Disney’s Racist and Orientalist Middle Ages

I am teaching an independent study this semester in which we are discussing medievalism. Today, my student and I worked through some chapters from the Disney Middle Ages.

One of the interesting findings is the way that Disney tries to clean up, sanitize, and Americanize the Middle Ages, often erasing the grimmer stories that support their fantasies. Good essays all around (especially the one by Susan Aronstein on pilgrimage and theme parks).

This last Saturday, my kids watched most of Aladdin for the first time. I haven’t watched it in years. Here’s the opening:

So that’s pretty racist, right? And it gets worse. Only Aladdin – excuse me, Al – and the other nice characters get American accents, whereas everyone else has a “mysterious” “exotic” “eastern” accent.  The culture is associated with savagery, cruelty, decadence, sexy half-dressed but veiled women (hint – people in bikinis usually don’t wear veils).

I am not the first person to notice this. In 1993, the Islamic Human Rights Commission came out with a critique.

I wonder if Aladdin, in time, will go the way of Song of the South. I sort of hope so, because it will mean these kinds of racist portrayals will have passed into the realm of unacceptable. Today, I am not optimistic.

One Reply to “Disney’s Racist and Orientalist Middle Ages”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It's interesting you picked up on Aladin = good guy by definition being the only one who sounded US-American. That's actually wide-spread in movies – "Van Helsing" with Hugh Jackman was a particularly mind-scrambling example, with peasants whining in a generically European accent about the trouble it would cause that the shining, US-American sounding hero killed monsters. In 2004. We don't need no stinkin' subtlety.

    I think it is part of a wider symptom: good guys don't just sound like 21st century US-American. They think and act like them, too. A character in a story is "good" if he's good by the mainstream standards of the US at the time the movie was made, _not_ if he's good (that is, kind, generous, self-critical, patient, forgiving, self-controlled…) by the standards of the time and place he/she actually lives in.

    A "good" inhabitant of West Virginia in the 1840ies is likely to oppose slavery and view african-americans as his equals. His neighbor who believes the common "everyone knows this" truth that they are intellectually inferior and can't organize their own lives, and that as a white man he's responsible for keeping the (and the women of his own family, for that matter) in line & in good health, is probably gray area or bad guy.

    "Good" medieval characters usually sprout very futuristic democratic tendencies, too. Believers in the divinely ordained three classes are either marginal characters or evil.

    And all women who live in a society without gender equality long for such a state (complete with the vital freedom to wear a bikini, be appraised for how she looks in one and giggle about sexy men); any half-way likable woman can't be happy being a wife, mother and home-maker.

    Underlying message? Good people everywhere, every-time, are recognizable by the fact that their values are largely congruent with US values. Opposed to these values = bad guy, most of the time.

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