Oriental Stereotypes in Aladdin

When I was a child watching Disney’s Aladdin (1992), it never crossed my mind that there was such harsh use of Oriental stereotypes. It was really only until this subject that it ever crossed my mind. Not only are these Oriental stereotypes displayed in one Disney movie but quite a few including Mulan (1998) and The Jungle Book (1967). So why is it that Disney keeps displaying these themes?

Literary theorist, Edward Said (1978), describes Orientalism as “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on”. The idea of Orientalism dates back to the colonization of the Arab world. The term provided a justification for European colonialism and their construction of “the East” which was different and inferior, therefore needing rescuing by “the West” (Arab American National Museum, 2011).

The beginning of Aladdin starts off with and opening song called “Arabian Nights”.

‘Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where it’s flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home’.
Original first verse (1992-1993):
‘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’.

Cruel and poor judgments were made in writing the original lyrics and were therefore changed. The verse still conveys ideas of Western Orient stereotypes. It still conveys the fact that they are “barbaric”, there are camels everywhere and that the Middle East is some sort of faraway and unknown place, which are all complete stereotypes. Many of the stereotypes that the West had made up about the East include that it is a place of tradition, it’s undeveloped, rural, spiritual and completely opposite from anything Western (Evans, 2015). Because these stereotypes have transcended through time, it has been quite hard for the Orient to shake these thoughts by Westerners and it is particularly harder to do so when movies keep portraying these ideas.

Throughout the film we are shown other stereotypes. Aladdin is portrayed as a thief, he is poor, his best friend is a monkey and he lives in poverty. Being a thief is a common stereotype of Arabs but for Disney to portray Aladdin as a hero they show him as a sort of ‘Robin Hood’ stealing from the rich and giving to the poor (Nelson, Nunez, 2009). The women in the film are also overly sexualised. This is a common misconception of the Orient. Westerners see Orient women as submissive, sexy and exotic. Lastly, the use of animals in the film as transportation creates a sense of the Middle East being primitive. It conveys that they are too far behind in technology therefore they are poor and live in poverty (Nelson, Nunez, 2009).

All of these stereotypes create and image for young children at a young age. They keep negative stereotypes alive, stereotypes that are untrue.

References:

2011, What is orientalism?/Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes, Arab American National Museum, viewed 4th April 2015, http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism

Aladdin 1992, movie, Walt Disney, USA, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Evans, N 2015, East vs. West: Orientalism, BCM232, University of Wollongong, accessed 4th April 2015

Nelson, Nunez, A & V 2009, Aladdin/Disney Movies and Racism, PB Works, viewed 4th April 2015, http://disneyandmovies.pbworks.com/w/page/17905678/4%20Aladdin

Said, E 1978, Orientalism, 5th edn, Penguin Books, England

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