Disney’s ‘Aladdin’: Diving Into a Tale of American Orientalism

Let me start by saying I love “Aladdin” (1992). As a Muslim Bangladeshi-American girl, the meant a lot to me growing up. Princess Jasmine expanded the definition of beauty for me, which continues to have healing effects on young brown girls growing up in a white (sometimes supremacist) society. Even though the original cartoon was problematic, the characters in Aladdin were the only options brown kids had with regards to representation. That’s why you have so many, now grown, brown millennials today who still cherish these characters.

However, with some maturity and hindsight, I can safely say it was not a great representation. In fact, the Disney animated film perpetuated centuries-old Orientalist stereotypes. One would think that the 2019 “Aladdin” remake would right these wrongs, but it simply rewrote them. The box office success exposes America for what it is: a capitalist economy that profits off of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture (i.e. hummus, henna and harem pants) while the political system remains incredibly Islamophobic, using our tax dollars to spy on our neighbors and drone their families abroad.

Orientalism was originally practiced largely by the British and French imperial powers and was eventually exported to the US in the form of consumer goods like rugs, silks, hookahs, and jewelry. The men of the “Orient” were seen as incompetent, insatiable savages with riches and sexually promiscuous “Oriental” women to exploit. This crude image of the East elicited envy in white imperialists who wished to replace the supposedly ineffectual men and usurp their spoils.

Late 19th and early 20th century America is often historically referred to as the “exclusion era” due to the various immigration exclusion acts that limited the number of immigrants. What many people do not realize is that this extended far beyond Chinese Exclusion and applied to immigrants that came from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” encompassing people from the Arab Peninsula to Indo-China. The duality of American Orientalism, simultaneously indulging in an exoticized image of the East through commercial goods and mass entertainment while also excluding and oppressing the people of those cultures, has led to the normalization of racial stereotypes of Eastern cultures that erases diverse identities to create a singular blurred image of the Orient.

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By 9/11, Orientalism and Islamophobia became intrinsically linked, where one reinforced the other, creating a divide between embraceable, assimilable non-Muslims and threatening Muslims. The competing images of brown people are embodied in the world created by Disney’s “Aladdin,” where the fictional city of Agrabah is a harmful hodgepodge of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures.

It’s worth noting that the story of “Aladdin” did not actually appear in the original Arabic versions of what Europeans refer to as “The Thousand and One Nights,” the collection of stories originating in Persian and South Asian societies. The earliest known written compilations of the stories are two 8th century Arabic translations of the Persian Hazar afsana. These tales have been spread throughout the East, adapting as they were retold, ultimately reaching Europe.

“Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp,” was one of many popular stories added by a French man, Antoine Galland in the early 18th century, and since has been regurgitated in various forms by European translators who eventually exported it to America. Galland’s story explicitly takes place in China, yet the culture depicted in the story resembles that of the Islamic world. While there is a reason to believe that “Aladdin” was meant to be some amalgamation of tales from the Middle East and South Asia, “Aladdin” as we know it now can largely be read as an imperial narrative built on exoticism and Orientalism.

Disney’s “Aladdin” is Orientalism

The 1992 animated “Aladdin” is so blatantly based on racial stereotypes that it almost makes me think that the people who made it did so ironically. Unfortunately, it’s not that deep. Just to mention a few of the Orientalist tropes employed: the wealthy, incompetent sheikh (the Sultan); the dark-skinned, perverted villain (Jafar); barbaric commoners; and the hypersexualized and subordinated women of the East (Jasmine).

To be clear, Princess Jasmine is royalty who lives in a society where women cover their hair and faces, yet her everyday look is a revealing belly dancing-inspired outfit, reminiscent of Western images of courtesans. Jasmine even goes on to be enslaved by Jafar and is even more overtly sexualized with her costume change into red and a high ponytail — the ultimate hairdo of the harem.

Another direct product of Orientalism is the seemingly innocuous song “Prince Ali,” which resembles an elaborate circus procession. During the exclusion era, circuses were how the West reaped its greatest profits off of Orientalism in mass entertainment based on distortions of South Asian and Middle Eastern culture. One example is Barnum & Bailey’s show, The Wizard Prince of Arabia advertised as an “Indo-Arabic Spectacle,” in 1914. The poster featured elephants, veiled women, exotic dancers, and turbaned men. They also promised circus goers “1250 Actors and Actresses, 300 Dancing Girls, 250 Singers in Weird Oriental Choruses,” and “hundreds of horses, camels, and elephants.” Sound familiar?

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The only culture “Aladdin” seems to accurately represent is America’s. Obviously, Disney was never going to change the beloved, critically acclaimed musical numbers, which, for the record, I wouldn’t have wanted, either. So, why “remake” the movie, especially now given our fraught political climate?

