A Whole New World, Part I–-In Which I Critique Disney’s Aladdin (1992)

Dear Lily June,

Nothing says “I just turned thirty-one years of age” like watching a Disney film from the 90’s. I must have been eight when the film originally debuted, but when your dad presented it to me as a gift on Sunday, I realized I still knew almost every line of its dialogue by heart. Surely a film that’s made such a deep impression on my psyche (as well as taken up that much memory on the cognitive hard-drive) would have some redeeming qualities, right?

I’m sure it does, but that’s not what we’re here for today. As was the tradition set with both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, today is the day we rip Agrabah a new palace hole. We will refrain, however, from resorting to the actual violence that 30% of American Republicans want to take against this fictional, cartoon city.

The point, my dear, is to critically evaluate all that’s wrong with this timeless children’s classic so that, by the time you could actually enjoy it, I will have already ruined it for you. Why? Because Mommy loves you, Lily. And your Mommy, unlike a dead Disney mother, is actually around to teach you a thing or two. Like how not to get engaged to an unemployed, thieving orphan the day after he takes you on a “magic carpet ride.” You know what I’m sayin’? Yeah, you know what I’m sayin’.

Let’s begin!

***

Remember the Bechdel test? Yeah, Jasmine fails. As does all of Agrabah.

As a reminder, for a movie to be considered a “feminist film worth watching,” it has to meet all three criteria set by the Bechdel test, which include

  1. …having at least two [named] women in it…
  2. …who talk to each other…
  3. …about something besides a man.

First off, your dad defied me to give him a single named female in Agrabah other than Jasmine. I think all I could come up with was Rajah, who, as a tiger, is at a conversational disadvantage.  Rajah does have a name, and arguably, is more feminist than her owner. That tiger has the wisdom, for instance, to scowl and growl when a) Jasmine dismisses their friendship; and b) the Sultan himself threatens, “Allah forbid you should have any daughters.” There’s only one problem: Rajah is, according to the script, a MALE tiger, something I should have wised onto with the one gendered reference to the beast by Jafar. When, late in the film, the villain transforms Rajah from a fully-fledged tiger to a kitty cub, he shouts, “Down, boy!” But I digress.

As it pretty accurately described your mother in graduate school, I’d like to argue that there’s nothing inherently anti-feminist about a chick who keeps platonic with mostly male company. The trouble is that Jasmine doesn’t have a single other female to engage in stimulating conversations about the philosophical implications of palace power politics and their ramifications on the in(ter)dependence of women. So she has to resort to dressing up like a burlap sack, flirting with the first boy who saves her wrist from the sword, and waiting around for her father, the Sultan, to change the laws so that she can marry for love instead of political obligation. That’s pretty progressive politics for 9th Century Syrian manuscripts, but a bit behind the curve for 20th Century Disney screenwriting.

That especially holds true when the only debate seemingly raging amongst the countless unnamed women of Agrabah is whether Aladdin is problematically unstoppable (“He’s become a one-man rise in crime”) or whether he’s positively irresistable (“Still, [they] think he’s rather tasty.”) Back to the drawing board, Disney women (if you haven’t already been killed off like all the Disney moms).

***

Beyond feminist problematics, the film also treads into some ethical gray areas with theft, the death penalty, and imprisonment.

Should you ever learn your moral lessons from a Disney film? From any film? Probably not. But the trouble is, little Lily, that this is, whether people admit it or not, where we end up internalizing most of our lessons from. Our television shows, our advertisements, our songs, our films, our plays, our books, our paintings, all of our cultural and artistic productions teach us as much as our laws and our philosophies and our politics and our mothers about how to live in “the right way.” So what does Aladdin subconsciously teach or subliminally preach?

