A New, Fantastic Point of View

A New, Fantastic Point of View

Not even Disney can bring democracy to the Middle East.

[Enjoy this guest post from regular contributor Meghan O’Keefe! – Ed.]

Aladdin is a fairy tale not set in a fairy tale kingdom. In the fictional city of Agrabah, the gulf between the upper and lower class has resulted in a society rampant with crime and poverty. The people are in desperate need of better leadership and there is no male heir apparent. Aladdin is introduced as a character whose hidden inner worth transcends class. Even as a “street rat”, he holds himself with pride, and even as he risks his life to eat, he shares his meal with less fortunate children. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Aladdin doesn’t care about helping the people of Agrabah. Western ideas of democracy and social contract just aren’t going to work in Disney’s version of a Middle Eastern milieu.

From what we can gather, Agrabah is a big trade town. There is access to jewels and wonders, but the common person lives in poverty. (Yes, we see beautiful maidens draped in gauze, but let’s not try to think too long on why beautiful, fashionably dressed women living together without a man are the only people who seem to be living comfortably in Agrabah.) The sellers in the marketplace are incredibly attuned to theft. The Palace Guards seem to exist only to pursue thieves. These two facts together suggest that theft is a huge problem, which also suggests poverty is prevalent in the town.

It’s a stark difference to Belle’s poor, but cheerfully bustling “provincial town” in Beauty and the Beast. Belle’s town has a book store, her dad can afford to make an independent living as “an inventor”, and everyone can get drunk every night. They’re lower middle class poor, not Agrabah poor – where survival is an issue on a day to day basis. Unless you have something to sell, you’re not making a living. Otherwise, the smart and able-bodied Aladdin could have found grunt work years earlier. I mean, come on, you saw that pole vault. The kid could have at least made money carrying crates. But evidently, Agrabah’s economy is so poor not even Aladdin can get a job.

Why does living in Agrabah suck? Because the Sultan sucks. There is really no reason why the audience should like the Sultan. While children are presumably having their hands chopped off for stealing an apple to eat for breakfast, the Sultan is playing “stack the toy animals into a tower”. It’d be one thing if Disney had tossed in a line about how poor the kingdom is now that trade with the West or East has died down, but we keep being told (and shown) how exorbitantly wealthy the Sultan is.


When Aladdin finally makes his grand entrance as “Prince Ali”, he also displays ridiculous riches, but he shares them with the town. That’s really why the people of Agrabah go crazy. They get a parade. They get entertainment. Most of all, they get a suitor for the princess who is throwing gold at their feet (“He’s generous…so generous!”). If he marries the princess, the implication is that he will spread some of Agrabah’s wealth around once and awhile. Prince Ali is the Sultan the people of Agrabah need, but supposedly the only thing that matters is whether or not he’s the Sultan Princess Jasmine wants.

When we first meet Jasmine, we are introduced to a character with tremendous potential to be a feminist heroine. She’s feisty and brave, but ultimately, ineffectual. All we see Jasmine do is sit around with a docile tiger and pout. She doesn’t do chores because she’s a princess, but she also doesn’t read books, play music, or talk to any human beings. Ariel and Belle each had a violent thirst for learning; from what we can gather, Jasmine is bored and wants to travel so she can see pretty vistas. Beyond trying to dodge an arranged marriage, Jasmine’s complaints to Aladdin about palace life sound less like a budding feminist finding her voice, and more like the spoiled muse of Pulp’s “Common People”.

Jasmine wants to live like a poor person until trouble comes and then she immediately uses the Sultan’s name as a means of escape. So we have a budding romance between an underdog with a charitable streak and a potential feminist heroine. In the first act, Disney is setting up a storyline where they are left in charge of Agrabah so they can enact change. Except it’s clear that neither Aladdin nor Jasmine want to be in charge. They want to fly away on their magic carpet and see the world while Agrabah burns. They want to make out with each other, but they don’t want to make things better.

