Aladdin’s Black and Brown Fandom
How an orientalist fantasy film became a favorite among nonwhite American millennials.
The oldest surviving animated feature film was a fantasy film filled with wonder and magic, but it wasn’t a Disney film. It was The Adventures of Prince Achmed, released in 1926 by a German animation company. At the time, the West, still fresh from World War I, was enthralled with images from the recently dissolved Ottoman Empire and romanticized this exotic world of riches while simultaneously fearing its influence with stereotypes about white slavery and Sharia law. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said wrote that the West’s fascination with “the Orient” is meant to be a patronizing view steeped in colonial and imperialist thinking and mainly serves to set up non-Western culture as “the Other.”
Years later, Disney’s Aladdin, another Middle Eastern-inspired animated film, will pay homage by adding a minor character named Prince Achmed as a potential suitor for Princess Jasmine.
Aladdin was a gamble for Disney. A similar film, The Thief and the Cobbler, was in production limbo at the time, despite starting production in 1964. The producers were betting on Aladdin’s financial success based on its influencer, The Thief of Bagdad.
Believe it or not, Aladdin is the first film in the Disney canon with non-Western origins. It’s one of the most popular tales associated with 1001 Arabian Nights, a collection of fairy tales and mythologies dating back to the Islamic Golden Age. Disney already lobbed racial softballs with the Jungle Book (written by Rudyard “White Man’s Burden” Kipling), the jive-talking crows in Dumbo, the Native Americans in Peter Pan, the Siamese Cats in Lady and the Tramp, and Song of the South. After striking out on the diversity field, Disney needed a home run this time.
Just like Scarface, Aladdin’s success led to an unexpected fanbase: black and brown kids. Aladdin opened the door for nonwhite children stories, despite being an orientalist fantasy heavily influenced by a British film from 1940. To many children of color at the time, the only exposure they had to Middle Eastern culture was the bad guy empires of the Bible. Princess Jasmine became the de facto Disney princess avatar for nonwhite girls, while boys were dazzled by the charm of Aladdin and the mystical wonderment of his world. It was a rich, colorful world in the desert populated by brown people.
Aladdin was different than other Disney protagonists. He was the “diamond in the rough,” meaning he had a destiny to fulfill. He was a resourceful, yet kind person who knew how to make the best out of his situation. He was constantly harassed by “the man” for existing. He dreamed of a better life. He also had a pet monkey who could talk.
Unlike other fairy tales handled by Disney (“this is the 14-century, dad”), the era Aladdin is set in is difficult to pin down. The setting seems to suggest a pre-Islamic age, but the Sultan also praises Allah upon hearing Jasmine has picked a husband. The Genie talks about being locked in his lamp for 10,000 years and yet tells 90s-era pop culture jokes that don’t age well. Eventually, the Arsenio Hall joke won’t land as well as it did in the past.
The turbans and harem pants worn in the film appear to be more accurate for Suleiman the Magnificent’s Imperial Court than in ancient Arabia. And the new live-action Aladdin has costuming obviously inspired by Bollywood films. But the anachronisms add to Aladdin’s appeal as a diversity placeholder. The Ottoman, Egyptian, and Persian empires in real life were multiethnic empires full of learned people of all shades. And the actual origins of Aladdin may be Indian or Chinese.
Aladdin is not without its problems, however. There have been several critics who have pointed out that Aladdin and Jasmine have a Westernized look and attitudes, while the other characters, especially the antagonists Razoul (the head palace guard) and Jafar are darker-skinned. Aladdin, the Genie, and the Sultan are also white-hatted to Jafar’s black robes, prejudicing the audience further. And even though the Sultan is portrayed as a kind, absent-minded man, the film forms an opinion about his laws in his sultanate, which include cutting the hands off of thieves and random beheadings. Arab Americans have long criticized Aladdin’s stereotyping of the Middle East as “barbaric.” And you can question the release of a live-action Aladdin during the era of a president who has called for a Muslim ban, waged a not-so-secret war in Yemen, and just this week suggested sending more troops to the region.
As problematic as Aladdin is, minority children — and the adults they became — love the film anyway and feel some nostalgia towards this fantasy world created by whites. When you don’t have many options, any representation feels like a relief. Not only was Princess Jasmine beautiful, but she was smart and independent. Her eyebrows were on fleek. Her hair was black and braided. She may have not been black as Americans understand race, but she wasn’t white either and that was huge.
The white filmmakers succeed in painting Agrabah as a place culturally different and that the appeal for many of Aladdin’s minority fans. They fell in love with it because it wasn’t Europe. In fact, it was a world Europeans hid or belittle in order to prove Eurocentrism was superior. So naturally, nonwhite children flocked to it. Did you see that palace? Besides Princess Jasmine, who didn’t want to live there?
We black and brown Americans don’t want to admit we are part of the West, but we are. So we can have orientalist views, too. But our view of the Orient is different. It’s liberating to see a world seemingly untouched by European imperialism and that’s part of the orientalist fantasy for us. We aren’t viewing the Orient as inferior but as an alternative to the West. It’s why so many Black Americans chose Islam over Christianity. Islam just felt “blacker.” The Middle East was the Other and we are also an Other.
Representation is vital. Without it, those who fall outside of our hegemonic culture internalize lies about themselves. The live-action Aladdin stars three non-white actors who were fans of the original, but minority children should have a choice between real representation, not just the token brown person because there are no alternatives.