Edward Said, Orientalism and Aladdin

Orientalism (Said, 1978) and the ideas it showcases has been an important text in revolutionising certain concepts and etching out certain key concepts in the social sciences and literary studies. The aim of this short essay is to discuss different case studies assimilating aspects of Said’s literary piece and applying it to post-colonial examples.

Foucault’s Theory on Discourse

Foucault’s theory on discourse, which is employed by Said, relates to the close relation of knowledge and power (Lockman, 2004).

Discourse does not simply refer to a method of communication but also to the power dynamics behind the generation of knowledge which is delivered to its recipients in an array of methods, largely going unnoticed (Flohr, 2016).

This post-structuralist theory is not interested in the discussion of objective Truth but rather the versions that are constructed of reality and the reasons behind them (Lockman, 2004). It is imperative to the theory of discourse and orientalism that one understands that discourse is pumped out in a number of different ways with no visible captain at the helm, but a residual interplay of existing contexts.

Said’s theory leans on discourse theory to delineate the ways in which the imaginary of ‘the Orient’, mainly referring to the Near East, has been manipulated by Western powers to construct a certain static representation of the area and its people (Lockman, 2004).

This, he relates, has social, political and economic ramifications on the area which is alienated (Lockman, 2004). Interestingly, Said attests that by creation of what is stereotypically Oriental, the Occident was able to reaffirm certain values about itself by creating a distinction between the two (Lockman, 2004).

Controlling the Narrative – An Important Source of Power

At the height of the information age which we are living in, when people have easy access to different channels of knowledge, the greatest weapon is the ability to control the narrative. However, in most cases, one has a certain degree of freedom in choosing what information to assimilate – a reason that should deter us from desperation according to Foucault (Flohr, 2016).

It may be argued that Said’s 1978 Orientalism, regardless of one’s critical opinion, is capable of allowing society to achieve this level of awareness in order to better our understanding of the world we live. The first case study to illustrate this will focus on Disney’s 1992 animated film Aladdin. As previously stated, discourse is experienced through different methods, cinema being one of them.

Orientalism and Aladdin

On the advent of the new year of 1993, Jack Shaheen released an article calling out the “unconscious racism” (pp.49) towards the Arab world that had been showcased in Aladdin, one of Disney’s biggest successes.

The article begins by calling out the opening song ‘Arabian Nights’ that features the lines:

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.”

orientalism aladdin

Shaheen (1993) called this a blatant creation of division of the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, which is further emphasized by the drawing of the animated characters and their sordid personalities.

The only characters who are spared of this portrayal are Jasmine and Aladdin, who Shaheen (1998) states not only look different but also sound more appealing to the other Arabs, conveying that their heroic type is more analogous to Western peoples.

Disney later took upon a degree of accountability by issuing a somewhat apologetic statement and changing a few of the lyrics. Whilst it is commendable for them to do so, it is logically evident that they must have felt comfortable issuing such a representation during the political climate of the 1990s, with children as their target audience.

In fact, Bourenane (2020)  stresses the appearance of both colonial and oriental discourse in the film by highlighting the allusion of hidden treason in the fictional Arab land, during an immediate non-fictional post-Gulf War (1990-1992) period.

Further to this, the film highlights the hyper sexualisation and perceived mysteriousness of Arab women, through the curvaceous and revealing depiction of Jasmine and other harem girls (Bourenane, 2020). This is the ‘politics of representation’ that is not only highlighted in post-colonial theory but is also  one of the main concepts in Said’s work.

The Western Gaze

Whilst recognising that the Western gaze of the Orient can be disparaging, Fox (2002) laments that it can be wielded and used as a deference mechanism. In his paper, Fhe tests how far into the socio-geographically constructed East, Said’s theory can take him.

The first part of his ethnography outlines that during British colonial rule projected a certain image regarding and on to Indian Sikhs who were deemed to have considerable ability to fight due to their racial and religious identity.

During the late 19th century, colonial British powers recruited these Sikhs into the British Army, placing themselves as the ruling party (Fox, 2002).  Fast forward to the 1920s, these Sikhs seemingly experienced a colonisation of consciousness which resulted in them assimilating these Oriental attributes. Along with other groups opposing colonialism, they built a resistance against the British Colonisers and utilised their martial abilities rebel against them (Fox, 2002).

In light of this, Fox (2002) argues that this aspect of consciousness is missing in Said’s work. Orientalism doesn’t reach the realistic fulcrum and fails to see his subjects as active players in their own narrative where “Orientalism came to enable resistance against Western Domination” (pp.145, Fox, 2002).

