24, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/24/aladdin-princess-jasmine-brown-colorism-disney.

4: Wayne E. Begley, “The Myth of the Taj Mahal and a New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning,” The Art Bulletin 61, no. 1 (1979): 7-37. doi:10.2307/3049862.

5: Newsround, “Aladdin: First look at Disney live-action remake,” BBC, March 14, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/46631417.

6: Rose Troup Buchanan, “Peddler at beginning of Aladdin is the Genie, directors finally confirm,” The Independent, October 17, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/peddler-at-beginning-of-aladdin-is-the-genie-directors-finally-confirm-a6697826.html.

By draweththeraven

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

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