Does animation accurately depict Middle Eastern culture? The answer is a resounding no. Endless expanses of sand dune, primitive camel transportation, mysterious belly dancing women, violent characters with with harsh features- these are the images most often used to depict Middle Eastern culture in animation. To say that these images depict reality would be an egregious misstatement.
When discussing Middle Eastern stereotypes in animation, it is impossible NOT to discuss the controversial behemoth that is Aladdin. From start to finish, Aladdin is riddled with Middle Eastern stereotypes – as a result, I’d like to use it as a compass to tackle Middle Eastern stereotypes in animation. Let’s get started:
Before I get into specifics, I’d like to address two overarching themes in this film that are also present in other films with Middle Eastern content. Firstly, despite the fact that the Aladdin takes place in an Arab setting- they constantly conflate Arabic and Indian culture (with large Taj Mahal like structures, certain Indian accents, and Indian clothing). Secondly, Aladdin, alongside a lot of other films, plays super hard into the idea of “the Orient:” a far away mysterious place whose interest and novelty stems from the culture’s foreign strangeness. It should be noted that, among many other reasons, this is dangerous as it dehumanizes and demeans Middle Eastern culture.
As I mentioned previously, from start to finish Aladdin employs Middle Eastern stereotypes to tell its story. Aladdin begins with probably the most prevalent Middle Eastern stereotype: the never-ending stretches of desert and sand mountain. While not all Middle Eastern people live amidst desolate mountains of sand, we see this time and time again in works as recent as Aladdin and as old as the 1968 stop-motion film The Little Drummer Boy.
Even before a character is presented on screen, we are offered an introduction Aladdin’s Middle Eastern setting through a song with the lyrics:
Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home
Right off the bat, these lyrics characterize Arabs as brute-ish and “barbaric.” The most alarming of the lyrics, lines 3 and 4, extoll a sense of hostility which foments the idea of Arabs as upside down dangerous and violent people. While these lines were later removed in the DVD version of the movie in 1996, these lines still played on theatre screens and TVs for four years.
This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the most damaging Middle Eastern stereotype across media- Middle Easterners as violent savages. The modern interpretation is, of course, most jarring with its depiction of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. The 2013 Family Guy episode, “Peter Becomes a Muslim” proved a particularly potent example as it began (seemingly) attempting to somewhat shatter the stereotype in question as Peter befriends a Muslim man. The episode is completely turned on its head when Peter’s friend is actually a radical terrorist. The message of the episode conveys that all Arabs are indeed terrorists (amidst other offensive statements made toward or about the Middle East). A similar message exists within the South Park franchise where the “Arab terrorist” has been a character a multitude of times and the one Arab character is constantly undersuspcion of being a terrorist.
Arabs as violent is a theme present in more dated childrens’ animation as well. A common Arab stereotype in animation is the brute-ish soldier with the curved sword who appears ruthless and easily moved to violence. Here he is in Aladdin, where they attempt to kill Aladdin for stealing some bread (and will later attempt to chop off the Jasmine’s hand for stealing an apple):
Here he is again in The Little Drummer Boy 2 seconds before killing the boy’s parents:
And here he is a third time in Scooby Doo’s Arabian Nights:
You get the gist.
These harsh hostile characters are usually juxtaposed against more western (and “coincidentally” kinder, gentler, and more human) characters and ultimately portray Middle Easterners as brutal, murderous, and callous.
Also present in the first 5 minutes of Aladdin, is the stereotype of the haggler- the money-grubbing street merchant easily willing to sacrifice his humanity for financial gain. Poster child examples include: the man who kidnaps the Little Drummer Boy to capitalize on his drumming skills, the haggler at the start of Aladdin and the various hagglers throughout the entire film, and the large multitude of characters in Arabian Knight who seek exclusively financial gain.
In all, there seems to be a STRONG correlation between Arabs and nefarious financial objectives, as evidenced by the “treasure” winnings of most movies with Middle Eastern characters. Jafar, the villain in Aladdin, is driven to very evil extents for the sake of wealth and power. It should also be noted that of all of the characters in Aladdin, Jafar is the darkest skinned and looks the least western (and most Arab).
While there are tons of other stereotypes evident in Aladdin and other relevant work, the last one I’d like to address is the mysterious belly-dancer. While we all love Princess Jasmine (and she is, in many ways, a strong female character), the mysterious, often-veiled, bellydancing seductress is a common Middle Eastern movie trope which demeans the diversity of female Middle Eastern women and also seems to conflate Indian and Middle Eastern female fashion. Even in Aladdin, most of these mysterious seductresses are, to some extent, objectified and made into an exotic trophy. In fact, the entire plot of Scooby Doo Arabian Nights, is that Shaggy and Scooby go in disguise as an Arab woman and are accidentally selected to be the bride of a greedy prince. According to the film, princes can marry anyone they want (against their will) and have as many wives as they please.
While I could continue to list more examples of Middle Eastern stereotypes, hopefully this provided a good overview. Moving forward it would be incredible to see Middle Easterners portrayed in animation with the same care and sensitivity we have seen with other diverse initiatives. Will we get it soon? Given the current political climate, I dont think so. But here’s to being hopeful!