As someone born in the ‘90s, I can honestly say that Disney movies will always hold a special place in my memory. Although the first Disney film was produced more than 50 years earlier (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), the 1990s introduced a ‘Second Golden Age’ for Walt Disney Animation. Creating hits such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and Hercules, Disney reached the eyes of millions of children around the world.
Now, however, when we’re grown up and we look back on these movies, we notice that some things do not entirely match up. Stereotyping, glorification of violence, even traditional male dominance are some of the disturbing aspects these movies show. Aladdin, Disney hit from 1992, can be seen as a good example of such stereotyping.
The story tells us of a boy living on the streets in Baghdad, growing up without friends or family. Aladdin is accompanied by his pet monkey, stealing food and running from the law on a daily basis. Without spoiling the plot of the movie too much, we can name just a few examples of stereotypes found in the movie. The introduction song of the film, for starters, promises Arabian nights that are ‘hotter than hot in a lot of good ways’ and describes Arabia as ‘barbaric’. The original Disney hit Arabian Nights also described the region as ‘where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’. This was later changed to ‘where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense’, due to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). A sketchy vendor tries to sell an overpriced piece of junk. This is followed by a scarcely dressed and imprisoned princess, and a society where petty crimes meet cruel punishments, led by an incredibly rich Sultan and an evil Vizier.
In the 1990’s, it was not just Disney who portrayed the region this way. These are just a few examples of Western dominant thinking towards the Middle-East. The scholar Edward Said called this way of thinking “orientalism”, and he flared up a spark in the academic world that sizzled through cultural, political, even economic contexts. In his book Orientalism he gives numerous examples of this practice, by which he means that a stereotypical, untrue image of the Middle East has dominated Western thinking for decades, popping up in cultural, political and academic texts and discussions. Furthermore, Said argues that such discourse has not only had the effect of wrongful representations of ‘The East’, but of Western domination over countries in the Middle East as well. By regarding Middle-Eastern people and cultures as ‘the other’, Western countries have justified their imperial actions to the world. Representations of ‘the other’ know many discriminatory forms, and are often spurred by fear of Islam fundamentalism. According to Said, the image of the Orient is something that has been created, not observed by Western scholars. He accuses these academics of taking exceptional circumstances and portraying them as something normal for Middle Eastern people. In doing so, they create a justification for their imperial motives and they are able to dominate the East.
The topic has been a controversial one, with a lot of support and a lot of criticism. Wherever your personal standpoint, it could be an interesting exercise to find Aladdin and the Vizier in our everyday newspaper coverage about the Middle East. Without banning long-beloved Disney movies from our lives, it is clear that any story about the unshakable good guy versus the inherently bad guy is probably told by a sketchy tradesman and should belong to the world of fairy tales.