At least once in everyone’s life you experience someone telling you not to do something because of your age, your gender or even social standing. In my essay, I will discuss how Lou Ye’s Summer Palace and Disney’s Aladdin pertain to the suppression of youth in modern society and Said’s view on both of these pictures.
In the film Summer Palace, college students in China experience suppression from their government as it goes through political change in the late ‘80s, one of the most significant times in Chinese history. Like in The Rules of Attraction, these college students act out in ways that are extreme and the result of an imbalance in their lives, directly resulting in most of them perpetuating their unhappiness and insecurity. A major difference between the two films is that in The Rules of Attraction, the students act out not because they are suppressed, but because they have too much freedom, while in Summer Palace and even Aladdin, the characters act out in their own forms of rebellions not because they have no restrictions but rather because they have too much structure and regulation in their lives. These social constraints force the college students in Summer Palace and in Aladdin to express themselves in ways that according to their culture are wrong.. In The Rules of Attraction these students have too much money, too much time, too few restrictions and so they experiment with drugs, sex and alcohol. They tend to commodify people and even obsess over those they cannot have just because they enjoy the thrill of the chase; consequently not being able to have this person allows their imaginations to run rampant with extreme fantasies. In Summer Palace, the sophomores are actually devoid of many of the luxuries while in The Rules of Attraction the main characters are told how to live their lives in ways that will benefit society the best. Because the Chinese students feel so overwhelmed by the control of their government they actually rebel by having sex, (which they are specifically told to avoid because it would interfere with their education) and experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol. The students are also exposed to Western influences such as American music and culture. This exposure to Western traditions has made them vulnerable to external cultural influences, in turn changing the patterns of their rebellions. For example, in the past, youth might have defied their parents by running away or doing the opposite of what they were told to do. However, due to Globalization, even before the advent of the internet, has allowed for anyone to experience the culture of another society from the opposite end of the globe. Currently, if youth wanted to rebel against their parents they would have the excuse of saying “But the Americans are doing it,” and begin to smoke or listen to the music that is popular in America. Throughout the movie I noticed that a lot of people were looking to what the United States was doing and reflecting on their own situation, and maybe it was the rebellious birth of this country that inspired the students in this film to stand up against their government and assert their freedoms in a counter revolution.
In Disney’s Aladdin, the subjugation of women and youth is parallel to that of Summer Palace, in the sense that the Princess Jasmine is portrayed as a different kind of Disney Princess. She rebels against royal life, social structure and tries to make her own way, unlike the princesses of the past who chose to wait for their rescue, or even dream of being Princesses. In the movie, the first thing that we learn about Jasmine is that she is not afraid to stand up for herself and be forthright with her words and actions. This is something radical not only for a princess, but much more because she is an oriental princess, her role should have been no more than a symbolic figure and of submission. Traditionally, Jasmine would have no rights, any and all decisions would have been for her by her father or husband; she however, does not see it that way and decides that the royal life isn’t for her, so she runs away-something that is reckless, but we see that all the rules and regulations have pushed her to the brink.
Another example of Jasmine being radical is her response to her father’s persistence in finding a suitor for her. She states “The law is wrong… I hate being forced into this.” Jasmine cannot accept the fact that she must be married by her 18th birthday, which is in 3 days. She tells her father that she wants to be married for love. We learn that Jasmine has never done anything on her own, had real friends or been outside the palace walls. That night Jasmine decides to sneak out to experience the city for herself and leave her life of being a princess behind. She returns when Aladdin is captured and does her best to fight for his freedom. A similarity that both Aladdin and Jasmine share is that they feel “trapped.” Aladdin feels trapped because he is always hiding from the guards and has to steal food to survive. Jasmine wishes that she didn’t have people telling her where to go and how to dress and that she could make her own decisions.[i] Most importantly, although her father means well, she does not want to be forced into marriage, she wants to be able to make her own decisions and get married out of love, not convenience. The mutual feeling that these two share is a basis for their friendship and eventual marriage. The interesting thing about this film is that it is aimed at children, and so the message about suppression will be different, if not sugar coated. Moreover, the lives of these two individuals are changed shortly after Aladdin finds the magic lamp containing Genie. Aladdin is able to escape his suppression by making his dreams of riches and being with the princess a reality. The magic lamp also helps Jasmine escape by introducing her to new characters, especially the magic carpet which allows her to leave the palace more easily.
