Europe and America are powerful imperial nations who have, through colonialism since the 18th century, sought to impose their dominant cultural values and political ideology on societies that they regard as ‘subordinate’ to their own. They do this in order to maintain control over radically different cultures who they believe pose a threat to Western interests.Edward Said coined the term ‘Orientalism’ propagating the ideas that much of the fine art, film and literature created by Western artists concerning the East and especially the Islamic Arab world, seek to represent the Eastern culture as having antithetic and thus dangerous values that the West wants to neutralise to maintain world order. These representations are often misleading and prejudiced founded on unreliable knowledge inspiring negative connotations causing a sense of fear amongst Western people of anything different to their way of living.
Aladdin (1992) is an animation created by Walt Disney, adapted from the Middle Eastern folktale, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 nights. Under close scrutiny this animation is a perfect demonstration of the mass Western viewpoint of the Orient namely the Arabian world. Traditionally fairy tales were folk narratives based on the experiences and beliefs of a collective community communicated orally by a story teller to an audience. The stories were then spread in the same way continuously until they eventually became generic and widespread legends.Being broadcasted orally granted the illiterate the convenience to bear witness to these stories, widening the demographic of the audience. However according to Jack Zipes, over time these stories took on a literary form excluding a large number of uneducated people. From there on the audience took on a different form, shifting from the masses to the educated, wealthier classes.
This displacement of readership to the bourgeoisie therefore called for the need for the content of the fairy tales to be adapted in order to agree with the higher class’s socio-ideology.After this revolution came another change. The technological advances made by the Lumiere brothers, who innovated the first portable movie camera sparked the motion picture industry into play. It was now possible for the folk tales once exchanged orally to be played out onto the big screen. One American innovator seized the chance to take advantage of this development, this being Walt Disney, founder of what is now recognised as one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the filmic world. The Walt Disney Corporation has remained a leader in the production of animations decades after his death.
Many of the scripts for the company’s production were adapted from traditional fairy tales. The deviations in content however are often significantly different from the originals and in true American fashion to seek capitalism from anything, the end products are merchandised in the form of toys, magazines etc. Zipes postulates however that Walt Disney ‘had great talent for holding antiquated views of society still through animation’[i] suggesting Disney had a hidden agenda when producing his cartoons.
Instead of being simply a way of entertaining the American audience, it would be an outlet where he could communicate his views of the world. Moreover, it is possible to assume thus that as an American himself, whatever discourse that would be propagated through his films would be an American dogma. Although Aladdin was produced after Disney’s death it nonetheless has evidence of this transmitting of American culture and perceptions despite the fact that the subject matter is about the culture and society of the Middle East.Edward Said however saw texts like Aladdin as ‘being turned into a structure of myth prefabricated for western use’ [ii] For this reason, one must question the agenda the producers of Aladdin had, and on a macro scale the purpose of all Western discourse involving the Orient. In Simone Weil’s essay, The Power of Words, she raises awareness of the power discourse can have on the consciousness of a nation, persuading them into believing that they are under threat.Going on to explain how, ‘our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters,’[iii] which demonstrates how through misrepresentation or reporting of a particular group can create a tense political climate between nations. The animation is set in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, a romanticised duplication of the ‘typical’ Arabian locale.
One can assume that because of the US’s capricious alliances with countries of the Gulf, that Agrabah is loosely based on countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.The etymological denotation of the ‘Agra’ in the name alludes to the word ‘agrarian’ denoting a rural land. Thus fundamentally Agrabah, and in the wider context, as there has been no claiming of an explicit country in the film, all Arabian countries are being assimilated to provincial lands, having the inversed ideology and inferior level of education in comparison to that of an urbanised civilisation, that is advanced economically, technologically as well as sociologically.This idea that the inhabitants of the Orient are still living in a period comparable to the Dark Ages is made evident instantly. The opening montage of the film begins with the lyrics of a song proclaiming, ‘I come from a land…where they cut off your ears,’ This mention of capital punishment is reaffirmed later when Jasmine takes an apple from a stall, giving it to a small child she is then reprimanded by the vendor, who draws his sword to cut off her hand.This form of punishment is stated in the Quran forming part of Shariah law; this much is true, however in the modern world many Muslim authorities have abandoned ruling under these laws, buckling under pressures from UN human rights commissions and also the self-imposed advancements in human rights reformations in Islamic nations.
The line of the song, ‘It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home. ’ Suggests that this sort of behaviour is the norm, and because of its release in the early 1990’s would only serve to demonise Islamic societies in the eyes of the Western audience living in democracy.The inclusion also of concepts such as Djinn and magic; in the form of the magic flying carpet all reinforce the view that Arabs still live in the period of the Dark Ages, that the West lived in Pre-Enlightenment, further cementing that the Western world has developed rationality through scientific innovation and the Arabs haven’t.
Ironically it is figures from a Medieval Islamic era that have invented and contributed much knowledge to aspects of civilisation such as chemistry, mathematics and astronomy.This is one instance of a division in principles that has been erected between both sides, with the Eastern being assigned the role of the monster as stated by Weil. The demonisation of Islam is a way in which the West stirs up negative sentiment towards in order to justify its constant involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. Stephen Zunes (2001), argues that ‘Washington has used the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a justification for keeping a high military economic and politic profile in the Middle East. [iv] Gereges then goes on to explicate that ‘It was under the impact of the Iranian revolution then that Islamism replaced secular nationalism as a security threat to US interests and fear of a clash between Islam and the West crystallized in the mind of Americans.
