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Aladdin: A whole new world for diversity in Hollywood Open in fullscreen

Ruby Hamad

Aladdin: A whole new world for diversity in Hollywood

Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) in London [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 June, 2019

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Comment: For the first time in 100 years of seeing Arabs mocked, demonised, or ridiculed on the silver screen, Aladdin is a clear step forward, writes Ruby Hamad.
The 1001 Arabian Nights are, despite the title, not a collection of Arab stories but a compilation of Arab, Persian, and other regional folk tales compiled in the Arabic language during the so-called Islamic Golden Age.

Several of the most famous of these, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor, are now thought not to be in the original Arabic but to have been inserted by European translators such as Antoine Gallad in the 18th century.

This likely goes some way in accounting for the more virulent Orientalism of some of the tales, particularly in perhaps the most famous and beloved today: Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.

The hugely popular 1992 Disney animated musical version, Aladdin, adored mostly for Robin Williams' hilarious turn as the Genie, featured lyrics describing the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah as, "barbaric - but hey it's home," thus further fuelling popular western perceptions of a savage, violent and uncivilised Middle East.

To his credit, Guy Ritchie, director of Disney's latest live-action adaptation, Aladdin, starring Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud at the title character, British-Indian Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, and Will Smith as the Genie, reigns in these more objectionable elements.

Those lyrics are gone, as is the general presentation of Arabia as a hotbed of irrational violence and intellectual incompetence.

As a western cultural artefact, Aladdin is a sign that something is perhaps at long last shifting in how the Middle East is represented in pop culture

The production has still seen its share of criticism, which is unsurprising given its basis as a western Orientalist construct: Aladdin was always about an image projected onto the Middle East, one that reveals more about the western imagination than it ever could about Arabia itself. 

As such, despite the efforts of Ritchie and his producers, it still betrays a sadly shallow perception of a part of the world rich in history, art, and literature. Without throwing away the source material altogether, some of these problems could perhaps have been allayed by entrusting filmmakers with links to the Arab world and Middle East more broadly, who could not doubt have provided a more layered setting for the story.

Before I go further, it bears noting that Aladdin is aimed at children, so I'm not going to judge it on not being sufficiently sophisticated for adults.

What I will say is that there are many ways to watch and assess a film. As the late, great British-Jamaican cultural theorist 
Stuart Hall noted, "Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: It is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured… That is why 'popular culture' matters."

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This too, is how I try to approach pop culture analysis; not so much to focus on its artistic, technical, or creative merits, nor even on its historical accuracy, but to assess what it can tell us about power relations and the nature of representation, particularly the representation of the 'other' by the powerful.

Watching Aladdin through this framework, I was keenly aware that I was not witnessing anything close to resembling an authentic or realistic depiction of Arabian history or folklore. But - and this is significant - neither did I feel that Arabs were being mocked, demonised, or ridiculed. And coming after 100 years of cinematic portrayals that have done exactly that, this really is saying something.

As such, despite all the criticism, I see this as a clear step forward. Perhaps this progress is too incremental a step for some, but considering just how mired Hollywood has been in its representation of Reel Bad Arabs, it is nonetheless a notable one.

So, while I do understand the reluctance on the part of some Arabs and other people of colour to watch or credit it, I also think, as a western cultural artefact, which is what it is, Aladdin is a sign that something is perhaps at long last shifting in how the Middle East is represented in pop culture, a sign that Arabs can at long last be something other than victims or perpetrators.

Those lyrics are gone, as is the general presentation of Arabia as a hotbed of irrational violence and intellectual incompetence

Arabs, when not the savage barbarians, are often depicted as bubbling buffoons, a device that undercuts any perceived threat they may represent. How unexpected then, that in Aladdin, this role fell to the sole white character, a European prince attempting to court Princess Jasmine.

My first reaction when seeing a white face in this of all films was to instinctively roll my eyes and think that they couldn't seem to help themselves, that they just had to go and insert a white person into a story that doesn't concern them, as if imagining a world without whites was impossible.

But looking at this another way, think of how subversive it is; the only white character with a speaking role is a dufus who is far too unsophisticated for a princess as intelligent as Jasmine. It's a clear role reversal and one that I enjoyed.

Also significant are the posters for this film that I have seen plastered all over Sydney, featuring as they do the four brown and black faces of the main characters - this is not a moment that should go unacknowledged.

It is almost unheard of for a mainstream Hollywood film to feature an Arab or Middle Eastern romantic leading man, 
as this very delightful musical parody, sung to the tune of A Whole New World, highlights.

Some of these problems could perhaps have been allayed by entrusting filmmakers with links to the Arab world and Middle East

"I can star in a film," sings actor Ritesh Rajan to actress Sujata Day, "Tell me brown girl, now when did you last crush on a brown lead?" Well, when it comes to Arab leads, not perhaps since the heady days of Omar Sharif.

Yes, Aladdin is a studio blockbuster film, and very much one that imagines an Arabia that has never existed in the material world.

But it would be a shame to overlook all the ways in which it suggests progress, and to not give at least some kudos to Ritchie and Disney for what they did get right in listening to our concerns as we keep moving along on this road to better representation, even as we acknowledge that we are not even close to being there yet.

As Day and Rajan sing, "Finally seeing yourself on the big screen in theatres… It's just the start for diverse art in Hollywood."

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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