Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Final Paper: Orientalism in Aladdin

Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, dictates the way that the Western world views the Eastern world. Prejudices and stereotypes from this view point are found in countless examples in American society. The extremely popular and widely accepted Disney animated movie, Aladdin, stands as a particularly blatant example of Orientalist ideas and influence. Interestingly, Walt Disney once said, “I think of a child’s mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly” (Giroux, 17). Disney clearly believed that the ideas that children are exposed to will help to create the adults they will become. Unfortunately, media targeted at children today, such as Aladdin, contains much misleading information about the true nature of the East.

The work of scholar Edward Said explores the subject of the East as seen through the eyes of people from the West. In his book Orientalism, he coined the term Orientalism as it is used today. Orientalism can be defined as the lens through which the West, specifically America, views the East, specifically the Arab world. Said argues that “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Ashcroft, 87). In other words, the Western world views what he calls the Orient as an exotic place to which the West cannot relate.

Orientalism in a broad sense is a body of scholarship marked by a solid domination of persistent Eurocentralists against Arabo-Islamic people and their culture. The term Orientalism stems from Eurocentralism, which is the practice of viewing the world from a European perspective and with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the preeminence of European culture. Said goes so far as to say that an Orientalist is “anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient” (Ashcroft, 88). Said is making the point that Orientalist ideas are so deeply engrained in Western societies that anyone who seriously studies the East participates in Orientalism to some degree.

In fact, Said says that Orientalism “has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” (Ashcroft, 91). The “our” he is referring to is the West, or more specifically, America. Here, Said is hinting at the key concept of the Other, mentioned explicitly when he says that the Orient is “one of [Europe’s] deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (87). In essence, he is saying that Orientalism is the means by which the West “Othered” the East. The term the Other, here, means that the West created an image of the East opposite to its own, one which was backwards, savage, and to which it could not relate. The creation of this Other gives Orientalism its true power because it creates an explicit separation between East and West in which the East is deemed constitutionally inferior. This fosters an environment in which the relationships and beliefs encompassed by Orientalism are taken to extremes as seen in Western popular culture and media today.

The Other can be viewed as the driving force behind Orientalism. What is often referred to as the Mark of the Plural, on the other hand, is a tool often employed for the dissemination of Orientalist ideas. The Mark of the Plural places all people with a given set of characteristics into one group which is then judged explicitly based on common perceptions about these characteristics.

Although Orientalism first became important during the days of colonization, these ideas are still very much engrained in Western culture today. Many believe this is due to the immense amount of influence the media, frequently a source of Orientalist ideas, has on children. After all, the famous behaviorist and psychologist B.F. Skinner said, “Give me a child and I will shape him into anything” (“B.F. Skinner Quotes”). By this, he means that children are very impressionable and can be taught to believe anything if so conditioned at a certain age. In society today, children are often exposed to information from “informal education provided by the media and popular culture, such as movies, television, radio, newspapers, comic books, and advertisements” (Kincheloe, 154).

Numerous studies have collected data about how much television and other popular media sources are present in the lives of typical American children. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports the following: “Children ages 2-11 see at least 25,000 advertisements on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placement” (Marshall, 2). Also, the Kaiser Family Institute published a study in 2010 which reported that “youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 7.5 hours per day, seven days a week with media such as video games, TV, music, and books” (2). The American Medical Association says that the “number of hours spent in front of a television or video screen is the single biggest chunk of time in the waking life of an American child” (Giroux, 3). Clearly, average American children spend a large amount of time soaking up information from popular media.

The Disney Corporation is a major creator of popular media. It is one of the largest companies in the world (the 110th largest public company in the world according to Forbes magazine), and creates some of the most watched and beloved children’s movies, games, and shows of our time (“The World’s Biggest…”). Giroux states the following in his book The Mouse that Roared: “Combining economic control with pedagogical influence, Disney has become a major cultural player in American life, and the first casualties of its dominance in popular culture are, of course, the most defenseless – children” (157). Here, Giroux hints at the possibility that Disney’s products negatively impact children. In addition, Ibrahim Abukhattala in The Miseducation of the West says, “Movies that children watch for enjoyment and pleasure rather than instruction unfortunately leave a deeper imprint on a fresh, impressionable mind than does an unexciting textbook” (Kincheloe, 159). In other words, popular media from giants such as Disney have the possibility of severely affecting the views of the average American child.

