MUCH HAS BEEN SAID ABOUT THE RECEPTION of Walt Disney Incorporated's 1993 film Aladdin by Arab-American groups in the United States. However, little has been written concerning the reception of the film in other parts of the world, especially in those nations with significant Muslim populations. Although an investigation into the reception of the film in the Islamic nations of the Middle East seems obvious and appropriate, there are other parts of the world with significant Muslim populations that deserve our attention. This paper, then, is a study of the controversy surrounding the distribution and exhibition of Aladdin in the nations of Southeast Asia with large Muslim populations. These nations include Indonesia (with the largest Muslim population in the world), Brunei, and Malaysia, all of which are predominantly Muslim, and Singapore, in which Muslims constitute a significant minority.(1) Although in the United States the issue may be regarded as primarily one concerning freedom of expression, in other parts of the world the issue is not seen as quite so simple.
Although our intention in this paper is not specifically to establish whether or not the film is, or should be regarded as, insulting to certain national or ethnic groups, a few words concerning this issue seem in order. That the film could be regarded as offensive to Arabs and Muslims seems fairly easy to understand. Some critics have argued that a film that stereotyped African-Americans or Jews as Aladdin did Arabs never would have been released.(2) And, as an Arab-American critic of the film pointed out, although Jasmine and Aladdin are positive Arab characters, they speak American English, as opposed to the heavily-accented English of the evil characters (3) in fact, the character of Aladdin was modelled on the American actor Tom Cruise.(4) This ethnic and nationalistic stereotyping is not a new phenomenon in Disney cartoons or in animation in general; as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in 1980, this "submerged nationalistic propaganda," as he called it, can be seen as early as Pinocchio in 1940, in which the protagonist, Pinocchio, and the good fairy both have American accents, while the villainous characters have either Italian or English accents.(5)
We can go further, and point out that Aladdin is one more successful attempt by Disney to Westernize, and even Americanize, an artistic product of another culture. As we saw in the Gulf War, other cultures tend to be valued in the West in relation to their usefulness to the West; the Arabic fairy tale of Aladdin became raw material for the Disney machine, which produced not an authentic depiction of an Oriental culture and its products, but an American cartoon depicting the Arabic world and its people as both exotic and humorous. The emancipated genie, with his Goofy hat and other Disney World paraphernalia, is not only an advertisement for Walt Disney Incorporated, he also serves as an unintended symbol of the "Mickey Mousing" of the world and its various cultures.
Just as the cultures of the world are being consumed by Disney, Western culture is being sold to the world. A recent issue of Singapore's The Straits Times reported that WDI "is preparing the ground for a large-scale assault on the heart[s], minds and pockets of consumers in South-east Asia."(6) Referring to the establishment of The Walt Disney Company (Singapore), Brandt Handley, the managing director of the new company, said:
The umbrella is up. Under its cover, all the other aspects of Disney's business -- theme park marketing and television, film and video distribution -- will enter the region. Consumer products were the trail-blazers. Like the guy going into the jungle with the machete, we clear a path for Disney's other divisions to set themselves up. That's the strategy we employ all over the world.(7) The company seems to have found a willing "victim"; in 1993, Singaporeans alone spent S$15 (about US$10) per capita on Disney paraphernalia, exclusive of the money spent on film admissions themselves. In addition to Singapore, Jakarta (in Indonesia) and Kuala Lumpur (in Malaysia) now have WDI offices, joining the already-established offices in the Philippines and Thailand.(8)
Although it is not difficult to see why Disney's Aladdin is insulting to Arabs and Muslims in general, it seems unlikely that the film's offensiveness can be blamed on Jewish motion picture executives eager to indoctrinate young audiences with negative stereotypes of Arabs, as was suggested by some Arab-Americans.(9) However, in some respects, Disney seems to have been fairly naive, or perhaps insensitive, from the beginning of the film's marketing; the company expressed confidence that Aladdin would appeal to children of all ethnic origins, and launched what some regard as the most extensive ethnic marketing campaign ever for a motion picture, with advertising campaigns directed specifically at young Hispanic and black movie-goers.(10) Apparently, the studio felt there was no need to reach out to Arab-American movie-goers, or audiences of other predominately Muslim ethnic groups. And overseas marketing campaigns, for the most part, seem to have been left to the local distributers and exhibitors in those countries.
