Cinematic Essentialism, Social Hegemony and Walt Disney’s Aladdin

Walt Disney Picture’s naturalization of stereotypes cements a hegemonic hierarchy that fuels the globalization of capitalism and projects political propaganda. Although quintessential of American popular culture, Disney’s transgression of borders is facilitated and metastasized by the multi-linguistic nature of animation.  Focusing primarily on Walt Disney’s Aladdin, I intend to dissect the manner in which visual metaphors and anthropomorphism are employed to appropriate cultural codes and perpetuate stereotypes.  The animation’s reproduction of “harmless” yet distorted ethnic representations is disguised behind a veil of ideological innocence. Aladdin’s cinematic essentialism not only denigrates democratic solidarity, but supports the socioeconomic interests of the power that be. As the world at large wholeheartedly and naively embraces the ideals and values engendered and exported by the multi-national media conglomerate, the spectators subconsciously succumb to the overt racism, political propaganda and cloaked dogmas of capitalism that permeates the beloved pictures, rendering its audiences hostage to the hegemonic influence of the West.

The threat of Walt Disney’s Aladdin lies in the facility with which the multinational corporation transgresses cultural boundaries.  The term mediascapes is a word coined by Arjun Appadurai to describe not only the distribution of information around the world via the media, but also the “images of the world created by the media” (Appadurai 34).  This idea serves to explicate the unpredictable transnational flow of media text across the borders of countless countries albeit their cultural diversity.  The fabricated narratives and visual repertoires of foreign films provide “strips of reality” (Appadurai 35) out of which a sea of disillusioned spectators can shape “imagined lives”.  This transgression of borders and cinematic construction of fantastical realities is definitive of Disney animations, as Mickey Mouse proves as iconic an image as Jesus.  The multi-national corporation’s pervasive presence on the global stage sheds light on the fact that even outside the context of American popular culture the seductive nature of its films lures an international audience.  Disney’s ability to cross cultural boundaries with a greater facility than other forms of communication can be attributed to the multi-linguistic nature of animation, which maintains its meaning regardless of whether having been dubbed or fitted with sub-titles. Walt Disney himself admitted that “of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”

The global onslaught of the multinational Disney Corporation threatens however to render Western cultural imperialism, as films such as Aladdin are infused with hegemonic views concerning capitalism and the racial superiority of the Protestant elite.   Furthermore, “the farther the audience is away from the direct experience…the more likely they are to construct imagined worlds” (Appadurai 35), blurring the “lines between the realistic and fictional landscapes” (Appadurai 35).  Through its mediation of images, Disney constructs a skewed social hierarchy rooted in racial superiority wherein its spectators subconsciously come to understand their place in relation to the “Other”.  Hence, the “images involve many complicated inflections, depending on…their audience (local, national, or transnational), and the interest of those who own and control them” (Appadurai 35).  In the case of Walt Disney, its audience is both national and transnational, while its prerogative stems from its own self-interest to promote corporate culture, a hegemonic hierarchy and political propaganda.

Another term that can be employed to better understand the threat of Disney is Ideoscapes, which Arjun Appadurai defines as the political “concatenation of images” (Appadurai 36).  These visual representations relate to the ideologies of the state, serving in the interest of the predominant political and economic power. In Palestine, a clone of the iconic Mickey Mouse preaches Islamic fundamentalism on Hamas TV, urging the Palestinian youth to take up arms against the Israelis.  Subliminally conditioning the general public, this form of media is infused with propaganda and hegemonic views.  Disney animations in the West, disguised by their innocuous nature, promote a doctrine supportive of consumerism, capitalism and racial superiority.  Failing to address the importance of social responsibility, equality and social justice, Disney’s feature films defend an anti-social hyper-individualism that is at odds with democratic theory.  Furthermore, the animation’s ethnic essentialism constructs a reality wherein human rights and equality prove incapable of transcending the segregating legacies of race.