“Aladdin” But Make It Fresh (Prince)

The live action “Aladdin” remake changed superficial plot points, but, at its core, it kept what made the film problematic. This remake could have been an opportunity to not only remove stereotypes from the film but to also embrace and celebrate the contributions of Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans in the context of an incredibly divisive and hateful political climate. Instead, the remake double downed on the Orientalism. It was directed by a white man, an English one at that (read: a descendant of colonizers) whose idea of updating the film was by adding a hip-hop element to the film, giving Jasmine career goals, and further white-washing Agrabah as if its creation was not informed by the real world and its biases.

Not to mention, the remake adds a running joke about Aladdin buying Jasmine, which garnered the biggest laugh in the movie. This joke was much like when in “Crazy Rich Asians,” two Sikh guards donned in their traditional garb of dastar (turban) and kirpan (sword) frightened the two main female leads by appearing out of nowhere in the dark, which was similarly met with one of the biggest laughs in the movie in my theater. I’m just going to put it out there that certain people were laughing too hard and for too long. Both of these jokes hinge upon accepting the validity of the perceived backwardness and barbarity of brown cultures in one of those classic “it’s funny because it’s true,” moments.

[Read Related: From Animated Original to New Play, Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Controversy of Racism and Whitewashing]

Another point of comparison between “Aladdin” and “Crazy Rich Asians” is in how the press talked about these films in the lead up to their release. You could not watch a single interview of the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast without there being a conversation on representation, and what this film will mean for the Asian community, and rightfully so. Side note, colorism, and Islamophobia often exclude West, South and South East Asians from the typical Asian American narrative. The same, however, was not true for the cast of “Aladdin” (2019) wherein most questions were directed to Will Smith about how he made Genie his own, and about what it’s like to be part of a classic Disney movie. Agrabah is simply a fictional fairytale land devoid of any culture, history and, of course, brown people. Jasmine is a princess who happens to be brown for all little girls to look up to, just like how all lives matter. Nothing to be said about what “Aladdin” might mean specifically to brown children growing up in an America where Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians are indefinitely detained, deported and dehumanized.

I have been an unwilling participant of the never-ending “what are you” guessing game; have had my name constantly mispronounced, misspelled by classmates and colleagues not because it’s complicated, but because they do not care to remember; and, have been chased down a street by an angry white man publicly berating me and my “people.” Yet, I also get the unspoken approval from some as being one of the “good ones” — assimilable and not aggressively ethnic. I have been made to feel both invisible and overly exposed, two conflicting symptoms of being exoticized in white society. Words, jokes, and representation matter.

Disney Should be Learning from Disney

Take a look at another Disney film that proves inclusivity pays off, Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Coco,” which depicted Mexican heritage in a way that gave the Latinx community a moment of cultural celebration. “Coco” achieved this by heavily involving people of the community in the creative process after they made an egregious mistake, trying to trademark the holiday, Dia de Los Muertos. Instead of doubling down and saying, “haters ‘gon hate,” they listened to the criticism and employed “cultural consultants,” which included one of their strongest critics, and they promoted Mexican-American Adrian Molina to co-direct along with non-Mexican Lee Unkrich. The “Coco” team also relied on several research trips and the personal stories of their Latinx team members.

The makers of the live-action “Aladdin,” however, had not responded as gracefully to criticism, making no changes to their creative team led by Guy Ritchie. Simply filming in the deserts of Jordan does not constitute authenticity or research. Disney claims that this “Aladdin” had “cultural advisors,” but all they have provided are vague statements that could mean as little as “we consulted with our craft services guy, Abdullah, and he seemed to approve.”

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Maybe I’m wrong about how extensively they used consultants, but the fact that there are no definite and clear contributions from Middle Eastern and South Asian people is the problem. If there were, we would know about them because Disney’s PR would be jamming our feeds with it, trying to win those diversity points.

So, instead of using Will Smith as a way to introduce break dancing and rap into Agrabah, why didn’t anyone think to incorporate the music, dance, and attire of the cultures the story is supposedly pulled from? Of course, this would have only been acceptable if more brown people were employed and included in the creative process. They dressed Jasmine in gaudy, neon corseted gowns reminiscent of the typical western princess silhouette but with extra rhinestones.

The costumes honestly looked like how white people think brown people dress. I suppose it was to further whitewash Jasmine to ensure she does not come across as too ethnic, resembling, Allah forbid, those poor brown people we see on the news. Aladdin’s costume designer Michael Wilkinson thinks he paid his diversity dues by sourcing fabrics from Morocco, Turkey, and India to name a few. Do you know who else sources fabrics from India? Forever 21. And, I don’t think anyone would argue that fast fashion companies are hubs of cultural exchange and appreciation.

