GEOG30010: Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies Research Assignment

 

Disney’s Aladdin: America’s Institutionalisation of the

Middle Eastern Other

 

Introduction

Representations of the ‘Orient’, no matter how seemingly innocent are charged with meanings about cultural relations.

(Felperin, 1997, p. 137).

The opening song ‘Another Arabian Night’ (see Video 1, 0:00 – 0:30) introduces the cultural backdrop for Walt Disney Picture’s 1992 animated film Aladdin, set in the fictional town of Agrabah in the Middle Eastern land of ‘Arabia’[1].  Whilst the animated films of Walt Disney Company that have permeated modern society have been praised for their immense theatrical displays, memorable songs and captivating story-lines, they have at the same time been scrutinised for their “sanitization” and “Americanization” of culture and history (Ross, 1999, in Bryman, 2004).  

VIDEO 1

Aladdin has sparked controversy since its release in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, particularly among Muslim and Arab-American groups who have denounced the film for its use of a-historic Arab stereotypes and offensive caricatures[2].  The outcry of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) persuaded Disney Studios to replace the lyrics, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” with, “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense,”(see Video 2, 0:30 – 0:40) in order to overcome this tired stereotype and make the place rather than the people seem ‘barbaric’[3].  In any case, we can question the extent to which the characterisation of fantasy lands (based on ‘reality’) in this way in a film aimed at children should be accepted and laughed off as harmless caricature – is there really such a thing as a harmless children’s film?

In addressing this question and critiquing the (‘sanitized’) reality upon which the film’s narrative is constructed, this essay adopts a postcolonial ethic to destabilize Disney’s univocal projection of non-Western identity.  It will interrogate Disney’s depiction of life in the Middle East, to show how Aladdin is tied in with the dominant U.S. social and political discourse in the post-World War II period.  This is in order to understand the “relationship of stereotypes to the legitimate social power,” (Seiter, 1986, p. 24) and reveal the ways in which representations of the Orient are legitimised through Manichean allegories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ perpetuated by media and popular discourse at the time of the film’s production.  This essay will go on to examine how contemporary fears of the ‘Other’ are communicated through the characters’ embodiment of the values of the Orient and the Occident.  Finally, it will argue the film could be interpreted as an allusion to “current political, economic, cultural, and ideological discourse about America’s place in the world order” (Schaffer, 1996, p. 9) which sees the West as the centre of the knowledge/power nexus.

It is not what is on the outside, but what is inside that counts…

VIDEO 2

In order to understand the ways in which Aladdin constructs and communicates ideas about the exotic ‘other’, it is important to turn to Said’s discourse on Orientalism which provides the “mythographical topos” (Addison, 1993, p. 6) upon which the film is set.

Orientalism is grounded in the European delineation of the West and the East, which reduced geographically complex and diverse regions into the epistemologically fixed but distinctive ‘self’ and ‘other’, contributing to a cultural narrative in which the amplification of differences, as opposed to geographical realism, was (and still is) central.  As signalled by the title of this chapter, as well as reiterating a dominant theme within the film (see Video 2, 2:10 – 2:35), the narratives constructed outside the realms of geographical realism are not what is important; it is the way these ideological constructions of ‘Otherness’ justified imperialist motives for penetration into the unknown and thus ‘uncivilised’ worlds, the repercussions of which are still relevant in today’s society.  Prevailing in the Western geographical imagination is an image of the East that can only be understood through ‘fixity’ and ‘duplicity’, or repeated yet unchanging forms of knowledge which “need no proof” and “can never really, in discourse, be proved” (Bhabha, 1983, p. 18).  Highlighted here is the importance in recognising the stereotype as “an ambivalent mode of power and knowledge” (Bhabha, 1983, p. 18).  A palace modelled on the Taj Mahal placed next to a Sub-Saharan African desert, Egyptian pyramids, and a little distance from a Persian-style Bazaar is no surprise to the Western cognitive map of this “Whole New World” (see Video 3) in which Aladdin is set (see Figure 1a-d).  This obsessive reductive representation becomes, instead, a visual articulation of fear and difference, constructing a regime of truth about the Orient and discourses of ‘otherness’ that justifies Western imperialism and the modern day civilising mission.

VIDEO 3

Figure 1: The geographical setting of Aladdin, an amalgamation of Western visions of the Middle East: (a) Saharan- style Desert, (b) Taj Mahal inspired palace, (c) Marketplace/Bazaar, (d) Egyptian pyramids[4].   