’ [v] Saddam’s main aim in invading Kuwait was to stake a claim over its rich oil supplies. This desire to accumulate wealth and monopoly of power is perfectly illustrated by the character Jaffar, who being a vizier to the Sultan, is much like Saddam, a powerful figure in the political running of the land.He is also attributed the negative trait of greed whose eagerness in claiming possession of the genie’s lamp, in turn turns the lamp into the symbolic emblem of oil. It is implicated that if Jaffar were to take control of Agrabah this would be devastating for the people. Jaffar expresses his readiness in committing murder to overthrow the Sultan, he is also manipulative and deceitful, tricking Aladdin into entering the Cave of Wonder and is also portrayed as a superpower, as he is able to hypnotise the Sultan with his cobra shaped cane.After Saddam invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, a supplier of oil to the West felt too under threat of invasion, which also consequently worried the US.
America initially supported the Ba’ath party, endorsing it to obliterate the communists and then oil-workers unions to which Saddam Hussein was compliant. However Hussein lost this alliance after his invasion of Kuwait making an enemy of the US.Alan Nadel explains the US constantly shifted its opinions on Iraq, Iran and other countries in the region when they saw opportunity for economic or political benefit, justifying this change in attitude to these countries switching between good and evil. When the Iranian Shah was exiled, the Americans favoured Iraq, but then when they realised the new leaders of Iran would work in alliance with America, the favouritism again diverted back, and this patterned continued. This is interpreted in the film through the way many of the characters in Aladdin are always adopting disguises.Aladdin, initially a ‘street rat’ is transformed into Prince Ali by the genie, fooling everyone. Jaffar changes into an old man in order to manipulate Aladdin and Princess Jasmine escapes from the confines of the Palace dressed as a commoner to evade detection. According to Said much of what people know about other societies comes from historical comprehension thus, ‘interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.
[vi] If we take into consideration then that Aladdin was produced after the end of the Gulf War in 1991 a historical epoch in which the producers of Aladdin, would have viewed the Middle East in context of US foreign policy and the political climate of the time. Knowledge from American military and secret agencies would have produced capricious feeling towards the Middle East in the mass media because of the confusion over its previous alliance with Iraq as stated previously. This confusion conjures up an unreliable outlook of the Arab world and the risk it poses American and European national security.Another well publicised difference violation of human rights as well as capital punishment has been the oppression of women.
This sweeping generalisation has marred any ability to see any positives, calling for a need for the emancipation of the Muslim woman from her tyrannical oppressors. The underlying theme of love and marriage is played out in a typical cliched view that parents force their children into arranged marriages with the intention of the union bringing economical or societal ascendancy to the family.The Sultan brings forth suitors to Jasmine who have all been princes as this is a requirement by the law of the land. This also fuels the typical assumption that women in Islamic countries are oppressed by their male counterparts who strip them in their freedom to experience love. This also postulates the common conception that the Western woman is freer than those of the East.
When Jasmine tries to run away, in effect she is fleeing from the restrictions of her Arabian culture. Instead of being the passive, ilent Muslim woman a quality Jaffar sees as ‘perfect for a wife’, she shouts at her father and Jaffar after overhearing them talking about her marriage, takes the initiative to run away and her rejection of marriage proposals, make her seem to a strong and assertive woman, qualities which are typically associated with a ‘free’ Western woman. It is telling however, that the cartoonists have chosen to sexualise Jasmine, drawing her dressed revealingly, accentuating her small waist and wide hips. If Islam does repress women through its culture then it can be argued that the West does the same thing but making her a victim of voyeurism.
Within Aladdin there are numerous intertextual references to aspects of the American culture, which is ironic for a film trying to produce a presentation of Arab lands. The characters, like the Sultan are drawn with stereotypical misconception that all Arab men, especially those in power are overweight, with long beards. However this overt visual prejudice is juxtaposed with the hard-to-miss American accents of all characters. In particular, the genie is voiced over by Robin Williams, whose voice is instantly recognisable by most people in the West.
Using such a prominent actor as a voice over, means that its difficult to then be able to fathom the genie as being a product of Arabia but instead through bringing in previous cultural knowledge the first thing which springs to mind is that Williams is a respected American comedian/actor. Moreover the visual appearance of Aladdin himself was based on the facial attributes of Tom Cruise, another well known American actor. The characters ergo, are flawed as they are characterisations of American people disguised as Arabs.Said is challenged by Bernard Lewis who feels that ‘No doubt there were some Orientalists who, objectively or subjectively, served or profited from imperial domination.
But as an explanation of the Orientalist enterprise as a whole, it is absurdly inadequate. ’[vii] Asking why European countries who had no interest in colonising any Arab countries still took an interest in studying the culture. In conclusion although Aladdin may be on the aesthetic surface an animation merely produced with the aim of being entertaining is undeniable nonetheless hat much of the representation of the culture that it is dealing with is deeply flawed feeding its audience with prejudiced misconceptions. This reinforces Edward Said’s discourse that much of the Western literature and film about the Orient inspires a Western political and cultural hegemony over anything foreign to itself to benefit its own cause.
Although Lewis is correct in raising the point that not all of the West seek domination over Islamic states that in this context, Aladdin represents well the American orientalist attitudes.