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The irony is that Orientalism, historically, was a product of the appropriation of Eastern textiles, jewelry, and fashion, yet authentic, traditional craftsmanship was erased from Jasmine’s wardrobe. Let’s consider the magic that was “Black Panther.” Black Panther’s costume designer Ruth E. Carter informed her afrofuturistic designs by researching indigenous populations across Africa and by actively seeking out authentic African designs. This dedication to honoring African heritage made history, as Carter was the first African American woman to win an Oscar in costume design. To the movie executives who don’t care about being culturally sensitive or politically correct, being a more inclusive production is not only financially lucrative, it also leads to higher quality products.

Ritchie and his team would have benefited greatly from asking themselves for whom were they really making this film. And, if it turned out they didn’t care to cater to a Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian audience, then at least we’d all be on the same page. We can all finally stop pretending that loving “Aladdin” means loving brown people.

We are paralyzed in this bind where we want so desperately to love the remake that we swallow our disappointment because, well, of all the racist things in the world this seems pretty benign, as FBI statistics show that hate crimes have continued to surge since 2016. We publicly praise mediocre or worse projects out of fear that if we voice our disapproval it’ll embolden others to do so as well, and if they don’t like “Aladdin,” then maybe that means they just don’t like us. But, at a certain point, we have to call out problematic narratives that are repeated time and again, especially when “Aladdin” is the first brown person many Americans meet.

If the movie had been more intentional and inclusive at every level of production, we might have had a more nuanced and respectful reimagining of “Aladdin.” This was a chance to reclaim a narrative that was originally rife with stereotypes and lazy assumptions about Eastern cultures to empower and employ people that are frankly exhausted of having to explain and apologize for not only their heritage but their existence.

Brown People of America Unite

One has to wonder whether this movie was able to be made without much input from Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian people because these demographics have not been able to come together as a unified polity or social justice collective to make coherent and actionable demands of American society. Part of why “Aladdin” can so easily run the risk of regurgitating Orientalist tropes is because Orientalism requires a certain amount of revisionist history and erasure in a way that blurs a wide array of cultures, ethnicities, and languages into one amorphous white washed blob. Centuries of Orientalism has created this narrative that the near East is homogenous, that brown people are homogenous, that Muslims are homogenous. But we are not, which is why it might be harder for us to unite as one community and acknowledge we have more to gain together than we do apart. Depending on the issue brown people of America shift their alliances along religious, ethnic, racial and economic lines.

The fact that people are fighting to claim “Aladdin” to establish some birthright as to who is allowed to portray fictional characters of a film adaption of a story that was not even authentic to the East but was in fact a fantasy of the imperial machine just speaks to how starved brown people are for representation in art and media. We know both Disney films were not created for us or by us, they are an American narrative being sold to us about us.

All this to say, it’s complicated. It’s difficult to mobilize a disparate group of people in solidarity because minorities are often told by those in power that their interests are in conflict with each other, repurposing the imperial strategy of divide and conquer. The funny thing about the inherent racist logic of Islamophobia is that it threatens an Indian Hindu as much as an Egyptian Copt.

America presents a unique situation wherein a diverse group of people hailing from many parts of the world is racialized as one. The irony is that this sweeping paranoia presents minorities with an opportunity to create a strong bloc of solidarity against white nationalism and xenophobia. Instead of abandoning each other when politically and socially expedient, we should band together. If the communities often impacted by Islamophobia, even though many may not even be Muslim, can organize together in art, business and politics it could strengthen us all in the greater anti-racism movement. Coalition building, particularly in policymaking and advocacy work has the potential to create more nuanced and thoughtful solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

[Read Related: Disney Defends ‘Browning’ Actors for Roles in Live-Action ‘Aladdin’]

While the remake of “Aladdin” is not itself Islamophobic or racist, and a ride on the magic carpet can be a nice, albeit forgettable, escape from our troubling reality. It is, however, an inevitable outcome of a society that continues to devalue black and brown lives. We currently live in a country led by a man who implemented a still legal Muslim ban, thinks there are “very fine people” amongst neo-Nazis, and is locking migrant children in cages until they die. American capitalism continues to siphon out the culture from brown people like the oil we kill for, so that the bastardized version of eastern cultures may be guiltlessly and secularly enjoyed by the masses without ever having to confront the humanity of the foreign other, or rather the inhumanity of their own government’s policies.

The one good thing about this movie is that maybe the brown actors will now have the name recognition to pursue more meaningful projects. The greatest offense of “Aladdin” is being careless, and the brown boys and girls and gender nonconforming of this country deserve better. My overall review of “Aladdin” can honestly be summed up as, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

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