One of the few American films to feature an Arab protagonist, Walt Disney’s Aladdin advocates a doctrine supportive of capitalism, egocentricity and consumerism.  Below the surface of this seemingly charming animation runs an ideology void of democratic benevolence. At the start of the film, Aladdin is portrayed as a poor street urchin, however he lives above the streets of Agrabah where from his window he is level with the sultan’s palace.  This seemingly inconsequential detail constructs a visual metaphor that suggests Aladdin’s social equality with the elite. Upon unearthing the magic lamp and genie within, Aladdin doesn’t hesitate to use the three wishes in his own self-interest. Rather than feed the starving children wasting away on the streets of Agrabah or help the poor and dying, Aladdin wishes for expensive garments and material goods to impress Princess Jasmine with.  Thus, Aladdin’s social mobility relies essentially on greed, materialism and selfishly catering to his own needs: a mentality indicative of the avaricious appetite unleashed by the market economy.  

Walt Disney’s hyper mobility consequently facilitates the widespread transmission of capitalistic views infusing films like Aladdin. However, what proves even more harmful is the animated picture’s cinematic essentialism. Depicting the Arab world as backwards and irrational, the film’s distorted ethnic representations fuel the western world’s fear of alternity and perpetuates dangerous stereotypes.  Defined as the act of imposing assumed characteristics on an individual based on their race, gender or class (etc.), stereotypes are sweeping generalizations that “contain an evaluation that justifies ethnic differences” (Seiter 16).  These simplifications and absurd exaggerations are culpable for breeding blind hatred. Upon dissecting several of the animations produced by Disney in the past few decades, it becomes evident that films like Aladdin indisputably “reproduce ethnic stereotypes” (McMichael 67). The danger of these racial representations lies in the threat of essentialism, which “reduces a complex variety of portrayals to a limited set of reified formulae” (Shohat & Stam 199).

In its wake, essentialism engenders an ahistoric perception that is “static” and thus neglects the “instability of the stereotypes” (Shohat & Stam 199). Therefore behind these racial representations “lies a history that relates both to commonsense understandings of society and to economic determinants” (Seiter 24). By and large, the stereotypes delineated by Walt Disney are swayed by the contemporary socioeconomic circumstances plaguing the country. By lending human characteristics to nonhuman beings via anthropomorphism, Disney can attach certain attributes to animals in order to safely render ethnic stereotypes.  For example, to momentarily stray from the analysis of Aladdin, in The Lion King, the noble King Mufasa has a British accent, whereas the malicious hyenas speak with strong Spanish accents. This anthropomorphic ethnic essentialism conditions its audience to subconsciously equate the Spanish tongue with devious behavior, perpetuating a menacing stereotype of Mexicans whose presence in the States was and still is perceived as a strain on the economy. Thus it is important to scrutinize Disney animations through a lens that puts into consideration the hegemonic motivations and political interest behind its illustrations.

The use of ethnic stereotypes as a “strategy for constructing a mythic other to be relied on for purposes of war, imperialism, national defense and protectionism” (Chow 59) is intrinsic to the operative tactics of political regimes. The pervasive influence of these economically and politically prescribed stereotypes not only proves that they are “cliché, unchanging forms but also- and much more importantly- that stereotypes are capable of engendering realities that don’t exist” (Chow 59). These distorted representations of race, gender and class are constructed and transmitted by a powerful minority in order to protect the status quo. Thus it is imprudent to overlook the “relationship of stereotypes to the legitimate social power” (Seiter 24). The social functionality of the aforementioned demonstrates “that they are not an error of perception but rather a form of social control” (Shohat & Stam 199). Therefore, in considering the nature and origin of an ethnic stereotype, it is crucial to question, “who controls and defines them,” (Dyer in Chow 60) and whose interests are served by their perpetuation.

