In the interests of producing hardcore erotica ethically, I occasionally present Reality Check articles, touching base with non-fiction topics related to ethical, safe kink.
Nearly two months ago, I wrote the first four chapters of a story called “Jasmine’s Wish”. It’s an erotic fanfiction based on Disney’s animated “Aladdin” film. I viewed it as a bit of silly fun. The first couple of chapters have gone live on BDSMLR and newTumbl, and they’ll turn up on AllTheseRoadworks.com soon enough.
However, since I wrote them, world events have overtaken me – specifically, the recent capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
A reader wrote to me and noted that, in the context of these recent events, “Jasmine’s Wish” was significantly less sexy than intended for some people. They suggested I address it in a Reality Check. It was a reasonable request, and a topic worth discussing – (and I was overdue for a Reality Check article) – so I’m discussing it here.
Please bear with me. I’m not a student of the history of the One Thousand and One Nights, or of the Middle East, and nor am I qualified to wade into the quagmire of modern Middle Eastern politics. I also haven’t seen the Disney live action remake, although I’m not sure it’s relevant to this discussion. I’m doing my best here with my understanding, and some surface level research, and I’m going to invite commentary at the end.
Where is Agrabah? – and the history of Aladdin
Neither the original Aladdin, nor Disney’s Aladdin nor my story are set in Afghanistan. In his first appearance in the One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin dwells in “one of the cities of China”, albeit that all the characters in his tale have Middle-Eastern names, and it features Muslim characters and a Sultan. In this sense, “China” is to be understood as “a far-away fictional land”, rather than the literal area we know know as China.
Disney’s Aladdin relocates Aladdin to “Agrabah”, another fictional land with real-world influences. The city itself is based on classical Baghdad, the capital of modern-day Iraq, but meanwhile the opening narration tells us we are near the River Jordan – suggesting Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Palestine – in “a land where caravan camels roam”, which more commonly evokes Morocco or Algiers. The Royal Palace is clearly modelled on the Taj Mahal in India, and the remainder of the city is broadly drawn from Islamic architecture.
If we want to dig into the Aladdin animated TV series (which my story is largely ignoring) Agrabah is said to be one of a set of nation-states called the Seven Deserts, which includes the fictional nations of Quirkistan, Getzistan, Upanistan, Ghanistan – and, for some reason, the real-world nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
(I am indebted to the Disney Wiki for the deep dive into Disney Aladdin lore that this required.)
For my fictional take on Aladdin, I’ve chosen to treat Agrabah as located within classical Persia, or modern-day Iran. I was going to need to create some original characters, or name some characters unnamed in the movie (the guards, for example), and I felt that making up fake Arabic-sounded names was likely to be offensive, so wherever I’ve needed to fill in specific detail, I’ve drawn from Persia. The new characters have Persian names, and in any other place where I’ve needed to look something up, I’ve erred on the side of Persian sources. (I note that Iran and India are the only two countries to border both Pakistan and Afghanistan.)
So Agrabah isn’t in Afghanistan. But also, in a sense, it is – because Agrabah appears to be intended to be a deliberate amalgam of the Muslim world, drawing influences from Northwest Africa to India, and so to some extent it’s every Muslim nation (and also those non-Muslim nations in or adjacent to the Middle East).
(I’m aware in talking about “Muslim nations” that there are significant differences between countries under Shia rule and Sunni rule, and also between any two Shia or Sunni nations, and that the populations of those nations are non-homogeneous and widely ethnically and religiously diverse, but no version of Aladdin pays attention to those differences and for my purposes I don’t feel I need to here.)
Aladdin and racism
I am more than willing to believe that no one involved in the creation of Disney’s Aladdin intended it to be racist. And also that, on the scale of racism, by any reasonable standard Aladdin is a fairly benign example. But… it’s certainly not perfect.
I’m not going to do an exhaustive run-down of the issues, but here’s a quick list of a few:
- The non-specific nature of Agrabah as a Muslim amalgam perpetuates the stereotype of Muslim peoples and the Middle East as a homogeneous undifferentiated population, rather than a wealth of distinct and contrasting cultures and people with separate and rich histories.
- Many character designs perpetuate unflattering caricatures of people of Middle Eastern or Muslim background, including the narrator at the beginning, some of the guards, and Jafar himself – both in physical character attributes, and in the personality traits of their characters.
- The songs and the plot generally present the Middle East as “barbaric” (a word literally used), marginally civilised, and undeveloped, which perpetuates Western tropes but doesn’t reflect historical reality.
- Jasmine’s the only woman in the film (aside from some peasant women and sex workers who briefly appear in the “One Jump Ahead” number), she’s treated as a sexualised prize, and her general lifestyle, costume, and other aspects are grossly ahistorical.
