Cultural Appropriation and Aladdin

by Punita Rice Culture

Cultural Appropriation and Aladdin

I have a confession to make: I’m excited about the live action Aladdin. Even though it’s problematic, racist, etc., and even though I do (mostly) accept the “responsibility” of calling out that which is unnecessarily and inappropriately offensive, I’m also sometimes exhausted by the weight of conversations around cultural appropriation and the desire to just… like, enjoy a movie sometimes. Read on for some partly-baked, but weighty thoughts on cultural appropriation, Aladdin, and the question of whether happiness and wokeness are necessarily in conflict…

Inspiring social awareness and change requires recognizing and calling out instances of oppressive media-making and narratives that perpetuate stereotypes and incorrect information. And I just recently read an article on the issues with how the movie is going to be inherently problematic, fetishizing, exoticizing, inaccurate, etc., and is going to be an epic mess of cultural appropriation.

And by the way, cultural appropriation and Aladdin have gone together since long before this remake was conceived of. The story of Aladdin itself is cobbled together from stories that originate from a lot of places.

Updated to add this:

“Most people think that the story of Aladdin comes from the original 1001 Nights tales, which is a collection of traditional Middle Eastern and Asian folklore. But in fact, Aladdin isn’t a traditional folktale; it has a different history, and it’s one that still causing controversy today… The tale of Aladdin is born from a hodgepodge of cultural influences, each with an Orientalist viewpoint.”

Aja Romano for Vox, on the cultural politics behind Aladdin

So yes. It’s a problematic mess of appropriation to begin with, as the article I alluded to earlier asserts… and likely always has been. I actually agree with that preemptive assessment.

In fact, as an education researcher whose work focuses on South Asian American students’ experiences in K-12 settings, and as the director of an outreach organization aimed at improving these same students’ experiences in schools, AND as a PoC woman myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about issues of representation in the media, especially as related to how South Asians are portrayed.

And I know a lot of similar dissecting and unpacking has been done recently about entertainment about Brown American people: The Big Sick, The Mindy Project, Master of None are all imperfect. (And these are projects actually created by Brown American people!).

So, I’m saying I get it. And I even agree with it.

And, yes, Disney ~worked hard~ to find Brown actors (I mean, did they though?) – and for this, they obviously do not deserve a cookie. Though with the amount of pressure major studios are getting for putting an end to whitewashing, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re going with what’s now expected of them.

(Edit, also read Aditi Natasha Kini’s thoughts for Bitch Media, on the problem with Aladdin).

…And the fact that there is such little representation of US that I have always felt a special connection to Disney’s Aladdin and am excited about the live action movie is sad, because it means I’m willing to accept even a caricature of something vaguely resembling my culture in the mainstream, even though I wish it were done better, even though I’m dissatisfied with the current product (this tumblr post nails what I’m getting at on the head).

But… I also want to watch Aladdin.

Wrestling with the dichotomy of wanting to enjoy things and being aware of why those things are problematic is an ongoing struggle. Engaging with issues of representation is opening a box that can’t be resealed; in so doing, you lose the luxury of ignorance, which means you lose the luxury of just getting to indulge in things that are “problematic.”

(and LOTS of things are problematic.)

But sometimes, like Kemi put it:

“I just wanna enjoy stuff without feeling like I’m not woke.”

Kemi

Right. I just wanna sing “You’ll Never Have a Friend Like Me” with the party starter aka Big Willie, and I wanna see the CGI magic carpet. But… It might be problematic. Especially if you take on the responsibility of being a killjoy.

So… what do we do?


Discussion points for the class…

Here are some of the discussion points (fine, actual questions I have) to consider — besides “so what do we do about Aladdin and Cultural Appropriation.” If you have any ideas, please feel invited to share them in the comments section. The first one is the most pressing (I’m working on finding a middle ground, but I’d love to hear others’ thoughts):

Are happiness and wokeness necessarily in conflict?

How do we balance being aware of things being terrible and rejecting them, with just wanting to throw our hands sometimes and say CAN I LIVE?*
(*aka enjoy everything and feign ignorance)

(Here’s an article by Swara Salih for Nerds of Color that suggests the answer might be more the former; they can keep it.)

How do we solve the cultural appropriation and Aladdin puzzle? 

And finally, and most broadly, Where do we go from here?
(Seriously, I don’t have an answer.)


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About the Author
Punita Rice

Punita Rice

Punita Rice is a mother, educator, writer, and founder of ISAASE. She is the author of Toddler Weaning: Deciding to Gradually Wean your Toddler & Making it Happen, and the forthcoming South Asian American Experiences in Schools: Brown Voices from the Classroom, and blogs about motherhood at Happy Mom Guide. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here.