Thursday, April 28, 2016

Disney's 'Aladdin' and the Dehumanizing Effects of Exoticism


Like any good 90s kid, I watched Aladdin as a small child and felt helplessly in love. The songs. The bright colors. The wacky animal sidekicks. Everything in this movie felt perfectly engineered to go right to my child hind-brain and stay there forever. And I'm sure that's how my parents felt too, especially when I remember their pure mortification as my sister and I insisted on singing songs from Aladdin at the top of our lungs while our parents had taken us to visit family in Switzerland. In retrospect, that was probably pretty Obnoxious American of us.

The point is, as a kid I adored Aladdin. Aladdin himself is fun and quippy but definitely kid-friendly, living in the sort of sanitized poverty that children's movies always make look like a little too much fun. Jasmine has more personality than another three Disney princesses combined, which meant she was a much better heroine to imagine going on adventures with, and Rajah was hands down the coolest pet I could possibly imagine. The Genie was funny, the carpet was cute, and Abu was annoying even when I was a little kid, but, hey, what can you do?

More importantly, the story really got me going. Aladdin's struggle to be who he really is and stop lying just so people will like him struck kid-me hard. I mean, he's basically a dude version of Cinderella, if Cinderella's story had much more swordplay and even more magic. I liked that. Jafar is a fantastic villain who genuinely frightened me, and all of this combined meant that I watched Aladdin over and over and over again until the VHS wore out.

So Aladdin is a good movie. Or at least it's a movie that kids like, whether or not their parents can still stand it.* But what I think it more worth talking about today is the simple fact that for a lot of us growing up in the 90s, Aladdin was really the sum total of everything we knew about Arab culture up until the boom in anti-Arab/anti-Muslim fever post-9/11. Which makes it weird to go back and watch Aladdin today - it's so strange to think that up until fifteen years ago, this was largely what we thought of the Middle East, of the Arab world. It was a place with brutal laws about stealing, scantily clad sassy women, and untold treasure and magic. It was, for lack of a better word, exotic.

But imagine someone describing the Arab world like this today. Just try. For all that the stereotypes of the Arab world are different now than they were pre-9/11, it's not like they're any more accurate. The strangest thing is how different they really are. The world of Aladdin isn't just a far cry from the world of evil Arab terrorists in videogames, it's basically diametrically opposed. Which is weird, right?

We've spent the better part of this month talking about post-9/11 representations of Arab culture. For the most part our conclusions have been pretty grim. Even the good representations still fall prey to tired tropes about Arab men being aggressive and violent (or else needing to repress any evidence of their Arab heritage) and Arab women being oppressed and subdued (or acting out violently against said oppression and subdued-ness). It's hard to find a story that doesn't fall into these pits, though we did find a couple, but it's weirdly harder to even remember a time before these pits didn't exist.

I mean, not that there were no pits back then, just that they were different.

And that's what watching Aladdin now as an adult living in a post-9/11 society tells me. The pits might have been different twenty-five years ago, but they were still definitely codified expectations for Arab society. And not particularly kind expectations or stereotypes. In fact, looking back on Aladdin, there's a whole hell of a lot of stuff in there that is confusing at best and downright offensive at worst. So here's a quick list, because I want to ruin your childhood.

For starters, the cultural references in this movie are all freaking over the place. We've already discussed the problems with "genies" in popular culture, but it gets even more complex in Aladdin because Robin Williams' performance as the Genie of the Lamp is legendary and also completely insane. His pop culture references and impressions are very funny but also confuse the timeline to an extent that people have come up with radical theories on how the Genie knows about cars and Jack Nicholson and rockets despite supposedly living in medieval Arabia.

But the Genie isn't the only thing mucking up the cultural stuff in Aladdin. Now, as we've already established, I am not an expert on Arab culture, so if I can notice that your film is mushing together all sorts of references, that ain't great. The movie makes vague notes of geography - lines like "This side of the Jordan" and so on - and occasional references to "Allah" in the dialogue, but lacks any cohesive sense of place or time or religious background. And the animal life is just baffling. There's a tiger, a parrot, and a small monkey all living in the same basic ecosystem of a desert despite none of them being desert animals. Just saying.

All of this might feel like nitpicking (because it is) but it's also a really important point to consider. See, the vague Middle Easternishness of the film allows it to divorce itself from any actual kind of representation. Because Aladdin takes place in Agrabah, a fictional land of fictional background, it implicitly tells us that this cultural mushing is okay.

That it's fine if it makes no freaking sense for the characters to offhandedly reference Allah and yet have no discernible religion or religious center in the entire country. That it's totally okay to portray all the bad guys as horrible barbarians who would cut off a woman's hands for stealing a piece of fruit. That we can have a princess who is both sexually objectifiable and sexually controlled without that being contradictory. It's fine because it's not real. It's exotic.

Obviously it is not actually fine.

Now, I want to stop here and remind you that I really don't hate Aladdin. I enjoy it quite a lot and as far as cultural criminals go, I think Aladdin isn't nearly as bad about Arab culture as some of the other films are about other non-European cultures (like, say, Pocahontas). The real point I want to get at is that there is genuine harm in a film handwaving away all of its research and worldbuilding and the real cultural context of the story by saying it's just an "exotic location". Exoticism, in other words, is the real problem here because it allows us to dehumanize another culture and still think ourselves worldly and good.