- Movies about the Middle East made by the West almost always fall into one of four categories – war movie, spy thriller, historical pulp adventure, or Arabian nights fantasy. There’s room for all of those movies, but it’s a concerning issue that Western audiences rarely see the Middle East in a realistic modern context except through the eyes of US soldiers.
What does all this have to do with Afghanistan?
I’m not going to try to summarise the last hundred years of the history of Afghanistan (although do some reading if you’re interested, it’s a pretty wild ride). But the recent events worth noting are the withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan after a long occupation, resulting from combined policy decisions of Trump and Biden, and the subsequent lightning-fast movements of the Taliban to seize control of most of the country, including the capital of Kabul.
The Taliban are a complex beast, somehow both tamer than the media would have you believe, and at the same time more horrifying. No one is quite sure what they’re going to do with Afghanistan. They’ve given some promises to the US that they’ve changed some of their policies. They’re going to be less oppressive to women, they say. They’re ready to govern a country, they say.
Nevertheless, now is a pretty fucking terrifying time to be in Afghanistan, particularly if you’re a woman, an ethnic or religious minority, or anyone who might be thought to have assisted allied forces during the occupation. Some of those people are probably going to get off more lightly than they fear. Others will not. Many will die.
(Let’s face it – if the Taliban were only going to be as oppressive to women as the current US Republican Party, that is still pretty fucking oppressive. And that’s not the scenario we’re looking at.)
Obviously these events are horrifying to people in Afghanistan right now. They’re also incredibly stressful to many others around the world – ex patriot Afghans, people with friends or family in the area, veterans and aid workers who’ve deployed to Afghanistan at some time, or anyone who just has strong sympathy for the plight of oppressed people.
For those people, despite their usual kinks, now might be a bad time to read a story about a Muslim woman getting raped after a regime change.
Your stories are ALL offensive – why are you worrying about this one?
The “offensive” themes in my stories are engaged in deliberately, for the purpose of kink, with awareness of what I’m doing and what’s offensive about it. It’s for the enjoyment of consenting adults who likewise acknowledge that kink and reality are different worlds, and we all retain a responsibility to fight for respect and equity in real life. I take positive steps to mitigate any harm my stories might cause via Reality Check articles and via donation of 5% of profits to women’s charities.
In addition, I’ve spent all my career (until my recent move into full-time writing) working adjacent to sexual assault law, domestic violence, women’s advocacy, queer advocacy and human rights. I know what I’m writing. I know what I’m getting wrong. I know what the arguments are against every stupid thing my characters say or do. It’s kinky because it’s so wrong – and getting it wrong in the right way requires that self-awareness and context.
I don’t have that context on race. I read, I pay attention, I listen to people with lived experience, but at the end of the day I’m a white guy and the vast majority of my friends are white. There’s no way I can deliberately write erotic racism and stand above what I’ve written with the necessary level of detachment.
More importantly, raceplay just isn’t my kink, and it’s a hard limit for me. I’m not judging the people who do have it as a kink, although I’d suggest they have the same responsibilities to do the real world work in this area that I do.
I therefore don’t intend to write stories that are racist, or which feature racism. I will edit stories, or if necessary unpublish them, if people feel I’ve strayed into that area. I generally avoid specifying the race of characters at all, although I often use culturally-suggestive names (and yes, I know that colourblind isn’t the same thing as “not racist”).
So what’s the point?
There are two issues here: one is racism, and the other is the context of current events.
As mentioned above, Disney’s Aladdin has a baseline level of underlying racism, and in writing fanfiction based on it, it’s impossible not to import some of those problems. Nevertheless, we can love a thing and criticise it at the same time. That’s how mature people engage with a text – enjoying what’s good about it, while being alert and sensitive to its flaws. Clearly Disney’s Aladdin is beloved by a wide fandom (particularly those who may have been a child or young teen in the early 1990s), and the brief scenes of “slave Jasmine” contributed in a formative way to the sexual development of many young people who were attracted to women. It’s a shared cultural experience worth exploring.
I have been treating “Jasmine’s Wish” as a story just like any of my other stories – about cruel men, and slutty, humiliated women – that just happens to take place in an Arabic setting. I would hope no one would take the implication that Jafar is evil, or Jasmine is slutty because of their religion, ethnicity or skin colour. They are evil or slutty because that is what the characters in my stories always are. This is not the way that Middle Eastern men act – it’s the way that cruel doms in All These Roadworks stories act.
