Introduction: Since Disney’s creation of a string of WWII propaganda films in the 40s and his later testimony in the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Disney has been highly political. The media that it churns out imposes an America-Centric, Christian, and middle-class value system, and Aladdin is no different.
In August of 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. By January 1991, US troops, along with Saudis and those of other nations deployed their own troops to the tiny Persian Gulf nation. Oft cited as a cause of the interference was maintaining low oil prices (justifying the estimated $60 billion cost of the war, in total?). Also sometimes stated as a cause is the imperial American policy of controlling the price of oil, whether it is high or low. Aladdin, Disney’s first film with an Arab setting was released in 1992, which “coincidentally” derides the Islamic religion, Middle Eastern culture, and generally comes off as thinly veiled propaganda encouraging further intervention in the Middle East, because they want it. And it’s what you should want, spongy young mind.
The Barbaric Middle East – From the very first scene, the theme of the Middle East as a barbaric land is established, with the lyrics in the original opening song: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” The following scenes of the outdoor market ridicule the merchants hawking their wares, making some out to be dishonest and certainly unjust in their treatment of Aladdin (But how does the Disney corporation treat individuals when you irritate them? Like garbage.) These scenes establish, over and over, that the Middle Eastern world is a senseless one where you are executed or mutilated for the slightest infraction. And most importantly, nobody wants it to be that way.
Please Change Us – All of the characters that we are supposed to like hate the world that they live in, with the possible exception of the Sultan who is depicted as too stupid to understand their qualms.
Jasmine – Our young heroine wants a more democratic legal system that would allow her to marry whoever she wants. She tells her father, “I hate being forced into this. If I do marry, I want it to be for love” and then later, “I’ve never done anything on my own. I’ve never had any real friends.” Consequently, she runs away but is so naive about life in the outside world that she doesn’t realize she needs money to buy things. Then Aladdin comes and helps her escape punishment for giving a hungry little boy an apple, as well as his monkey who has been stealing non-necessary things such as jewelry. It’s presented that lying and stealing are simply necessary in the corrupt Arab world, but people want it to be different (yet Disney donated millions to Dubya’s campaign, who lowered taxes on the rich). Shortly after, Jasmine and Aladdin immediately bond over both feeling trapped. The film is saying that no matter what your status in the Arab world is, you’re trapped in the authoritarian prison. And to salt the wound, their society is keeping true lovers apart.
As for her father, the Sultan ends up changing the laws of the land to better reflect Western values (and personal whim).
Aladdin – Aladdin is downtrodden and trapped, unable to escape life as a “street rat,” and pursued by men who will cut off his hands for stealing a loaf of bread (society is obviously broken). However, he has dreams of being rich. The people, then, are victims of evil rulers that must be overthrown and replaced by good people who embrace western values. An example of this is seeing the Arab prince who only has contempt for the common people starving outside the palace walls (when they aren’t busy getting their hands chopped off), but we cheer when Jasmine rejects him.
In case this message wasn’t clear enough, Jasmine and Aladdin then escape from the palace on his magic carpet and they sing “Whole New World,” on their world tour. In other words, the happy young couple just want to see the world that their totalitarian government won’t let them see. They’re dying for western material pleasures, maybe a trip to Disney World.
The Genie – Not only are the genie’s performances a homage to Broadway, but they also have an element of slapstick comedy, and he’s appropriately voiced by the very American Robin Williams. Furthermore, he wants freedom more than anything in the world, and no master for thousands of years (presumably all Arab) until Aladdin would ever grant him his own wish. It takes an American character to do that, it would seem.
I think that it’s fairly clear that the film is an indictment of Middle Eastern culture, and calls for westerners to come in and change them. Only we can save them!
Muslim Religion – Christianity gets serious treatment in Disney films such as The Chronicles of Narnia (a Christian allegory), but Aladdin mocks and trivializes the Islamic religion repeatedly. Continually, we hear the Muslim characters crying out religions phrases like “As-Salamu Alaykum” and “Praise Allah” as if they were old women playing Bingo. Turbans are set on fire, their feathers fall down into their eyes. The treasure cave that Aladdin goes into calls him an “infidel” for the monkey merely touching a giant ruby. It’s all made to be a comic spectacle worthy of American derision, with obvious patriotic motives toward the recent (and future) operations in the Middle East.
Women and Minorities Need to be Saved – Despite the fact that Jasmine is a strong woman that can reject the substandard suitors that seek her hand in marriage and feel objectified by a group of men talking about who she will marry without her input, in the end she still must be saved by Aladdin. He saves her not only from a life of unhappy marriage, but he literally must save her life in the end. Furthermore, the whole story is implying that an Arab state will naturally lead to totalitarianism if not interfered with. The Sultan even says that the kingdom needs somebody of Aladdin’s character.
