Disney has just released its new live-action version of Aladdin. Surely Disney could only improve on its 1992 animated version of Aladdin? The older version was steeped in racism about Arabs and the Orient making it one of the most racist films ever to have come out of Hollywood, a title for which many films and TV series compete.
Most agree that Guy Ritchie’s version is nowhere near as crude. No surprises that he binned the abysmal opening lyrics that in the first 1992 draft read: “They cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Following protests Disney did remove these lyrics but amazingly someone still believes it was fine to retain ‘barbaric.” In the new version, well it is now just ‘chaotic.’ The 1992 film was stuffed full of Arab characters with hooked noses and grossly exaggerated facial features. Aladdin and Jasmine on the other hand as the heroes of the tale looked and sounded like Americans.
Perhaps even more than in 1992 the issue of how Arabs and indeed differing races matter hugely given the tsunami of hate and racism that is on show on an almost daily basis. Racism against Arabs is barely given any airtime but it appears to be on the rise even if undercovered.
Ritchie did cast Arab or South Asian actors in the key roles with the Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud playing the title role. This is a genuine if small step forward on many films. Remember Alec Guinness playing Faisal and Antony Quinn playing Auda Abu Tayeh in Lawrence of Arabia. Alas, Disney got into controversy when it was revealed that some of the crowd scenes contained white actors who had been made up to look Arab. Still, Disney is at least moving forward as was also seen with its more culturally sensitive portrayal of Mexicans in “Coco” (2017) and Polynesians in “Moana” (2016)
Notably Ritchie also upgrades the role of Jasmine. She wants to become Sultan and is not the typical downtrodden submissive oriental female. This is perhaps the most positive change in the move, with a chance for up and coming actress Naomi Scott to showcase her undoubted talents as a star of the future. More importantly it is a world away from the historic portrayal of Arab women as just belly dancers and sex slaves in hareems, all of which featured in even earlier versions of the Aladdin genre.
Yet Ritchie’s version lacked the imagination or courage to make it truly different from the 1992 animation. Too much of it was essentially the same rehashed fare, including most of the songs and many of the orientalist tropes. Why mash together little bits of so many different cultures as opposed to presenting a more faithful portrayal of Arab culture and life? Did it still have to be in fictional Agrabah? A 2015 poll found that 30% of American Republican voters actually wanted to bomb Agrabah. It is not as if the Aladdin story, itself a melange of many traditions of varying countries, is not a superb vehicle for the imagination, so it was disappointing to see the bland repetition. In fact, sticking to the essential narrative and approach reveals Disney still being overawed by its flawed 1992 product. It is paying homage to that film instead of trying to get away from it.
Disney has a highly controversial legacy to shed in its portrayal of ethnic groups including Arabs. Dumbo (1940) where the main crow is actually called “Jim Crow” and Peter Pan had lyrics about native Indians that included: "Once the Injun didn't know all the things that he know now ... but the Injun, he sure learn a lot, and it's all from asking 'How?'" It is best not even to mention “Song of the South.” More recently Pocahontas upset native American Indians. Mulan caused controversy amongst Chinese communities, not least for the radical departure from the original Chinese folktale.
What makes Disney’s role so loaded is that these films are aimed at a sensitive demographic – children. It matters what our children watch and how they soak up these reductive stereotypes and images. If Disney is truly trying to improve its depiction of ethic minorities and diversity is so welcome, perhaps it needs also to be honest about its past record.
But Disney is not alone in its appalling depiction of Arabs. The late Jack Shaheen’s research over decades highlights just how American popular culture has treated them, in his seminal works, “Reel Bad Arabs” and “A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in US Popular Culture.” Amongst other stereotypes are the desert-dwelling camel riders, backward barbaric evildoers, oil rich sheikhs and especially more recently, the violent Arab terrorist. Television is as poor as Hollywood. The series “24” and “Homeland” have been widely criticised. Algerians were furious at one episode in “Madam Secretary” which depicted their country on the verge of falling apart all led by a mad dictator with a mere 11 wives plus a mistress.
Eventually Arabs might become humanised in film and television on a more consistent basis. Perhaps this might help combat and tame the more racist and ill-informed prejudices in our societies. So, whilst Aladdin is an improvement on its predecessors, it still has a long way to go.
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