The second part of Fox’s (2002) work focuses on Gandhi’s perspective regarding Indian nationalism and British Colonialism.

Gandhi conveyed that by accepting Western attitudes on Indian traditionalist ways would diminish the strength of India’s authenticity for the West’s weaknesses (Fox, 2002). Here we see Gandhi flipping the script by accepting the Orientalist narrative perpetuated by the West but rejecting their perspectives related to them.

By creating a “Gandhian cultural resistance” (pp.149), the India that was “passive, other-worldly, tradition-ridden or superstitious, caste-dominated, morally degraded, unfree and despotic, and therefore weak, backward, and unchanging” (pp.149), became “inherently spiritual, consensual, and corporate” (pp.149) by adopting a positive attitude in spite of Western pressures (Fox, 2002).

Criticism of Said

Said has been criticised for failing to outline the role that his subjects in the creation of the Oriental image (Lockman, 2004). As previously mentioned, while it can be assumed that discourse only presents an aspect of real events, it is still based on a version of facts.

In addition to this, whilst scholars and journalists would be prone to certain preconceived biases, it is entirely likely that some version of events reconfirmed their perspectives, even if they are faulty. This not only implies a certain degree of truth to characteristics but also the possibility for change. It should also be mentioned that Said is also criticized for making the conjecture that discourse is static which is opposed to what Foucault proposed (Lockman, 2004; Flohr, 2016).

A Dynamic and Changing Discourse

Ong’s (2002) paper will be used to illustrate this aspect of the Orientalism theory that allows for co-creation of a dynamic and changing discourse.  Her ethnography examines the Chinese nationals who have been capable of engaging in orientalist discourse pertaining to the far east in order to participate in the global economy.

Here, Ong (2002) warns that this is not a self-representational narrative but one that is developed through their interactions with Western powers such as those in the United States. She describes how familial relationships and status values in China changed during the late 19th century, when a person’s family’s necessities and the creation of high wealth were given paramount priority.

It was viewed as desirable to emigrate to America, a country that was thought to be full of opportunities, in order to generate money that could be advantageous for the family as a whole. While Chinese people faced a lot of racial prejudice, American businessmen were keen to welcome them as a supply of dependable yet affordable labour during the Gilded Age (Ong, 2002).

With the rise of the elite, educated Asian-American class by the second part of the twentieth century, a middle class of Chinese Americans had developed. Since these Asian-Americans had allegedly demonstrated the ability to adopt American ideals, individuals who immigrated from China— Ong (2002) speaks more specifically of those moving from Hong Kong— were no longer generally viewed with contempt.

According to Ong (2002), this period saw a restructuring of the American market, which turned these recent immigrants into valuable assets and supported Said’s claim that discourse indeed does play a role in economic endeavours. Further to this, it proves that by building meaningful connections overseas, Asian-Americans were instrumental to shed new late on the ongoing narrative by demonstrating their values first hand.


In conclusion, it can be seen that discourse pervades our realities in a number of ways and in different contexts. Considering this in the case of Said’s 1978 Orientalism highlights the array of ways that this discourse can come to effect the lives of people labelled as others. Through this essay, one can see that Said’s text is still very much alive in the ability we are academically able to engage with it and how our views of the text its self are able to develop. Whilst it is apparent that certain discourses have been damaging to colonial subjects, it is necessary to recognise their voices in the post-colonial period so that history does not remain one-sided.


Bourenane, A. (2020) ‘Authenticity and discourses in Aladdin (1992)’, Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, 13(2,) pp. 235–250.  doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/jammr_00021_1.

Flohr, M., 2016. Regicide and resistance: Foucault’s reconceptualization of power, Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, New York: Routledge, 17(1), pp.38-56.

Fox, R. (2002) ‘East of Said’, in Vincent, J. (ed.) The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique. Boston: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 143-152.

Lockman, Z. (2004) ‘Said’s Orientalism: a book and its aftermath’ in Contending Visions of the Middle East : The History and Politics of Orientalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 182-213

Ong, A. (2002) ‘Flexible Citizenship among Chinese Cosmopolitans’, in Vincent, J. (ed.) The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique. Boston: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 338-355.

Said, E. W. (2003) Orientalism. London, England: Penguin Classics

Shaheen, J. (1993) ‘”Aladdin”: Animated Racism Shaheen’, Cineaste, 20(1), pp.49

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