The animated movie Aladdin was and continues to be a very popular and widely accepted children’s movie in the United States. Critics on the popular American review website, Rotten Tomatoes, ranked it as 92 out of 100, and the top critics gave it 100 out of 100. Eighty-five percent of the audience polled on this site also said they liked the movie (“Aladdin (1992)”). Although the film did not hit theaters until the 25th of November of 1992, it still proved to be the most successful movie of that year. Domestically, the movie grossed over 200 million dollars, making it the eighth-highest grossing children’s movie of all time (“Highest Grossing…”). Giroux notes in The Mouse that Roared that “Aladdin has earned more than ‘$1 billion from box-office income, video sales and such ancillary baubles as Princess Jasmine dresses and Genie cookie jars’ and as a video interactive game sold more than 3 million copies in 1993” (93). It also was nominated for and won numerous awards from the following film institutions: British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and MTV Movie Awards. The film also won two Academy Awards and two Golden Globes for its soundtrack (“Awards for Aladdin”). According to a Disney website poll, Aladdin is still ranked the fourth most popular Disney movie of all time (“Best Disney Movies”). Clearly, this movie received wide recognition and general acceptance among the American population.

With such popularity, any movie or media force is bound to have an impact on its culture. Unfortunately, Aladdin frequently Orientalizes the Arab world. The first words of the movie heard by the audience are that of its theme song, “Arabian Nights.” The first lines that were played when the movie was in theaters were the following: “Oh I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam./Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face./It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Aladdin). After much outcry from the Arab community and numerous complaints, Disney altered only two lines. The lines “Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face” were replaced with “Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense” (Aladdin). However, the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” was not changed nor was any other racist sentiment in the film (Aladdin). Also, no lines were ever changed for the release of the popular CD, Aladdin (Giroux, 105).

The opening words “Oh I come from a land/From a faraway place” help to create an Other place (Aladdin). They tell the audience members that this land to which they are venturing is completely different and unrelateable to them. The original theatrical release of the song and the song on the CD soundtrack continue by saying “Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face” (Aladdin). This implies that this “faraway” land is needlessly violent and uncivilized or without order. Even the changed lyric, “Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense,” influences the audience to believe that this land is uninhabitable and an illogical place for people to live (Aladdin). The lyric was changed from one that made the audience think of a ruthless and barbaric place to an uninhabitable place. However, the next line, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” is sure to cement the thought that this “faraway” land is indeed ruthless and barbaric (Aladdin).

The movie continues to Orientalize the Middle East with its first character, complete with Arabian accent (created by American actor Robin Williams), twisted and black beard, large turban-like head piece, and unproportionally large nose. In this way, the movie reinforces the Arab stereotype from the very beginning. He says, “Welcome to Agrabah, city of enchantment, of mystery” (Aladdin). This tells the audience that this place is enchanting and mysterious and not like the place where the audience lives. It Others this place by separating it from the world the target audience knows. The character’s large, distorted features help create this Other world as well. Throughout the movie, many people’s faces look similar to the opening character’s face. This creates the illusion that all the people in this land have these traits and that large noses, thick accents, beards, and turbans are the norm in this land, that is, except for the protagonists (Aladdin).

There is a marked difference between the appearances of the characters Aladdin and Jafar, the protagonist and the antagonist, respectively. Aladdin has no beard, no turban, and no Arab accent (he is played by the American actor Scott Weinger). Jafar, on the other hand, has a large turban-like head piece, a darker complexion, darker and lined eyes, sharp features, a large nose and mouth, and an accent. “Peter Schneider, president of feature animation at Disney at the time… points out that Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise.” (Giroux, 105) Tom Cruise is a very famous American actor who does not claim to have any Arab background. In this way, the movie Aladdin portrays the good guy as very American-looking and the bad guy as looking like a very stereotypical Arab (Aladdin).

The palace guards who are continually chasing Aladdin also help support the demonizing stereotype of Arabs. These guards are the “bad guys” and are dumb, missing teeth, bearded, turban-wearing, and sword-carrying. The “street-rat” Aladdin is chased by these men who are trying to kill him for stealing a loaf of bread. Aladdin even says, “All this for a loaf of bread” (Aladdin)? Not only do these characters portray a negative stereotype, they also further Orientalize the image of this land as savage and carnal by showing its justice system. When Princess Jasmine goes into the market for the first time, she takes an apple and gives it to a starving, shoeless, and dirty child. The shop-owner sees her, grabs her by the arm, and takes out his sword to cut off her hand, then and there. Thankfully, Aladdin steps in and tricks the dumb Arab so that he does not carry out this sentence (Aladdin).

Later, once Aladdin in caught by the guards, Jafar tells Jasmine that Aladdin was beheaded. When asked why that was his sentence, Jafar replies that his crime was kidnapping the Princess. Although she is upset that her new friend has died, she does not seem terribly surprised by the punishment of beheading. This interaction tells the audience that people are beheaded often in this society without a trial and before even the Princess can do anything about it. The justice system is further desecrated by Jafar’s habit of changing the laws of Agrabah throughout the film. He uses his sorcery to get the Sultan to do anything he wants. This gives two insights into the stereotype of Arab society in this movie. First, it continues to show that there is no justice in this savage land – how could there be when it is so easy to change all the rules and to keep the Sultan busy by playing with his animal figurines? Second, it also shows the mystique of this land. This Other land and its people are unrelateable to Americans because they use hypnosis and sorcery, which Americans consider dubious and unrealistic. Scenes such as these continue to Orientalize the Arab world by creating fundamental differences between that land and the one in which the movie is being shown (Aladdin).

