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Representation is the act of portraying somebody in a particular way that describes them. Stereotyping is the judgment held against somebody or particular group of people based on some ideas, especially which are often false and sometimes exaggerated. Representations are based on stereotypes. Stereotypes can also be described as simplified representations. One of the forms of media that uses representations and stereotyping is animated movies. Animation movies are one of the top-grossing movie genre around the world. Even though children are the primary target audience of animation movies, most adults also enjoy these movies. The reasons why representations and stereotypes are used in films are to enhance the meaning of a story, for comical purposes or to give the story a touch of reality.
Animated films are a great media for storytelling since they are engaging, manageable and cost-effective. It offers a wide array of visual elements that may suit any visual needs. One can create anything he/she can through animation. The bad thing about animations is that it is hardly censored and has a wide children audience around the world. Using representations and stereotypes in animations affects their learning either positively or negatively. The stereotypes created in the films will be learnt by children, which they may think is normal and right when in fact they are wrong and demeaning. Some forms of representations and stereotyping in media include race, gender, religion, culture, sexism, age, and identity based on nationality or region. The omnipresence of these stereotypes have existed since the inception of animated films.
Race is the main stereotype portrayed in almost all forms of media. Most of these stereotypes are against people of colour and are usually false, often exaggerated and sometimes dehumanizing. Stereotypes associated with black people include savagery, crime, illiterate, poor and aggressive among other negative deeds. Stereotypes utilized in animated movies teach children racial prejudice even before they have learnt how to read. What children can learn from racial stereotypes are potentially dangerous to their minds growth. For a fact, racial discrimination is learned, and the media is the ‘teacher’ from how they represent diversity on the screens. Portrayal of negative stereotypes against the blacks in the animation films will give children opinions of the black people. Racial stereotypes in animations has been used for a long time now. For instance, the Afro-American crows in Dumbo (1941) have been stereotyped as illiterate and from the hoods. Even though to some point they are heroes, they are easily remembered for these negative racial stereotype portrayal in the film. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Jamaicans are portrayed as lazy through the character of Sebastian when he sings that it’s easy to live carefree. The producers used the Jamaican accent in his tune to stereotype Jamaicans. There is also the Afro-American voices in Duke of Soul and Blackfish songs with offensive stereotype lyrics.
To this century, racial stereotypes are still used in animation films. An example is the series Brickleberry (2012). The black character, Denzel, is represented as dumb and likes having sex with weak or old women. He is repeatedly racially discriminated by his white racist colleague, Steve Williams. Steve appoints himself to be the Ranger of the Month in all months of the year except February, “the month of the black history” as he says. This appears to be a form of white supremacy.
White supremacy is also portrayed in the animation movie Rio 2. Race hierarchy like a pyramid is evident in the movie through the character voices. The singing, dancing, and comic-reliefs are voiced by the African-Americans including hip-hop aces will.i.am, Bruno Mars and Jamie Foxx. The major characters are voiced by actors with American and some British accents including Jermaine Clement. White supremacy is promulgated in many Hollywood movies. Hollywood movies have a tendency of having the protagonist as a white person while the villains are usually black or from the minority race.
Another stereotype majorly represented in animated films is the gender and sexism stereotype. The animated films just like other forms of media have set the roles of men and women in the society. Men are stereotyped as masculine and heroic and providing security for the females. The men are mostly the protagonists and the villains while the females create the conflict in the story. The films often end up by men saving the females. Children audience get the idea that men are powerful with a responsibility of protecting the women and children. Women are stereotyped as weak or powerless and often causing trouble to be cleared by men. The films also set the standards of a beautiful woman which have proved hard for most ladies to achieve in real life. For instance Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Snow White depicts the traits of a typical princess; being beautiful and romantic. She also portrays the stereotypes of a beautiful lady which include slim, curvy with pale skin and pink lips. She escapes from the Evil Queen and the seven dwarfs (men) rescues her. Snow White cooks and does some cleaning for the dwarfs while she is still under their protection. These are stereotypical gender roles for women in the society.
However, over the years these roles have been changing with increased female protagonists or villains with great power. Just like feminists, modern films are portraying women as having equal abilities as men and should be given the same opportunities. An example is the animated film The Incredibles 2.
The gender roles in this movie is quite different from its predecessor The Incredibles. In the latter, the wife of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, is given the responsibility of taking care of the kids while the husband goes out to fight crime. In the former, the roles have been changed. They both have equal power and the same responsibility. Elastigirl is not wholly responsible for their children. In fact, she is the one who goes out to fight crime while her husband takes care of the children.