Another aspect that these two films share is the element of Orientalism. In a blog published on March 5th, 2009 a student in New York shares his views about the Disney film in a piece titled The Stereotype of Aladdin. He writes “watching the first 15 minutes of Aladdin with a critical eye was an experience of revelation. Minute details that had been overlooked through the eyes of childhood, stereotypes of the Arab person that are rampant throughout the film, or even the lyrics to the beginning song ‘it’s barbaric but hey, it's home.’ All these things that I was now questioning and looking at make me go back to Said's theory of Orientalism as a Western method of institutionalizing the Middle East as a way of controlling it.”[ii] Said’s controversial theory attempts to answer questions such as: “Why when we think of a certain area we have pre conceived notions of what kind of people live, what they believe, or how they act even though we have never been there or met anyone from there?” His central argument is that the way we acquire our knowledge about the East is not objective, but highly motivated.[iii] When we read about or watch movies about the East, such as Aladdin we are watching it through a lens that distorts those people. Sohail Inayatullah, in response to watching Aladdin writes “The examples of Orientalism are numerous and obvious. The good guys are all clean shaven, the bad guys have facial hair typically associated with Easterners…the streets are lined with bartering Arabs and Hindu fakirs. [The Middle East] is the land of the exotic. Women are portrayed as erotic, swaying about, wearing the briefest of harem costumes. The only interesting and developed character is the genie, largely because of Williams but also because the genie is full of cultural richness. This is unfortunate since even though the genie was trapped in the Arab world, he only knows Western culture.”[iv] He also goes on to talk about specific differences in Muslim culture that I was not aware of until conducting research for this project. He says, “We should not be surprised at the Orientalist nature of the movie, we know this from the beginning. The story teller begins with the secular Salaam (peace) not the appropriate asalaam alakum (may god be with you). The story is secularized and westernized with Allah thrown out and Al thrown in. While cultures appropriating each other’s myths can enrich the world and help create a new culture, in this case cultural sharing leads to cultural cannibalism. A bit of history reading, a few attempts to understand Arabian mythology in its terms not in the terms of 1990's America could have created a universal fable, authentic to history but innovative in its ability to speak to the West and East, to create a cultural dialog. Instead we are given vicious pornography.”[v] Inayatullah is obviously very hurt by Disney’s altered version of the tale which originally appeared in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
Another interesting point that I found about Aladdin was that of political misrepresentation. “One cannot omit the other misrepresentation of the Middle East that the movie Aladdin perpetuates…when Aladdin first encounters the prince who is coming to court Princess Jasmine…she faces off with her father about not wanting to be forced to marry…This conversation is the misrepresentation of the Middle Eastern leader. You have the prince who callously would have trod upon the little child in his path, then jeers at Aladdin about how he is a nobody and the fleas on his head are the only ones who would mourn him. Then you have the…almost inept king and father to Jasmine, who is easily misled and controlled by his advisor, Jafar. Jafar himself, [is] manipulative, power hungry and evil. These are three examples of the people in leadership that one sees in the first 15mins of Aladdin. Judging from this depiction of Middle Eastern leaders is it not fair to assume that leaders in that parts of the world are either corrupt…narcissistic and self-important or weak and inept? That is assuming that Aladdin's depiction is true. If not, then how can this tarring of a people's image through popular media such as movies, be justified? I mean, Aladdin begins with a shifty looking Arabic merchant who is trying to swindle you into buying his wares, some of which are broken such as the hookah/coffee maker combo…Millions of Americans and people across the world who have watched Aladdin and those who will buy the DVD…will be viewing the institutionalizing of the Arab man as an unscrupulous and manipulating businessman who preys on the unaware. With this perspective, would it not therefore be right to side with Said in saying that the Western world has tried from all sides to denounce and denigrate the Middle Eastern, thereby controlling the world's perception of it?[vi] Enjoyable as…Aladdin is, it still does not plant positive images of the people that it depicts or even of their culture.”[vii]
In regards to Summer Palace, I gathered my information from Richard Spencer who spent six years in Bejing as the Daily Telegraph's China Correspondent. “I have always tried, perhaps feebly, to defend the way China is portrayed abroad, particularly to charges laid by those who have read Edward Said’s celebrated book “Orientalism” that the country is victim of a racist…plot to justify neo-imperialist attitudes towards it. Put more simply, this is the idea (which Said mainly focuses on the area of his prime concern, the Middle East, but which clearly applies to the Far East too) that cultural references to the East’s exoticism, the refined but repressed sexual allure of its women, the cruelty of its rulers, etc etc, is a ‘narrative of power’ which justifies its subordination to the West.”[viii] Another interesting point that I found was the idea that even a small character, or an extra in a film can be feeding into Orentalism just by the way this person looks or acts. “It strikes me that in general terms, at least now, the authorities are quite happy to see films and other works of art that portray China as both exotic and cruel.
