Decoding Aladdin in Bhutan
I have lead a constructivist media decoding of the opening of the Disney movie Aladdin perhaps 100 times, but I was totally unprepared to deconstruct it in Bhutan. Rather than cuing into the racism and stereotyping evident in the text (“Its barbaric but hay, its home”) and the imagery (fire eaters and camel drivers), the educators first described the beauty and magic in the construction. With probing they easily recognized the stereotypes, but this was not their first impression. While it may be because my Bhutanese colleagues are less familiar with Disney, I suspect that part of their response has to do with their appreciation for magical traditions and colorful images of royal splendor. But I also suspect that they are not nearly as quick to see the negative (e.g. stereotypes). It will be interesting to see how they incorporate the traditions of anti-consumerist deconstruction that are prevalent in much of Western media literacy.
After my challenging attempt to decode Aladdin a colleague from the Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy led a terrific decoding of a Nepali TV commercial for the skin lightening product, “Fair and Lovely.” The storyline has a beautiful but tanned girl being rejected by a potential suitor because she is too dark skinned. After a 6-week treatment of whitening he becomes enthralled with her. The participants enthusiastically decoded the commercial with lots of laughter. No one mentioned the word racism or explicitly named the implications of this ad on young people’s self –perceptions. In the US there would be outrage over the “Fair and Lovely” campaign.
This experience has taught me the deep cultural context of decoding and the importance of using indigenous documents. But despite my cultural ignorance, the patient and generous Bhutanese educators expressed consistent appreciation for my modeling of the decoding process.
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