By, Yasar Ohle LL.M. Law and Gender
After arriving in London this fall, and while exploring the exotic and hidden world of the London underground, an advertisement for Disney’s Aladdin Musical caught my eye. What crosses the minds of (white) people going to this musical? Are they aware of all the Orientalism in the room? Do they think about European colonialism and the still ongoing destructive influence of the ‘West’ in the ‘East’? Or are they just relaxing while letting their thoughts wander over shishas, spices and carpets?
This musical resembles a picture of something that is perceived as ‘the Orient’ in Europe, but this picture is by no means close to any reality. Generally, the stories told in musicals, or also movies, do not really have to be connected to any reality, so why start to flap about this one? It is because musicals like this one, especially the story of Aladdin, have a long history of creating and reproducing the picture of ‘the Orient’ in Europe. The key word here is Orientalism, which describes the western or European discourse on the so-called ‘Orient’. (see info box for more details). Even nowadays, Europe still is proclaimed as the enlightened and progressive continent. Thus there is always a need for someone else to be less progressive. This is where the Orient comes in – its production played a big role in constructing ‘the Occident’ as progressive etc. How else are you going to be progressive, if you do not have anyone to compare yourself to?
One example of so-called European progress is the celebration of Europe as a sexually liberated place. This manifests in the hoisting up of rainbow flags in front of government offices. In the same breath the finger is pointed to other states calling into question the situation of, for example, same-sex marriages there. Using this differentiation, it gets very easy to appear as sexually ever so liberated. Instead of using such a comparison to differentiate between oneself and some other place, it maybe could be also an option to deal with one’s own problems for a minute. Especially in countries that not so long ago criminalized homosexual sex, mostly amongst men.
Furthermore, through this oversimplified differentiation the influence of European colonial and imperial rule on the sexual morals in various places of this world is not taken into account. Besides that, the assumption is made that the ‘western’ way of sexual liberation, for instance holding pride parades everywhere, is the only right way. Thus, other ways of sexual liberation are made invisible.
Coming back to Aladdin: what’s the matter with reproducing a certain orientalist picture? The problem is, as we have seen, that the picture reproduced is part of this bigger knowledge system that continues to inform our western societies about the so-called Orient. Or the Migrant, Muslim, Arab, Middle East and so forth. Through these pictures the Orient as Europe’s ‘Other’ is perceived as totally different and in the end as mismatching. This perception leads to the assumption that the ‘oriental culture’ (whatever that’s supposed to be) is not compatible with ‘European values’ (again, whatever that’s supposed to be). With arguments like this racist debates about who belongs in Europe are conducted and asylum and immigration laws all over the EU are tightened. Bearing this in mind it becomes quite clear why the continuous depiction of the Orient in a certain way is highly problematic. Some reflection on one’s own orientalist fantasies would probably be less of a waste of time than chasing rainbows in this orientalist fairy tale.