By mid-April 1993, Aladdin had grossed over $200 million in North America; a large portion of these grosses came not from children, but from adults and teenage boys.(11) Walt Disney Incorporated expected to gross another $250 million in the international market,(12) and a large share of this gross certainly was expected from Asia. Asia did not disappoint Disney.
The film opened in Singapore at the beginning of May 1993 at seventeen theaters, the first time an animated film had been screened on such a large scale in Singapore.(13) As in other Southeast Asian countries, the film's release was planned to coincide with primary school holidays to take advantage of the young audience; as it was put by Mr. Christie Leo, marketing manager for Warner Bros., the company that distributed the film in Southeast Asia, "Aladdin is a film with enormous business potential and we have targeted it for the school holidays."(14) And, as had happened in North America, Warner expected the film to appeal to an audience wider than one consisting only of children; as Leo pointed out, "[T]he market in Singapore has been building up the last five years -- a lot of teenagers and adults saw Beauty and the Beast, for example."(15) Indeed, Beauty and the Beast was seen by over 400,000 viewers in Singapore, grossing S$1.9 million (about US$1.2 million) in a run of three months (16) these figures are more impressive when one considers that Singapore is a nation with a population of only about three million, and ticket prices are the equivalent of about US$4.
Aladdin ran into few problems in Singapore; the island's largely Chinese population apparently found little to be offended by in the film, and if the nation's Muslim population was offended, it certainly was not vocal in its opposition to the film. Across the straits in Malaysia, however, this was not quite the case. Unlike some of its neighbours in the South China Sea, Malaysia was torn by conflicting attitudes concerning the film and its depiction of the world of Islam.
Aladdin opened throughout much of western Malaysia on 28 May 1993; as in Singapore, the film was opened to coincide with school holidays.(17) On the same day, the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or ABIM) urged the Malaysian government to ban the film as well as the soundtrack on cassettes and compact discs.(18) The group included the soundtrack in its attack, as did Arab-American groups in North America, because of the alleged racism of the lyrics of the opening song of the film, in which an Arab character sings: "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, its home."(19) According to ABIM's secretary-general, Anuar Tahir, "[Aladdin] is racist, [and] ridicules Arabs as well as Muslims in general. Malaysia, as a country which upholds moral values, should prevent the dissemination of such messages in our society. The film is not suitable for Malaysian audiences."(20)
Certainly, ABIM was not alone in its feelings toward the film; in a nation as devoted to Islam as is Malaysia, there must have been many others who were also offended by the portrayal of Muslims in Aladdin. However, there was surprisingly little publicity in the Malaysian press concerning the call by ABIM and others to ban the movie. In fact, only one of the major Malaysian newspapers covered the story, and that paper was an English-language newspaper; none of the major Malay-language newspapers reported ABIM's call.(21) The only review of the film to appear in a major Malaysian newspaper failed to mention the controversy, and not only did the reviewer not complain about racism, she was entirely enthusiastic about the film, encouraging adults as well as children to see it.(22) Moreover, there was nothing like the mass demonstrations of outrage that accompanied, for example, the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, outrage that resulted in government intervention to ban the book.(23) How can we account for this lack of media attention, and the apparent lack of public outcry, regarding Aladdin?
Aside from the fact that Disney movies and cartoons most certainly have far more fans in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world than does Salman Rushdie, there are a number of other factors involved. First, we must realize that although the Malays are Muslims, they are not Arabs. We don't mean to suggest that the Malays are insensitive to insults to their Arab brothers and sisters, but the reaction in Malaysia most likely would have been much more negative if the characters stereotyped offensively in the film had been more obviously Muslims, rather than specifically Arabs.