After Aladdin and his selfish mortal friends (everyone in this film is selfish unless they are a magic carpet or enslaved genie) defeat Jafar, the genie mentions that Aladdin still has one wish left. The genie is hinting that he can turn Aladdin back into royalty so he can marry his princess and inherit Agrabah’s throne. Most people remember Aladdin selflessly giving his wish to the genie based upon their previous agreement. However, before that moment, Aladdin considers the genie’s new offer and declines. He doesn’t just decline because he wants to free his friend. He declines because he point blank doesn’t want to be the Sultan. His explanation is that he needs to stop pretending to be someone he’s not. What happened to the spunky street rat who wanted to prove he was more than what his impoverished status suggested he was? By the end of the film, the only reason Aladdin wants to be a prince is so he can marry Jasmine. It’s not about self-worth anymore. It’s not about him being a “diamond in the rough”. It’s about him wanting to bone a rich girl.

It is possible that Disney still does believe in Aladdin’s inherent nobility. The Sultan decides that Aladdin has proven his worth and so he will change the law allowing Jasmine to marry him. Again, the Sultan sucks at being a ruler. For the entire film, the Sultan’s biggest worry was finding someone who could marry Jasmine and rule after his death. The idea that the Sultan can change the law at his whim is scary on its own, because it means Agrabah has no systems of checks and balances. The other thing that’s disconcerting is that if the Sultan can change the law about marriage and inheritance, why doesn’t he just change the law so Jasmine can inherit the throne? Perhaps that’s too revolutionary. Or perhaps Disney is hinting that a girl who hangs out in harem pants all day isn’t fit to rule.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Aladdin is “just a Disney film for children.” The problem is other “Disney films for children” teach lessons about social responsibility and good leadership. The Beast has to be enlightened by the intellectual Belle about the qualities of kindness, loyalty and charity before he can reclaim his princely looks and status. Simba’s entire journey in The Lion King is about accepting his responsibility to oversee “The Circle of Life”. Throughout almost all of the classic Disney films, there is the implication that children need to be taught lessons about social contract theory, which is the foundation of Western democracy. Even the classic Cinderella has elements of preserving free will in the face of totalitarianism. After crooning, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, Cinderella laments that even the kingdom’s clock tower orders her around, but that no one can order her to stop dreaming.

So what’s different about Aladdin? Why is it so much harder for Disney to present a story that exemplifies the values of Western social contract theory and democracy this time? The only difference between Aladdin and these other films is that it takes place in a fantasy version of the Middle East.

One of Aladdin’s biggest issues is that it presents the Middle East as a collection of unflattering cultural stereotypes. You could argue that these failings are a direct result of its source material. The film borrows heavily from The Thief of Baghdad, a 1940 film rife with Orientalist ideas, which in turn is cribbed from the original “Aladdin” tale in 1,001 Arabian Nights. Neither version of the story is politically correct. In the original tale, Aladdin is from a historically incorrect China and the setting for the story skips all over the known Arab world of medieval times. So you could say Disney’s hands were tied when it comes to accurately depicting a historic era while promoting modern political notions. However, there is a precedent in Middle Eastern social theory that would support Aladdin taking over the throne of Agrabah and enacting change.

In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun postulates his theories about how cities are conquered and then led into ruin. Khaldun’s work was based upon observing what had actually transpired in Middle Eastern history. He noticed a pattern where great and powerful rulers ran themselves into ruin through their own laziness and love of luxury. An outside force of rougher, rustic Bedouin leaders could easily topple the current dynasties, and then would establish a new dynasty that would ultimately (within four generations to be exact) follow the same path as the last. So, following Khaldun’s philosophy, Aladdin could have easily united the people of Agrabah against the Sultan and it would have fit in with Middle Eastern tradition.

However, this may not have made any sense to 1990’s audiences; stirrings of democracy would have looked out of place. Aladdin was hampered by the time period in which it was made. Until the past year, Western democracy hasn’t shown any signs of sticking in the Middle East (and it still might not). Looking at Aladdin through the lens of Western discomfort with Middle Eastern culture finally illuminates why Disney might have not pushed their typical “pro-Western democracy” morals. Or maybe it just never occurred to them that those values were missing. Either way, the film can now be seen as a reflection of the early 1990’s: a time when democratic values just didn’t make any sense to Western minds when set against a Middle Eastern background. If the film were made today, one has to assume that “A Whole New World” would have had a lot more loaded meaning.

[Meghan O’Keefe is a comedian and writer who lives in New York and likes pandas. Follow her on Twitter & Tumblr!]

[Did Aladdin and Jasmine bring about regime change? Or do you go to war with the genie you have? Sound off in the comments! – Ed.]

