Ready to feel old? Disney’s Aladdin came out 25 years ago. I know, your first experience with a magic carpet ride probably feels really fresh in your mind. If you’re like me, Princess Jasmine was the first animated character to inspire #bodygoals and #wcw feels before we knew what either of those things were. As a Black girl, Aladdin was also special because it was the first Disney film that shifted away from the pasty whiteness that defined the rest of its princess lineup. And this was intentional. When it was released, Aladdin was specifically marketed to Black and Latino audiences, and the strategy seemed to work. Cinderella may have been my favourite Disney princess story, but Jasmine was who I wanted to be. My peers felt the same. But just because Aladdin resonated so well with little girls of colour, doesn’t mean it was perfect. Far from it; the thing we cannot forget about the film is that it was pretty racist.
That Aladdin was a fantastical imagining of a land far away from the United States, but conjured by a bunch of white dudes was the first sign of trouble. In 2017, we seem to all be in agreement that letting people of colour tell their own stories is always the best way to create diverse narratives. But in 1992, Ron Clements and John Muskers created Agrabah, a fictional land that was a smorgasbord of stereotypes. There is no consistency among the choppy accents of the people that are portrayed as thrilling but barbaric. Scenes that show what is supposed to be Arabic script is just gibberish. Villains are notably darker that Princess Jasmine, Aladdin, and other characters that audiences were supposed to resonate with. The “good characters” were set apart with American accents and white physical features, including lighter skin.
Aladdin’s racism feels lazy. The film and its creators refused to do the work of normalsing and humanising people of colour for American audiences. Non-Christian religions, the countries and cultures of the Middle East, and the people themselves took on very few human characteristics and instead existed to bring to life different kinds of fairy tales that never should have existed in the first place. Aladdin uses tropes of the Middle East to centre and validate the Western (read: white) experience.
A live-action remake of Aladdin is coming, starring Will Smith as Genie. Disney studios came under fire earlier this year when they admitted that they were struggling to find the right person of Middle Eastern or Indian descent for the titular role. The perceived unlikeliness that such a combination exists felt like just another example of white Hollywood not really seeing people of colour and their talents for what they are. Ultimately, they settled on Mena Massoud for the role. But the real victory in the updated version will be the care to address and push back on the racial implications of its predecessor. I'm not sure how well they'll do since they've unnecessarily created a new white character, Prince Anders, to appear.
As for the original version, I have an unpopular opinion: I think it’s kind of unreasonable to expect people to reject the happy nostalgia of our favourite childhood movies, however problematic they may be. In the grand scheme of things, our fight for racial justice will not be won with a culture ride forgetting of Aladdin. However, should we find ourselves still longing to engage with Aladdin and films like it, we should be aware of the ramifications of the content we consume so that we are able to call out negative images and hold producers accountable for them. In other words, stay woke.