By Daniella Razzouk
Cover picture taken from DECCAN Chronicle
As the film industry develops, more emphasis has been placed on including good representation. This includes positive changes such as the inclusion of storytellers from the cultures represented, allowing them to express their views and their cultures. For example, in 2021, Disney released a new animated movie Encanto which placed emphasis on hiring individuals from the culture represented.
Unfortunately, not all movies succeed at showcasing other cultures properly, with many relying on incorrect or even harmful stereotypes. The biggest offender is Disney’s Aladdin. Loosely based on the folktale by the same name, the story, in theory, takes place in an “Arabian desert” in the fictional kingdom of Agraba, the movie is a prime example of blatant orientalism in popular kids’ movies.
The original was released in 1992 and faced backlash quickly due to the song “Arabian Nights”. This song is found in the first scene of the movie and is meant to introduce the audience to the location and includes the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. These lyrics were changed in the live-action remake in 2019 to “it’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home”. The original cut of the song also included the lyrics “if they don’t like your face, they cut off your ear”, but was removed due to backlash.
The live-action remake is an interesting case, because while certain racist features of the 1992 movie can be written off by some as a “product of its time”, that cannot be said for the 2019 version. A major theme kept in both versions is the oppressed Arab woman. The remake even expands upon this theme, adding a song entitled “Speechless” in which Jasmine uses her voice to stand up to her sexist oppressors. This is a theme that modern orientalist media adores as it allows for the use of lazy and inaccurate stereotypes while still granting the user brownie points for their “girl power” moment.
Another issue with orientalist kids’ media is that they cannot decide where or when they are. This is due to two orientalist tropes: grouping together and the timeless East. The former is simple, instead of choosing one culture to represent, the orientalist storyteller will instead treat the largest continent in the world as a monolith. Hundreds of cultures end up smashed together into one that resembles none. Aladdin is set in a fictional loosely “Arab” city, but in reality, portrays a mess of cultural features ranging from the Levant to South Asia. The laws of the kingdom are written in Arabic but the actress playing the princess is of Indian descent.
As for the latter, orientalism promotes the idea of an “East” that never changes, a backward but endearing culture, maintaining a charm lost in the modern (Western) world. Deciding on an actual time period is irrelevant, because to them, it’s all the same anyway.
As Edward Said puts it in his book Orientalism, the “Orient”, or the East, only exists to act as a foil for the “Occident”, or the West (5). The relationship of dominance between the occident and the orient is a fundamental part of the European or Anglo-American identity. Said continues by saying that this view persists across generations because of continuous material funding (6). There are those who invest large amounts of capital into this narrow and harmful view of the world. This is especially dangerous as these movies are targetting a younger audience.
Movies aimed at younger viewers have a bad reputation as being simple cash grabs. I disagree with this view wholeheartedly, just because a movie is appropriate for a child does not mean that it is shallow or boring. Movies such as Pixar’s Up for instance deal with adult themes such as the loss of a loved one and parental abandonment with enough care and grace to suit audiences of all ages. Another example is the DreamWorks film Kung Fu Panda. Despite the cast and storytellers being American and not Chinese, enough time and effort were put in to ensure that the culture represented was not being misconstrued. Unfortunately, not all movies are given this treatment.
Movies such as Aladdin will instead rely on orientalist stereotypes simply because it’s easy. Research takes time, and time is money. So, many studios who simply cannot be bothered to do it properly will instead rely on these stereotypes in order to speed up production and then reap the benefits of having a movie with “representation” and an “exotic premise”.
I would like to stress that storytellers do not rely on orientalist tropes because they are necessarily racist. I believe the majority of it comes back to public perception. Modern Americans, such as the ones who made these movies, were likely introduced to Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures through an orientalist lens. So, when they decide to tell a story set in the ‘East’, they use what they already know, continuously perpetuating the cycle of orientalism and misinformation. They likely had no malicious intent, their goal was simply to create a fun and exciting premise for a movie.
However, it is important that more care is put into movies when they are aimed at kids. Children are impressionable and for many, movies, such as Aladdin, are their first introduction to cultures other than their own. As time goes on, some “unlearn” these misconceptions but many do not. Steps are being taken to promote better representation, but more needs to be done to solve the problem from its roots. As long as the standard for representation stays at not calling the culture barbaric, then we still have a long way to go.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism, 2019th ed., Penguin Books, London, 2019, pp. 5–6.