I’d argue that there are a number of ethical questions raised in the film:

  1. Is it right for a starving man to steal food for his own survival? (raised when Aladdin steals the loaf of bread, singing, “Gotta steal to eat / Gotta eat to live / Tell you all about it when I’ve got the time.”)
  2. Does it become more right if man steals food for others who are starving? (raised when Aladdin willingly and Abu begrudgingly hand over their bread, or when Jasmine hands an un-purchased apple, to even hungrier, dirtier “street rats.”)
  3. Is it okay to lie about another’s theft if the lie might save that person’s life? (raised when Aladdin pretends Jasmine is crazy in order to save her from dismemberment after the apple incident).
  4. Is it okay to hold another’s freedom hostage for one’s own material gain? (raised by the entire question of the Genie)
  5. Is it okay to hold another’s freedom hostage for an entire country’s well-being? (raised by Aladdin’s initial refusal to free the Genie because he knows he’ll need help eventually ruling the people as their Sultan)

The answers to these moral quandaries operate at the most simplistic levels. For each in their turn, the answers seem to be:

  1. Yes, as long as he’s cute, and his best friend is an equally hungry and adorable monkey;
  2. Sure, if the peasant children are also doe-eyed;
  3. Yes, as long as she’s pretty and secretly a princess who’s entitled to anything she wants amongst the merchants’ stock and trade;
  4. Why not, if the imprisoned has a sense of humor about his “phenomenal cosmic power [and] itty-bitty living space;” and
  5. No, it’s better to be your flawed self and lead your people into abject poverty from your complete lack of political saavy as long as the funny blue Genie gets to escape for a Disneyland vacation at the end.

But consider a higher level of moral reasoning, Lily. Lawrence Kohlberg, for instance, a psychological graduate student from the University of Chicago, came up with a set of stages of moral development in the 1950’s based around the Heinz Dilemma that goes as follows. (Note that, while no one answer was considered “better” than another, those who operated at the sixth stage of moral reasoning were far less likely to hurt their fellow man, and far more likely to live a kind, caring, and giving life.)

Forgive my bastardized summary, but here’s, roughly, Heinz’s dilemma: Heinz is a dude whose wife, Mrs. Heinz, is dying from cancer. A druggist in his town invents a cure that costs $200 to produce, but the druggist decides to charge $2,000 to sell it, a price Mr. Heinz cannot afford. Mr. Heinz does everything he can to raise the dough, including begging his neighbors for help, but can eventually only come up with $1,000. Finally, he pleads with the druggist, who responds that he absolutely will not part with the drug for less than the $2,000 asking price, so Heinz ultimately robs the druggist’s laboratory and steals the cure. Was he right to do so? Why or why not?

The “yes” or “no” matters less to the moral stage of development than a responder’s reasoning behind that answer. Here is how someone in each stage might answer. All of the wording of each stage is taken from this Wikipedia article, so credit where credit’s due:

  • Stage One–Obedience
    • Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison which will mean he is a bad person. OR Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
  • Stage Two–Self-Interest
    • Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
  • Stage ThreeConformity
    • Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. OR Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad, and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
  • Stage Four–Law-and-Order
    • Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. OR Heinz should steal the drug for his wife but also take the prescribed punishment for the crime as well as paying the druggist what he is owed. Criminals cannot just run around without regard for the law; actions have consequences.
  • Stage Five–Human Rights
    • Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
  • Stage SixUniversal Human Ethics
    • Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. OR Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

Using these stages, the Genie never gets past Stage One, although he is sort of magically forced to be obedient to whoever his current Master is. One could argue that he visits Stage Five when he saves Aladdin from drowning even when, technically, he violates Genie law to do so, but he’s only too willing to send his buddy to the ends of the earth to freeze to death when Jafar orders it. Hell, even most of the palace guards operate at Stage Four, following the laws of the Grand Vizier or their Sultan because they arguably believe in the power of their lawmakers.

You’d think Aladdin ends up at Stage Six when he ultimately frees the Genie regardless of how it might impact his own relationship with Jasmine or, when he’s allowed to marry her after all, his ability to rule as Sultan. But in putting the people of Agrabah in potential danger so that he can save face in front of his near-bikini-clad girlfriend, the one he only just met and wooed over theft with no thought at all about how the poor merchants of Agrabah are going to eek out an “honest” living and feed their own children with lamp or apple or bread sales, I would argue that he, and Jasmine both, are stuck at Stage Two. That’s pretty bad when you consider that even Abu could arguably be considered to exercise Stage Three practices, conforming as a loyal monkey and then elephant to help his friend, even when, as in the case of the regifted stolen bread, he doesn’t agree with him.

