I’ve seen this film countless times over my life. I’ve laughed at the genius of Robin Williams’ Genie, sung along to all the songs, and I’ve even shed a tear when Aladdin and the Genie parted ways at the end. For all that I knew and loved about ‘Aladdin’, there was so much that I never knew. Take this line in the opening song:
🎶Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home 🎶
I’m sure I’m not alone in having never known that line in the opening song existed. That’s because after much controversy, it was changed for the home media release and has since also been removed from the soundtrack. You may wondering why there was such uproar over a seemingly innocuous line in a children’s cartoon but it is because that line is the perfect example of Orientalism.
Orientalism as defined by Edward Said, author of the critical study ‘Orientalism’ (1978), is “the way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.” In laymen’s terms it is the representation of the Orient that justifies the West’s interests and involvement in the affairs of the East. This representation is often one in which the qualities and features of the Orient are seen as contrary to those of Western society. Orientalism is not a new concept, it is one that can be traced all the way back to the Greco-Persian Wars (499 BC – 449 BC) where the Greeks portrayed the Persians as barbaric and the wars were seen as a matter between freedom and tyranny (Kwak p.196, 2011). In more recent times, the colonization by European countries can be seen as a form of Orientalism as they sought to exploit the Eastern countries of their resources in order to expand their empire; so too can the United States’ involvement in the Korean and Vietnam War and their current involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts as they attempt to maintain their interests and assert their power.
If we go back to “Arabian Nights” from ‘Aladdin’, the original line that described the Arabic country to be barbaric and not averse to cropping is a way of classing Arabs as villains and their culture as cruel and archaic. True this is a children’s cartoon and a fictitious story set in ancient times, however such a line is unnecessary and conveys racist overtones. Other elements of ‘Aladdin’ continue this line of Orientalism, such as the American-boy appearance of Aladdin and the anglicized accents of the protagonists contrasted with the thick foreign accents of the antagonists (Brunette et al.). This creates the sense of “us and them”, representing Westerners as civilized and virtuous in comparison to the corruption and inhumanity of the Orient thus inadvertently justifying the perceived need to “repair” the Middle East in real life.
Make no mistake, Aladdin is a fantastic film. It’s a Disney masterclass in storytelling and animation, and one of Robin Williams’ greatest performances. Sadly that doesn’t make it immune to the entrenched Orientalist views of the West.
Brunette, L, Mallory, C, Wood, S, ‘Stereotypes & Racism in Children’s Movies’, viewed 25 March 2016.
Disney, 2015, ‘Aladdin’, image, viewed 25 March 2016, http://media.cmgdigital.com/shared/lt/lt_cache/aresize/835×529/img/photos/2015/08/24/b3/68/smqGrOaladdin-60.jpeg
Kwak, T 2010, ‘The Clash of Civilizations: Obfuscating Race, History, & Culture In 300’, ed. Kathleen McDonald, Americanization of History: Conflation of Time and Culture in Film and Television, Cambridge Scholars, p.196.
Said, E 2001, ‘From Orientalism’, in V Leitch (ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W. Norton, p.1991.