Analysis of Racial Essentialism in Disney's "Aladdin"

Categories: Racial Discrimination


Racial essentialism has gained prominence not only through societal influencers but also within media due to the evident divide among contrasting ethnic groups. This essay aims to critically evaluate how Disney's animated movie "Aladdin" (1992, produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation), targeted at children, reflects racial essentialism and non-essentialism within the context of Middle Eastern society in American media. We will examine the presence of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, underrepresentation, similarities, and differences between dominant ethnic communities, and the concept of hybridity.

Racial Essentialism in Aladdin

Ethnic Representation and Skin Tone

Aladdin has faced criticism for perpetuating racial essentialism, primarily evident in the representation of its animated characters. One scene in the movie draws attention to the fact that Princess Jasmine and the Sultan possess lighter skin complexions compared to the surrounding characters of the same ethnicity. Furthermore, Aladdin's gradual change in skin tone throughout the film has been interpreted as symbolizing white supremacy, implying that those who resemble white individuals are the heroes destined to save the world.

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This categorization aligns with the concept of Orientalism, where Arab culture and individuals are oversimplified, exaggerated, and undermined (Said, 1978).

Orientalism in Aladdin suggests that Disney, as a Western-dominated entity, may lack the inclination to respect the Middle Eastern community and acknowledge their historical achievements. The narrative implies that Arabs are portrayed as uncivilized, necessitating rescue by characters who exhibit traits associated with whiteness. This perspective paints Disney in a negative light for its inability to connect effectively with the Middle Eastern or Arab-American audiences (Said, 1978).

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Kivel (2011, p. 25) further supports the assertion that Aladdin leans towards essentialism by employing racial dubbing, distinguishing heroic and villainous characters based on their skin colors.

Counterarguments and Critiques

While Disney's portrayal of racial stereotypes in Aladdin has drawn criticism, it is essential to consider counterarguments. Warraq (2007, p. 248) criticizes Edward Said for his alleged bias, claiming that Said focuses excessively on the negative aspects of the Western world. Warraq argues that while racial stereotyping is a social construct, it should not be universally condemned. He contends that Said overlooks the social issues in the Middle East, particularly human rights disputes.

According to Warraq, racism varies significantly across different cultures, emphasizing that the concept of racial essentialism is socially constructed in distinct ways. Therefore, the perception of racism towards a specific ethnic community remains context-dependent, and it is vital to recognize how racism is socially constructed within particular cultures.

Protagonists vs. Antagonists

Physical Attributes and Stereotypes

Another facet of racial essentialism in Aladdin manifests in the stark contrast between the protagonists and antagonists. The antagonist, Jafar, is depicted as thin and tanned, with exaggerated features such as large eyes and a pointed nose, characteristics that align with stereotypes associated with Arabian ethnicity. Additionally, Jafar speaks with a distinct Arabian accent, further reinforcing the essentialist narrative.

Conversely, the protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, speak with fluent English-American accents, signifying their virtue and righteousness. This portrayal implies that individuals who conform to English-American norms are inherently good. Phillips (2010) argues that for a media text to be classified as essentialist, it must attribute specific qualities to everyone within a fixed classification. Thus, presenting Jafar as an Arabian-like character perpetuates the notion that all individuals from the Middle East possess devious personas, adhering to the rules of racial essentialism (Phillips 2010).

Non-Essentialist Perspective: Hybridity

An alternative viewpoint on race and culture in Aladdin suggests a non-essentialist interpretation. The fluent English-American accents of the protagonists may be seen as a representation of hybridization between Arabian and American cultures. This portrayal implies that not all Arabs possess easily distinguishable speech patterns, acknowledging that individuals have unique idiosyncrasies, and language should not solely define one's identity.

This perspective promotes an international culture in which nuanced communication reflects the blending of shared cultures rather than mere coexistence. It aligns with Homi Bhabha's concept of hybridity, which emphasizes the coalescence of diverse cultural elements into a single, dynamic entity (Bhabha, 2006).

Representation of Women

The portrayal of women in Aladdin also raises questions related to racial essentialism. Princess Jasmine and other female characters are dressed in modest outfits that reveal their midriffs and cleavages rather than conforming to traditional Arabian attire such as kaftans and burkas, which cover the entire body and face. This depiction has generated controversy, with critics arguing that these characters appear too westernized, adapting their appearances to fit Western beauty standards (Hains, 2014).

However, an opposing perspective offered by Burns (2016, p. 411) suggests that Princess Jasmine's decision to forego traditional attire signifies her agency and the diversity among Arabian girls. It underscores the idea that Arabian girls, like all individuals, have their unique fashion choices driven by personal character rather than being solely dictated by their race.


In conclusion, Disney's Aladdin presents a complex racial portrayal characterized by a blend of American and Arabian cultures. While criticisms of racial essentialism in the film are valid, it is crucial to consider counterarguments and acknowledge the context-dependent nature of racism. The stark contrast between protagonists and antagonists, as well as the representation of women, highlights the challenges of navigating racial representation in media.

Ultimately, Aladdin serves as an example of how racial essentialism can be a nuanced and multifaceted issue in media. It underscores the importance of recognizing that the boundary between essentialism and non-essentialism is often blurred, and the interpretation of racial representation can vary significantly depending on cultural and societal contexts.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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Analysis of Racial Essentialism in Disney's "Aladdin". (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

Analysis of Racial Essentialism in Disney's "Aladdin" essay
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