A pervasive theme frequenting Disney films is the Manichean allegory of good against evil, which is oftentimes employed to cast certain ethnicities in a negative light in order to back a hegemonic agenda. During the Bush and Reagan regimes, the “portrayals of its enemies drew on the ‘Manichean allegories’ of colonization” rendering Saddam Hussein as an instable lunatic through “the intertextual memory of Muslim fanatics and Arab assassins” (Shohat &Stam 201). First released shortly after the Gulf War in 1992, Aladdin assumes the age-old narrative construction of good and evil drawing on ethnic essentialism to underpin the political propaganda of the Bush administration. Although the film is set in the Middle East, only the villainous characters speak Arabic, whereas Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, despite their alleged Arab ethnicity, assume American identities.  Portraying the populace of the Middle East as violent and deceitful people, the Arabic women are depicted as veiled objects of oppression while the men are delineated as bearded barbarians. Cultural familiarity with such stereotypes leads one to perceive political issues in a vein that could be traced to individual ethics, unleashing the inclination to judge a person based on their race, religion or nationality.

Aladdin’s cinematic essentialism elicits disturbing renderings that essentialize, appropriate, objectify and construct the exotic “Other”. This discursive construction laces countless Disney animations, particularly Aladdin.  Edward Said states that all “too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me … that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together” (Said 27). Said’s discourse on Orientalism argues that the Western notion of the East as a despotic haven of eunuchs in turbans stems from the Occidental’s desire to control and manipulate the unknown. Convinced that the Orient is incapable of defining itself, the Occident regards the East as a locale clearly in need of Western subjectivity.  The United States thus posit itself in opposition to the Middle East, rendering the Orient as a negative inversion of the Occident and thus justifying the necessity of Western emancipation and reconstruction.

The discourse on Orientalism unveils how Western society’s slanted perception of the East is fueled by a hegemonic agenda mediated by the mass media. Bringing “democracy” to the Middle East serves in Disney’s interest as consumerism, capitalism and multinational corporations trail at the heels of “freedom”.  Recognizing the profitable possibilities in the Mid East, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, like the Bush administration, juxtaposes the West with the despotic Orient to promote egalitarian ideals of freedom and autonomy. In fact, the original version of Aladdin was initially set in the “fictitious” city of Baghdad (Giroux 29).  However as the dust of Gulf War had yet to settle, the name was changed to Aghrabah, which in Arabic translates as “most strange.”  In spite of this revision, the political motivation fueling this film’s production is but thinly veiled.   The animation’s prejudicial portrayal of the Arab world serves as nationalistic propaganda to justify a war needlessly waged by the United States, disguising the imperialistic encroach as a holy war as “religion sounds so absolute, it can be used as a translation for other, more relative, forms of conflict” (Baumann 23).

Visually manipulated to empower hegemonic views, Aladdin’s construction of the Orient not only depicts the Arabs as a backwards people, but also represents the Middle East as an anarchistic civilization where cobras are lured from baskets and law has no place other then to keep women in theirs.  For instance, Princess Jasmine, whose attire resembles that of a belly dancer’s, is required by law to marry a man selected by her father, the Sultan of Agrabah.  Her objection is silenced by his harsh reply: “you are not free to make your own choices”.  The film also sheds light on the injustice of the Quranic laws that threaten to cut off Aladdin’s hand for stealing a piece of bread to survive. Even the opening song cast the Arab world as a locality of barbarianism: “Oh, I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam, Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face, It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Furthermore, the animation’s geographic depiction of the region is far from accurate as it essentializes the Middle East as a vast desert, audaciously neglecting to recognize the diverse topography of the expansive territory.

The danger of Aladdin lays not only in the political propaganda and ethnic essentialism it projects, but more so in the misconception that the animated picture is socially harmless.  As an audience, we are readily “inclined to view a cartoon film as an uncomplicated representation of human ideas” (Moellenhoff 116).  Instead of stereotypes, the skewed representations of the Arabic populace are pawned off as caricatures.  The threat of Disney is rooted in this distinction.  Rey Chow illustrates the disparity, stating that “caricatures, by virtue of being understood definitively as a distorted grotesque imitation, can be safely relegated to the category of the unrealistic and be dismissed as a mere representation,” whereas stereotype carry the “unavoidable implications of realpolitik” (Chow 72).  It is within the safe haven of animation that Disney aggressively employs the “visually and epistemologically pronounced effect of transgression whose power is, significantly, nonverbal” (Chow 81).

