How the new ‘Aladdin’ stacks up against a century of Hollywood stereotyping

Though critically acclaimed and widely beloved, the 1992 animated “Aladdin” feature had some serious issues with stereotyping.

Disney wanted to avoid repeating these same problems in the live action version of “Aladdin,” which came out on May 24. So they sought advice from a Community Advisory Council comprised of Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim scholars, activists and creatives. I was asked to be a part of the group because of my expertise on representations of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. media.

The fact that a major studio wants to hear from the community reflects Hollywood’s growing commitment to diversity.

But while the live action “Aladdin” does succeed in rectifying some aspects of Hollywood’s long history of stereotyping and whitewashing Middle Easterners, it still leaves much to be desired.

Magical genies and lecherous sheikhs

In his seminal 1978 book “Orientalism,” literature professor Edward Said argued that Western cultures historically stereotyped the Middle East to justify exerting control over it.

A movie poster for the 1921 film ‘The Sheik.’ Library of Congress
Orientalism in Hollywood has a long history. Early Hollywood films such as “The Sheik” and “Arabian Nights” portrayed the Middle East as a monolithic fantasy land – a magical desert filled with genies, flying carpets and rich men living in opulent palaces with their harem girls.

While these depictions were arguably silly and harmless, they flattened the differences among Middle Eastern cultures, while portraying the region as backwards and in need of civilizing by the West.

Then came a series of Middle Eastern conflicts and wars: the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Gulf War. In American media, the exotic Middle East faded; replacing it were depictions of violence and ominous terrorists.

As media scholar Jack G. Shaheen observed, hundreds of Hollywood films over the last 50 years have linked Islam with holy war and terrorism, while depicting Muslims as either “hostile alien intruders” or “lecherous, oily sheikhs intent on using nuclear weapons.”

Cringeworthy moments in the original ‘Aladdin’

Against this backdrop, the Orientalism of Disney’s 1992 animated “Aladdin” wasn’t all that surprising.

The opening song lyrics described a land “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” and declared, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”

When the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested the lyrics, Disney removed the reference to cutting off ears in the home video version but left in the descriptor “barbaric.”

Then there were the ways the characters were depicted. As many have noted, the bad Arabs are ugly and have foreign accents while the good Arabs – Aladdin and Jasmine – possess European features and white American accents.

In the animated ‘Aladdin,’ the good Arabs are drawn with Caucasian features, while the bad guys speak with foreign accents. Disney
The film also continued the tradition of erasing distinctions between Middle Eastern cultures. For example, Jasmine, who is supposed to be from Agrabah – originally Baghdad but fictionalized because of the Gulf War in 1991 – has an Indian-named tiger, Rajah.

Questionable progress

After 9/11, a spate of films emerged that rehashed many of the old terrorist tropes. But surprisingly, some positive representations of Middle Eastern and Muslim characters emerged.

In 2012, I published my book “Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11.” In it, I detail the strategies that writers and producers used after 9/11 to offset stereotyping.

The most common one involved including a patriotic Middle Eastern or Muslim American to counterbalance depictions as terrorists. In the TV drama, “Homeland,” for example, Fara Sherazi, an Iranian American Muslim CIA analyst, is killed by a Muslim terrorist, showing that “good” Muslim Americans are willing to die for the United States.

But this didn’t change the fact that Middle Easterners and Muslims were, by and large, portrayed as threats to the West. Adding a ‘good’ Middle Eastern character doesn’t do much to upend stereotypes when the vast majority are still appearing in stories about terrorism.