Islamic Studies professor Dr. Betül Basaran discussed the mischaracterization of Arabs in Disney’s “Aladdin” with students. The movie was shown Wednesday, February 11 Cole Cinema as a part of The Other Side of Disney Movies series.
The movie, which originally debuted in 1992, quickly became a hit, bringing in over $217 Million in the US and more than $507 million worldwide. The movie takes place in fictitious, Middle Eastern city of Agrabah, where protagonist, Aladdin, fights for the city’s princess, Jasmine, as well as to prevent a plot conceived by the King’s Grand Vizier, Jafar, to become King himself.
Despite the popularity of the movie, Disney ended up releasing the movie with several changes after the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) boycotted the movie.
The Committee’s biggest concern with the movie was the first line of the movie’s opening song, which originally said, “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.”
In the re-release of the movie, Disney dubbed the opening line to change it to say, “It’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric, but hey’ it’s home.” Although it’s an improvement, Marvin Wingfield of the ADC in a 1995 newsletter article said that “problems remain” with the movie.
Professor Basaran agreed. She pointed to the movie’s contrast of the “good guys,” Aladdin and Jasmine, as light skinned with no accent and the “bad guys” with darker skin, dirty clothes and heavy accents as “an unfair stereotype of dirty Arabs.”
Basaran went on to ask that “while some might brush it off as a cartoon, how many kids watched [Aladdin] and formed stereotypes? Doesn’t Disney have an obligation to do better?”
First-year Keith [last name withheld] agreed and said that, “until middle school, that’s what [he] thought Arab culture was.”
Senior Rawle Lucas points to Disney’s change of the location—from Baghdad, as was originally proposed, to Agrabah—as a sign that filmmakers did not intend for the cartoon to be taken as a serious cultural statement.
“They purposely did not portray the time period [or culture] seriously by taking it out of context,” Lucas said.
“That’s a perfectly valid argument, but the movies are a stepping stone to a larger conversation.” according to junior Sara Metz, who is the chair of the Program Board’s Multicultural Committee and organizer of The Other Side of Disney Movies Series.
Metz, who very much likes many of Disney’s movies, is concerned that when “people grow up watching these movies they are instilled with certain stereotypes.” It was this concern as well as the desire to “combine what people like with a discussion of the stereotypes portrayed” that inspired her to organize the series.
The next movie in the series will be “Hercules,” which will air Wednesday February 25th in Cole Cinema, and will be followed by a discussion with Linda Hall, Associate Professor of History. Other movies in the series will include “Mulan”, “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King.”