With the release of Disney’s latest 2-D romance, The Princess and the Frog, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about another movie Disney’s Aladdin and my feelings of ambivalence towards it. On the one hand I greatly enjoyed certain aspects of the film, like how it combined comedy and action/adventure with romance. I also liked that unlike past Disney romances, both Jasmine and Aladdin are the story’s focus. And I simply loved the song and video for “A Whole New World”. On the other hand I don’t know how I can ever reconcile the film’s enjoyable qualities with the problems I found in it relating to Disney’s depiction of Middle Eastern cultures, settings, and people. This ambivalence has caused me to debate whether watching this film now with my kids might leave me feeling happier or guiltier afterwards.
When Disney initially announced it was remaking Aladdin, I remember feeling ecstatic and like a little kid again (I was already a teenager by the time Aladdin was released but I was just as excited to watch it as I was with the The Bodyguard!) I had already loved watching past Disney romances The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. When I found out about Aladdin I was especially excited because it would be a Disney cartoon I could personally identify with as a Muslim kid in America.
After finally watching it, I was disappointed to find that the movie perpetuated certain negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs/Muslims and the Middle East. The first problem begins with the film’s ambiguous setting; the desert background and beginning song “Arabian Nights” lead one to believe the setting is in medieval Arabia. But then the name Agrabah sounds like it was derived from the name of the Indian city Agra. Speaking of Agra the Sultan’s palace looks suspiciously like the famous Taj Mahal. A lot of Persian background designs were incorporated into the scenery.
Princess Jasmine owns a tiger and elephants are plentiful in Agrabah, which is unusual because tigers and elephants were never native to medieval Arabia. Based on all this, it seems Disney thought nothing of mashing up and distorting all the many distinct and diverse cultures and societies spanning the Middle East and South/West Asia. This will easily confuse young viewers not familiar with the region into believing that all these cultures and peoples are one giant “brown mass” of folks indistinguishable from each other.
The second problem is the depiction of the characters’ physical features. According to Disney all Near Eastern peoples are uniformly brown skinned with no great variation in skin tone and facial features. From watching past Disney romances, I knew the studio had a habit of making sure that its romantic couple was drawn most attractively, leaving background characters either looking average or downright ugly. So I wasn’t surprised to see them drawing Aladdin and Jasmine that way. What I notice was how much more stereotypically ugly and menacing Aladdin’s male background characters looked, sporting thick black beards or mustaches, hooked noses, and turbans. Aladdin meanwhile greatly resembled The Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric and Princess Jasmine was as petite as past princesses.
Regarding their character design, here’s some interesting information I found out. Aladdin wasn’t just modeled after Tom Cruise but also some Calvin Klein models (like Marky Mark?) with a touch of MC Hammer style added on. I also discovered this little known tidbit regarding Jasmine’s design. Early sketches of the princess were initially based off of actress Jasmine Guy’s features, whose namesake Disney adopted. However animators later decided to drop these drawings because to them, Guy’s features were too “severe”. (White) animator Mark Henn then tried to animate Jasmine using “exotic” female models. Eventually for reasons unknown he became dissatisfied with these models and instead based it upon his sister Beth Allen. Knowing this now makes me curious what made Disney so uncomfortable with drawing attractive nonwhite faces then.
The third problem is the way Disney missed the chance to better utilize the character of Jasmine. When introducing her we see Disney lazily employing a negative stereotype applied to Muslim women, when we find her under perpetual house arrest and yearning to break free. I believe Disney missed a great opportunity to make Jasmine a more assertive character, given her strong personality. Instead of showing her pining away in confined boredom, Disney could have busied her with learning to become a future leader. Such development would have rendered Jasmine unique, marking a significant departure from how past princesses were developed up until that time.
Another way Disney misused Jasmine’s character was when it used her to misrepresent arranged marriage cultural practices. According to Disney arranged marriages always end up being forced upon individuals, as we see Jasmine rejecting all her princely suitors, including ironically Aladdin (aka Prince Ali), because she wanted to “marry for love”, implied as the only real way to marry. I felt Disney displayed a startling lack of cultural sensitivity here. Instead of approaching something as complex as marriage in such an overly simplistic and misguided way, Disney would have done well to avoid the subject altogether. If Disney had better utilized Jasmine’s character, it could have instead shown her as being so busy preparing to become a future leader that she has no time for marriage (and for getting to travel outside her kingdom). When Aladdin finally appears disguised as a prince to court her it could have just been his own insecurities, and not any explicit marriage condition, that would make him wonder if he was worthy of Jasmine or not.
As I’ve already mentioned, despite my objections I neither love nor hate this film. Due to this I’ve always wondered whether I could ever watch it with my kids, who are currently old enough to be part of Disney’s target demographic. After much thought I finally decided that I would simply defer watching this with them. I felt my objections to the film outweighed whatever good will I have towards it. I also felt that letting them watch now might lead them to subconsciously absorb the false stereotypes and misconceptions prevalent throughout the film. It may be best to watch it with them when they’re old enough to have conversations with concerning the underlying issues about the film. Besides right now I want to avoid getting sucked into the Disney commercial enterprise revolving around this film. Since I’m not a big fan of Aladdin, I don’t want to let my kids cajole me into purchasing Aladdin related merchandise including the toys, games, costumes, accessories, and multiple DVD’s featuring the spin off sequels and TV show. Milking this cash cow earned Disney over $504 million internationally in 1992, making Aladdin the second highest grossing Disney animated film behind the Lion King as of 2009. So it’s pretty obvious Disney is in no need of my hard earned cash!