In Defense of Disney:
I decided - for conversation sake - I want to defend Disney and their storytelling antics. To help my case I will go “a little” ( a lot) further to one side than I actually lean, but I think I can still make a compelling case for Disney (or at least show how Orientalism has been a norm amongst story tellers since the dawn of time). …So here it goes.
The article we read for class concludes that The Little Mermaid and Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) are two white characters who are less sexual than their minority counterparts: Jasmine, Esmeralda and Pocahontas. I am not going to attempt to defend Pocahontas (history states she was actually 12 at the time the Disney film tells her story) and Esmeralda (unfamiliar with this character, I was unwilling to read the whole book containing the original story). I will say that Esmeralda was said to be a petite woman in the book - so it seems Disney may have missed the mark in her story as well. As for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, they were misrepresented (in my opinion) as read by the author from the in class article.
Disney did not write any of their movies, making the stories unoriginal. They have taken most of their movie ideas from old folk tales and/or storybooks. Yes, they do change some key points but after reading the English originals of Aladdin, Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, the amount of changes made reminded me of a few current day book adaptations. Their exceptions are to the movie endings, where the stories change completely. Disney markets toward young American viewer as young as 10 (10-12 year olds), who are only interested in watching movies that end, “and they lived happily ever after.” Even at 20 years old, I still feel this way and I am guessing that most of my classmates prefer stories (especially Disney classics) that have some sort of happy ending.
I pulled out a few points from Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid:
Little Mermaid - In the original story, “Ariel” first spots the prince at age 15. The prince himself is 16. After that the story never gives any ages, but it does seems that when the Mermaid gives up her voice it was not many years later. This is why “Ariel”, in the Disney film, looks so much younger - she is younger. The point in the class article made about her walking abilities on land was unique. In the original story each step she takes “feels like knives,” yet she is also considered the most graceful human to walk on land. As far as her ability to walk in the movie, no matter how graceful, if every step I took felt like knives were poking my legs, I would be walking a little gingerly too.
In Beauty and the Beast, “Belle” is looked down upon by her older sisters who tell her that she is too young to marry. In the book, she is one of many children, but the only one that desires to be an “academic” like her father – his dream for each of his children. Disney kept her youth and love for reading as read in the original French tale.
Aladdin - The written story does not mention any age. Aladdin first sees the princess when he defies the Sultan’s orders - and does not stay in his home with his windows shut. In fact, he sneaks all the way up to “Jasmine’s” bathroom door to catch a peek of the princess. (The version I read was from “The Blue Fairy Book,” by Andrew Lang.) After the first description of Aladdin there is little reference to any of the appearances of any of the characters - in fact it was very vague.
As I was trying to gain a better understanding of the folk tales, so I went to Wikipedia (I know I am not supposed to use it but it’s a great summary tool) and found a quote about Aladdin that was very interesting - so take it for what it’s worth:
“Although Aladdin is a Middle Eastern tale, the story is set in China, and Aladdin is explicitly Chinese… Everybody in this country bears an Arabic name, and its monarch seems much more like a Muslim ruler than a Chinese emperor. Some commentators believe that this suggests that the story might be set in Turkestan (encompassing Central Asia and the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang). It has to be said that this speculation depends on knowledge of China that the teller of a folk tale (as opposed to a geographic expert) might well not possess, and that a deliberately exotic setting is in any case a common storytelling device.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aladdin)
Storytellers have always tried to use exotic settings because people know less about them and the listener’s mind can more freely enjoy and create a magical story. If a storyteller wants to tell stories of impossible situations, the unfamiliarity of the setting is the storyteller’s best friend. I am not trying to make any excuses for Orientalism, but scholars need to understand the commodity of using the unknown has been used across all cultures and all time periods and is not just seen in Disney movies.
LINKS: To Readings if your interested.
Little Mermaid------ http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html
Beauty and the Beast ----- http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/beauty.html