Would I want you to steal bread to feed the starving? If you believed that was a worthy cause, sure. Would I want you to throw an entire [I know it’s made-up, but still] country under the bus so that you can marry a hot near-stranger? No, Lily. No, I would not. You’re safest to leave any lamps you find on the ground, or at least use your first wish to free the Genie and let him/her choose if they want to help you from there.

***

The film is as ethnically insensitive as it is ethically deplorable when it comes to the depictions of Anglos & Arabs.

It’s simultaneously hilarious and pitiable and tragic and terrifying that real-live politicians right now are debating whether or not to bomb a country, Agrabah, that never existed except in a cartoon. Before the term was adopted by technological fields, economic theorists and business majors, for instance, used to argue over how to hypothetically produce more “widgets” at lower costs (widgets being abstract units of production) in order to yield higher returns. Has Agrabah become the placeholder Middle-eastern country to American xenophobes? Can they debate the collateral cartoon damage with all the tender detachment that an economics professor might have when announcing there’s been a fire in the widget factory and no widget-workers escaped?

Maybe it’s the artists of Agrabah, and not its imagined people, who should be bombed. Look closely, Lily, at the faces of Aladdin and Jasmine. They’ve been extremely Anglicized, made more to look like they come from the sandbox on Main Street, America than the sand dunes of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq.

For instructional purposes, here’s a real photograph of an adolescent male from Syria next to the animated image of Aladdin:

Notice a difference? Look at the skin tones, the body hair. What’s the matter with the look on the left? Absolutely nothing. Except that Americans tend to be afraid of it because of internalized racism that they’ve been misled by their politicians into thinking is national security. I say this as a proud American, Lily: Our superficiality as a nation has GOT to end.

You know who does have the darker skin tones and realistic facial hair of an actual Arab, though? The film’s villain, Jafar:

Jafar

I wish, as an eight-year-old, I’d had the presence of mind to see what a problem it was to make the “Good Guys” look like “me” and the “Bad Guys” look like “them.” It was a way of taking a real people and erasing the ink of their actual skin to make it palatable for American children. And now, looking back, I find that repulsive. And I find it, with figures like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, to be a common American story: We first “create” the “villainous Other” and then we kill the villain we ourselves helped to create–be it on the drawing board or in the behind-the-scenes machinations of militaristic dealings with dictators.

It is, after all, Lily, the “Us-Them” mentality that drives most of America’s skirmishes with the Middle East now, allowing Americans to look past their common humanity and imagine barbarous snakes in place of people. And that’s a lesson I hope you NEVER internalize. People are people, whether they can or cannot afford bread. People are people, whether their skin is olive or cream or any other color. And all human life–and human freedom–has value, whether you’re a Sultan or a terrorist or a cartoonist or a secretary or a mother or a child.

***

Picture Credits:

Works Referenced:

  • Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements. Perf. Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, and Frank Welker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1992. Film.
  • “Heinz Dilemma.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2015. Web. 22 December 2015.

 

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10 thoughts on “A Whole New World, Part I–-In Which I Critique Disney’s Aladdin (1992)

  1. Amy says:

    You do my philosophy major/heart good. This ought to be shouted from the rooftops: to leaders, filmmakers, parents, and most especially, DISNEY. Do you ever consider publication of these articles elsewhere? This is a doozy for sure (in the most wonderful way). Here’s where I would gush wildly about your brilliant writing and brilliant thinking and brilliant putting-them- together. But I’ve already done that several times and you might think me a creeper. 😉 Well done! Will your pen name stay dearlilyjune, do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. BunKaryudo says:

    I was interested on you take on the moral issues raised by the movie. Unfortunately, Disney is not the only company that tends to make its villains “other.” I could probably name 100 movies without even trying where the baddies have a foreign accent or appearance.

    As for the example of Heinz and the druggist, I’m afraid I’m not a very good person. I would save my steal the medicine, save my wife, and find it very hard not to punch the druggist on the nose as I was leaving for his attempted profiteering at my wife’s expense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Thing is, I love the movie so it was kind of like pulling teeth to write the critique. But I want Lily to see the balance in everything: that you can find fault with what you love; and that things you don’t love can still have something to teach you.

      Of course, I hope she both loves AND never finds fault with me. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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