Stereotyping plays a great role in the peoples’ perceptions of other groups, religions, countries, and cultures. They range from innocent to the outright insulting, depending on who they are about or what the subject is. Politicians, Mass Media, the marketing, and advertising industries all use stereotypes to promote certain economic and political agendas. We all know that Germany produces quality products, and that everything made in China is prone to breaking, that democracy is good and communism is bad, that Europeans are cowards and the Middle East is full of terrorists and religious fundamentalists. Or do we? When one asks oneself where this “knowledge” comes from, many struggle to give a coherent answer. That is because stereotypes are formed from bits and pieces of knowledge accumulated for a long period of time, starting from early childhood, and transform into “knowledge” when the formation of a person is formed. Children animation and movies have a great impact on the perceptions of new generations towards other people, religions, and cultures. The purpose of this paper is to examine the stereotypes enforced by a popular Disney Motion Picture, titled Aladdin.
The Theory of Stereotyping
Contrary to popular belief, stereotyping is not inherently bad. In fact, it is a necessary construct needed for the understanding and perception of information. When a storyteller cannot afford to spend a lot of time to describe every person and every object in detail, they resort to stereotypes – an assembly of images and qualities assigned to a specific person or a specific object in a specific background. It helps save time and keep the story on point, instead of allowing it to become lost in a sea of non-essential details.
The downside of stereotyping is that it forces us to generalize and ignore the differences between different people. They lead to social categorization, which in turn leads to prejudice and injustices committed on the grounds of negative generalization. For that reason, the very word “stereotype” is considered to be a pejorative, with an inherently negative meaning. In doing so, the word self-demonstrates its own meaning.
Aladdin – General Info
Aladdin is a romantic fantasy adventure movie filmed by Disney in 1992 (“Aladdin,” n.d.). Its story is based on an Arab folktale from One Thousand and One Nights. It revolves around Aladdin, a “street rat” and a thief with a heart of gold who steals only what he cannot afford and tries to get by with his pet monkey Abu while avoiding greedy merchants and bloodthirsty guards. He discovers a magical lamp with a Genie inside and uses it to embark on a quest of marrying the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, Jasmine, while thwarting the attempts of the evil vizier, Jafar, to do the same and establish a dictatorship over the peaceful Arabic nation of Agrabah. The movie was a commercial hit, earning over 700 million dollars in the first week of release, worldwide (“Aladdin,” n.d.). In addition, the picture was nominated multiple times for numerous awards, most of which were related to the music. The title won 2 Oscars and was nominated for 29 (“Aladdin,” n.d.). Aladdin is considered one of the Walt Disney’s Classics and one of the most popular cartoons of all times. It can be watched on numerous streaming sites, such as Netflix, Gorillavidz, Vidzi.tv, and numerous others.
Aladdin – Stereotyping
What are the first stereotypes about the Arabic nations that naturally come to one’s mind? Here are a few that seem to be universal for practically everyone who had never been to the Middle East (Stangor & Crandall, 2013):
- There is plenty of sand around.
- The major buildings have spherical domes with religious symbols and spires.
- Everybody wears turbans.
- Men are typically violent and armed.
- The governors are either inept or corrupt; the military is abusing its position of power.
- The women either wear black clothes from tip to toe or resemble oriental belly dancers.
- The streets are full of merchants selling goods and wears of dubious origins.
These stereotypes portray a rather inhospitable land full of dangerous and suspicious people, where women are either repressed or exploited, and the state of living is akin to that of a typical backwater country ruled by a local dictator. While some of these stereotypes are situational and rarely objective, the majority of them could not be applied to the developed countries of the Persian Gulf, such as the UAE or the Saudi Arabia. Yet, almost every stereotype mentioned above can, in one form or another, be found in Aladdin (Galer, 2017).
Stereotyping in Aladdin starts from the intro song, which is used to set up the mood for the entire story. The current version is much more benign than it used to be since the original tune caused a scandal that forced Disney to change a line in the song. The original line describing the “magical land of Agrabah” stated that “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” which does not portray the fictional Arabs as good or even friendly people. However, the rest of the story was not as easy to fix (“Aladdin: The complete script,” n.d.).
The land of Agrabah is presented to the viewers as a without a single positive character in it, besides the main hero, his love interest, and the Genie. The guards in the show are all incompetent and bloodthirsty, eager to use their curved scimitars on Aladdin for stealing a loaf of bread; the merchants are all greedy, ugly, and untrustworthy (Galer, 2017). The women in the show are portrayed as courtesans, although their status is not explicitly stated. There is not a single good and upstanding character in the story that supports the region’s morals and traditions (Galer, 2017).
If we take a closer look at the protagonists of the story, it becomes obvious – Aladdin is a proxy for the traditional American values of freedom, which are seldom met with approval in the Middle East, while Jasmine represents ideas of emancipation for women, which are also rather foreign to the Middle East. The Sultan, who is not a villain and is shown to support the traditional views of Agrabah in regards to marriage and ruling, is also shown to be painfully incompetent as a ruler. Jafar, the main villain of the story, is, potentially, the most “Arabic” character ever, from the way he talks about the way he dresses, looks, and acts (“Aladdin: The complete script,” n.d.). He harbors all of the negative stereotypes about the Arab people, being conniving, deceitful, violent, a dictator, and a “snake,” which is reminiscent to how they were referred to during the Persian Gulf War – sand snakes. It should be noted that all major characters have lighter skin complexions when compared to the antagonists, their “whiteness” associating them more with the western ideals projected onto them (Galer, 2017).
Thus, Aladdin, whether intentionally or not, forms a specific picture within the mind of young viewers. It portrays all countries in the Middle East as ineffectual dictatorships, its people as liars and thieves, and its government officials as violent and corrupt. The only people worthy of being considered “good,” according to Aladdin, are those who share western ideals, while the rest is irrevocably corrupt, as the show does not give any redeeming features to the merchants, the guards, the Sultan, or the villain. The only people to possess any virtues are the westernized members of the main cast.
The target audience of Aladdin consists of young children, between 8 and 12 years of age. This cartoon serves as the first cornerstone of their perceptions of the Middle East, its people, and its culture. It seems innocent, but over time, the initial perceptions are overlaid with reports of crimes and terror attacks in the Middle East, as well as horror stories propagated and accentuated on by the media, which helps portray the entire region in a young mind as “deplorable,” making it easier to justify any acts of aggression against it (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). Aladdin was aired in 1992, during the operation in the Persian Gulf. The American wars fought in the Middle East through the 2000s show how much the grown-up audience of Aladdin supports the repetitive interventions, despite the ongoing bloodshed. According to the recent polls, over 30% of voters would be in favor of bombing Agrabah – the fictional city, where Aladdin lives (Kasperkevic, 2015). This attitude is the end effect of negative stereotyping – at this point, it had already transformed into prejudice and hate in the minds of many. It is hard to estimate what kind of effect Aladdin had in perpetrating such attitudes, but it is pointless to deny its influence. Whether the creators intended it or not, Aladdin was one of the many steps towards negative stereotyping of the Arab people.
Aladdin. (n.d.). Web.
Aladdin: The complete script. (n.d.). Web.
Galer, S. S. (2017). The Aladdin controversy Disney can’t escape. Web.
Kasperkevic, J. (2015). Poll: 30% of GOP voters support bombing Agrabah, the city from Aladdin. The Guardian. Web.
Stangor, C., & Crandall, C. S. (2013). Stereotyping and prejudice. New York, NY: Psychology Press.