Orientalism in Disney Movies

After reading up a little on the concept of orientalism, my mind went to movies that I’ve seen. More specifically Disney movies. These movies, that are made for children have underlying themes and concepts that you really don’t realize until you are older. Looking back on the movies I watched as a child its clear that I have a different understanding of them than I did as a child….

That being said, some of the Disney classics that popped into my head that have these racist stereotypes in them are Lady and the Tramp, Mulan and Aladdin.

In Lady and the Tramp the cats in the movie are depicted as evil characters of whom seem to resemble the Asian culture. It seems as they are associating their evil nature with their race. The siamese cats act very sly and are always sneaking around in the movie which is a stereotype associated with orientalism, being suspicious and sneaky.

In Mulan, the Asian culture is presented in a somewhat exotic way. It is what Western people consider the “typical” Asian culture, which has continuously been represented in Western cinema. This idea meshes all the different branches of Asian culture to seem like its the same, when in reality they are completely different places. With this in mind, this concept is what children in Western countries were taught when they were young through movies like Mulan. The movie is a combination of Chinese and Japanese culture making Mulan an unrealistic representation and generalizing the cultures in Eastern countries. The film is clearly intended to be set in China because they show the Great Wall of China amongst other details incorporating Chinese culture. But they also show her wearing kimonos, white face make up, and the Japanese national flower, the cherry blossom throughout the film.

Lastly, in the movie Aladdin, the evil villain, Jafar, who is trying to steal the magic lamp is represented as someone from the Middle East, again who is the villain. He is the evil man who is scheming against the main character. In addition, later in the movie, Jasmine is enslaved by him which adds to his evil nature. This adds to the racist depiction of his character by him objectifying a woman. In addition, Princess Jasmine is from a culture that typically covers their head and most of their body. But in the movie her outfit is nothing of the sort. This adds to the Western depiction of Eastern Culture.

Reflecting on these movies, it is clear that these ideals are heavily influencing the film industry. Film makers are using these stereotypes and inaccurate representations of different cultures to better their films. Western cinema is based off of incorrect assumptions and depictions of culture and people in general. How do we change this moving forward?

4 thoughts on “Orientalism in Disney Movies

  1. Lily, you make a strong case for Orientalism being a system, not just a viewpoint some people have in some circumstances. There’s a pattern — which was Said’s original point. And we need to ask — why do we repeat this pattern? How does this viewpoint support the global power structure from which we, as Westerners, benefit?

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  2. Isabelle M

    I completely agree with your point about the generalization of Eastern cultures in movies. It seems like the entertainment industry tends to treat Asia as one thing, rather than a group of separate countries. People talk about “Asian culture” as if it is all the same, when in reality they are all very different and some don’t relate to each other at all. I didn’t know about how much they had done that in Mulan, so that is really interesting.

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  3. Grace S

    I completely agree and I think that what you said about Mulan is really interesting. They meshed multiple cultures and depicted them as one. I think in making the movie they have been trying to create representation for different cultures but they made all asian cultures into one instead of depicting them separately.

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  4. Alex W

    I totally agree with you, I think Disney can depict certain things in a way that can be taken very offensively. I also think it is wrong of them to try and combine multiple cultures into one. I think they could have represented them each differently, so I totally agree with you on it all.

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