By Lianne and Bill
A few days ago, a group of us had the opportunity to sit and spend an evening watching an old Disney classic, Aladdin. Most had seen it before, but one – the Middle-Eastern expert amongst us, no less – hadn’t. Cue much intellectualising and discussion between us.
Having watched it repeatedly since early childhood, I myself am a self-confessed Aladdin aficionado – evidenced in my propensity to sing along to all the musical numbers, in the correct character voices! Bill on the other hand, was a newbie to the world ‘Al’ and co, and so was experiencing it for the first time. Here we share our views on what place the film has in contemporary culture.
Seventeen years have passed since the release of the Disney animated feature film Aladdin, a classic piece of children’s entertainment that will probably never become dated. The characters are well-developed (a faceless rug is imbued with more life than the majority of contemporary Hollywood actors), the jokes are funny, and the animation makes Pixar look garish and overblown. All in all it is a very enjoyable film.
It is, however, also a classic instance of imperialist-influenced material and is instructive on how culture is used to enforce the stereotypes that underpin and act as justifications for imperial ventures. I will avoid dwelling too much on the obvious examples of Orientalist stereotyping that permeate the film, and will instead focus on two points that I feel need to be drawn out: 1) The representation of the East as a homogenous entity, and 2) the modern day expression of the ‘civilising mission’ and the ‘White Man’s burden’.
One of the most striking things about Aladdin is that it is impossible to pin down exactly where it is supposed to be set. The geographical locations of each scene range from Sub-Saharan Africa to a North African marketplace to a city that could be Kabul but which contains a palace that is clearly modelled on the Taj Mahal. It is a work of imagination and does not profess to be a Lonely Planet guide, so geographical realism or the lack thereof does not, strictly speaking, matter. But it is indicative of the Orientalist mindset that still pervades the Western imagination.
Edward Said describes Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” This Manichaean view of the world is reductive and dangerous through its application. It presupposes that the world can be segregated into identifiable regions, ‘East’ and ‘West’, ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’. It reduces complex, heterogeneous regions down into simple, homogenous entities. In the case of Aladdin geographical realism is seen as unimportant because ‘the East’ is ‘the East’. It is one place, with one culture and it is intrinsically different from the West. Disney do not have to worry about placing the Taj Mahal next to a North African souk because in Western popular culture (and, indeed, the Western imagination) India and North Africa exist within the same ontological designation, ‘The Orient’.
The second, and most overtly imperialistic, element of Aladdin is the central story line. Aladdin and Princess Jasmine accidentally meet in a market place and fall in love. They cannot marry because the law of the land dictates that the Princess must marry a Prince, and Aladdin is a mere street thief. The main thrust of the story is that she is not allowed to follow her heart; her freedom of choice is restricted by her father and his Grand Vizier. As a critique of patriarchy and out-dated class distinctions the main storyline holds up. But there is arguably also a more sinister sub-plot to it.
An important element of traditional imperialism is the notion of the ‘civilising mission’. European imperialists viewed their culture as intrinsically better than ‘Eastern’ culture, and they therefore exported their superior culture to civilise the natives of the East. It was this proselytising side of imperialism that Kipling called the ‘White Man’s burden’ and it manifests itself in Aladdin. The film concludes with the dramatic defeat of the evil Vizier and the marriage of Aladdin and Jasmine. It is a triumph of modernity over the past, of individualism over outmoded feudal values. In short, it is the triumph of modern Western liberalism over the backward East. The Genie (who transforms into an American tourist) has played the part of Kipling’s ‘White Man’ assuming the burden of bringing the East into the modern world. Aladdin is the Kim for the age of US ‘unilateralism’ (read: imperialism) that has characterised the post-Cold War period.
Response and Concluding Remarks (Lianne)
As much as it pains me to admit, the many critiques of Aladdin are entirely justified once the film is critically examined through power/knowledge relations. As Bill rightly points out, the conflation of a number of culturally, religiously and ethnically distinct cultures into a generic ‘barbaric’ East is not just erroneous, but the prejudices they inform can be manipulated for political purpose. You would be foolhardy to suggest that Disney and the US government were in direct collusion, manufacturing propaganda to shape our kids’ minds, but in truth intentionality is somewhat irrelevant to the potential effects.
Michel Foucault suggests that contemporary society is a ‘carceral archipelago’, where a number of different institutions making up the fabric of public life disseminate ideas about normative behaviour. Thus prisons, schools, hospitals, barracks and arguably media conglomerates such as Disney, inform us what the correct methods of behaviour and thought are, and conversely, what is abnormal. Importantly, there is no ‘Big Brother’ figurehead organising this structure – instead these institutions mutually reaffirm each other.
One could convincingly argue that representations of ‘the East’ that have historically permeated media and entertainment outlets both here in the UK and in the US, significantly boosted public support for militaristic action in ‘the War on Terror’. Of many instances, this is exemplified in former President Bush’s stated ‘crusade’ to liberate various peoples from ‘barbarism’.
Though nostalgic sentimentality is no excuse for borderline racist representations, from a personal point of view, I don’t quite take Aladdin seriously enough to consider not watching and or enjoying it again. Then again, is there such thing as a ‘harmless’ children’s film? I’m reasonably certain that the film didn’t mould my young mind to believe that ‘the East’ is a place of patriarchal repression, class injustice, and violence – no more so than ‘the West’ that I grew up in, anyhow.
Admittedly this may have something to do with the fact that my ancestry is from ‘the East’. Nevertheless I had a fair idea, even as a child, that these movies were fantastical. Just as Robin Hood was in no way indicative of true English history, Hercules of Ancient Greek life, and The Lion King of Serengeti ecosystems, Aladdin merely fostered an still-present interest in yours truly to find out what they’re all ‘really like’.
All cultures appropriate others on some level, and in the market-driven consumerism that defines our age, cultural performances and artefacts are in no way sacrosanct from exploitation. Incidentally, there is a Bruckheimer-produced movie spin-off from the classic Prince of Persia VG due out next year. The cast? Jake Gyllenhaal as our hero Dastan, Gemma Arterton as the damsel-in-distress Tamina, and Ben Kingsley as the baddie Nizam.
What are the chances that the same motifs we see in Aladdin and the recent 300 regarding ‘Orientals’ will emerge again? Ignorance in nineteenth century colonial ethnographies such as Kim, and ‘fantasy’ in children’s films almost vindicate them as ‘harmless’; but are such sustained representations appropriate or constructive in an increasingly international and interconnected globalised world? That’s for you to decide…