Another factor we must keep in mind is the public perception of animation. Regardless of how seriously film scholars take animation, to most people it is just cartoons, something for children to watch. Adults may enjoy Disney animation as much as children do, and certainly some of the humor in Aladdin is lost on young viewers (and, in fact, on many other viewers; we doubt if the average non-American viewer would "get" the genie's impersonation of Rodney Dangerfield, or more obviously, his impersonation of William F. Buckley, who is probably unfamiliar to the average American as well). However, animation is rarely regarded as something to be taken as seriously as, say, religion or politics. But, as Leslie Sharman points out in a recent number of Sight & Sound, it is the trivialization of such issues as religion and politics by placing them in a commercial medium designed for children, at least in the minds of many viewers and, I'm certain, at least some of the filmmakers involved, that so offended many critics of the film. Sharman observes that although some think it is ridiculous to expect "cultural accuracy from an animated cartoon...others contend that it is precisely because of its medium that the film should be questioned."(24) But it seems clear that for most viewers, whether Occidental or Oriental, animation is not something to be taken seriously.
However, there are other factors involved that go beyond these obvious reasons. Whether or not they were aware of potential problems with Muslim viewers, Warner Bros., the film's distributors in Malaysia as well as in Singapore, took steps that went far to offset this negative publicity. For example, the film had its Malaysian premiere in Kuala Lumpur at a benefit performance for orphans, where Warner showed the film for free to 146 orphans between the ages of six and twelve, all from Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding area in Selangor; according to newspaper accounts of the event, none of these orphans expressed moral outrage.(25) And when the film opened about a month later in Kuching, the capitol of the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, a special admission price was set for families -- 20 Malaysian ringgit (about US$7) for a family of five -- and free sweets were given to all children who attended the film.(26) And, as is common with the releases of all Disney animated films, the opening of Aladdin in Malaysia was coordinated with promotions involving such retailers as Yaohan's (a Japanese department store chain with outlets throughout Malaysia and Singapore) and the MPH book store chain.(27) As the distributors of Aladdin, Warner had a great stake in the film's success in Malaysia. Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had done quite well in Malaysia, and Aladdin was expected to be an even bigger hit, due both to its success in North America and the positive publicity the film had received there (Naturally, Warner Bros. did not mention the negative publicity the film had received), and because the subject matter was expected to appeal to Malaysian audiences.(28) And the film did indeed appeal to the majority of Malaysian viewers.(29) Although it may seem odd to Westerners that a film that is fairly widely regarded as offensive to Arabs and, to a lesser extent, to Muslims in general, should appeal to a Muslim people, the film Aladdin in most respects is exactly what Malaysians love in a motion picture. It is melodramatic (or overly melodramatic, some would argue); it tells a love story about two attractive characters, a beautiful girl and a handsome young man, one rich and one poor; it contains many romantic songs; and it even has some mild violence thrown in for good measure. In other words, in most respects it is an animated version of the typical Malay movie. And the depictions of Islamic law in the film -- for example the threatened punishment of the amputation of Jasmine's hand for inadvertently stealing an apple, or the beheading (that didn't actually occur) of Aladdin for stealing a loaf of bread (or for consorting with the princess Jasmine; it never is made quite clear) -- is rather tame compared to the punishments meted out in many Malaysian period films, in which characters routinely suffer amputations of various body parts, or are speared, beheaded, and/or burned alive, all in the name of Allah. Anyone familiar with Malaysian cinema should have no problem understanding why audiences, in general, chose to ignore calls to ban or boycott the film and instead treated themselves to an evening of song and romance.