(a)
 
(b)
 
(c)
 
(d)

This imagery infiltrating popular discourse adds to a univocal cultural narrative which informs “popular American assumptions about the Muslim Middle East” (Nadel, 1997, p. 185) as alluded to, similarly, by stand-up comics, fashion magazines and television advertisements (see Figure 2 and Video 4, 0:00 – 0:50 and 2:09 – 2:35).  It is through homogeneous depictions of the ontological destination known as the Middle East and its people that present what Said calls “standardized molds” (p. 26) symptomatic of the Orientalist mind-set of many Western audiences.  A contrapuntal reading enables an alternative understanding of how films and other cultural artefacts are a commodification of a particular type of consciousness, exposing “those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts” (Said, 1993, p. 51).       

Figure 2: Front cover of American fashion magazine Vogue in April 1991 presents the Arab-inspired ‘Chic Sheikh’ – exotic, mysterious and provocative.

VIDEO 4

In the same way previous Disney films have used anthropomorphism for the appropriation of particular cultural codes[5], the use of visual metaphors in the film respond to Western expectations delineated from the contemporary socio-political circumstances of these binary worlds.  These visual metaphors, however, become embodied in Orientalist stereotypes, which are “capable of engendering realities that don’t exist” (Chow, 2002, p. 59).  Postcolonial critique, therefore, makes it possible to destabilise the univocality of Western Orientalist narratives, which present a reality that becomes normalised within culture and embodied in cultural artefacts such as films, art and literature.  Important to note here is how the centrality of imperialism and colonial discourse grew with the development of the film industry and interpretations of such colonial narratives.  The development of cinematic technologies in the West and a culture of “narcissistic voyeurism” (Shohat and Stam, 2002, p. 139) which came as a result of these new technologies of documentation, enabled exciting scenes of exotic unknown places to be captured.  They were brought to cinema and television screens, enabling Western audiences to become “armchair conquistadors, affirming their sense of power while turning the colonies into a spectacle for voyeuristic gaze” (p. 120).  This attitude still resonates in contemporary society, for example with the media spectacle of the six month long war in the Persian Gulf in 1990-1991, or more recent representations of the war in Afghanistan and Palestine-Israeli conflicts.  Interpretations are reaffirmed by the age-old imperialist paradigm justified by “’Manichean allegories’ of colonization,” (Shohat and Stam, 1995, p. 201) and reinforced through binary narratives of hero against villain; master and slave; freedom and entrapment.     

Not only has the East become recognisable through the depiction of its lands, but amongst the half-naked belly dancers, camels, market vendors, swords, carpets, and other Middle Eastern paraphernalia in Aladdin, is the familiarity of a Western ideological agenda that updates European colonial discourse for a 20th and 21st century audience.  The construction of Western fears of the Arab Other are tied in with these Manichean discourses of good against evil, and disguised by the innocence of the standardised hero/villain/damsel-in-distress narrative characteristic of all Disney films.  The scene depicted below (see Video 5, 3:40 – 4:10) is just one of many that mocks and vilifies ‘evil’ Arab men, portrayed as backward and aggressive, willing to enforce their corrupt ideas of justice by dismembering those who commit criminal acts.  This includes stealing fruit from a market stall to give to poor, starving children.  These bloodthirsty Arab men come complete with swords, beards and exaggerated accents, compared to heroic Aladdin with his more Caucasian looks, lighter tan, smaller nose and American accent. 

VIDEO 5

Similarly, Jafar’s character (the power-hungry and manipulative Royal Advisor to the ‘dappy’ Sultan of Agrabah [Figure 3]) can be summed up by Said’s description of the Arab enemy that took centre stage in American popular culture after World War II and the Arab-Israeli wars:

“These Arabs were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil moustachioed leer on their faces were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic audience) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all our troubles,” (Said, 2003, p. 286).

Figure 3: Jafar, Royal advisor to the Sultan, manipulative and conniving in his attempts to take over Agrabah.