In some cases, many stereotypes are integrated to create a hybrid effect on representation in the movie. An example is the race and gender stereotypes. An instance is the film The Princess and the Frog. The princess is from a poor black family. Her mother works for the whites. She needed a man to help her achieve her dreams of owning a restaurant. The racial stereotypes in this film are that black people are poor and inferior to the white people while the gender stereotype represented here is that women are powerless and they need men for help.
Racial Representation and Stereotyping in the film Aladdin
Disney’s Aladdin was released in 1992. It is a proud winner of two Oscars including “Best Original Song” for the song A Whole New World. It was also nominated for many other Oscar awards, making a record-breaking $200 million for an animated film at the box office. The film is set in an imaginary Arab city called Agrabah. This is the first animation film by Disney that the main character is Arabian. The film is however accused by many for its racial stereotypes against the Middle East in the film. Hollywood is known for its vilification of the Middle-East and portrayal of Arabs as buffoons. In fact, the film is censored after the original film’s theme song, Arabian nights, had the lyrics defining Agrabah as a place where ‘they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face’ but was later changed to ‘where its flat and immense, and the heat is intense’ after protests from the late Dr. Jack Shaheen and The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Dr. Shaheen will be remembered for his great defense for Arab ethnicity.
The film is largely accused of promulgating the orientalist stereotypes. The first orient stereotype in the film is the belief that the whole Middle East and Asia is a desert and only use the camels as a means of transport. The movie is set in Agrabah an Arabian city. The movie starts with a description that Agrabah is a flat place with immense heat. It is also described as a barbaric place. The city is also impoverished with slums facing the palace. This creates the image that Arabic countries are poor despite the fact that they are rich with oil boosting their economy. When Aladdin was changed to a prince by the genie, he was asked what his mode of transport will be. The genie changed Abu to various modes of transport including a car but eventually, he was given an elephant. This portrays the Arabs as uncivilised people who still use animals as a means of transport. According to Shaheen, the negative portrayal of the film’s fictional city Agrabah is potentially dangerous.
The movie also shows that in the Arabic culture, a thief’s hand is off if caught stealing. This is however true in Saudi Arabia but not in the whole of Middle East. When the princess gave an apple to a street kid without paying, she was accused of stealing by the vendor. She did not have money to pay for the apple so the vendor threatened to cut off her hand before she was saved by Aladdin. This scene will create a stereotype to kids that Arabs are awful people who cut people’s hands. Shaheen believes that the animators should have included kind market vendors. This would create a humane image of the people of Agrabah which would also create a positive image of the Eastern countries.
The film also portrays white supremacy through the selection of its characters. The protagonists of the film are light skinned while the villains are a little darker. It is actually hard to find dark Arabs. In the film, Aladdin, Jasmine and her father have a light skin tone. They both look like white Americans rather than Arabic. The villain, Jafar, has a darker skin tone compared to those of the heroes. The harsh market vendors and the guards who chase after Aladdin have a dark skin tone. Giving the villains a darker complexion reinforces to kids the idea that black people are evil people. The villains have been given an exaggerated stereotyped Arabic looks including thick lips and hooked noses.
Another Orient stereotype portrayed in the film is the sexualisation of female major and minor characters. In the film, there is the appearance of harem girls. They appear in what seems to be brothels in the marketplace. Harem girls are portrayed in the West as concubines and often do belly-dancing. The women dancing in the film do appear in many parts of the film. They also have been given a darker complexion compared to that of the princess meaning that they are represented as evil. These harem girls are of mixed races which not only consists of Arabs but also Indians who are noticeable from the red dot ‘tilak’ on their foreheads. Even though Arabs and Indians share a little physical features, this presents Disney’s ignorance of concluding the two ethnicities are alike. Jasmine is also sexualised in the film. She uses her coyness to make Jafar leave her alone when he captured her.
Another issue in the film is the rights of a woman. The Middle East is known for its discrimination against the freedom of women and this often represented in most movies. In the film Aladdin, Jasmine is not given the chance to choose her own groom. Her father is the one who wants to choose for her a suitable husband.
The film is full of Arab stereotypes including the sexualisation of women and generalization of Arab men. The Arab nation is also portrayed as a desert and a poor place. Disney could not just create a movie free of racial stereotypes when the darkened the villains’ skin tones.
Aladdin. (1992). [film] Directed by J. Musker and R. Clements. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Shaheen, J.G., 2003. Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 588(1), pp.171-193.
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