Like many people, I don’t always respond in the best way when my favorite childhood stories are called out as problematic. So, even though I’d heard the Disney film Aladdin described as “Orientalist” many times, until learning about the concept of Orientalism in a more in-depth manner, I refused to believe it. “So what if Aladdin over-romanticizes the medieval Middle East?” I thought. “Disney movies romanticize whatever place they’re set in, that’s kind of the point. It’s fantasy. Plenty of their films romanticize medieval Europe.” However, after watching Edward Said’s talk and reading the summary and excerpts of his writing, I now realize how wrong I was. Orientalism is about so much more than just romanticizing a region of the world (although that is part of it), and Aladdin is guilty of many of its worst aspects.
*By the way, I’m talking about the 1992 animated version of Aladdin in this post, not the 2019 live-action version. I’ve never seen the live-action version, though I have heard it’s problematic in plenty of the same as well as in new ways.*
According to “An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies” by Professor Amardeep Singh, “The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and ‘Orientals’ as individuals are pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars.” Unfortunately, many of the characters of Aladdin fit these stereotypes to a tee.
Take the movie’s villain, Jafar. Jafar is certainly “despotic” and power-obsessed in his position of power as the vizier. However, he also is “sly and obsequious” when he tries to win the favor of the king, the only person in the kingdom with more power than him, and is “sexually incontinent” when he tries to force Princess Jasmine to marry him and makes some really gross advances on her.
Speaking of Princess Jasmine, if Aladdin was believed to be an accurate depiction of the Arab world, it would be true that “their women are locked up behind bars.” Jasmine, the only female character in the film, is imprisoned in the gilded cage of her palace by her father, who is also trying to force her into an arranged marriage (supposedly, her bedroom was actually designed to evoke the look of a birdcage). Showing that Middle Eastern cultures oppress women is another flavor of orientalism, another way to paint them as “backwards” compared to a “progressive” West that values women’s rights. Jasmine’s father himself is childlike in disposition and an incompetent ruler, infantilizing him in a way often done to people of color (especially those who live in places that White people want to colonize) to show how they cannot take care of themselves without White rulers. As Said said, Orientalism and imperialism rest on the idea that, “you’re not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way.” Jasmine’s father, the sultan (as well as the psychopathic Jafar for that matter), is meant to depict how badly “Orientals” rule themselves when left to their own devices and why they therefore need to be colonized.
Central to Orientalism is its purpose–to justify the subjugation and exploitation of African and Asian peoples for Western profit. As Said wrote, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.” Aladdin, as a piece of Orientalist media, is no exception to this goal. I found a couple very interesting articles suggesting that Aladdin vilifies Middle Eastern culture by making the goals that the “good guys” strive for (for example, marriage for love rather than royal duty in Jasmine’s case) correspond with what Western culture values as well as giving them a more White/Western-associated appearance and manner of speaking than the “bad guys” have (for example, the Genie makes jokes about American pop culture). By doing these things, especially the former, it sets up Western ideals as superior and therefore provides a justification for why the United States should try to enforce these ideals in the Middle East and on Arab and Muslim people in general. This served as fuel for the fire of American Islamophobia that had its roots in the early 20th century and was not becoming any less vicious in the years leading up to and following Aladdin’s 1992 release. The effects of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the United States are very real, and have shaped everything from foreign policy to immigration policy to the daily lives of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States. Whether intentionally or not, media such as Aladdin continues to perpetuate Orientalism and therefore shapes how the West sees itself as superior to the East.