For many, Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin conjures up images of innocence: star-crossed lovers on a magic carpet, a benevolent pet tiger and a genius of comedy that would grant every heart’s desire. Less well known is the fact that the movie provoked a controversy racial, that is still reverberating today.
This week saw the death of Dr. Jack Shaheen, one of the most respected and strongest critics of the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood, who campaigned successfully for the offensive lyrics to be changed in the original Aladdin soundtrack. Now only days after his death, the live-action Aladdin remake has been questioned in terms of its casting woes.
The film – makers- including director Guy Ritchie – are on the hunt in search of clues that can live up to the animated film of the lovable street urchin Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. It has been revealed that they are struggling to wrap their months of searching due to a difficulty in the search of a singing, dancing actor who is the Middle East or India to play a leading role. Some of them are critical with the study of the fight.
The abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as the lamp of Aladdin – Dr. Jack Shaheen
“Nobody in their right mind can say that it is impossible to find a young man of South Asian or Middle Eastern actor who can dance, sing and act,” says the Academy Award nominated director Lexi Alexander, who is half German, half Palestinian. “Bollywood is an entire industry made up of talents like this and the Middle East also has a lot of talent. It is a practical system that insists that actors of color should be household names to be issued, while no one wants to give them a break.” Alexander has published a list of the possible actors on Twitter, asking to Type “give me a call.”
This is not the first time that Disney has been criticized in relation to Aladdin. The well-loved in the soundtrack of 1992 of the animation to A Whole New World, in particular Disney won an Academy Award, along with another Oscar for the total score – is actually an edited version of which he had heard in the movie theaters. The original of the letter in the first verse of the song Nights of Saudi Arabia, such as described in “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”.
“Aladdin is not an entertaining arabian Nights fantasy as film critics would have us believe,” wrote Jack Shaheen in 1992, then a professor of mass communication at the University of Southern Illinois, “but rather a painful reminder of 3 million Americans of Arab heritage, as well as 300 million Arabs and others, that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as the lamp of Aladdin.”
The film was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of Orientalists of the Middle East and Asia. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sierra light-skinned, Anglicised features of the heroes of Aladdin and Jasmine that contrasted sharply with the brunette, eager street merchants that had Arabic accents and grotesque facial features.
Shaheen warned that these images perpetuate negative stereotypes that “literally sustain adverse portraits across generations.” He argued: “it is Not a position of liaison between the fantasy of the aberrations and the real world”, and warned of the negative image of Agrabah, the film is fictionalised in the city that he calls “Hollywood manufactured Ayrabland.” It seems that for some, this warning was not unfounded: in 2015 it was revealed that 30% of Republican voters in the united states would be voting in support of the bombing of Agrabah.
After Shaheen protested against the film along with the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, the producers of Aladdin, finally, alteration of the letter in a thousand and one Nights the film’s video release in 1993. Jack Shaheen continued his mission in life to break stereotypes of Arabs, immortalized in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People.
Daniel Newman, professor of Arabic in the University of Durham, acknowledges that Western representations have come a long way from the lotus-eating, Orientalist fantasies of yesteryear, but “except for a couple of exceptions, what has happened is that a cliché has been replaced by another, the scimitar-handling of the lascivious Arab, we have gone to the bomb-armed terrorist Arabs.” While some ‘moderate’ the characters have been introduced in the sample, such as the Homeland, he says, “the overwhelming feeling of ‘threat’, based mainly – though not exclusively – in the religion.”
“I would like to ask the animators to add benevolent market-providers and heroic of the guards, who befriends Aladdin,” Shaheen said of the 1992 Aladdin, aware of the image of Middle-Eastern people that could be made in the film to young viewers. He also asked the producers of “the respect to Islam and to add a human character, Aladdin’s mother, an Arab woman willing to sacrifice everything for your child, the happiness.”
If the new film makers choose to stay in the old guard or avant-garde is yet to be seen. In 1992, Shaheen cited “cable television and video tapes” as it is easy for stereotypes to travel far and wide. That is even more important in an era of mass media, it is all-you-can-watch online streaming. It would be worthwhile to ask ourselves when the new film is released: what would Jack Shaheen think?