For centuries, the Middle East has been a region of great speculation for the Western World. Although the film industry portrays the Middle East as an exotic location and fantasizes it’s belly dancers it is also considered a place of great oppression. To this day, Western countries intervene in discussions revolving around the idea that Arab women are oppressed by both religion and society, and that the majority of Arab countries are involved in acts of violence or terrorism. This phenomenon was best described as Orientalism by Edward W. Said in his book, Orientalism as “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.” Although the emergence of the popular fairy-tale composition, The Arabian Nights gave Arab women an opportunity to break away from the conformities of society, the West continues to stereotype them, despite the positive and groundbreaking roles that female characters were fulfilling in the fairytales. Although certain stories in The Arabian Nights do show oppression and strict religious behaviour it does not describe the Arab culture in its entirety. The most famous tale from The Arabian Nights is Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp. Shown as a popular Disney movie and cartoon in the West, this tale has sparked great controversy in the Arab world. The movie and television show are completely different from the written tale which shows the manner in which the West has fabricated the Arab culture. If the Western World has studied and interpreted The Arabian Nights, then why is it that the portrayal of Arabs in the media (television, film, news) is shown in an unjust and derogative manner? In what ways do the characters in The Arabian Nights fit the Western stereotype of the Arab people and culture? The goal of this paper is to determine the ways in which the West has stereotyped the Arabs and their culture, making it clear that the Arab world holds a subordinate position in the West. This will be accomplished by examining the Disney version of the movie Aladdin and the original fairytale. Before going in depth of the tale Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp it is important to understand the context in which the Arabian Nights was actually written and how it sets a foundation of intelligence, bravery and hope. To recognize that the fairy tale of Aladdin has been misinterpreted in movies and television programs make it easier to appreciate the positive roles men and women portrayed in the written versions.
History and Overview
The Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights became popular during the Islamic Golden Age. It is a prominent example of literature that portrays the history of the medieval Arab World by taking upon a sociocultural approach. Fortunately, The Arabian Nights can also be considered a modern text because many Western countries have relied on it for the understanding of the Arab world, mainly the Arab culture. This collection of fairy tales tells the story of King Shahriyar, who was betrayed by his wife. To avenge the actions of his wife, he passes a custom that he will marry a virgin each night and execute them the following morning. This changes when the king’s vizier presents his daughter, to her continuous demands of spending the night with the king. Scheherazade or Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter distracts the king with her stories for 1,001 nights, saving not only her life but the lives of other women residing in the kingdom.
From the very Prologue of Tales from the Arabian Nights, it is understood that King Shahriyar has reached a state of mental madness when he hears of his wife’s infidelity. Shahrazad enters the tales as a saviour for the king and the kingdom. Her intentions are to merely “educate him (the king) in the variety and complexity of human personality both male, and in particular, female… She will become for him that positive, developed anima that he lacks” (Clinton 44). Using her own voice and story-telling trait, Shehrazade sets out a plan as she has realized that the king does not completely lack compassion. He has just failed to see the significance of women and the fact that they too are human- prone to do good and bad. Ms Yunis, assistant professor of Communications at Zayed University says, ”Unlike Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, who were waiting for their knights in shining armour to come to the rescue, Scheherazade chose to take matters into her own hands. Scheherazade became a storyteller as a natural survival instinct. All of us are natural-born storytellers” (The National, UAE). To present Shahrazad in such light, where she is already regarded as a hero before the tales even begin comes to show that women in the Arab World were not considered to be illiterate, or unwise. In fact, the character of Shahrazad sets out a great message which is that women are capable of using their intellect and intelligence to create change and pave the road to progression.
Aladdin, the Western Media, and a load of misinterpretations
The most famous tale from the collection of Tales from the Arabian Nights is Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp. Re-created as movies and television programs, this fairytale is often regarded as a misinterpretation of Arab culture and most specifically Arab women. Moreover, the presentation of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp in the Western media stereotypes the Arab world on a large scale. The recreated movies and television shows are nothing like the original tales that have been interpreted in written works. The constant depiction of Arab women and culture in a negative light is something that the West has been doing for quite a long period of time. A good example of the West’s depiction of Arabs in a negative manner is Walt Disney’s animated feature film, Aladdin (The Walt Disney Company, 1993), which is now also a Saturday morning cartoon show on CBS-TV. To make the film appealing for the Western World, the characters in the film were fabricated. Aladdin was an orphan in Disney’s version, whereas in the original fairy tale a mention of his father is present and his mother plays a vital role throughout the tale. By presenting Aladdin as an orphan in the film it showed that the West implied that an Arab country lacked the resources to take care of the underprivileged. Consequently, Princess Jasmine’s clothing indicated no signs of royalty but instead projected a deep sexual relevance. In the Arab world, less clothing means that you are someone of lower status or uncivilized (El Farra 1996). This misinterpretation of the original Arabian Nights brings forth an alarming view which the West holds. It comes to show the judgemental and biased views that are held by many people in the West alongside the distorted portrayal of Arabs in television, film and news.
