Updated: May 17, 2019
Will Smith, and Disney’s ongoing Orientalist Identity Crisis, and all dat.
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If you didn’t like the new Aladdin trailer, and don’t want to say that that it’s because Marwan Kenzari’s stage voice made you uncomfortable, because Mena Massoud only seems to have one facial expression, because Naomi Scott looks about as out-of-place as Mark Ruffalo’s head in the Hulkbuster, because you noticed that Guy Richie’s camera work is bland, or maybe because you just can’t stand Will Smith in general — lucky for you, there is still a very good reason why you can feel perfectly validated for disliking the trailer for the upcoming live-action adaptation.
Though even before the trailer, Entertainment Weekly’s first look at sets and costumes did not give me a positive expectation for the film. Never-mind that EW’s photographs all feature actors holding the kind of smile you’d find in old, posed Christmas photographs. Will Smith’s Genie, as is presented both in the photographs and trailer, show me that Disney hasn’t learned from the diversity struggles they’ve had with Pocahontas, Brother Bear, Moana, Peter Pan, and others.
Suffice, I want to make it clear that even though my largest gripe will the depiction of the Genie, this isn’t entirely Will Smith’s fault. His brand is that he’s going to act like Will Smith no matter what movie he’s in. No, this is a result of Disney’s serious problem with having a bunch of white men trying to re-create cultural peoples that have been subjugated by colonial Europe, while playing off stereotypes in these ethnicities that make them palatable to white people.
This is a process that has been come to be known as ‘Orientalism’.
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You have probably heard the term before, though in reference to anything vaguely East-Asian. But ‘Orient’ has a much more sinister definition than dim-sum and sushi sold in the same pan-Asian restaurant. Orient is a term that roughly equates to ‘Anything East of Europe’, and historically refers to the Middle East, and as far as India. Though that said, the geographic separation between Europe and Asia is not the cut-and-dried distinction.
In a modern setting, the use of ‘orientalism’ has some crossover with the hot-button of cultural appropriation. Appropriation, however, denotes the displacement of cultural elements from their original context, and fits them into a ‘western’ setting. Whereas Orientalism describes the dual function of misrepresenting specifically ‘eastern’ cultures as a whole, or homogenizing any number of cultures ranging between Turkey through to Japan.
Aladdin 2019 is a little bit of a different beast than Pocahontas or Moana. Unlike many aboriginal cultures who were subjugated by Europe, there was, from the beginning, a very theatrical and fetishist demand for Middle Eastern culture within Europe. Unlike the very recent interest that Euro-White audience adopted in appropriating and misrepresenting elements of Pan-American First Nations, the process of misrepresenting the Middle East and Southeast Asia, for the delight of European audiences, has been going on for literally centuries.
Consider the prevalence of opium dens in post-industrial England. They were largely designed to appear Middle-Eastern, but only insofar as Europeans would recognize Middle-Eastern trappings. The interest in the Middle East then was a version that was comfortable enough within European culture, but foreign enough that it seemed exciting and exotic.
Despite the philosophical contributions, technological advancements, and Europe owing it’s naval and genocidal supremacy to stolen technology from these ‘Oriental’ nations, Europe as a whole treated foreign eastern peoples with the same kind of fascination of a child watching an ant farm in a glass window. But, in a similar fashion, would in no way want the ants crawling around and on them. Instead of being people, these nations were subjects of tourist fantasies to be held at arm’s reach where they were safely ‘separate’. The fascination ended where they had to treat these people as people.
And without welcoming these people to share their own experiences, elements within European art, literature, and theatre, constructed a version of the Middle East built on accounts of explorers. Subsequent generations of writers and artists used these second-hand sources to construct their own narratives, each time, highlighting more and more of Non-European elements of societies as bizarre. And, over time, they mistakenly included elements from other cultures across the near-and-far-east.
My primary go-to example is C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Throughout the series, the Calmoren Empire is a reoccurring enemy to Narnia and national allies to Narnia. In illustrations, they have dark skin, wear turbans modeled after the Sikh ceremonial garment, don crusade-era Muslim armor, wield swords with the signature curve of the Japanese Katana, and pattern their fabrics and feminine attire as if Indian. Now while these may have all been based off the personal biases of illustrator Pauline Baynes, they go hand-in-hand with the text all too smoothly.
Catholic theologian Paul F. Ford does try to reconcile allegations of outright racism. Ford doesn’t deny that there is racism in Lewis’ writing, but he writes: “In our post-September 11, 2001, world, [Lewis] would, I am sure, want to reconsider this insensitivity.” [Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist? - narniaweb]
And yet, I would claim Lewis represents a veritable archetype of colonial privilege and an exemplar of Oriental fetishization. Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, agrees, and accuses Lewis’s stories of being “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic, and reactionary prejudice.” [Pullman Attacks Narnia Film Plans - BBC News]
Lewis’ writing goes on to explicitly and indirectly insult Middle Eastern culture and beliefs. In the final book, the primary antagonist (a monkey, take that as you will) rises to infamy as the ‘prophet’ of a donkey dressed as Aslan (God/Jesus analogy), where he garnishes a following both of Narnians and Calormane people by claiming that Aslan and Tosh (the demon worshiped by the Calormane) are the same god. This is, of course, written with the intention of creating a schism between Christianity Britain and the Middle East.
