Disney’s “Aladdin,” a cherished animated musical from 1992, made a triumphant return to the big screen in 2019 in the form of a live-action remake. Both iterations of this tale, one in traditional animation and the other in live-action, share a common thread of featuring timeless music and relatable themes. However, beneath this surface allure, both versions are steeped in a contentious cloud of racial controversy that has stirred debate and reflection.
The crux of the issue lies in the usage of racial stereotypes in portraying various characters within the story. In the original animated film, Aladdin himself is depicted with Anglicized features and an accent reminiscent of Tom Cruise, a decision that drew sharp criticism from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee upon the film’s 1992 release. In contrast, characters cast in negative roles, such as the villainous Jafar and his accomplices, the guards and merchants, are portrayed with dark skin, swarthy appearances, Arabic accents, and grotesque facial features. This stark contrast in character portrayals reinforces harmful stereotypes and perpetuates negative biases.
The late Jack Shaheen, an American author and renowned expert in dissecting racial stereotypes in media, penned an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he deconstructed the troubling racial depictions in “Aladdin.” He asserted that “Aladdin” should not be viewed as a mere entertaining Arabian Nights fantasy, as some film critics suggest, but rather as a painful reminder for the 3 million Americans of Arab heritage, as well as the 300 million Arabs and others worldwide, that the abhorrent Arab stereotype remains pervasive. Furthermore, he argued that these fictional portrayals have a profound impact on real-life perceptions and contribute to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes across generations.
In an attempt to address some of the concerns regarding the harmful depictions of Middle Eastern peoples and cultures, Disney made alterations to the original film. Notably, in the theatrical release of “Aladdin,” the song “Arabian Nights” featured the line “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” as a description of Agrabah, the fictional city central to the film’s plot. In response to lobbying efforts, this line was modified for the physical release in 1993 to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” Additionally, the original animated version now includes an advisory screen on Disney+ to provide context and highlight the problematic elements.
However, even with the 2019 live-action remake, Disney found itself entangled in a viral controversy. Reports emerged, including one from The Hollywood Reporter, suggesting that Disney struggled to find suitable actors of Middle Eastern or Indian descent who could effectively sing and dance for the lead roles. This justification raised eyebrows, particularly in light of the wealth of talent present in Bollywood, where performers frequently excel in both singing and dancing.
Lexi Alexander, an Academy Award-nominated director, questioned Disney’s assertion, stating, “Nobody in their right mind can state that it is impossible to find a young male South Asian or Middle-Eastern actor who can dance, sing and act.” She highlighted the frustrating industry practice of insisting that actors of color must already be household names to be considered for significant roles, failing to offer opportunities to up-and-coming talents.
While there have been improvements in the portrayal of Middle Eastern peoples and cultures in recent media, the situation remains far from ideal. Daniel Newman, a professor of Arabic at Durham University, acknowledged that some older stereotypes have evolved into newer ones, with the focus shifting from the scimitar-wielding, lascivious Arab to the bomb-wielding terrorist Arab. This pervasive feeling of “threat” is primarily, if not exclusively, rooted in religion, further deepening stereotypes and biases.
Jack Shaheen, in his plea to Disney within his Los Angeles Times piece, offered suggestions to rectify these issues. He called for animators to introduce benevolent market vendors and heroic guards who befriend Aladdin, as well as for the respectful portrayal of Islam and the inclusion of a humane character, Aladdin’s mother, an Arab woman willing to sacrifice everything for her son’s happiness. Interestingly, while Aladdin’s mother never made it into any version of the animated film, she became an integral emotional aspect of the character’s journey in Broadway’s stage adaptation of “Aladdin,” where a touching song pays tribute to her.
These adjustments, both in the animated film and the 2019 live-action remake, represent steps toward addressing the problems of racial stereotyping and cultural insensitivity. However, it remains a complex challenge to fully reconcile the fact that “Aladdin” is a Chinese myth adapted by European artists to depict a Middle Eastern world. This intricate facet of “Aladdin” warrants ongoing scrutiny and discussion, serving as a reminder of the complexities surrounding the portrayal of cultures and identities in global art and entertainment. As long as art has the potential to impact audiences on a global or personal scale, these conversations will continue to be relevant and vital.
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