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By Lianne and Bill

Introduction (Lianne)

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.

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Review (Bill)

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.

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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…

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9 thoughts on “Film Review: Aladdin and the Western Imagination

  1. Both of you have too much time on your hands!

    The critiques and comments are of course great and well argued – which is what I would expect from yourselves, however reading these articles has ruined that magical night crammed infront of the PC as the temperature in the room reached critical levels and apparently-healthy raisins were devoured, hoping to enjoy a simple childrens film about determination and self-actualization.

    Instead, after a sharp intake of breath, one could hear Bill whispering, “orientalism, orientalism…. orientalism,’ throughout the entire two hours ;)

  2. This has been wonderful to read, and I probably shouldn’t have found it so humorous but alas! Quoting Foucault seemed erroneous when I remember a certain debate with the (extremely pro-Western ethics) Noam Chomsky where I got the impression that not every social institution should be disregarded, only the ones of power thus I’m not sure Disney can be ranked aside Foucault’s examples of police and the army!

    But this is merely one point and I found the notion of a pervasive stereotyped Orientalism very intruiging. I would ask you to consider that this tale arose from the middle east and is therefore inextricably from that geographical region, so slandering the storyline doesn’t help your case unless it was written by a European (which it may have been for all I can remember about the Arabian Nights).

    I agree that the perception of the Persian Army seen in 300 was out of order and offensive to the remaining Zoroastrians, but it is indicative of how much our bias in the historical narrative comes from our Greek intellectual heritage. I never see it as purely East verses West, more descendants of Greek Academia and the inherent elitism this brings, and the rest of the world.

    If we consider that Walt Disney was and still is the poster child for racism, the fact that a film where there is no white characters is startling. It was only a step, and if we were to look for more recent examples of foreign cultures in Disney being portrayed more accurately we do have Mulan. So whilst you may consider the form of Aladdin to be somewhat wrong, the impulse behind it I still believe to be overwhelmingly positive.

    To watch the Noam Chomsky Foucault debate, I believe it’s on youtube and it is well worth watching!

    • “I would ask you to consider that this tale arose from the middle east and is therefore inextricably from that geographical region, so slandering the storyline doesn’t help your case unless it was written by a European (which it may have been for all I can remember about the Arabian Nights).”

      The point is not the story line itself but rather the way the story is told and presented (a point which i could have made clearer). The origins of the story are irrelevant. The important point is that Disney have appropriated and retold it in a manner that (re)enforces Western stereotypes and acts as an implicit justification for imperial actions.

      Having said this, i still loved it. Im not suggesting that it is a modern day “Triumph of the Will”, it is just an interesting example of the close relationship between culture and power.

    • Hi Mat,

      Sorry for taking so long to reply to you, have been buried under masses of work – you know how it is! Firstly, I think this is the debate you mentioned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WveI_vgmPz8. I’ll admit that I haven’t actually watched it yet, at least in any intellectual frame of mind – the last time I saw the interview in its entirety, I was just over-enthused at seeing them both in the same video, and got very excited about bald heads ;)

      Whilst Foucault may not agree that ‘every social institution should be disregarded’, I merely meant to suggest that his theoretical framework could be transferred, whether or not he would do so himself. I think that the key concepts can be applied beyond his own analysis, even if he and I may disagree on the extent to which disciplinary institutions dominate public life.

      I entirely agree that the story of Aladdin (and his Magic Lamp) originated in the Middle East, and if I remember correctly, from One Thousand and One Nights, but the Disney version is entirely different to narrative of the original myth – http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/A-Am/Aladdin.html. I would argue that the fact that its roots are vaguely from the medieval Middle East, and that it reiterates certain motifs (sorceror, jinn, poor ‘streetrat’) do not vindicate the characterisation, as much as it pains me to effectively stamp on my own childhood!

      I also agree that there are no white-coloured characters in Aladdin, but I think one of the implied points of Bill’s analysis was that certain characters – specifically the Genie, Aladdin and Jasmine – needn’t actually be caucasian skin-coloured in order to perpetuate the alternative stereotypes. I don’t want to be too paranoid, but these three are clearly demarcated as ‘different’ to all the other obviously ‘Middle Eastern’ characters. Aladdin, for example, with his distinctly angular facial features and American accent could have walked off a Californian surfer beach, tan included.

      Also I think your point about ‘our Greek intellectual heritage’ is a really interesting one, but I would also argue that due to the very arbitrary nature of Orientalism, the fact that ancient Greek academia perceivably provided the foundations for modern thought would align them with ‘us’, the ‘West’, not the ‘barbaric’ Persian ‘East’. (sorry for the excessive quote marking!!)

    • Thanks for that link, it was indeed worth watching. However it seems to me that both Chomsky and Foucault agree that those institutions that attempt to appear ‘neutral’ and in practice aren’t, should be intellectually and practically challenged. Disney is definitely one of those institutions, as it attempted to block the distribution of the anti-imperialist Fahraheit 9/11, while massively promoting the historically and socially inaccurate Pearl Harbor etc. The apparent reasons behind this were not (necessarily) directly-colonial, but rather to ensure the company continued to receive generous tax breaks from the US government.

      Nevertheless, Disney were knowingly reinforcing corrupt impressions that sustain those in direct power. The power of the media is obviously indirect, but it’s proficiency shouldn’t be underestimated. Whilst Aladdin is probably not as politically-loaded as any of these films, I doubt it was ever intended to be, due to it’s target audience. The danger could be to let children’s films off the hook entirely – as they’re only for ‘children’, which are arguably the most important and sensitive group. So, I agree with Lianne that Foucault’s logic can be justly applied here.

      I personally think that if we are at all aspiring to a true ‘free’ society, we should pass laws which attempt to create a more democratic media system, such as the re-introduction of the Fairness Doctrine which Reagan unsurprisingly repealed. Whilst making all large media corporations into independent public companies or similar, owned by say, at least a thousand shareholders, so that one individual or one company cannot have any controlling share. This would not solve all the problems, but would be a step in the right direction. Hopefully Disney will help in making this wish be granted.

  3. Sorry Clinton,

    But the amusing, light-hearted Genie is actually the friendly face of the B52 bomber. ;)

    • Haha actually that comparison made me chuckle loads!

      Its a bird, its a genie, no, its the Enola Gay!

      Ok so that was a B-29, but close enough ;)

  4. Pingback: Notes on: Aladdin and the Western Imagination « 306MC Dissertation

  5. Pingback: Deconstructing Disneyland – meandersandbends

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