Essay on Aladdin Orientalism

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Lyrics in Aladdin

Before the change of lyrics to the film’s VHS release in 1993, the original lyrics were “[…]Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face It’s barbaric but hey—it’s home!” (Aladdin: The Complete Script”). Tracing back to Said’s Orientalism, these lyrics allow all Orient societies to be characterized as the same barbaric regions: That all Eastern societies are evil, and one should fear for their limbs and lives. The author of The New York Times article “It’s Racist, But Hey, It’s Disney” commented on the lyrics: “To characterize an entire region with this sort of tongue-in-cheek bigotry, especially in a movie aimed at children, borders on barbaric” (It’s Racist, But Hey, It’s Disney). The lyrics immediately suggest that the ideational purpose is to portray the people of Agrabah are barbaric; it is a ruthless society, and they all lack morals and empathy, but the citizens are used to it, and they are satisfied with living in a dangerous kill-or-be-killed country because it's their home.

The intro song has set the expectations for the film; that the audience will experience a bar¬baric and harsh Middle Eastern city with equally barbaric inhabitants. Angry yelling can be heard from shopkeepers and palace guards on the streets of Agrabah. One palace guard yelled to Aladdin: “I’ll have your hands for a trophy, street rat!” (“Aladdin: The Complete Script”) after Aladdin stole a loaf of bread, a shopkeeper threatens to cut off Jasmine's hand for offering an apple to a child (Jasmine was dressed as a commoner during this), and Jafar does not care that Gazeem had to slit a few throats to obtain the magic lamp. The Western construction of the East being barbaric shows through these characters, as they lack compassion; they do not see much value in another human being’s life if they are below their social status. By making Jafar seem careless of the throats being slit, and Gazeem being eaten by the Cave of Wonders: “Patience, Iago. Patience. Gazeem was obvi¬ously less than worthy” (Aladdin: The Complete Script), it suggests that human beings of a lesser social class are of no worth and it does not matter whether they live or die, and the angry Arab is only interested in things benefitting his needs and he is willing to do everything even taking a hu¬man life.

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Hollywood and Politics

“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA” is a quote found in Christian Blauvelt’s article “Aladdin, Al-Qaeda, and Arabs in the U.S. film and TV” from 2008 and argues that Hollywood narratives are closely tied with politics. Hollywood’s images of Arabs are heavily influenced by U.S. foreign policy over the last 60 years, as images of the Arab being a terrorist are a contemporary phenomenon. Jack Shaheen states in Reel Bad Arabs three events that are the main reason for the negative view of Arabs:

  1. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
  2. The Arab Oil embargo rising gas prices, which angered many Americans during the 70s.
  3. The Iranian revolution, where Iranian students took U.S. diplomats as hostages for over a year.

Based on the three before-mentioned events, Shaheen argues that the U.S. media continue to use this xenophobic view of Arabs to create a level of fear by using negative portrayal of Arabs as a scapegoat and maintain that fear (Blauvelt 5). In the terms of Foucault’s power/knowledge, the mainstream U.S. media uses their knowledge of the Arab to portray the Arab in a negative stereotypical view, which is the media’s power, and that is why the movies such as Aladdin is made and accepted, as Alhassan states: “The 1992 Aladdin demonstrates the staying power of Orientalist tropes and the impact they have not only on Arabs but on the imaginations of those who make and watch films like this' (Alhassan 20). The film Aladdin (1992) takes the same knowledge and uses its power of creating a Disney movie to create fearful stereotypes in Aladdin (1992) to maintain the West’s fear of the East. The character Aladdin is designed with Western ideologies to defeat Jafar/the East to conclude that the good West has defeated the bad East. The stereotypes found in Aladdin (1992) are a case of Said’s Orientalism, as the problematic representations strengthen Said's point that the discourse of Orientalism is maintained within institutions and practices and is kept alive by re¬peating and teaching it (Said 3).

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