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Using the concepts and theory of Orientalism from the lecture topic race and whiteness this essay will analyse the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. This essay will use the theory of Orientalism to analyse how Western culture depicts a constructed reality open the Eastern oriental body in order to promote an inferior East and a powerful West. This essay will first discuss what the concept and theory of Orientalism is before giving a brief synopsis of the movie Aladdin. This essay will then analysis the film Aladdin in relation to the constructed stereotypes that surround the oriental figure such as Western concepts of Eastern ideologies, physical appearance and the sexualising of the oriental figure.
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The concept of Orientalism can be described as the West’s objectifying and stereotyping of the East. What this means is Orientalism believes that western culture creates an identification of Eastern culture by assigning the East distinctive features and characteristics. These features and characteristics are assigned negative connotations, which are repeated through sources such as media until these negative connotations become the normalised way of seeing. Said suggests the stereotyping of Oriental representations functions to ‘reduce the East to the status of inferior other of the West’ (Said, as cited in Pugliese, 2008, p.207). This essay uses the theory of Orientalism to analyse the film Aladdin and to deconstruct the Western themes of Orientalism imposed upon the Eastern ‘other’.
The 1992 Disney film Aladdin is set in the ambiguous Middle Eastern city of Agribah. According to the Disney’s website, the film follows the ‘street-smart young thief’ protagonist Aladdin, as he pursues the ‘beautiful’ Princess Jasmine, ‘a liberated young lady who seeks to escape her present lifestyle’. This plot is forwarded when ‘the evil vizier, Jafar’ attempts to gain possession of a magical lamp in an attempt to ‘rise to power, and decides he needs Aladdin’ a ‘diamond in the rough’ (Disney, n.d.). We are able to see, even in the synopsis how Western media attempt to impose ideas upon Eastern figures. The Western protagonists are described as ‘street-smart’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘liberated’, where as the Middle Eastern character of Jafar is described as ‘evil’. Western culture constructs and ideology of Eastern culture and beliefs and imposes these constructed ideas onto Eastern culture.
From the beginning of the film there is an attempt at displaying the separation of ideologies between Eastern and Western cultures. With the people of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah described as those who will ‘cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’ (Clements & Musker, 1992). This description of the Eastern figure immediately imposes the idea of a barbaric individual and one ‘other’ from normal society. It attempts to impose the idea that Eastern individuals carry a lack of morals and ethics. This is not the only imposed ideas on Eastern individuals, as later displayed in scenes with the antagonist characters Jafar and Gazeem.
As Gazeem and Jafar attempt to enter ‘Cave of Wonders’ the Western construction of the Eastern lack of morals is displayed. As Jafar asks Gazeem for the key to the cave Gazeem quips that he ‘had to slit a few throats’ to get it (Clements & Musker, 1992). This comment goes unrecognised by Jafar, and attempts to convey the Eastern individual’s lack of compassion towards murder, and attempts to dehumanise the two Eastern characters. The Eastern character Gazeem then attempts to enter the ‘Cave of Wonders’, before moments later being engulfed by the mouth of the cave. The film has no sympathy for the Eastern villain and his death is shrugged off by the master villain Jafar stating ‘Gazeem was obviously less than worthy’ (Clements & Musker, 1992).
The Western ideology is input through the films protagonist Aladdin. Aladdin encompasses the Western dream in his ‘rags to riches’ story. Aladdin believes that he can one day make something of himself and be something of importance, an ideology which is seen as a goal in many Western societies. Throughout the film Aladdin must learn to be himself, and discovers the value of truth and honestly. Aladdin’s ideology of a life where he can be treated as an equal contrasts Jafar’s Eastern ideology that he can ‘rise to power’, and posses dominant control (Disney, n.d.). Jafar’s attempt at a ‘rise to power'(Disney, n.d.) is symbolic of the Western’s fear of Eastern control, and inevitably Jafar/East must be stopped. In order to make the removal of the Eastern oriental figure favourable to audiences, the Eastern ideology is negatively constructed. Within the final scenes to prove Jafar’s difference and lack of morals Jafar is seen raising his hand to hit female protagonist Jasmine, an act condemned by many Western cultures. This act suggests the East’s lack of respect of women, and suggests an inferior and weak identity.
In the film Aladdin the Western and Eastern characters do not only carry different ideologies but distinctively different appearances. Within the film the evil antagonist Jafar and henchmen Gazeem both carry the stereotypical Eastern appearance. The characters are both depicted as having darker skin, large noses and beards, and headdress which has become a characteristic associated with Middle Eastern appearance. These distinctive features as well as thick ‘middle eastern accent’ become a signifier for the antagonists within the film. The characters such as the police and the man in the market place which threaten protagonists Aladdin and Jasmine both carry these characteristics.
