Orientalism was originally the term used to describe an academic study of the “orient”. But what is the orient? Professor Edward Said argues that the orient is a European invention, created to be the “ideal other” to the West (Said 2001, p. 1991). The West portrays the orient as all of the things that it doesn’t want to be, and frequently in a negative way. Depending on who you talk to, the orient could mean India, Japan, or Greece, or Afghanistan. All of these different countries, with very different cultures are all branded under the umbrella term “the orient” by the West, and the characteristics we associate with them are very stereotypical and, often, inaccurate.
Despite these inaccuracies, the orientalist stereotypes held by the West are so common and solidified now that they make appearances in children’s animation, particularly the 1992 Disney film Aladdin, which has orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East.
In most depictions of oriental characters (not exclusive to “Middle Eastern” oriental characters), they are usually portrayed as at least one or all of the following:
Magical and mysterious
The villain, Jafar, who has a magical staff he uses to hypnotize, seeks the Genie in the lamp, which is located inside the cave of Wonders.
Hedonist and self-indulgent
Jafar is devious and seeks the Genie for his own selfish reasons. The Sultan, Jafar and Princess Jasmine are extremely rich. The Cave of Wonders is full of treasures and while in the Cave of wonders, Abu the monkey is awe-struck at a jewel and his indulgence in this jewel backfires on him.
Princess Jasmine is overly sexualized and wears a belly dancer costume throughout the film, and “belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available” (Arab Stereotypes 2011). This is contrasted against the more accurate and traditional coverings she would have been wearing in that area of the world. The over-sexualized presentation of Oriental women in Aladdin is continued in the women from the balcony, and the women from Genie’s first song.
Barbaric or evil
When Princess Jasmine takes an apple from a shopkeeper, he threatens to cut off her hand. The guards always have their swords out. Jafar tells Jasmine he has beheaded Aladdin.
These are all traits associated with the Western view of the Orient as a mysterious, decadent, sensual and tyrannical place, and all of them can be seen in Aladdin.
The orientalist stereotypes in Aladdin did not all go unchallenged. The opening song “Arabian Nights” originally had the lyrics
Where they cut off your ear
if they don’t like your face,
it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home.
Disney changed the lyrics for the theatrical release but the line “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” remained. They took away the example of the barbaric Middle East, but kept the words there. The idea of the Middle East as barbaric was not removed, and as noted above, is a recurring theme throughout the film.
Interestingly, the “good” characters in the film are portrayed as more Western than the obviously Middle Eastern “bad guys”. Aladdin is a brave, heroic man who challenges the ideals of his unfair Middle Eastern world. He also has very light skin and soft features. Jafar is the embodiment of negative Arab stereotypes projected by the West; he is a dark, lying, deceptive, magical, twisty, evil tyrant (Evans 2016) and he has darker skin, sharp features and menacing eyes. If anything cements the West’s view of the Orient as the negative opposite “other”, is the the western appearance and ideals of “good” Aladdin against the Middle Eastern “bad” Jafar.
I am in agreement with Said, who wrote that “so far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the… imaginative demonology of the mysterious Orient”. This view of the Orient (particularly the Middle East portrayal) is deeply rooted in the minds of Westerners, which has only been reinforced further because of films like Aladdin. All of the traits applied to the Middle East by the West are also applied to other areas branded under the Orient label.
Said, E 1991, ‘From Orientalism’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W Norton, New York, pp. 1991-2012.
Evans, N 2016, ‘East vs West: Orientalism’, lecture, BCM232, University of Wollongong, delivered 21 March 2016.
2011, Veils, Harems and Bellydancers, Reclaiming Identity: Dismantaling Arab Stereotypes, viewed 8 April 2016, <http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism/veils-harems-belly-dancers>