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Racial essentialism is becoming more prominent not only by the people that shape the society, but also by the media due to the visible partition of contrasting ethnic groups. One of the types of media that makes up such racism is emanated in the form of movies. The purpose of this essay is to evaluate how a Disney animated movie that is intended for children, Aladdin (1992 produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation) shows the characters, deriving on the racial essentialism and non-essentialism of the Middle Eastern society in the American media text- exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, underrepresentation, similarities and differences between other dominant ethnic communities and hybridity.
There is a claim that the movie is considered as a cultural essentialism due to the representation of the animated characters. In one of the scenes, Princess Jasmine and the Sultan have lighter skin complexions compare to the other surrounding characters, despite the fact that they all have the same ethnicity. The gradual change in Aladdin’s skin tone also stands out, symbolising white supremacy, telling the viewers that people who look white are the ones who save the world.
On that account, categorises the element of essentialism as Orientalism, where the Arab culture and individuals are generally oversimplified, exaggerated and undermined (Said, 1978). This implies that since Disney is controlled by the people from the West, they have little to no interest on respecting the Middle Eastern community and acknowledging their historical achievements. In general, they always perceive Arabs as someone uncivilised, so like it or not they do not have a choice but to save them from falling into the barbaric society.
In other word, you cannot be an Arab in order to be a kind-hearted person; you have to look and act like a White. As a result of this, his idea gives us an awful impression of Disney for not being able to connect well with the Middle Eastern group or even Arab-American audiences (Said, 1978). Kivel (2011, p. 25) also supports that the movie is mostly based on essentialism because he believes that the animator uses the process of racial dubbing, distinguishing the heroic and immoral characters by their skin colours.
This shows a comparison between Aladdin’s skin tone in the beginning and the end of the movie. Taken from Kisscartoon.com
In defence of Disney, Warraq (2007, p. 248) criticises Said for being too biased, as he focuses too much on the negative sides of the Western world. It is true that racial stereotype is socially reconstructed largely after the postcolonial era, but Said abuses his power of Orientalism and completely ignores the fact that the Middle East indeed has a long history of social issue, especially human rights dispute (Warraq, 2007). On that account, the term racism should not be regarded in a universal meaning because the indication of racism towards a certain ethnic community still remains blurry. Human beings must understand how racism is socially constructed in a particular culture, meaning that racial essentialism comes from many different social genesis.
The contrasting nature of the protagonists and the antagonists is also visibly inscribed in the movie, through their physical display that gives more essentialism. Jafar, the antagonist, is portrayed as a thin and tanned person with over-exaggerated features, like large eyes and large pointed nose that reflects upon the whole Arabian ethnicity. Moreover, he has a distinct Arabian accent, while the protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine speak with a fluent English-American accent, indicating that Americans are righteous. Phillips (2010) suggests that in order for a media platform to be labelled as essentialism, the attribution of specific qualities to everyone have to be identified with a fixed classification. Therefore, designing Jafar into an Arabian-like character highlights that every person from the Middle East has a devious persona, which follows the rules of racial essentialism (Phillips 2010). Although Phillips (2010) asserts that racial essentialism creates some distinctions of particular ethnic group, Lippert (2006) takes up a non-essentialist view, expressing that racial profiling is not something negative. He scrutinises that by over generalising a group of people, it allows us to make a justification on whether we should focus on our unjustified assumption or not. In this matter, the non-essentialist motive behind the protagonists’ fluent English-American accent is considered more to be in a sense of hybridisation of the Arab and American culture, symbolising that not all Arab have an easily-distinguishable manner of speaking, as every individual has their own unique idiosyncrasies. This hybridity emphasises an international culture with the nuanced communication between the shared cultures, rather than mere co existence (Bhabha, 2006).
These are displays of four different characters within the movie, showing that the more Arabian the character looks, the more evil he becomes. Taken from Kisscartoon.com
Another non-essentialist approach on race and culture in the movie is the portrayal of women. Princess Jasmine and other young girls are dressed in modest outfits, showing their midriffs and cleavages instead of wearing kaftans and burkas that cover the entire facial features and bodies. The evocation of women creates a controversy, as they are criticised for being too westernised, meaning that their appearances are adjusted to in a way that fits the English norm (Hains, 2014). Nevertheless, Burns (2016, p. 411) explains that Princess Jasmine abandons the tradition by conforming to the average feminine beauty standard to show to the viewers that every Arabian girl looks different to each other since they follow their fashion styles based on their characters rather than their race.
Overall, Aladdin is one of the examples of a film that has a dynamic racial portrayal through the mixture of American and Arabian cultures breed. I believe that it is normal to generalise a type of ethnic group, especially in cartoons. Film producers sometimes do not essentialise on purpose, since all human brains use stereotyping, implicating that they want the audiences exclusively children— to have an instant understanding of the world but meanwhile, race through an essentialist direction can be very tricky because people do not know where the borderline is.
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