 

Princess Jasmine (the only female character in the film) acts as the damsel in distress, and holds the metaphorical position of the “locus at which the colonial catalysis occurs” (Addison, 1993, p. 6).  Her relation to these evil Arab men highlight how such a system of social injustice relates to their identity as members of the Arab world (Nadel, 1997, p. 192).  For example, the social class system and vast inequality  relegating Aladdin to the lowest position in society as a ’worthless street rat’, as well as Jasmine’s entrapment and powerlessness under her father’s marriage laws which state she must marry a Prince.  The audience is, however, asked to sympathise with Jasmine, having “never done a thing on my own… never had any real friends… I’ve never even been outside the palace walls”.  Her exotic looks resemble an “Arab Barbie doll in a belly dancer costume” (Addison, 1993, p. 12) which, together with her American accent Western values and distain for her father forcing her into marriage, breaks down the cultural barriers that render her an ‘other’ (see Figure 4).  Likewise, the love triangle between Jasmine, Aladdin, and Aladdin’s alter-ego ‘Prince Ali Ababwa’ serves to reinforce themes of romance, freedom and secularism, reconfiguring the backwardness of Arab-Islamic social order and imposing Western culture through an ostensible feminising mission.  Westernization is, therefore, seen as the ultimate solution to the problems of Agrabah.

Figure 4: Princess Jasmine expresses the loneliness she has experienced as a result of her being a Princess, and her anger at the law that states she must be married to a Prince before her next birthday.

As noted by Jack G. Shaheen in his analysis of over 900 case studies of cinematic representations of Arab men, women and children,

“Hand-chopping is not implemented anywhere in the Arab world, except for major criminal cases in one country, Saudi Arabia … Instead, Muslims are advised to give generously to such a person, to provide food and shelter,” (Shaheen, 2003, p. 51). 

This imagery, however, has become ‘fixed’ and embedded in Western consciousness and validated in popular culture, by what Mazin B. Qumsiyeh refers to as the ‘Three B Syndrome’ (in reference to Arab stereotypes of bombers, belly-dancers and billionaires)[6].  Furthermore, the Arab as enemy stereotype can be justified, particularly after 1990s, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which led to the Gulf War, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York (Shaheen, 2003, p. 29).  In understanding the “relationship of stereotypes to the legitimate social power” (Seiter, 1986, p. 24), Margaret Dowd claims these homogenised depictions present convenient scapegoats so a complex understanding of the intricacies of a culture are unnecessary (in Shaheen, 2003, p. 30).  This process of ‘othering’ justifies Hollywood’s “dehumanisation of a people,” (Shaheen, 2003, p. 1) of which Aladdin is a key example.  However, in an increasingly globalised and mobilised contemporary world, with the transnational flow of media information and the multi-linguistic nature of animated film, it is important to bring to attention the centrality and influence of the large media conglomerates disseminating this information.  Transferring Foucault’s theoretical framework about governmentality, we can understand these institutions as embodying ”ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak” (Lessa, 2006).  These institutions are at the centre of knowledge production, therefore it is important to scrutinize Disney’s historical belatedness which reinforces and perpetuates these out-dated imaginaries. This can be achieved through a contrapuntal reading of the silences, or “constructed deafness” (Plumwood, 2003, p. 67) in a film that “inherited and embellished Europe’s pre-existing Arab caricatures” (Shaheen, 2003, p. 7).

“You’ve heard of the Golden Rule haven’t you?
Whoever has the gold makes the rules…”
 

 

As previously discussed, the film provides sufficient evidence of the dominant viewpoint that Westernization is the implicit solution to the problems of the East.  It is not until the introduction of the all-powerful, wish-granting Genie, however, that we can begin to interpret Aladdin’s underlying motif of the Western capitalist regime as the ultimate indicator of high civilisation.

VIDEO 6

The Genie, who grants his master any three wishes, has the technological mastery to overcome the problems of those living under the Qur’anic laws of the Sultan.  His introductory song claims, ‘I’m in the mood to help you dude, you ain’t never had a friend like me’, which could be referring to the imposition of Western modernity for the ‘development’ of Eastern civilisation (see Video 6, from 1:40).  The Genie goes on to grant Aladdin’s wish of becoming a Prince, with the song “Prince Ali” (see Video 7) listing the vital elements that makes one worthy of royal status, including owning “75 golden camels”, and having slaves, servants and flunkies who are “proud to work for him”.  This enforces a capitalist ideology (as referred to by the title of this section) that considers materiality and wealth as a means of empowerment, and power as a crucial determinant of development. 

VIDEO 7

Technological superiority has been a dominant theme of colonial metanarratives of development since the Age of discovery and the early Enlightenment period.  It is through these technological accomplishments that European thinking about levels of development and human worth during this period was framed (Adas, 1989, p. 3-4).  This is central to the “civilising mission ideology that both justified Europe’s global hegemony and vitally influenced the ways in which European power was exercised” (p. 4).  The Genie, therefore, could be interpreted as a representation of the Western world using this technological mastery on his own ‘civilising mission’ to bring justice and Western-style development to the Arab world.  The Genie’s American accent and constant shape-shifting and impersonations of figures of American popular culture (see Figure 5) could also be a reinforcement of his representation of Western identity and values.  