If you’re looking for something more subtle, look to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The titular antagonist, The White Witch, brainwashes Edmund to act against Aslan (by feeding him Turkish Delight, or lokum, as it is actually called in Turkey. From a literary standpoint, you have an element of ‘Evil’ Arabic Culture being used to lure a young man away from ‘Good’ European loyalty. Regardless, in either case, Lewis creates a very strong stance that the Middle East, and Islam, is in direct opposition to Christian White Europe.
Subsequently… this was also made into a Disney Movie.
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It’s a mistake to assume that orientalism ended with the colonial era. In fact, it’s a mistake to assume it got any better. Theorist, critic, and activist Edward Said fathered the modern study of Orientalist thought. In his book, appropriately titled Orientalism, he describes it as a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” [Orientalism (Book) - Wikipedia] This differs from garden-variety Islamaphobia in the respect that these prejudices are garnished from images and ideas that are not only nonfictional, but derived from centuries of insulated European narratives of the Middle East without any input from Middle-Eastern voices.
Even a more harmless instance such as I Dream of Jeanie does rely heavily on stereotyped Middle Eastern imagery. Even though the show barely acknowledges Middle Eastern culture, it still depicts Barbra Eden in veils from head to toe, makes her bottle out to resemble a hookah, and upholsters the inside of it like one of the opium dens I mentioned.
The show takes elements of Arabic culture and mythology that are convenient enough to peddle to a clueless TV-watching audience, but removes parts that would challenge the pre-conceived oriental preconceptions. Even something as pervasive as the ‘genie in a bottle’ is a popular western fantasy. Not all Jinn (or Djinn, as is alternately spelled) involved imprisonment within lamps, granting three wishes, or granting wishes at all.
But fair is fair — I Dream of Jeanie functions better as culturally appropriative fantasy-fiction. A Middle Eastern woman Barbra Eden does not make, and the circumstances for a white man returning a magic lamp to America are particularly outrageous. But does the absurdity of it all absolve it of its responsibility to represent another culture with accuracy?
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Is the 1992 Aladdin an orientalist instance of racism? Is there any way to depict the Middle East, or any other culture, without committing these kinds of pitfalls?
Disney’s Mulan often escapes this kind of backlash — but in this case, a great deal of Chinese talent was used, both for voice, and production work. And in the process of collaboration, Disney was able to produce a film that was palatable to American audiences, without being particularly stereotyping of Chinese culture.
Admittedly, I am a white person myself, and I don’t truly have any right to say what is or is not racist. But Mulan did not receive the same kind of backlash as Pocahontas, Princess and the Frog or Moana (though the later, only to a lesser extent). But at the same time, Aladdin 1992 was also without any significant cultural controversy. Aladdin also, unlike Mulan, was not particularly collaborative, featuring a whitewashed cast and crew. And still does technically slip into orientalist sensibilities.
Princess Jasmine is dressed more like a belly dancer than a princess of the era. And there are a few carnivalesque elements of Middle Eastern culture snuck in, as the princess nearly had her hand removed for mistakenly stealing an apple. But aside from a few isolated instances, the only aspect of Middle Eastern culture that it contained was the aesthetic, character titles and names.
Consider another Disney Film, The Emperor’s New Groove. It’s hard to really stick a cultural appropriative pin in it because unlike others like it, the film is in no way making any attempt to represent or even depict a certain group of peoples.
A large reason why The Emperor’s New Groove escaped that criticism is the degree of absurdity in the portrayal of the characters and plot. You can’t take it’s offenses seriously because it’s evident that it does not take itself seriously. Aladdin 1992 is similar in that respect, thanks in large part to Robin William’s Genie. The element of absurdity, I feel, removes these films from the context of representation. And especially, in both cases, no attempt was made to moralize the Incan or Middle Eastern aesthetics that they utilized.
There’s an incredibly informative video essay on this subject by Lindsay Ellis; I strongly recommend watching it. [Pocahontas Was a Mistake, and Here's Why!]
For a more antiquated example, Shakespeare’s Othello also, for the most part, goes without orientalist critique. Partially because, I imagine, nobody would have expected a 1400s English Playwright to know much about the Middle East. Yet, very few of his plays actually took place in England. Shakespeare played it just as fast and loose with other European cultures, and yet all of them speak very explicitly to an English culture. He, like Disney and The Emperor’s New Grove, merely uses a foreign setting to depict a story that is mostly null of the culture that the setting is pulled from.
Furthermore, Moulin Rouge avoids orientalist misrepresentation by framing its oriental elements in a play within the movie. The carnivalesque is almost literally a carnival.
So on one hand, it seems to me that a work of fiction can escape orientalist traps by explicitly making it clear to the audience that this work is fiction. As with Shakespeare, that can be with an over-arching trend within his whole body of works. And as with Aladdin 1992, Robin William’s wanton use of modern pop-cultural references remove the film so far from its context that it almost functions as meta-fiction.