Likewise, the fact that perfectly devout Muslim Malaysian audiences could watch and enjoy a film that can be regarded as offensive to Muslims may seem unusual, but it is not uncommon for Malaysians to accept ideas that seem to contradict, or at least seem somewhat incompatible with, Islam. For example, many devout Malaysian Muslims accept animism and believe in magic, and some even suspect that there are beautiful women who are actually pontianak, or vampires (30) (this observation is certainly not meant as an insult to Malaysians or Muslims; we can point out that there are many Christians, for example, who regularly follow their horoscopes in the newspaper or engage in other strictly non-Christian activities). So it should not be so surprising that the Malaysians, who often are able to accept beliefs that seem to Westerners to be inconsistent, could thoroughly enjoy Aladdin, and, in some cases, not even understand why the film should be regarded as offensive.
A possible cause for the lack of publicity given to calls to ban the film is the fact that Malaysian newspapers rely heavily on advertising revenues from motion picture theaters (and we might add that many, perhaps most, theaters in Malaysia are owned by Chinese Malaysians, some of whom may not be especially sensitive to Muslims and their opinions concerning motion pictures(31). Although we are not suggesting that theater owners, or the distributors of the film, pressured newspapers to downplay reaction from Muslim groups, it is entirely possible that newspaper executives and editors themselves made such a decision. After all, there was nothing to be gained from publicizing ABIM's criticisms of Aladdin (unless, of course, the public had reacted with indignation at the media's lack of interest, which didn't happen), but much to lose if theater owners had decided to pull their advertisements from the newspapers, or even if the advertisements were stopped due to banning the film or decreased box office due to negative publicity. In other words, it was not in the newspapers' best interests to promote, through publicity, the banning of a film that was bringing in significant revenues through advertising.
Likewise, the government of Malaysia, in the form of the ruling party, the United Malay National Organization or UMNO, had little to gain from interfering with the film's successful run in the absence of strong public pressure to do so. In fact, the opposite is more likely; the banning of a film as popular as Aladdin, even on grounds that it is offensive to Muslims (grounds that would be perfectly sufficient in other cases), would have created much ill will towards the ruling party at a time when it could not afford it, as elections were scheduled to be held later that year, in November 1993 (of course, there are never times when ruling parties welcome domestic ill will).
Although ABIM has traditionally emphasized Islam and its wish to make Malaysia a truly Islamic state with a legal and economic system based in Islamic law, as opposed to a nation in which Islam is simply the official religion, UMNO has always been far more concerned with racial and ethnic harmony within Malaysia, and actively promotes nationalism instead of Islam as the foundation of the state. ABIM, a group that enjoyed considerable power and influence in the 1970s, became significantly weaker and less radical in the 1980s, and also became more closely allied with UNMO when Anwar Ibrahim, ABIM's president from 1974 to 1982, joined UNMO, eventually becoming a vice president of the ruling party and Malaysia's Minister of Education, and currently a Deputy Prime Minister, while keeping his ties with ABIM. Certainly, any issue that the government did not wish to pursue would not be pressed without his approval.(32) After making its initial protestation, perhaps to show its sympathy for and unity with the Muslim youth groups (many of them in Arabic nations) with which it is allied internationally, ABIM quietly abandoned its demands for the banning of the movie Aladdin.
