Saturday, April 20, 2013

Prince Ali, Yes, It Is He, But Not As You Know Him

My sister spent four years majoring in religious studies, with a concentration on Islam. As a side effect, she now cannot watch the Disney Aladdin without wincing at the rampant orientalism and the stuff it just gets wrong. I have no such handicap - in fact, Aladdin was my first fictional crush, so I'll always see that movie through rose-tinted lenses - but I also know she's got a point. And it goes all the way back to Scheherazade herself.

Why is the story of Aladdin always the story of the exotic Other?

Weird as it is for Westerners to think about (or at least for me), most of the stories of the mysterious and exotic Arabian Nights are in fact set in a milieu that would have been intimately familiar to contemporary readers and/or listeners: their own world. We don't blink at TV shows about doctors or high schoolers; even though they use tools and language that would seem miraculous to someone from another time or culture, they're a part of our world that we take completely for granted. How different is your garden-variety fairy godmother from your average djinn, anyway? Same in-story function, different trappings. And to people hearing the stories of the Arabian Nights, viziers and bazaars and multi-colored fish would have sounded as familiar to us as presidents and supermarkets and... multi-colored fish.

But while the majority of the Thousand and One Tales are set in a familiar world (albeit one with fairy tale rules added in), the story of the poor boy and his magic lamp moves across the continent to China. No, you didn't read that wrong. The names don't change ethnicity - for instance, our hero, Ala ad-Din, falls head over heels in love with Princess Badr al-Budur - and the princess's father is a sheik. There's nothing specifically Chinese about the story, the characters, or the world it's set in. The only reason for it to take place in China is to rope in the mystique of the Other.

Fast-forward to America in 1992. Is China as exotic and mysterious as it was centuries ago, at the height of the silk trade? Of course not! It's a Communist country with restrictions on childbirth, a lousy human rights track record, and potential nukes. You bet your sweet patootie Disney's not setting their next blockbuster in China barely two years after the Berlin Wall came down.

So they move it back to the setting of the rest of Scheherazade's stories - again, easy to do because it's built around the same cultural framework - and create the exact same transformation that the original story did: not just moving it, but removing it from our familiar world, into the realm of the Other. The masculine threat of the original's sorcerer (who enters the tale masquerading as Aladdin's uncle and thus head of the family in Aladdin's place) is transformed into the rather effeminate Jafar, which in the late twentieth century was its own kind of threat. (Jafar also prefers to use others as his intermediaries rather than get his hands directly dirty, a holdover from the days when feminine meant powerless.) And lest the exoticism goes too overboard, the Genie is a delightful and deliberate anachronism, who provides both comic relief and temporal grounding for an American audience. Put bluntly, Aladdin bears about as much resemblance to Sassanid Persia as the original story does to imperial China.

So why this story? There are literally over a thousand in the complete base text - why the tale of a peasant and his djinn buddy? What about Aladdin says Other, not just to us, but to the original tellers?

The Arabian Nights, Edmund Dulac
It can't be the magic - or rather, it can't be just the magic. We'd scarcely recognize the Arabian Nights without the dazzling overflow of magic carpets, magic rings, magic horses, and djinn of every stripe, from benevolent to enslaved to murderous. The genie of the lamp is probably the best known example of that kind of power, but he performs fairly traditional djinn magic as the stories go. It can't be the cross-social romance - not only are there a few of those in the Arabian Nights, the West can't get enough of Cinderella stories. The cynic in me wonders if it's the fact that the story continues past the "happily ever after," which hardly any Western fairy tale seems to do, but the simple fact of married life and misunderstandings blowing out of proportion don't really telegraph "mystical Other." And if it's the characters' relationships, then why do most adaptations ignore the far nicer and gentler genie of the ring, who actually seems to like helping Aladdin out, in favor of the haughtier and more remote genie of the lamp?

Scheherazade and the Sultan, Sani ol Molk
Maybe, at bottom, it's got nothing to do with the plot. Maybe it's a meta-interference by reality in the way we see this particular story. Like the tale of Sinbad, Aladdin was a late addition to the Thousand and One Nights, a tale set in China, told by a fictional Persian woman, and crammed in by an 18th-century Frenchman. So really, the entire history of the story of Aladdin is one of Otherness, of foreign perceptions overlaid onto an inoffensive plot that never asked to be the focus of cultural misinterpretation. Maybe that's what makes it so easy to transpose from one setting to another; it's been moved around so much, it just takes to it better (and the extravagant magical displays provide a convenient excuse for setting it in a world more exotic than ours). Like its hero's own aspirations, the story never stops changing. Maybe it never will.

Or maybe there's something super simple and coherent going on that I've completely overlooked. Leave a comment and let me know!


  1. I pretty much agree w/ everything except Jafar as effeminate. I don't know what the original sorcerer was like, but omg Jafar is almost entirely a masculine threat. I mean, he's symbolized by a freaking snake. Additionally, his evil sexually aggressive snake-ness is a threat to Jasmine's purity and controls her impotent father. Only Aladdin's safer and whiter and younger masculinity can defeat Jafar.

    1. Snake = many, many points to you. :) And yes, he absolutely is legitimately dangerous, especially once he sets his sights on Jasmine. But he does it without a shred of actual physical attraction to her - he calls her "the shrew" even as he hatches his plan to marry her - and he enacts his plans through subterfuge, disguise, and lots of mooks, which are more traditionally feminine tactics than Aladdin's head-on assaults. Even his failed wish to make Jasmine fall in love with him comes not from thwarted lust, but from simple expedience (keeping her compliant) and the knowledge that it'll really mindfuck her as punishment for disobeying him. (Also, I would argue that the deliberate exotic Otherness renders Jasmine's purity relatively moot - we WANT our Arabian princesses bare-midriffed and sexually adventurous.)

      I would also say you could make a similar out-of-gender-role analysis of Ursula, who schemes for power and manipulates innocents in a very traditionally masculine way. It says nothing good that both stereotype-tweaking characters are really villainous, but to my mind that's part of their villainy - they challenge the status quo, which is always scary to the mainstream.