These examples, therefore, contain instructions within themselves for the audience to remove these stories from having any grounding in reality.
But if I can (mostly) absolve Aladdin 1992 for its brazenly inaccurate depiction of the Middle East, how is Aladdin 2019 so indicative of oriental tropism?
The simple answer is that animation has a different function and purpose in our society than visual representation does. On some level, when you are watching a cartoon, you acknowledge that you aren’t looking at a face — you are looking at an image that represents a face. The symbolism manifests itself much more directly, so we treat animation as being inherently allegorical. Live action, though, is more real, and as a result, we associate it as being more realistic. So there does need to be more accountability for making more authentic depictions of subject material in live action.
The more complicated answer is that we are living in a much different time than 1992. And that, given the wealth of information we have easily available to us, we continue to be using fictitious sources as a guide for establishing a narrative about the Middle East.
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A great deal in our culture has changed in the last 30 years. And the cultural permissiveness that allowed a whitewashed cast in a movie set in the Middle East does not exist anymore. In this new Millennium, there has been a greater and greater demand not just for non-white characters and settings, but accurate and humanistic depictions of both.
So, if that’s the case, why is Will Smith dressed like he raided a Broadway costume closet? Instead of an opportunity to depict a more authentic, albeit equally as fantastical, Middle Eastern setting, Guy Richie seems to be making a direct adaptation of the stage musical production of Aladdin. And while the Broadway production is problematic for the same reasons, the audience for a Broadway show is much narrower. Higher standards need to exist for the largest cultural export in America, that being Hollywood.
A live-action film of the beloved Disney classic is an opportunity to ride on the success of the original animation, while taking an ethical advantage to depict Middle Eastern people as human beings and not fixtures of a foreign place. Because that message — in this era of Hollywood where the only casting call for Middle Eastern actors is ‘faceless terrorist’ — obviously hasn’t sunken in.
Nobody said Hollywood does anything that makes sense. I shouldn’t complain too much, most of the billing is cast with actors of Middle Eastern descent, which is absolutely fantastic, make no mistake. The problem is that the heroic trio is a little dicey.
What I am impressed by, and we’ll start with the positive, is that Disney snagged Mena Massoud for the (presumably) starring role. And really, on paper, they could hardly have done better. Born in Egypt, and with an Arabic name, he checks of diversity boxes — but raised in Canada and coming from a Middle Eastern denomination of Christianity, he’s not at all abrasive to the “I’m not racist, but…” chunk of America. And in a perfect world, religion and nationality shouldn’t carry more weight than talent. But when a nation has a Racism infestation, some concessions can be expected from the corporate industry that thrives off ‘safety’.
Naomi Scott feels like a cop-out. With some Indian heritage, she can pass for visible representation. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing new talent bubble up in Hollywood, but Scott also played a perfectly passably white Pink Ranger. And, as mentioned, is of Indian descent, and not Middle Eastern. This isn’t a ‘close enough’ game — because an actress from India and an actress from Turkey would both agree that they are living in two vastly separate societies.
And finally, on top of the fact that I dislike Will Smith for many different reasons, a Black-American does not equate to Middle Eastern. Yes, Islam is prevalent in Africa, but even falsely equating African and Middle-Eastern remains indicative of that ‘close enough’ interchangeability that is such a hallmark of Orientalist sensibilities. But that's an interesting question to raise: is it better to have a whitewashed cast, or an inappropriately diverse cast?
Now, with an argument for absurdism, the Genie is an omnipotent deity capable of bending space-time, and altering reality. Of all the cast, he’s the only one who doesn’t need to be Middle Eastern, especially because the Genie is technically a supporting character. You can cast a white Genie, a female Genie, a Japanese Genie, a Venezuelan Genie, a Tilda Swinton Genie. But they need to be a Genie that matches the actor’s cultural background.
Casting Will Smith, who is of African descent, isn't wrong in itself. But dressing him up in all the misappropriate indications of being Middle Eastern, is the practice of creating an Oriental Genie. Which, by now, I’ve gone out of my way to explain why that’s a bad thing.
I’m not saying that Will Smith can’t be the Genie, even though I’d personally prefer if he wasn’t. But if you’re going to cast a black man as the Genie, it has to be a black Genie. With the spread of Islam to North Africa, it’s not out of the question that there would be an African Genie, but it would have to resemble a more traditional African aesthetic and style. And not have the hair, facial hair, and attire, of a misguided, narrow, and cartoonish portrayal of the Middle East. Exactly like what Will Smith is wearing.
Even though his screen presence is, thus-far, entirely indiscernible from the Fresh Prince. Which, hopefully, will function to defamiliarize the film from reality, and push it into the realm of absurdity. But I, personally, am not crazy about the idea of a rapping Genie.
There’s a difference between the Middle East, and what white people think of the Middle East. And just from what Disney has released thus far, the filmmakers seem to have gone with the latter — the Orientalist style. It’s not Middle Eastern, but Disney is trying to cash in on what Euro-White people expect the Middle East to be. It’s depicting a comfort for those of colonial descent, as opposed to depicting the reality that some people in the world actually live in.