Walt Disney films are even more disturbingly aimed towards an audience constituted primarily of children. Thus, at an early age certain preconceived notions regarding race and class are subliminally planted via “harmless” animations into the heads of the generations to come. Disney’s distorted ethnic renderings reinforce the naturalization of specified stereotypes backed by ulterior hegemonic motives and rooted in political interest. For instance, the hero of the animation, Aladdin, is drawn with light skin and anglicized facial features.  Although the audience is led to believe Aladdin is Arab, he speaks with an American accent. The archenemy Jafar, portrayed as having dark skin and exaggerated Arab features, serves as a stark contrast with a large pointed nose, long beard and sunken eyes.  More interesting is the fact that unlike the protagonist of the visual narrative, Jafar speaks with a thick Arab accent.  The benevolent Sultan of Agrabah, on the other hand, is illustrated with a white beard, rosy rounded cheeks, kind eyes and big belly. In truth, the king would practically personify Saint Nick if it weren’t for the British accent with which he speaks despite his alleged Arab roots. His beloved daughter, Princess Jasmine, the heroine of the story, is also depicted without the “characteristic” Arab nose and, like Aladdin, inhabits an American identity.

Upon closer scrutiny of the Manichean allegory and ethnic essentialism that thread through the visual narrative of Walt Disney’s Aladdin, it’s difficult to deny the hegemonic ideologies and political propaganda that run below the surface of its storyline, especially given that its release paralleled the geopolitical war waged in the Middle East.  To take a step back and put on a wider lens, the writing on the wall is explicit.  The Americanized Aladdin along with the British Sultan of Agrabah must save Princess Jasmine, who as a female symbolizes the nation. Ironically, the threat stems from the vizier Jafar whose nefarious conspiracy to bring the world to its knees is advised by an idiotic parrot.  Furthermore, the vizier’s visual delineation renders a shameful stereotype which is propped up as an archetype of the Arab world. As the film unfolds it becomes evident that the city of Agrabah can only return to the order in which it belongs once the threat of Jafar is extinguished.

Infused with hegemonic views, the Disney animation Aladdin plays a prominent role in the naturalization of stereotypes, globalization of capitalism and promotion of political propaganda. Due to the multi-linguistic nature of animation, Disney films effortlessly breach cultural boundaries facilitating the export of perverse values veiled by ideological innocence.  At odds with democratic theory, Disney’s transnational media flow threatens to spread the Western hegemonic views projected by films such as Aladdin.  Furthermore, the animation’s cinematic essentialism is not only ahistoric and moralistic, but supports a social hierarchy rooted in racial superiority. Employing the age-old Manichean allegory, Aladdin’s objectification and appropriation of the Arab world is indisputably fueled by the political agenda of the powers that be.  But perhaps the greatest danger of this animation lies namely in the perception that it is socially harmless: as we have seen however, this could not be farther from the truth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large – Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 27-47.

Baumann, Gerd. 1999. The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities. London: Routledge: 17-27.

Chow, Rey. 2002. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press: 50-84.

Giroux, H. 1999. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield: 27-34.

Moellenhoff, Fritz. 1989. Remarks on the Popularity of Mickey Mouse. In American Imago: A Psychoanalytical Journal for the Arts and Sciences, ed. H. Sachs. Boston: Buckram: 46, 105-119.

Said, Edward. 1994. Orientalism. In Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. P William and L. Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press: 132-149.

Said, Edward. 1981. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Pantheon: 1-30.

Seiter, Ellen. 1986. Stereotypes and the Media: A Re-evaluation. Journal of Communication. 36 (2): 14-26.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. 1995.  Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge: 178-188, 191-194, 198-204.

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