For The Culture

The Misrepresentation of Culture in Disney’s Aladdin

Rating: 6/10                                                                     

In the wake of the string of Disney live-action recreations, one of the latest movies to be released is Aladdin, which I only got around to watching last week and which bothered me in a few ways.

The cinematography is what saved this movie from being mediocre. The colours, the movement and song where all reminiscent of Broadway musical theatre, and the addition of Will Smith as Genie, made the film more magical than the forgettable storyline and sub-par acting would have been able to do on their own. And for viewers who may be unaware of the intricacies of any culture besides their own, it’s easy to see why Aladdin has received an audience score of 94% on rotten Tomatoes and a 7 on IMDB. But as someone who has hereditary connections to Arab culture, it is difficult for me to praise this film too heavily.

Aladdin, as a story, has all of the features of a tale that makes it entirely alluring to the Western viewer; a far off foreign land, a trapped princess, a magic wish-granting Genie, an evil magician, and a rags to riches love story, all fairy-tale motifs that have always fuelled Western audiences fascination for the fantastical far east. This fascination, however, does not discriminate between different cultures in the east, and the 2019 Aladdin movie, despite being pulled, as Will Smith opening songs states, from the tales of The Arabian nights, is a mesh of different brown people and cultures which Disney could not be bothered to differentiate between; a shining example of the singularly narrow perception, and lack of distinction, that the West has always afforded the far east, with its generic brown-skinned people, generic foreign accents, sun, sand and bright colours.

Here are the main issues which I had with the film:

Problem number 1:

The fact that Disney, did not try to fill in the main roles with Caucasian actors is commendable however, there are Arab actress who could have played Jasmine, rather than an Anglo-Indian woman. A minor issue, albeit, but one worth mentioning.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin 2019

Problem number 2:

The beautiful Arabian costumes consisted of satins, silks and…..corsets? In what part of the desert-dwelling world have corsets ever been a popular item of clothing? It was popular for English women to continue to wear their corsets when abroad in hot countries, causing them to faint or have serious health complication as a result, but for a society born and raised in the dry heat, something as restrictive and heat-inducing as a corset would have been impractical and foolish.

Jasmine wears a corset among the desert dunes.

And as beautiful as all of the clothing is, much of it, especially in the dancing scenes, is made of Sarees and Salwar Kameezs – Indian and Pakistani items of clothing, not Arab.

The extras of Aladdin 2019, dressed in Indian clothing

Problem number 3:

The dance scenes are also extremely problematic. As a woman who has spent many of her years in and out of varying Arab countries, households and weddings, I have never once seen any of the moves performed in this film. The break dancing aside- added for comedic effect- most of the other movements where more Bollywood styled, nothing close to how Arabs dances are performed.

The Last Dance Scene of Aladdin 2019

They tried, but not hard enough. It is never good enough to depict a people as close to their equivalent as you can be bothered, especially with knowledge and videos so readily available at the touch of a button as they are in this high-tech fast-moving 21st century society. And for all of the films cinematic charm, these little details made the film seem lazy and haphazard. For a name as unanimously recognisable as Disney, it is sad that they were not able to reciprocate those values of universality with regards to the rest of the world, and a movie that had promised to be one of Disney’s biggest productions last year, fell short on account of something as simple as shoddy researching skills and bigoted stereotyping.

But Disney is not done yet. Mulan, another story steeped in a foreign culture, is on the horizon for 2020. Let us hope they do better with Chinese Culture than they did with Arab.

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