It is films which portray the responses of its characters as normal (as westerners would see it) that worry them, such as Summer Palace, the film by Lou Ye they tried to stop being shown at Cannes a couple of years back. There’s a reason for that, of course: the government wants China to be seen as having a long history of autocracy which makes instant political reform ‘unsuitable’ and against whose horrors its own alleged crimes seem minor.
I’m reminded of a Marxist critique of Orientalism I once read, which argued that the “exotic” images of which Said complains were not created by the West, even if we promulgated them, but by those societies’ own feudal rulers.
Eager to justify their continued dominant position to the western colonial powers, they portrayed an image of themselves as “people who you could do business with” in contrast to the chaos and corruption inherent to their societies as a whole. What would happen if they were disposed of?”[ix]
When we juxtapose The Rules of Attraction, Summer Palace and Aladdin we see that these characters all reacted in different ways that either hurt them in ways that crippled them such as in Rules of Attraction, where they are all on drugs and where they take advantage of each other and use one another to their own personal avail. Heidegger would say that we should stop and reflect upon the way that we see each other is simply as tools, we don’t see another human being as our friend our companion and we should work together to further ourselves. Instead we see another human being as a way for us to reach our goal and it doesn’t matter if they are willing or not, they are a tool for our use and nothing more. While there are these elements in Summer Palace and Aladdin it is not for self indulgence. For example, in Summer Palace when they used each other for sex and even drugs it was mutual both parties wanted it, not only that but it was in response to their oppression furthermore they cared for one another, they had a genuine interest for each other. They saw each other as a great way to release the frustrations and demons they were experiencing but never use each other as a tools to be tossed aside later on. The same goes for Aladdin she didn’t use him to get out of the palace, even to a lesser extent he didn’t use her to fulfill his dream of living in the palace, and he didn’t even know that she was a princess when he first helped her in the Bazaar. He saw that she needed help and so he went to her rescue, she didn’t ask him for assistance.
[i]Youtube, “Aladdin 3 HD,” ( 5 Feb. 2009) < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njj2MeZqA6g&feature=related> (14 Dec. 2009)
[ii]Orentalism and Occidentalism, “The stereotype of Aladdin,” (5 Mar. 2009) <http://susanorientalism.blogspot.com/2009/03/stereotype-of-aladdin.html> ( 13 Dec. 2009)
[iii] Youtube, “On Orientalism-Edward Said,” 12 June 2007)
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwCOSkXR_Cw> ( 15 Dec. 2009)
[iv]Metafuture.org, “Aladdin: Continued Violence Against Islamic Culture,”
< http://www.metafuture.org/Articles/Aladdin-review.htm> (15 Dec. 2009)
[v] Metafuture.org, “Aladdin: Continued Violence Against Islamic Culture,”
< http://www.metafuture.org/Articles/Aladdin-review.htm> (15 Dec. 2009)
[vi] Orentalism and Occidentalism, “The stereotype of Aladdin,” (5 Mar. 2009) <http://susanorientalism.blogspot.com/2009/03/stereotype-of-aladdin.html> ( 13 Dec. 2009)
[vii] Orentalism and Occidentalism, “The stereotype of Aladdin,” (5 Mar. 2009) <http://susanorientalism.blogspot.com/2009/03/stereotype-of-aladdin.html> ( 13 Dec. 2009)
[viii] Telegraph.co.uk, “The Exotic ‘Other,’” ( 16 Mar. 2007) <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/richardspencer/3615971/The_exotic_other/> ( 14 Dec. 2009)
[ix] Telegraph.co.uk, “The Exotic ‘Other,’” ( 16 Mar. 2007) <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/richardspencer/3615971/The_exotic_other/> (14 Dec. 2009)