Disney and Orientalism

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How productive is it to analyse Disney’s Aladdin in the light of the concept of Orientalism?

Europe and America are powerful imperial nations who have, through colonialism since the 18th century, sought to impose their dominant cultural values and political ideology on societies that they regard as ‘subordinate’ to their own. They do this in order to maintain control over radically different cultures who they believe pose a threat to Western interests. Edward Said coined the term ‘Orientalism’ propagating the ideas that much of the fine art, film and literature created by Western artists concerning the East and especially the Islamic Arab world, seek to represent the Eastern culture as having antithetic and thus dangerous values that the West wants to neutralise to maintain world order. These representations are often misleading and prejudiced founded on unreliable knowledge inspiring negative connotations causing a sense of fear amongst Western people of anything different to their way of living. Aladdin (1992) is an animation created by Walt Disney, adapted from the Middle Eastern folktale, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 nights. Under close scrutiny this animation is a perfect demonstration of the mass Western viewpoint of the Orient namely the Arabian world.

Traditionally fairy tales were folk narratives based on the experiences and beliefs of a collective community communicated orally by a story teller to an audience. The stories were then spread in the same way continuously until they eventually became generic and widespread legends. Being broadcasted orally granted the illiterate the convenience to bear witness to these stories, widening the demographic of the audience. However according to Jack Zipes, over time these stories took on a literary form excluding a large number of uneducated people. From there on the audience took on a different form, shifting from the masses to the educated, wealthier classes. This displacement of readership to the bourgeoisie therefore called for the need for the content of the fairy tales to be adapted in order to agree with the higher class’s socio-ideology. After this revolution came another change. The technological advances made by the Lumiere brothers, who innovated the first portable movie camera sparked the motion picture industry into play. It was now possible for the folk tales once exchanged orally to be played out onto the big screen.

One American innovator seized the chance to take advantage of this development, this being Walt Disney, founder of what is now recognised as one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the filmic world. The Walt Disney Corporation has remained a leader in the production of animations decades after his death. Many of the scripts for the company’s production were adapted from traditional fairy tales. The deviations in content however are often significantly different from the originals and in true American fashion to seek capitalism from anything, the end products are merchandised in the form of toys, magazines etc.

Zipes postulates however that Walt Disney ‘had great talent for holding antiquated views of society still through animation’[i] suggesting Disney had a hidden agenda when producing his cartoons. Instead of being simply a way of entertaining the American audience, it would be an outlet where he could communicate his views of the world. Moreover, it is possible to assume thus that as an American himself, whatever discourse that would be propagated through his films would be an American dogma.

Although Aladdin was produced after Disney’s death it nonetheless has evidence of this transmitting of American culture and perceptions despite the fact that the subject matter is about the culture and society of the Middle East. Edward Said however saw texts like Aladdin as ‘being turned into a structure of myth prefabricated for western use’ [ii] For this reason, one must question the agenda the producers of Aladdin had, and...
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