The film had an even more peaceful run in the rest of Southeast Asia. Aladdin opened in Jakarta on 10 June 1993,(33) and ended its successful run in the Indonesian capitol on 14 July.(34) As in Malaysia, the film was accompanied by publicity and promotional stunts, including shopping centre appearances by actors dressed as Jasmine, the Genie, Princess Jasmine, and Jafar, fashion shows featuring clothing inspired by the film, and contests for children, with free tickets to the film as prizes.(35)
As it had been in Malaysia, the controversy the film had generated among the Arab-American community in the United States was ignored by the major non-English language press in Indonesia. The only major newspaper to cover the story was the English-language Jakarta Post, which reported the call made in Bahrain by former US Senator James Abourezk, chair of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, for Disney to alter the lyrics of the opening song of Aladdin.(36) None of the major Indonesian newspapers reported the request of Malaysia's ABIM to ban the film, or any similar calls by Indonesian Muslim organizations.(37)
Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive; all of the reviews in the major newspapers, both those in English and those in Bahasa Indonesia, praised the film for its craftsmanship and inventiveness. In addition, many praised the values and morality conveyed by the film, described by critics as including honesty, fairness, liberty, optimism, perseverance, and faithfulness in love.(38) Amidst this praise, however, there was some acknowledgment that the film did present a somewhat distorted picture of the Arab and Islamic world. One critic complained, albeit mildly, that, despite its sophisticated technology and engaging story, Aladdin depicted the Arab world too "colorfully" and in a rather heavy- handed way, and that it offered a version of the Middle East seen through "Western artistic sympathies." This writer's ambivalence, however, is revealed when s/he concludes the review by wondering why Hollywood couldn't do the same for Indonesian folk tales!(39)
Indonesia, like Malaysia, is a predominantly Muslim nation; however, there are many important differences between the two Southeast Asian nations. For one thing, their attitudes toward the West are quite different. With the exception of the Communist insurgency of 1948-54, Malaysia had a relatively peaceful and easy path to independence from the British, who wished to avoid an ordeal such as the French were experiencing in Vietnam.(40) Therefore, except for occasional rumblings about the dangerous influence of Western popular culture (usually in the form of MTV or Madonna concerts) and calls for limiting the use of the English language in advertising, Malaysians, both the people and the government, seem to have a generally non-combative attitude toward the West. Although this seems to be changing somewhat in recent years, Malaysian criticism of the West remains mostly for local consumption, primarily designed to influence the native population.(41)
Indonesia, on the other hand, won independence through a violent revolution against the Dutch, and understandably has a much more hostile attitude toward the West, at least in the government if not among the majority of the population.(42) In addition to this, Indonesia has a much more highly developed film industry to protect than does Malaysia, and in recent history has had a great deal of conflict with the Hollywood film industry, which Indonesia (correctly) perceives as threatening to take over film distribution and exhibition in Indonesia completely, instead of just dominating it. Therefore, the Indonesian government has little sympathy for the American film industry and its films, animated or otherwise.(43) If Malaysia, on the other hand, were deprived of Hollywood's products as a result of disputes with American film distributors, it would have so few films to show that its theaters would soon go out of business.(44) (Although Singapore's Board of Censors, in theory, is sensitive to ethnic, racial and religious issues in films, it tends to concentrate much more on the sexual and political content of movies; it is especially meticulous in its scrutiny of films for the positive portrayal of homosexuality or labour unions and their activities [especially strikes].(45)
In Indonesia, however, in addition to a general lack of outrage among the population regarding Aladdin, there was some fear of American retaliation. Since 1989, Indonesia has been on a "watch list" by the US for copyright infringement involving the marketing of American films and videotapes. A month before the Jakarta premier of the film, concerns (whether warranted or not) were expressed at a Jakarta meeting concerning trade relations that the US was considering using the trade regulation known as "Super 301" to impose sanctions on Indonesia. Although they felt that the US was not being completely fair in its trade dealings with Indonesia, especially concerning the distribution of Hollywood films, the Indonesians wished to avoid any sort of trade war with the US.(46) It is entirely likely that the risks involved with banning Aladdin, which, as in Malaysia, was an action not demanded by the public at large, were greater than any possible benefits.
