From Animated Original to New Play, Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Controversy of Racism and Whitewashing


by Amina Khan

Whitewashing in Hollywood has been an issue for as long as it has existed, and Disney’s newest live-action adaption of “Aladdin” is no exception. 

Over the years, details of the story have been changed that leave much to be desired in terms of historical accuracy. First and foremost, “Aladdin” was narrated by a Syrian and was not a part of the original “1001 Tales of Arabian Nights” (but added later on by a French translator). The opening sentence references China as Aladdin, a poor, young, Chinese man, lived in a remote city with his mother. One day, an evil Maghreb sorcerer approaches him, claims to be his father’s brother, and tricks him into retrieving the oil lamp from the magic cave. You know how the story goes from there.

Disney’s Troubled History

Disney has faced backlash for the film “Aladdin” for its stereotypical representations of Arabs. It juxtaposes the idealistic, light-skinned, “beautiful” image of an Arab (note how light-skinned Naomi Scott, who plays Jasmine, is), with disparaging portrayals of darker Arabs with grotesque features and foreign accents as poor merchants.

[Read More: ‘Quantico’ Perpetuates South Asian/Arab Stereotypes Post-9/11]

Jack Shaheen, a writer on ethnic stereotypes, warns that the images portrayed in Disney perpetuate negative stereotypes that “literally sustain adverse portraits across generations.” He argues, “There is a commanding link between make-believe aberrations and the real world,” and cautions of the negative portrayal of Agrabah, the film’s fictionalized city that he called “Hollywood’s fabricated Ayrabland.”

Shaheen had actually helped Disney alter lyrics in a song in “Aladdin” that was initially racist: from “Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face” which was changed to “Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense.”

Genie in the Bottle

The term “genie” was extracted from Arabic tales of the djinn and is an Islamic term. The djinn are a variety of spiritual beings both good and evil, a cross between Angels and mankind. In order to capture djinn to become their slaves, the best Arabian magicians would tie them to lamps or rings. Djinn were never obligated to grant wishes to their captors; if they did, it would be out of gratitude. Some djinn would accept freedom, whilst others would kill the person that released them as a matter of revenge on humanity. Additionally, djinn would not be “living” in the lamp, they are there against their will.

Why does this controversy matter? It’s just a children’s story–right? Aren’t folktales always revised?

Inaccurate media representations of a culture silence the races and religious groups that yearn to be represented in an authentic light.

Sure, Naomi Scott may (kind of) look like Princess Jasmine (original name Badroulbadour meaning “full moon” in Arabic), but Scott is of British and South-Asian descent, not Middle-Eastern. This notion shows the harshness of comparing Indians to Middle-Easterners as parallel. It’s an ‘American’ analysis of executing the idea that two completely different cultures must be the same thing because of similar physical attributes.

Billy Magnussen has been cast as “Prince Anders,” in addition to two new characters brought into the play. The new white prince is said to be Aladdin’s rival as he too is aiming to win Princess Jasmine’s heart. Why must POC continuously have to compete with white people in order to prove their worth both on-screen and off?

[Read Related: Leonardo DiCaprio as Persian Poet Rumi: Another Example of Whitewashing in Hollywood? ]

Although I don’t agree that adding one white character makes the entire live action play “white-washed”, it should be noted that Hollywood and Disney still fail to recognize or accept that a story can exist with no Caucasian people in it.

The glaring problem lies in media normalizing the suppression and ostracization of POC while benefiting from their “exotic culture.” To them, it’s ok to deprive the vibrant culture of a minority, forcing it to an ‘American’ or ‘European’ standard, and then refuse to give credit and recognition where it’s due.

Cast is Not the Major Problem of ‘Aladdin’

Unfortunately, the cast of the new live-action play merely scratches the surface of the engraved problems of Disney’s jab at producing a ‘cultural’ story of the Middle-East. From Americanizing Jasmine and Aladdin’s voices whilst implanting Arab accents on antagonists, to the dependency of women in Islam on men: “Aladdin” is extremely racist. It reinforces the Western perception of the Middle East as authoritarian and harsh.

Additionally, Arab words were mispronounced in the film as illogical scribbles took place of actual Arabic writing. Even Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise, as stated by Peter Schnieder, the president of feature animation at the time. Director Guy Ritchie could have seized this opportunity to improve the media representation of the Arab World, but that wouldn’t make much profit, would it? 

Long-term Effects of Symbolic Annihilation and Vilification

There is proven psychology for people being intensely affected by not seeing people like themselves in the media. Racial and gender exclusion affects a viewer’s own identity and self-conception. Whether it be race, religion, or even body size, images onscreen reflect an internal conflict, which triggers different coping mechanisms if you don’t see yourself being represented. 

Proper representation sparks a cathartic release and instills confidence in the minds of POC. It’s empowering to see someone of your skin color be represented in the media as something other than what society has labeled you as.

Jafar epitomizes the stereotypical perception of Arab men. The villain is always aiming to inflict harm and is portrayed as patriarchal and threatening. And of course, Disney morphed Badroulbador to the sexualized and submissive Princess Jasmine.

Path Being Paved For Representation in the Media

Despite the stereotypical perceptions in “Aladdin,” the film still provides vital opportunities for Middle-Eastern people to fulfill a role other than a blood-thirsty terrorist, as the media loves to portray. Disney technically did cast a Middle-Eastern (Egyptian) Mena Massoud as Aladdin; however, they failed to choose the rest of the cast accordingly.

[Read Related: An  Oscar Nomination For Dev Patel Isn’t Proof of South Asian Progress in Hollywood- But it’s a Start]

Although it’s a lengthy battle for POC, accurate and enlightening representation is slowly but effectively making its way into Hollywood. The first black man to win a directing Emmy (Donald Glover), the first black woman to win a comedy-writing Emmy (Lena Waithe), and the first South-Asian Muslim man to win an acting Emmy (Riz Ahmed) just made history.

As spoken by a hopeful Riz Ahmed,”I don’t know if any one person’s win of an award or one person snagging one role or one person doing very well changes something that’s a systemic issue of inclusion,” he said. “I think that’s something that happens slowly over time. If there’s enough isolated examples of success over time then the dots start joining up and it is not as slow a process as it sometimes is.”

Amina Khan currently lives in Dallas, TX but forever misses her home in Los Angeles. She hopes to become a successful journalist and is always working towards enriching her writing by blogging about her travels or her current favorite TV show/book. Her dream is to work for AJ+ and deliver raw and unfiltered stories that don’t make it to major news headlines. When she’s not attending college or wandering around in botanical gardens, she invests her time in creating oil paintings and occupies herself with learning how to perfect Arabic calligraphy art. She also has an obsession for sushi, baby goats, Marvel and old people. Feel free to check out her blog!