Aladdin is a Disney film for the ages. With an instantly recognizable main character, heavy hitting voice actors, unique story, and catchy music it is all that one could expect out of a Disney film of the 1990s. Although the genius of the screenplay and production are reflected through the movie’s lucrative profits, many casual viewers fail to see the ways in which with Aladdin Disney constructed an easily consumable package of the “Other” in Arab culture.
In the opening minutes of the film the storyteller sings of a fictional land of roaming camel caravans: Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home. Off the bat Disney has begun to construct this desert society of Arabs as one that is a binary opposite to the one young Americans live in. In the movie world there are no second chances for mistakes. Hell, Arabs seem like the kind of people that will maim you for no reason other than not liking the way you look. Their codes of ethics are fundamentally different from us in the West, but it’s okay: they don’t know any better. To them, this place is simply their home.
It’s important for the movie to establish itself in a world that is distinctly not close to home for viewers so they can more fully suspend disbelief and buy into the plot. Even so, it’s interesting that people at large buy so unquestioningly into this dominant discourse about the Middle East. The fact that the city of Agrabah and the surrounding areas are underdeveloped by Western standards, people starve in the streets, and the homeless prowl looking for food makes it “barbaric”.
The hero of the film, Aladdin, is an interesting character to examine. Aladdin’s accent is distinctly American, while the guards, Jafar, and other villains speak Arabic-accented English. Although Aladdin was born and raised in the same city as the rest of the characters, he has mystically developed his own way to talk. This distinction perpetuates the false stereotype of foreigners as lawbreakers and the exceptionalism of do-good Americans. Though these comparisons aren’t overt, they are noticeable throughout the movie and undoubtedly make an impact on the viewer.
It’s easy to dismiss these aspects of a great film and argue that everyone knows the film isn’t trying to depict reality. It chooses a fictional venue with landmarks of mixed backgrounds to create a plot that is utterly fantastical. But even if people do know it’s not real, the fact that these artistic choices make an impression on the viewer is undeniable. The target audience for the movie is children under 15 years of age who likely know next to nothing about the state of the world outside the United States. For these children, this movie is a powerful building block in forming the foundation of an “Other” that is so inherently different from the society they know and love.
As Youmans asserts in Humor Against Hegemony, unless one can get the attention of the masses it doesn’t matter what they are saying. Even for adults it has been proven that the deepest impressions are made when the subject is deeply interested in the material being consumed. Although many adults have access to other channels of information, it’s easy to see how an entertaining film with generalized visual representations of an unseen population and culture could be taken to heart. In short, attention begets influence.
by Grayson Smith
by Grayson Smith