I remember when it came out, I giggled my teeth out when Robin Williams, aka Genie, said things like "Rick 'em, rack 'em, rock 'em, rake. Stick that sword into that snake!" A blue man, in a cheerleader outfit: classic! I still know all the lyrics and melody of "A Whole New World," including the duet parts. I was Jasmine for Halloween one year (obviously, my fear of Halloween didn't play a role when I got to wear long, black soccer socks from my turquoise headband to stand as beautiful raven princess hair). This movie had a profound impact on my young life.
Only this week did it occur to me that the "grown ups" who pieced this movie together probably spent years in and out of meetings. They held focus groups to determine what to do about an Urdu accent or what shape to make Jasmine's eyes. It never crossed my mind that we're listening to white bread DJ Tanner's boyfriend Steve every time Aladdin's voice cracked. Donnie Osmond, the whitest, most American "boy" out there, sang through the "street rat's" lips. Donnie Osmond? He's just a little bit rock and roll... sitar not included.
The producers needed to make sure this painstaking cartoon work was a worthwhile investment of time and money. They need to be sure that my dad and mom would watch the trailer, decide to pack up my sisters and me into our car seats, drive to the theater and put up with the surprises three small children bring to that kind of experience. They needed our money, our impulsive Abu-lunchbox buying, and our decades-later realization that we know that Aladdin can open your eyes, take you wonder by wonder, over, sideways and under on a magic carpet ride.
Sadly, something that hasn't changed is that the culmination of the focus groups and marketing discussions meant audience members watched characters prance around Agra, India and the Taj Mahal with inoffensive, white skin and almond eyes. These people looked like they could be from North Carolina in the beginning of the summer.
The hard data told Disney that the only way to get ticket money from the Smiths and the Johnsons (the Goldsteins, the De Lucas and the O'Reillys) was if the cartoons onscreen were white enough.
This is not a groundbreaking uncovering of the discomfort with the "other," it just struck me because I never realized how much our prejudices shaped my childhood. Just think about that office memo:
Remember, we have to have another facial shape brainstorm session at 10am tomorrow. Last time, we almost nailed it on the big ugly palace guard. It was just shy of unanimous to knock out his front tooth because it makes him look that much more untrustworthy. We think if we darken his skin and leave the tooth out, we can appease all parties on this one.
Thanks! See you then!