Aladdin: Successfully Stereotyping the Arabs
In the Tales from the Arabian Nights by N.J Dawood the tale of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp begins with a description of Aladdin as “a disobedient, lazy boy” who is senseless in his ways which makes his father die of grief (Dawood 40). It is also established that Aladdin has a mother who cotton-spins in order to support her and Aladdin. However, in the Disney movie, Aladdin is portrayed as an orphan who retreats to stealing as a means of survival. Failing to give Aladdin a familial identity shows the West’s perception of the Arab underprivileged retreating to criminal behaviour. Although Aladdin is not a stealer in the original fairy-tale, he is seen as one in the movie. He is not the only character whose physical appearance and personality are faltered. The movie portrays all negative characters such as Jafar and market men with horrifying physical features such as big beards, large eyes, darker skin. In a study conducted on the representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media, Driss Ridouani says, “…bearded Muslims (other bearded religious people are not of course included) are usually equated to prehistoric and barbaric persons who are likely disposed to perform an irrational act.” The differentiation of the good and evil in the film is evident as the good, male characters are portrayed with clean shaves and normal sized eyes while the rest of them are shown with dark, long beards and bloodshot eyes. Surprisingly, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine speak in excellent American English while the rest of the characters in the film speak in heavy Arab accents. In his book, The TV Arab, Jack G. Shaheen highlights the fact that “The present-day Arab stereotype parallels the image of Jews in pre-Nazi Germany, where Jews were painted as dark, shifty-eyed, venal and threateningly different people.” The physical characterization of both Aladdin and Jasmine are of high significance in order to understand the way in which the West has tried to “Americanize” them while vilifying the rest of the characters by making them seem authentically Arab. The greedy Arab trader who is seen in the opening song of Aladdin and the merchant who swings his sword in attempts to cut off Princess Jasmine’s both share similar physical characteristics exemplifying negativity towards Arabs but these scenes in the movie are nowhere to be found in the original fairytale. Perhaps, they were included in the movie to purposely invoke audience to hold bias views of the Arab people.
The opening song in the movie Aladdin sparked an intense uproar from Arabs living in the West. The last few lines of the song “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” offended a large population of the Arab community because it is implying that Arabs are violent. Targeting an entire culture as “barbaric” and calling it a place of home shows extreme prejudice (Shaheen 1992). It is disappointing that the Western World, already diverse with culture and ethnic backgrounds target a specific culture and identify them with all negative things. Lucy Ward, a social affairs correspondent studied the exaggerated stereotypes that fuel Islamophobia and remarked, “The problem with portrayals in the film was not the fact that they were negative images, but that they were the only images.” This stands true for the film, Aladdin, as it successfully portrays only negative images overlooking positive aspects of the tale that are illustrated in the original fairytale.
Badroulbadour vs. Princess Jasmine
In the fairy tale Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Princess Badroulbadour leads a very comfortable lifestyle in which she is content. She feels no force of marriage by her father but is actually excited to marry into a hierarchy and shows little rebellion of the decisions which are made in the kingdom. Her character is completely different from Princess Jasmine in the film Aladdin. Princess Jasmine is shown as a woman who is stranded within the kingdom, with no life of her own. Growing up in royalty, she dreads her father’s numerous attempts to convince her for marriage. She has no freedom to explore the world around her. In the film, she is seen as a victim. This is not a new portrayal of Arab women in Western media. For decades, Arab women in the media have been targeted as victims of oppression and violence. They are said to have no voice of their own and are often regarded as submissive beings prone to experience injustice. Nouha al-Hegelian, a writer for the Arab Perspectives says, “This empty circle of misunderstanding is not generally a malicious act on the part of Westerners but, as every Western woman knows, unintentional assumptions can be just as dehumanizing as intentional ones. The “born yesterday” concept not only dehumanizes, but it also depreciates the efforts of Arab women and men trying to achieve the joy of equality over many centuries of struggle.” By portraying Princess Jasmine as oppressed, the Western media continues to shatter the equality that can be seen and appreciated if the original Princess of the fairytale was used. Dehumanizing the Arab women by suggesting that they must abide by the rules enforced upon them shows lack of knowledge or ignorance on the Westerners part. Randa Kattan, the CEO of the Arab Australia Council says, “We’re living in a time of generalisations and dog whistle politics. But stereotyping Arab and Muslim women only isolates the most vulnerable among us.” By ignoring the character of Princess Badroulbadour in the original fairy tales and re-creating a Princess Jasmine is an example of the extent to which Western media avails to create a stereotypical image of the Arab women.
The ethnic misrepresentation of the Arab people in Aladdin just comes to shows the lack of understanding and effort put into making films which represent a minority. Had historical research been done before compiling the film Aladdin, it would have saved the mess Disney has put itself in. Aladdin continues to receive criticism for perpetuating Arab stereotypes but also stereotypes about the Middle East in terms of culture and lifestyle. I guess this is a controversy Disney cannot easily escape.