There was even less official reaction to the film in the tiny nation of Brunei, which didn't see Aladdin until 12 August 1993, when it opened at one of the nation's two theaters, where it played for two weeks.(47) The controversy in the US was covered more extensively in Brunei than it was in any other Southeast Asian nation. Not only did the Brunei press report the demand by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee for an alteration of the film's lyrics,(48) it also reported Disney's consideration of the demand,(49) as well as WDI's decision, finally, to alter the lyrics for videocassette and laserdisc release.(50) And, unlike the Indonesian press, the major newspaper in Brunei reported the demands by ABIM for the banning of the film in Malaysia.(51) Despite the fact that all of this took place before the film's release in Brunei, there was no mention in the Brunei press concerning any controversy regarding the film within Brunei itself. The only review of the film in the Brunei press was positive, if not especially enthusiastic, and made no mention whatsoever of the debate surrounding the film.(52) Perhaps by the time the film actually made it to the screen in Brunei, the controversy was old news. And, although Brunei is a Muslim nation (one in which, for example, all alcoholic beverages are illegal), it seldom seems to feel the need to emphasize its Islamic credentials to either its own people or the rest of the world.
One of the great ironies of this situation is the fact that despite steps taken by Disney to thwart the activities of videocassette pirates in Malaysia, who cost the company an estimated 21 million Malaysian ringgit (about US$7 million) in 1992,(53) pirated videotapes of Aladdin, usually of very low quality, were readily available throughout Malaysia months before the film was officially released on videocassette and, in fact, often before the film was seen in Malaysian theaters, and almost certainly sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies.(54) Therefore, the version most often seen in Malaysia on videocassette is the offending one taped from prints of the film, while less Muslim but more heavily policed areas of the world must be content with the more insipid, but less offending, "cleaned up" version of Aladdin, in which the lyrics "Where they cut off your ear If they don't like your face" have been replaced with "Where it's flat and immense And the heat is intense."(55) In both versions, however, the land of the Arabs remains "barbaric, but hey, it's home."(56)
The factors affecting Aladdin's distribution and exhibition in the nations of Southeast Asia, and particularly in Malaysia, form an intricate and interesting web. Although Islam is a very powerful force in this part of the world, it has close rivals in the love of money and the love of Disney animation (two loves the Muslim world shares with the Christian, Buddhist and atheist worlds). Fundamentalist groups seeking to ban the film sought for publicity in newspapers that depend on advertising, much of it from movie theaters. Distributors and exhibitors, sitting on a potential goldmine with a much-publicized movie in a part of the world that tops per capita movie-going, had to keep in mind the deep religious faith and ethnic consciousness of their customers, while maximising their profits. The Muslim faithful sometimes were torn between their religion and solidarity with their Arab brothers and sisters on one hand, and their love of movies in general and Disney's films in particular on the other. Finally, the governments of these countries often were torn between the demands of groups offended by, and sometimes protesting and calling for the banning of, Aladdin and the demands of the mainstream for its "fix" of Disney. In the end, Disney won.
However, we must be careful in our assumptions and conclusions concerning the cultures of Southeast Asia. As we have seen, it is wrong to assume that Southeast Asian culture and society are monolithic; for example, Indonesia and Malaysia may both be Islamic nations, but are quite different culturally. Even within Malaysia, there are great differences. For example, Kelantan, Malaysia's most conservatively Islamic state and one that has resisted the control of UNMO, recently banned makyong and menora, traditional forms of Malay theater, as well as wayang kulit, the shadow play, for violating various Islamic guidelines and rules; obviously, the coexistence of Islam and Malay tradition is not as peaceful in Kelantan as in the rest of Malaysia. Films featuring Muslim actresses who do not observe the aurat, or Islamic dress code, have also be banned.(57) As this surely includes Princess Jasmine of Disney's Aladdin, the film may soon be banned in Malaysia after all, if only in the state of Kelantan.
Whether Disney's version of Americanized world culture will overcome the resistance of at least some of the Islamic world remains to be seen; the apparent financial difficulties, and perhaps imminent failure, of EuroDisney may provide some hope for those who fear the global onslaught of the bland, ever-smiling Mickey Mouse. But if Disney does succeed in franchising Southeast Asia, can Madonna and MTV be far behind? And with the penetration of Western culture will come troubling questions and situations, as the values and traditions of the West clash with those of Southeast Asia, with its own diverse religions and cultures, political systems and traditions, and a population that wants its Islam and its Disney, too.
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