15 Comments on “A New, Fantastic Point of View”

  1. Redem #

    I haven’t watch Aladin in ages, but something kind of bother me, how the hell Aladin can manage to pretend he is a prince when he has effectiviely no kingdom, shouldn’t people be aware of neighboring kingdom?

    This article also remind me of Shrek 3, mostly because while the movie tries to have “You can’t give up your responsability” type of message the whole plot resolve around Shrek giving up the throne his wife inherited as soon as an opportunity arise and putting the king bastard son in charge regardless of consequence because Shrek don’t feel like he fit in as ruler


  2. Leigh #

    I’ve read a bunch of the stories in 1001 Arabian Nights. There seem to be 2 different types of main character. One is the Sultan who is unbelievably wise and generous and fair and manly. The other is the lowly merchant’s son who is unbelievably wise and generous and fair and manly and eventually becomes sultan. Both of these paint a picture of the sultanate as a meritocracy, even though it’s really a hereditary position. These tales seem to suggest a populace that has great faith in the legitimacy and supremacy of the sultan. But of course, the writers of these tales were upper class men of privilege, and not common merchants or laborers (classism is a huge theme in the stories as well).


    • Adrian #

      Not to mention that the teller of the tales is using them to beat her audience over the head with what a wise and fair ruler looks like, so he won’t murder her in the morning.


  3. Greg #

    Great article!!! Nice analysis, totally agree.


  4. Marc #

    This is great analysis, but I think you’re missing the key player in the government of Agrabah: Jafar.
    He clearly holds an enormous amount of power ( especially with his hypno-snake staff thing) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had helped arrange things to make sure to have a weak controllable sultan in power. The only way a sultan that is so incompetent stays in power so long is if he has a powerful organization ( in this case Jafar) maintaining the status quo. There is, after all, no reason to suppose that governments are inherently stable in this world. There are clearly dozens of princes who desire to add Agrabah, and its trade, to their lands and riches. It’s just that at the point in time of the story, they are trying to achieve this goal peacefully through marriage to Jasmine. I would guess that if one of these jilted suitors thought it worth the effort and money, he could easily put together an army of pole-vaulting, starving street rats and put himself in power. Considering that the castle is fortified and guarded, I’d imagine it’s happened at least a few times in the past. So Jafar’s kept a weak sultan in power, because he wants to rule, but has no legitimacy. If he, assumes power, the surrounding royals might join together to destroy the man who challenges the idea that royal birth confers privilege. Much like the European royalty did to destroy the nascent french republic. Jafar, realizing this, needs something to neutralize this threat. Which is why he puts so much trouble into looking for the lamp. That world’s ultimate weapon, it would let him defend his throne nd build an empire. When that plan falls through, he opts for the legitimacy conferred to him through marriage to Jasmine. The fact that this much simpler option is his Plan B, shows that it is not guaranteed to help him keep power once he takes it.
    By succeeding, Aladdin and Jasmine may have rid Agrabah of an evil wizard who used his power to manipulate the government to his own benefit, but they’ve probably set off years of political instability and war. Instead of Jafar the city now has a weak sultan whose first independent action, an arbitrary law made by decree, challenges the legitimacy of every aristocrat in the region. Pretty soon one of those insulted suitors is going to convince other aristocrats that Aladdin’s enthronement is a threat to their rule and use their money and subjects to raise an army to depose him. And since the genie left, the palace won’t be guarded by a big, blue, coked-out, magical weapon, but by a bunch of incompetent guards, a rug, a tiger and a monkey wearing a vest and a fez.


    • Peter Gross #

      Marc, while I believe that you’re underestimating the martial abilities of fez-wearing monkeys the world over, you and Meghan raise a valid point.
      Disney has done us all a grave disservice by brushing aside the lasting political implications forced on Agrabah and its neigbors after two irresponsible kids go joyriding on a magic carpet.


    • Timothy J Swann #

      Is the lamp therefore the equivalent of the weapons programmes of Gadaffi and Ahmadinejad?


      • Peter Gross #

        That would make cocaine the Stuxnet worm, wouldn’t it?


  5. Alison F. Solove #

    Have you considered the dramatic rewriting the story underwent? To make the film more marketable, Disney changed Aladdin from a young man striving to be better (see the deleted song, “Proud of Your Boy”) into a rough-hewn street-rat, willing to make excuses for stealing and doing other things that are wrong. I don’t know that anyone has publicly released the story of the film as originally written, but one has to wonder whether the “Proud of Your Boy” Aladdin wouldn’t have been a more morally compelling character all around.


