Orientalism: ‘A Whole New World’

For myself and many others, Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ (1992) is one of the most celebrated animated films of all time. As a child, I would fantasise about it’s story lines to the point of even re-enacting particular scenes. It seemed the perfect fairytale. However, the minds of children are naive and it’s not until 20 years later that I’ve realised how much this film has actively portrayed the Arab culture in a negative light as a result of the orientalist view of the West.

The term ‘Orientalism’ was first coined by Edward Said who suggested that it is ‘the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient’ (Said, 1978). It is the exaggerated and distorted representation of Eastern cultures as defined by the West within films, books, music, photography, paintings etc. (AANM, 2011). The term highlights irreconcilable differences between the East and the West, illustrating the Orients as inferior in comparison with desperate need for Western intervention (Mudambi, 2013). Orientalism is ultimately the lens by which Western audiences view the East by unjustly projecting the unwanted characteristics of the West onto the East to emphasise them as ‘the other’.

So what examples of orientalism can we find within ‘Aladdin’?

Song Lyrics
Unfortunately we don’t have to dig very deep into the film to find it’s first trace of Arabian injustice. In fact, we only have to arrive to the second sentence of the opening song. This opening scene illustrates a bearded Arabian with an oversized turban riding a camel across the desert singing:
Originally, the peddler who introduces the movie would be revealed to be the Genie at the end - hence the fact that Robin Williams voiced him, too. Notice the similarities in the design of the two, especially the eyebrows, the beard and the four-fingered hands. (All the other human characters have five fingers.) Also, he’s got the same color scheme, blue with a red belt. 

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”

Arab-American complaints forced the writers to alter these slanderous lyrics, completely changing the second sentence as it promoted a disturbing and harshly stereotypical description of the East which, conveniently, projects the Western culture as the civilised superior. However, even the changed lyric stresses the country’s inhabitable condition: Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”, with the land’s ‘barbaric’ description remaining, highlighting it’s savage, diabolical state (Mara, 2011). Also, take note of the ‘far-away place’ reference, reiterating the East’s ‘other’ status.

ALSO ON @GMA: The voices of Aladdin, Jasmine, & Jafar are on in an #Aladdin tribute and reunion!

Physical Characteristics
Orientalism is also evident within the film through the description of it’s characters. The villains, for example, are the only characters who seem to illustrate the traditional Arabian characteristics, such as: dark skin, facial hair, caftans, turbans and strong Arabic accents however, this is also accompanied with other exaggerated negative features such as missing teeth, large noses and dirty attire. At the other end of the scale, the protagonist Aladdin bears a stronger resemblance to a Western character with his lighter complexion, clean-cut appearance with no turban or tunic, and American accent (Mott, 2015). In fact, Ziauddin Sardar, author of the novel ‘Orientalism’, agrees that ‘the only thing that separates Aladdin from a normal, mid-western Caucasian boy is his slight brown colouring‘ (Sardar, 1999, p. 103). This suggests that the West want to associate the Eastern culture with negative characteristics to stress their own positive ones, and by only attributing traditional Arabian characteristics to the villainous characters, the audiences are subconsciously branding the Eastern culture unfavourably.

Disney's Aladdin gave a different twist on the harem fantasy. While it certainly perpetuated the stereotype of scantily clad, veil-twirling, dancing harem girls (dancing harem girls existed in the Ottoman Empire but nobody ever saw what they looked like), Princess Jasmine, a "modern" woman, struggled and ultimately triumphed against it.:

Depiction of Women
Perhaps one of the most controversial depictions of orientalism within Aladdin is its representation of women. Within the streets, household harems, fantasies and palace walls, young women appear to be nothing more but objects of desire. These women are barely clothed in exotic, translucent fabrics offering seductive gestures. Princess Jasmine herself is illustrated in a tight, revealing mid-drift highlighting her stick-thin torso and shoulders. Later in the film, she is even portrayed as a ‘sexual temptress’ whose role is to serve the Arab male, emphasising the argument that ‘the men are sexually depraved and the women are sexually available’ (Scurry, 2010, p.37). This interpretation further emphasises orientalism as it demonstrates very little truth or awareness of Islamic reality. Particularly today, the modesty of women in the East is of the utmost importance, and so as a result, most of their features are covered and hidden, especially if the woman is of royal calibre (Mara, 2011). Once again, we are seeing Eastern women through a degrading Western gaze of  eroticism and over-sexualisation, suggesting that the more Westernised they are, the more attractive they are.

This orientalist representation of Arabs within Disney’s Aladdin,  are encouraging Western audiences, specifically the  vulnerable minds of children, to believe in oriental stereotypes. Stereotypes that have been manipulated and made false. Subconsciously, the audience are being persuaded to reject the East while appreciating the West.

References:

– Arab American National Museum 2011, ‘What is Orientalism’, Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes, arabstereotypes.org, viewed 22nd March 2016, <http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism&gt;

– Mara, 2011, ‘Orientalism in Aladdin’, Colloquium Blog, maralaporte.blogspot.com.au, viewed 22nd March 2016, <http://maralaporte.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/final-paper-orientalism-in-aladdin.html&gt;

– Mott, M 2015, ‘Aladdin’s Orientalism and its Effects on Children’, melissamott.com, viewed 24th March 2016, <http://melissamott.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Aladdins-Orientalism.pdf&gt;

– Mudambi, A 2013, ‘Another Look At Orientalism: (An)Othering in Slumdog Millionaire’, Howard Journal of Communications, Routledge, Vol.24, No.3, pp. 275-292, tandfonline.com, viewed 21st March 2016, <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10646175.2013.805990&gt;

– Said, E 2001, ‘From Orientalism’, in V Leitch (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton, New York, pp. 1991-2012

– Sardar, Z 1999, ‘The Contemporary Practice’, Orientalism, McGraw-Hill Education, Open University Press, Philadelphia, p. 103

– Scurry, S 2010, ‘BAGHDAD IN AMERICAN FILM: FROM FLYING CARPETS TO IEDS’, Orientalism in American Cinema: Providing a Historical and Geographical Context for Post-Colonial Theory, Tiger Prints, All Theses, Clemson University, clemson.edu, viewed 23rd March 2016, <http://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1789&context=all_theses&gt;

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