Within the film although the protagonists Aladdin and Jasmine are both intended to be of Eastern appearance they both carry American accents, and are lighter skinned than their Eastern counterparts. These characteristics allow the Western audience to accept these characters although they are also Eastern. Osuri suggests that ‘whiteness emerges as a way of identifying groups of people associated with superiority’ (Osuri, 2008, p.199). What this means in terms of the film Aladdin is that the character’s ‘whiteness’ allows the audience to recognise subconsciously the superiority of these characters. This in turn positions these characters as the heroes’ and their whiteness allows the audience to support Aladdin and Jasmine, although they are also paradoxically Eastern.
The gendered body also comes in to question when analysing the Oriental figure. As Pugliese suggests ‘Orientalist discourses invariably represent the Orient as phallocentrically ‘feminine” contrasting the ‘masculine’ West (2008, p.209). In Aladdin the oriental antagonist Jafar carries feminine attributes such as thin wrists, and it can be suggested his mannerism’s carry that of a female. His use of large hand gestures is seen as inherently female, and his possession of jewellery carries female connotations. This characterising of the ‘feminine’ oriental is intended to show the inferiority and weakness of the East in contrast to the ‘masculine’ West. The ‘masculine’ West is represented through the protagonist character of Aladdin, who contrasts the thin ‘feminine’ oriental Jafar as the strong, muscular ‘masculine’ West bounding through the streets of Agrabah.
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It should also be noted that throughout the film whilst all other males are seen wearing pants, Jafar the main Eastern antagonist is pictured wearing a long dress robe. The Middle Eastern appearance is much different from that of Western culture, and with Western Culture’s very limited understanding of Middle Eastern culture the attempt at putting Jafar in a ‘dress’ can be seen as a way of emasculating him as a male character. The emasculation of the male character also addresses his sexuality, and in the case of the oriental figure sexuality has always haunted its figuration.
When examining the oriental figure, the sexualising of the oriental male accompanies its configuration. The Islamic male is displayed as the sexual deviant, indulging in a perverse form of sexual behaviour. In the film Aladdin the movies antagonist Jafar encompasses the characteristics of the sexualised oriental in the scene where he captures the female protagonist Jasmine. In this scene Jafar has the character Jasmine chained up, restricted in her movements. Her attire has now changed from her usual blue outfit to red, which can be seen as a symbol of Jafar’s ownership due to his trademark red attire throughout the movie.
The movie also suggests Jafar’s sexual intent with Jasmine through scene’s displayed at the beginning of the movie. Though subtle, Jasmine’s red outfit matches that of the suggested ‘prostitutes’ which swoon over protagonist Aladdin as he bounds through the market place in his opening scene. By placing Jasmine in the same outfit the film suggests Jafar’s sexual intent, and the confinement from her chains suggests Jafar intends on keeping her as a sexual slave.
This representation of the sexually frustrated oriental Jafar perpetuates the Western perspective that all Islamic men indulge in a perverse sexuality. As Puar and Rai suggest we often believe of ‘the sexually frustrated Muslim men who are promised the heavenly reward of sixty…or even seventy virgins’ (2002, p.126). This representation of the sexualised oriental East perpetuates the difference and ‘otherness’ which the West attempts to construct between East and West.
The character Aladdin is representative of the West’s ideology of sexuality, and further constructs the idea of ‘good’ Western sexuality, and ‘evil’ East sexuality. In the opening scene’s we see the ‘masculine’ Aladdin running through the town of Agrabah being chased by the buffoonish Arab police. As he is doing so the audience is displayed a scene in which women are seen swooning over the young protagonist. Aladdin is seen talking to young women, as well as older women as he appears to effortlessly charm them with his Western charisma. Women are seen to be attracted to the analogy of the young Western male, initiating conversation in an attempt to be seen by him. This contrasts the Eastern Oriental male who is displays a perverse sexuality and must capture his female audience to gain attention.
In conclusion when analysing the film Aladdin we are able to see how Orientalism affects the construction, and the reading of the film. While the film may first encompass the ideology of the ‘rags to riches’ story, we are able to see that in order to further the Western protagonists story it must distort the East’s. This essay has displayed how Western culture enforces a constructed idea upon Eastern culture through constructing Western concepts of Eastern ideologies, physical appearance of the East and the sexualising of the oriental figure. These constructed ideas work to enforce the inferior East and the powerful West and create a cultural and racial hierarchy which works to promote the West’s cultural ideas.
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