Figure 5: Genie’s impersonations, (a) Jack Nicholson, (b) Arnold Schwarzenegger, (c) Pinocchio

(a)

 

(b)

 
(c)
 

His civilising mission is justified in terms of Princess Jasmine’s powerlessness as an Arab woman, who wants the freedom to choose to marry “for love” and not be restricted by the Sultan’s “stupid laws”.  The key to her empowerment is marrying a Prince so her father can ensure that she will be “taken care of” and “provided for” (Video 8, 3:09 – 3:50).  Likewise, the key to Aladdin’s empowerment is becoming a Prince, so he can marry the Princess and become a wealthy Sultan and “never have any problems at all” (Video 8, 2:10 – 2:20).  Aladdin and Jasmine’s relationship, therefore, represents the struggle for power which can only be obtained by overcoming the backwardness of Disney’s pseudo-Islamic social order, with the assistance of the Genie (or the Western secular ideology).

VIDEO 8

Through the characters’ embodiment of the values of the Orient and the Occident we can begin to see how discrete elements of the film’s narrative can be critically examined as a reflection of the social, political and cultural narratives of this era, portraying America in a positive light.  For example, Nadel (1997) addresses accounts of U.S. and Islamic foreign policy in the post-World War II period, wrought with “realignments and reorganisations of power… embedded in chronic crises of Western intervention” (p. 201).  This is reflected in realignments of the Genie’s power in the film, who becomes enslaved according to a ‘finders, keepers’ rationality.  He is, however, a position of authority restoring justice in the Arab world for the greater good.  Furthermore, Nadel draws upon the ambiguities of Iraq’s nuclear programme around the time of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, also the time of the film’s production.  Connecting the “dissimulations of the Eastern Other to the dangers of atomic power” (Nadel, 1997, p. 187) highlights the dual nature of the Genie’s “phenomenal cosmic power”.  Jafar’s deception enables him to have ownership of the lamp, to use this power to overthrow the Sultan and create a “new order”, highlighting the power to enslave as well as liberate.  This could be interpreted as instilling a worldview about the instability of the atom, and potential dangers of nuclear power in the hands of tyranny.

Whilst it is unlikely that Aladdin is intentionally tied up with conspiracy theory and subliminal political commentary, it would be naïve to accept Disney’s ideological innocence, especially given the date of the film’s release.  For example, is it just a coincidence that Iraq’s most prominent nuclear scientist (and head of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programme from 1982 onwards) was named Dr Jafar Dhia Jafar?  Or that the notion of a ‘genie in the bottle’ has been used in the past as a metaphor for nuclear power (Hilgartner et al., 1982; in Nadel, 1997, p. 192)?  Said states, “Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent,” (Said, 2003, p. 27).  It is for this reason that this essay has critiqued Aladdin, bringing evidence of the ubiquity of Orientalist narratives permeating cultural life, adding to the collective consensus that has validated and legitimised fears of the Middle Eastern other.   It is important to scrutinize these representations in order to overcome this ontologically fixed status of Middle Eastern culture.  This is especially important in today’s society where the Arab world is entering popular discourse as a place of economic and political turmoil and revolution, indicating the view of Eastern culture as barbaric and primitive, as well as the ‘three B’ supposition, is out-dated and inaccurate. 

Word Count: 3000 


Notes

[1] Important to note that the story is adapted from “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern myths and folktales comprised during the Islamic Golden Age (Reynolds, 2006). 

[3] “It’s racist, but hey, it’s Disney,” New York Times, 14th July 1993

[4] All images are screenshots taken directly by the author from the 1992 version of the film used only for the purpose of this essay.

[5] Anthropomorphism – attaching certain characteristics to non-human beings for the embodiment of particular ethnic stereotypes.  For example, the apes of the 1967 picture “The Jungle Book” speak and sing with African-American accents (much different to the other characters) and their song, “I wan’na be like you” alludes to their dream of becoming human. This leads audiences to subconsciously equate these types of characteristics with subhuman behaviour, perpetuating stereotypes which, at the time of the film’s release in America, were being fought against through the African-American civil rights movement.

[6] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is director of Media Relations for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, see article: “100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping” http://www.ibiblio.org/prism/jan98/anti_arab.html 


Bibliography

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