Nevertheless, I’m open to feedback on this. It’s the first time I’ve written a story with an all non-white cast (although with the way some artists lighten Jasmine’s skin tone, you could be forgiven for forgetting these characters aren’t white). If you see something that’s off, let me know. I’m not keen on having people go specifically looking for problems, but if you’re a person with lived experience and something makes you feel wrong, please send me a message.
The other issue is context. This is, ultimately, a story about a Middle Eastern woman being raped, imprisoned, oppressed and degraded as a result of a coup. For some people, it’s just not the right time to feel sexy about that.
I’m not quite sure what to do about this. The situation in Afghanistan is unlikely to look magically better in the next month, or year, or even two years.
If the story were a story specifically set in Afghanistan, I might decide to just shelve it, and reconsider in a couple of years. (I am, for example, not intending to republish the story “Pulling Out” in the near future, which is very specifically and unfortunately close to home in relation to these events.)
I’ve decided (at this stage) not to do that. The parallels to Afghanistan in “Jasmine’s Wish” are exceptionally weak. The religion of the characters is mentioned as rarely as it is in Disney’s original film (which is to say, brief mentions of “Allah” and nothing more). Somewhat uniquely among my stories, Jasmine isn’t being oppressed because she’s a woman (although my Jafar is certainly a misogynist) but because she’s specifically the princess. Other female characters are largely going to be unmolested. There’s no military, no guns. At some level Jasmine enjoys what’s happening to her (that’s how she got in this mess) and at this stage I think there’s a very good chance she’s actually going to have a happy ending where she sets the world back to (almost) normal.
The queued chapters of Jasmine’s Wish will continue to publish, and I’ll probably write more.
I am open to feedback on this, and I might change my mind. I’m only really seeking feedback from people who have a direct emotional reaction to the story due to lived experience – I’m not interested in hypothetical opinions, or white folk telling me it’s fine. I’m white folk, and I’m more than capable of rationalising it as being fine myself. It’s dissenting opinions that I value. If you’ve got something you want to say, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While I’m here…
I can’t go past this issue without taking the time to mention some key points around issues like this.
(1) Media can be good AND problematic. It’s not one of the other. You can love something, and also acknowledge it gets things wrong. None of this should be read as saying you should hate Disney’s Aladdin, or that you’re a bad person if you like it. I like it. You can too. But let’s also just be aware that it’s got issues, and talk about those issues.
(2) Racism doesn’t require anyone to be bad people. When we say that Aladdin has racist elements, we don’t mean that it was made by racists, or that someone deliberately put racism into it. What we mean is that in all likelihood it was made by good people, attempting to present a story people would love, and they unintentionally did it in a way that perpetuated some harmful tropes.
(3) The fact that Aladdin has racist elements doesn’t meant that it might not also be progressive in other elements. There are undeniably kids from Middle Eastern backgrounds who were thrilled to see Middle Eastern characters in a Disney film. There are girls who were inspired or empowered by Princess Jasmine. There were poor kids who enjoyed seeing Aladdin overcoming his disadvantages. This is what I mean about that you can love something, and also acknowledge its faults.
(4) Events in Afghanistan are COMPLEX. Yes, some awful stuff is happening there. But think twice before resharing memes or stories that confirm your existing biases. Check your sources. Look for context. People on social media are trying to weaponise your empathy in order to make unjustified attacks on Muslim people, or women, or the Middle East. (Or for that matter US foreign policy, which is awful, and has strongly contributed to all this tragedy, but which is also complex and unlikely to be correctly summarised by a single meme or tweet.)
(5) As is always the case, consuming and enjoying problematic media comes with a responsibility. It’s our job – all of us – to do the real-world work to create a society that is free from oppression, discrimination, and inequity. None of us in the West, sadly, have the power to go to Afghanistan right at this moment and protect people in danger there, but we can work to ensure that women in our own countries have guaranteed rights to education, to safety from harm and sexual harassment, to personal and sexual freedom, to political participation, to equal opportunity and remuneration in the workplace, and all the other rights we fear the Taliban will strip away from women in Afghanistan. Those rights are not sufficiently guaranteed in our own countries, and they are in danger, and it takes positive action to set that right.
I wouldn’t normally have spent so long discussing this issue, but it took some courage from the reader who contacted me to raise this concern, and I wanted to take it seriously.
I’m aware that this essay isn’t as logically coherent or organised as it might have been, but hopefully it makes sense.
I know what I’m intending to be offensive about – and I hope you do too – and if you feel I’ve been unintentionally offensive, please feel free to raise it with me. I’m not going to react to polite criticism with harassment or abuse. I’ll take questions by direct message or Ask on any platform, but the best way to have a private, detailed conversation is to email me at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading – and keep enjoying your smut.
- All These Roadworks