This is what ultimately all the cultural mushing and references in Aladdin come down to - a way to remind the audience that for the next hour and a half they're in a far off land where everything is slightly different and cool and tantalizing and, well, exotic. The whole film is set up to make Agrabah enticing, even the parts of it we're told are seedy or unpleasant. Nothing is allowed into the fantasy except that which makes it more of an appealing dream.

So, no, there's no mosque even if they reference Allah. The women are frequently veiled, but with gauzy sheer cloth that's just supposed to make them look sexy. The palace is lush and green and beautiful but there aren't any servants around tending the gardens and making us think of the human cost of such luxury. Everything is cut out except the fantasy, and in so doing, we lose a huge amount of what actually makes this story compelling.

Exoticism is a problem because it posits that a culture exists entirely for our enjoyment. As in, the culture of this story, the world of Agrabah, exists not for the enjoyment and realism of the people who live there but for the benefit of us, the American/Western audience. So all the elements included are ones that will titillate us rather than accurately and relatably represent actual Arab culture. 

In so doing, we reduce this culture and these characters into sideshow attractions for ourselves. They're not people, they're set dressing and a pleasant background. They exist for us, and that's a big problem.

Stories grab us because they're about people who remind us of ourselves. Good stories, the best stories, are the ones that help us to see the world more clearly by showing us reflections of our own lives and struggles or the lives and struggles of those around us. That doesn't mean that good fiction can't be fantastical or set in the future or involve improbably proportioned aliens. What I mean is that good fiction creates characters and worlds that remind us of the innate humanity that binds us. Good stories make their characters more human, more real. Bad fiction makes its characters less.

This is the heart of the problem with Aladdin. For all of the pomp and circumstance, the bright colors, and the incredibly catchy songs, the characters of Aladdin don't feel real. They aren't human. The world in which they live isn't recognizably human either. It's been airbrushed and cleaned up and exoticized into being the sort of place that eighteenth century travelers longed for, willfully ignorant of the actual sociopolitical issues surrounding their longing.

For all of this I don't necessarily want to say that Disney's Aladdin is a bad movie. It's not, not exactly. It's just not a movie that affirms the grandness of humanity, and I tend to find films that don't do that rather problematic. I believe in the grandness (and the grossness) of humanity, and I appreciate films and television and books and comics that help us see each other as fellow people, not cartoons wearing low-cut harem pants.

Ultimately, this can probably be the summing problem with Arab-American representation in our pop culture: we seem intent on refusing to see Arab-American characters as human unless they deny their heritage and assimilate fully into our European melange. Characters who resist this assimilation are Others, characters who can be dangerous and scary or exotic and enticing, but never real. We have, with too few exceptions, dehumanized the Arab-American community in our popular culture, and that is hard to redress.

But we have to try. And maybe picking apart a silly Disney film from 1992 seems like a strange place to start, but it's better than nowhere. Happy Arab-American Heritage Month, everyone.


*Mine have residual feelings of fatigue at the mention of the title. 

3 comments:

  1. For once I'm going to have to disagree with you on some of this. I'll give you that the setting is a bit bland and caricatured and exoticized, but I don't really feel the characters are dehumanized. At least, not more so than any other Disney characters. Aladdin and Jasmine both feel fairly compelling and relatable (at least to me), and it's cool that Jafar is a villain of the same race as the protagonists, giving us a spectrum of character traits within one race.

    (As for the animals, I think that's just a Disney thing. I mean, Rapunzel has a chameleon, which makes no sense but whatever, we just roll with it. Which is to say nothing about talking mice in Cinderella, etc.)

    Regarding the mashing-up of cultures/stereotypes into a fantasy world, I don't think that's necessarily inherently a bad thing. There's a lot of cultural mash-up that goes on in Avatar, and the way they do it feels respectful and gives a strong sense of culture and realism to the world and the unique locations within it. It is possible to use "exotic" details to make a place feel more unique and grounded - make it feel like a real place - rather than more alien. I think Disney's version is a lot more dream-like; they cut out detail and rely more heavily on general stereotyping. That's not great, granted, but a lot of their stories/movies are very dreamlike and vague about their sense of time and place in their own way: Cinderella, Frozen, Rapunzel, etc.

    (Not all, obviously; Hunchback, Lilo & Stitch, and others are super concrete. But there's definitely a range.)

    Anyway, I think about this probably more than the average person because of my novel. But I think (I hope, for my sake) that putting something in an 'exotic' location can be done well if you use your story and the details within it to point out how ordinary and human and, in fact, relatable that location really is. "They may be different, but in the end these people are just like us." How well Aladdin does this is debatable, but I think, as you've said, they've definitely done worse.

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  2. To be honest, I kind of liked that it took place in a vague fantasy city with monkeys and tigers in the desert. Like someone else said, Rapunzel gets a chameleon, and all the other movies with princesses of color take place in a real-world place. Pocahontas lives in Virginia, Tiana in New Orleans, Mulan, while the actual locations are vague, does say "China" while Belle never says "France". Although not part of the princess line, even Lilo & Nani and Esmerelda live in Hawaii and France respectively. So for Jasmine to live in a place that doesn't exist like Snow White and Aurora was nice.
    I do agree with you on other parts, though.

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  3. For what it's worth, the Aladdin animated series and the third movie featured servants working in the palace.

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