    • Gab #

      Well, Disney also had to change some of the lines from the songs left in because they were so blatantly offensive. “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” I mean… Ouch, literally ouch.

      You do raise an interesting point, though. That actually would have made it more in-line with what Meghan is getting at, I think. Free market liberalism is about an individual asserting themselves and “making it.” He admits he may not be the best, but that he’ll do whatever he can to succeed and make his mom proud in that song, right? But he mentions no handouts, and he admits he screwed up before, so he’s going to try harder. He’s like a person begging a bank not to get foreclosed on. It’s anti-social-safety-net propaganda!


  6. cat #

    This article is brilliant. I rewatched parts of the movie searching for a moral and came up empty. Jasmine basically doesn’t want to be forced to marry, she finds a guy she “loves” and then she’s perfectly happy to be getting married. Her concern is that “I’ve never done a thing on my own. I’ve never had any real friends. I’ve never even been outside the palace walls.” which explains things like her inability to grasp the concept that she has to pay for things and her reverting back to being a princess and trying to order people around a few moments into her escape from the palace. I don’t think it’s so much that she gives up on wanting freedom but that she actually has no social skills and does not know how to relate to people. She has been brought up to be incapable and to rely on a husband. It would make no sense to change the laws to allow her to rule because she doesn’t have the skill or knowledge to do so.

    Why Aladdin might not be such a terrible ruler… What did I learn from the end of this movie? It doesn’t take strength to win. No, you can win by manipulation. By playing the political game and using someone’s pride and insecurities against them.

    In the sequel, Aladdin starts the movie dressed as a street rat. He uses the carpet to steal back gold and jewelry from thieves and flies over Agrabah distributing it to the people. Now, the possiblity of doing seriously damage dropping heavy metal projectiles from great heights aside, he seems to go back to the initial character who cared about the people. However, at the end he refuses the position of the sultan’s vizier and he and Jasmine end wanting to go and see the world. Again. So, still not great hope for leadership.

    In movie 3, Aladdin is finally going to marry Jasmine but complains about his lack of a father figure, still feeling inadequate. The wedding is of course interrupted when a band of thieves comes in stealing everything in sight and destroying the palace. They get chased off by the genie. Etc. etc. There’s a oracle that offers to answer one question per person. This would be a great time for them to ask something that would somehow help them effectively rule the kingdom as the oracle does not appear to be in any way malicious and would probably give some useful advice. Instead he asks where he father is, finds him, and then immediately finds himself in a battle to the death. There’s a quest to find the hand of Midas. OK, in the end we realize that family is more important than wealth and Aladdin feels prepared to go back and get married. The movie ends with a magic carpet ride again but this time Aladdin and Jasmine only go to the outskirts of town to wave goodbye to his father. This suggests that they are going to remain in the city and perhaps try to be effective rulers. Or not.


    • Gab #

      Nitpick about the Oracle: She was snarky to the other people and only spoke in direct answer to their questions, but she says, “Ah, but perhaps questions about your past would best be answered by your father.” Or something like that. Convenient plot hole much? That always made me twitch, even as a little kid.

      But Aladdin is sneaky and deceptive, no contest. That’s part of his supposed charm, right? He’s like Machiavelli’s Prince in that respect.

      I think they do a much better job defending Agrabah in the series.


  7. mcdruid #

    Personally, I am not in favor of my entertainment slogging morality at me. Ethics are a little more complex than is displayed in an hour and a half fairy tale with periodic songs.

    Secondly, Jasmine is the hottest of all the Disney heroines.


  8. Gab #

    I read some Khaldun back in the days of my undergrad, and I must say, his historical account is actually quite magnificent. It’s interesting how he has themes running similar to ones from later European liberal theories, so one wonders why Disney couldn’t have hashed some of those out onscreen better. For example, he doesn’t explicitly say, “positive/negative freedom/liberty,” but there are certainly parts where he seems to be getting at those concepts. Although I guess one could say Jasmine wants the freedom to marry whom she wants (positive) and Aladdin wants freedom from being chased by guards (negative). Hm…

    Anyway, nice work!


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