Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action remake of Aladdin (2019) that was recently released has received mixed reviews. While the movie was praised for the emancipation of the main female character (princess Jasmine), it was also met with criticism because of its Orientalism and stereotypical portrayal of Arabs. A quick look at the negative reviews shows that the movie has upset many people. However, it is clear that the story of Aladdin is fiction, so it should be clear that the movie does not portray the world exactly as it is in reality – after all, no one seems to be upset about Aladdin’s flying carpet! If people know that Aladdin is a fictional story, then why do they think that the characters and setting in this movie are so important?
In the remake of the film, the producers have aimed to rectify many of the stereotypes that were featured in the original animated version of Aladdin (1992). For example, in the original movie, Jasmine’s character is very passive: her only explicit goal is to gain just enough independence to marry the man of her choice, who will then be the sultan that she will obey. In the 2019 remake, Jasmine plays a key role in the decisive battle between Aladdin and the story’s villain. Instead of marrying a sultan, Jasmine has a much bigger goal: to become the sultan herself. While the 2019 film succeeded in giving Jasmine a voice, the movie is less successful in portraying the Islamic culture in an objective way. Although the movie makers have tried to improve the 1992 version (for example, while the 1992 title song refers to the Islamic culture as ‘barbaric’, the 2019 version uses the term ‘chaotic’), the 2019 movie still contains a lot of negative stereotypes regarding Arabs.
Although the producers did not manage to get rid of all the stereotypes in Aladdin, most (adult) audience members will probably realize that the story is fiction. Why, then, would it matter that the content of the movie is not objective and accurate? The answer can be found in a media effects theory that is known as Cultivation Theory. This theory proposes that as individuals watch television more often, they are more likely to adopt the perceptions of the world as presented on television and apply them to reality (see this article or chapter 3 in this book to learn more about the theory). For example, if individuals are frequently exposed to television content in which men have authority and leadership while women are passive and inferior, it can lead them to assume that these gender differences translate to reality and that women make less suitable leaders than men. This process can happen to both adults and children. These effects can also occur without individuals being aware of the processes at work - even if they know that what they see on television are purely fictionalized accounts of the world*.
Taking Cultivation Theory into account within the context of high TV consumption, the importance of how Disney and other television makers depict characters and cultures suddenly becomes very clear. Television can contribute to enforcing stereotypes by consistently portraying people or cultures in a stereotypical manner. However, it also has the power to elicit the opposite. A consistent television portrayal of women as independent, eloquent, and strong leaders may help to diminish the negative stereotypes surrounding women and leadership. When it comes to Disney’s 2019 version of Aladdin, a step in the right direction has certainly been made, but there remains room for improvement. In light of the theory discussed here, it seems more important than ever that we aim for objective representations of individuals, societies, and cultures on television.
* Researchers have studied Cultivation theory in the context of gender representations and racism. To learn more, you can read the articles by Ward, Signorielli, and Morgan who focus on cultivation theory and gender representations. To learn more about the theory in the context of racism, you can read Busselle and Crandall and Dixon.