This is made clear through the characters’ appearances and voices. Aladdin does not look Arab at all, and in fact was intentionally modeled on Tom Cruise. Yes, Disney’s Arab hero is modeled on America’s most famous Scientologist. He and Jasmine both have lighter skin than the rest of the cast and have all-American accents. Meanwhile, the evil Jafar has darker skin than the rest (many of which basically just look Italian). His pet bird is even named Iago, named for the duplicitous character in Shakespeare’s Othello, deepening the western framework for judging these characters.
The Original Aladdin – In the original tale of Aladdin, published in A Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin was a Chinese boy living in China, manipulated by a North African sorcerer to do his bidding. The latter character would actually have represented the west to those in China. Through the help of the genie in the story, he wishes himself a great fortune and marries the Emperor’s daughter, later defeating the sorcerer. It’s clear then that the tale was bastardized to conform to the corporation’s romantic formula and to serve as mainstream commentary on Middle Eastern culture, doing its part to make sure the children of the 90s would support more Middle Eastern intervention.
Overview – Pulp Fiction is a tragedy without the sadness and a comedy without the comic plot line. And at the same time as it portrays itself as a champion of those who want to escape the world of political correctness and limitations, it also mocks the dissociative culture that tends to come along with it, lamenting the American Wasteland. In other words, by pretending to have no moral message it only makes it hit harder. I also believe that the film was written with modern media criticism in mind and purposefully exaggerates the ever-criticized aspects of movies, such as jumping from scene to scene with no apparent reason, and throwing together a mishmosh of genres.
“[Criticism] is the only civilized form of autobiography”
Introduction – I’ve avoided discussing many of the plot details because that’s been done, and redone ad nauseum. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on an aspect that’s been little talked about—the mythological influence in the film. I’ve read short comparisons between the original and the cinematic Ariadne, but most of what follows is new.
Ariadne – In Greek mythology, the Athenian hero Theseus set out to kill the bull-headed Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth to prevent him from eating more Athenian girls and boys. Luckily for him, the Minotaur’s half-sister Ariadne (“the resplendent one”) fell in love with him and decided to help him in his task. She gave him a ball of string that he could unravel as he navigated the maze so that he wouldn’t lose his way. Similarly, in Inception, Ariadne helps Cobb through the dream world, playing the role of Architect and shrink.
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New, Video Version:
How delighted would be all the kings, czars, and fuhrers of the past…to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourses takes the form of a jest?
-Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Overview –Clueless is an interesting social experiment. The producers deliberately set out to make new trends for teenagers, even releasing a Clueless-inspired line of Barbie dolls, and these efforts were wildly successfully. But, at the same time, the film is a satire on the very people it was marketed to. It depicts a Huxleyian (as opposed to Orwellian) dystopia. We do not have to fear Big Brother as much as we have to fear the golden fetters of Clueless, the myth of human progress through material goods which drives us to laugh and dance all the way to slavery.
Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. The latter, perhaps, wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart.
-Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche
The artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but it is meaningless or even destructive among intimates.
-The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett
Introduction – I’ve read Hamlet three times over the past four months and have watched multiple productions, resulting in about twenty pages of scribbles that keep biting the dust because I’m always left with the impression that it’s not good enough. That I’ve missed the meaning. Only by including the lessons from Socrates and Nietzsche do I feel like I’ve arrived at a more solid understanding of Hamlet that goes beyond whether or not Gertrude was involved in King Hamlet’s murder or the exact degree to which Fortinbras’s situation reflects Hamlet’s. To focus on these things is to miss the poignant and timeless beauty.
Hamlet, Socrates, and Nietzsche – Hamlet illustrates how rationality can lead to irrationality. He has gazed too deeply into this life, swung from the stars, and maybe even spoke to a figure from the underworld in the form of his father’s ghost, and in the process he has failed to observe the ancient Greek principle of “Everything in Moderation.”
Video Version, Part 1:
True, I talk of dreams
Which are the children of an idle brain
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant as the wind, who wooes
Even now the frozen bosom of the north
-Romeo and Juliet
Introduction – While Romeo and Juliet is about a poignant love affair, it’s not as romantic as it may seem on the surface. All of the characters find themselves guided by raging love, sadness, hate, and anger, with the latter two especially dividing human society. Mercutio probably comes the closest to reason in that he perceives the corruption and unreason on both sides, but he cannot escape the spirit of the times either; his own fury gets him killed. But this is not a story about a few screwed-up people. Fate steers their courses and our own, and none of us unfortunate souls can control it.
It’s the bright day that brings forth the adder
Intro – Julius Caesar is different from other tragedies such as King Lear or Hamlet in that the tragic hero is not immediately clear, though it does have one. It is a more nuanced and ambiguous work, with each character being both good and bad. And while JC is a political commentary, reflecting the worries of civil war and succession in Shakespeare’s own times, it’s also peppered with philosophical reflections. The first time you read it, it may strike you as a “cold” tragedy, as Samuel Johnson said, due to this ambiguity and its less-quotable lines, but ultimately, I found it more enjoyable because of this initial impenetrability.