Additional examples of Orientalism within the first ten minutes of Aladdin abound as Aladdin is chased through the streets by the guards. He interferes with street-people swallowing swords, eating fire, lying on nails, walking on coals, charming snakes, and flexing their unrealistic muscles as if in a side show at a circus. Aladdin also runs into harem women all over the street. Though these women are not wearing clothes that fully cover their bodies, their mouths are always covered with at least translucent fabric. These examples depict Agrabah as a mystic land of the Other by including exotic images that would never be seen anywhere but where people are primitive, mysterious, and completely different from their Western counterparts (Aladdin).

Most of these examples simply show the exaggerations and stereotypes present in children’s works such as this one. A more fundamental mistake, however, is apparent in Aladdin’s depiction of modesty. Currently in the Islamic world, modesty, especially for women, is taken very seriously. Yet, in many works today, women supposedly from the East are portrayed as sexy, exotic, and scandalously dressed. This is certainly the case in Aladdin. For one thing, the Arabian princess, Jasmine, does not even wear a complete top. Her top leaves both her midriff and her shoulders completely uncovered and is extremely tight. This image not only further conditions the stereotype of women from the East, but has very little, if any basis of truth. A woman, especially of her royal position, in an Islamic country would never be seen dressing like this, even when just lounging around the palace. Modesty is also important for men in many Islamic countries. Many men in the movie, including Aladdin, do not wear shirts; this would not be true in a typical Islamic nation. Knees and shoulders are almost always covered, even for the poorest in the society. This movie makes little if any effort to be realistic about the society it claims to be portraying (Aladdin).

Unfortunately, the problem of propaganda targeting children is nothing new. In fact, Hitler is known to have said, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future” (“Adolf Hitler Quotes”). If people are continually conditioned to believe certain ideas during childhood, they will likely stubbornly harbor these ideas as adults. Regrettably, there are few practical solutions to this problem. For one thing, large and powerful companies that specifically target children, such as Disney, need to be held accountable for the products and images they produce. However, considering the amount of money Aladdin and other movies with similar problems create for Disney, this is not likely to happen in the near future.

The best solution for combating the media forces trying to leave an impression on children is education. There is no reasonable way for children to be effectively shielded from media influence, but children should not be left defenseless. Children should be taught often throughout their educations how to critically evaluate what is being told to them by the popular media. Once children are able to identify misleading information that TV, movies, commercials, and other media forces contain, they can take an active role in changing these stereotypes and in reducing Orientalism and similar ideas (Marshall, 127-8, 188-200).

As a more specific solution to movies such as Aladdin, people native to the Arab world should be included on the production team. This would possibly create a more realistic setting for the movie. If this had been done for the movie Aladdin, perhaps it would have been noted that an Arabian princess would never wear such revealing clothing.

Movies beloved by typical American children, such as Aladdin, play a part in creating stereotypes and increasing Orientalist ideas in the general public today. Only through education will this situation ever change on a large scale. Sister Mary de Lourdes once said, “Every bigot was once a child free of prejudice” (Kincheloe, 159). Additionally, John F. Kennedy said, “For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, continued and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often, we hold fast to the clich├ęs of our forbears” (153). Taken at face value, these great words mean that Orientalism and all other forms of prejudice can be uprooted through careful attention to society’s children.

Works Cited

“Adolf Hitler Quotes.” Brainy Quote. 9 Apr. 2011. <>.

Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures and Buena Vista Pictures, 1992. DVD.

“Aladdin (1992).” Rotten Tomatoes. 16 Apr. 2011. <!reviews=all>.

“Aladdin Awards.” AMC Movie Guide. 1 May 2011 <>.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

“Awards for Aladdin.” The Internet Movie Database. 16 Apr. 2011 <>.

“B. F. Skinner Quotes.” Brainy Quotes. 9 Apr. 2011. <>.

“Best Disney Movies.” Disney Movies Guide. 16 April 2011. .

Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999.

“Highest Grossing Children’s Movies of All Time.” Consumer News and Business Channel. 16 Apr. 2011 <>.

Kincheloe, Joe L., and Shirley R. Steinberg, eds. The Miseducation of the West: How Schools and the Media Distort Our Understanding of the Islamic World. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004.

Marshall, Elizabeth, and Ozlem Sensoy, eds. Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Rethinking Schools, Ltd., 2011.

“The World’s Biggest Public Companies.” Forbes. 3 May 2011. <>.