Aladdin - Middle Eastern representation or an orientalist fantasy?

Aladdin has maintained lasting popularity through various mediums of film and Broadway shows by the media titan Disney. The recent live-action remake in 2019 once again boosted the name and discussions around the Disney classic. More than a decade after the original 1992 animated film, talks of genies, magic carpets and Arabian deserts were in the air once more. Though the film proved to be a hit, surpassing $900 million in worldwide grosses since its release in late May, it carried a dark cloud of problems related to culture and representation. At the same time, this revival of the fairy tale reminded of Hollywood’s persistent issue: its poor treatment of the Middle East and its peoples. Image: Egyptian Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as the Genie in the new Aladdin (2019)

One area that deserves criticism is particularly the casting; the Indian-British Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. It has been made very clear, as in the titular song "Arabian Nights," that the story takes place in an Arabic country. Thus, it is bizarre to cast such an ethnically distant actor for such a role. In relation to this problem was the use of brownface on some extras for the cast. Despite Disney's release of excuses, people across social media criticized Disney for the move. It is not surprising that Disney would face a barrage of anger, for the company would have had ample resources and time to secure needed members of color. And needless to say, brownface is a highly problematic act; degrading skin color and subsequently races as something "wearable." With regards to these issues and other cultural matters, the film can be assessed as a mere orientalist fantasy, glamorizing the Middle East in a vague fashion by picking out favorable aspects. 

But these issues are nothing new to Disney, as the original 1992 film itself was already problematic from the beginning with cases such as the infamous former lyrics in the aforesaid "Arabian Nights." While the initial lines "where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face" (which described the land) were removed, the following “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” were still kept and remain up to today. Knowing that there has long been a rocky political relationship between the US and the Middle Eastern countries, it makes sense why an American animation studio would depict a Middle Eastern place as a hostile environment. The anti-Middle East sentiment is also apparent in the shift in the setting, which was initially Baghdad but fictionalized because of the Gulf War in 1991. It is worth taking a listen to the Arabic dub of the same song where the lyrics, instead of vilifying the landscape, marvel in its beauty: "Where the magic is a normal people." Here, the Arabic version reflects the almost polar attitude towards the land; emphasizing the positive, wonderful features in a proud manner. Overall, the 1992 version also continued the tradition of erasing distinctions between Middle Eastern cultures, disregarding historical or cultural accuracy and tossing in American anachronisms for humor. A small yet obvious example is Jasmine's companion, Rajah the tiger. How is there a tiger (a species from India) with an Indian name in a Middle Eastern land?

Image: a still from the original 1992 animated film; harmful stereotypes of Arabic people are tightly ingrained in characters such as the villain Jafar (right)

Then there is the argument that because Aladdin is based on a fictional tale, there is nothing to worry about misrepresentation or accuracy. Even before the animated classic, the "real" text of Aladdin was fraught with cultural inconsistencies such as the lack of references to the setting, which was actually China. So in essence, it can be concluded that Aladdin was an orientalist fantasy to start with and that there is also no reason to attack Disney for mishandling the Middle East. From this aspect, it is possible to forgive Disney for the fantasy elements but not the same for the ethical issues, especially brownface. In order to present a work that does not offend a culture or a group of people, Disney must first clarify its target setting and align with it. In short, cultural interchangeability was a major characteristic of the film  

Nevertheless, the remake did have positive sides notable for the Middle Eastern community. Given the innumerable media, TV, film, and such, that demonizes the culture, Aladdin (2019) acted as as breather for once; bringing it to the spotlight with a flourish of color and magic. As Hollywood has produced over 900 films that stereotype Arabs and Muslims, the film certainly is a significant step in terms of positive portrayal. The actors too expressed their content with the film's diversity. Mena Massoud, the lead actor who played Aladdin, commented that the film "sends the message that you can still cast people of color, and people from this region and other regions, to carry films and have them succeed." Indeed, the cast was diverse even by today's standards and astronomical in comparison to the common, anti-Arab films that plagued Hollywood before; including actors of Tunisian and Persian descent

Image: leading characters Jasmine and Aladdin by Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud - a sign of a positive shift in Middle Eastern representation?

The resurgence of Aladdin is both a fresh wind and reminder to not just Hollywood but general contemporary media. There are still very few films that depict Middle Eastern cultures without terrorizing them; while many popular fictional characters in mainstream entertainment can immediately come to mind, there are almost none when it comes to that region. For instance, non-American audiences such as Japan and Korea can immediately name iconic fictional characters (those of Marvel are immensely known and popular) but the same cannot be easily done for Middle Eastern characters.

In a way, Aladdin shed light again on the deplorable conditions for Middle Eastern representation. At the same time the years of poor representation, particularly by Hollywood, perpetuated deep-rooted stigmas that last up to this day. The need for proper representation further becomes dire with today's dangerous rise of the right; feeding the deepening fear around Islam and Middle Eastern peoples. Events such as Riz Ahmed, a British-Pakistani actor, getting stopped at the airport despite intending to attend a Star Wars event (where he was part of one of the films) highlight the need of positive portrayals in the media. Riz Ahmed stated that he’s often stopped and searched at airportsIt is crucial to note that both Mena Massoud and Riz Ahmed started their acting careers as terrorists; Massoud as a character titled "Al Qaeda number 2" and Ahmed as "stage-one stereotypes" (his personal term for negative portrayals including as a terrorist). 

Hopefully Middle Eastern audiences would no longer have to look up to Aladdin as their foremost case where they, at least, see themselves in a happy light.