A look at the portrayal of brown people and eastern cultures in media.
This past Saturday, Disney announced their two leads to their live action version of the 1992 Aladdin had been cast at the D23 convention. It was reported that Disney had supposedly been struggling with casting their leads and had opened up the search to Arabs and South Asians all across the English speaking world. Aladdin is very much an “Arab” film, the setting and characters are all supposedly of Jordanian or Iraqi descent. Mena Massoud was cast Aladdin and is of Egyptian descent and Naomi Scott was cast as Jasmine and is of Indian and English descent. The casting both pleased and angered fans of the original film.
In order to understand why this casting choice happened and why it is so controversial we have asked four writers of both South Asian and Arab descent to discuss Aladdin’s casting choices.
Why do you think Aladdin supposedly had issues with casting their leads and what does this tell you about Hollywood’s place for brown actors of either Arab or South Asian descent?
Fate: As well as being one of the most underrepresented ethnicities in the western film, music and TV industries, both South Asian and Middle Eastern people are also constantly represented in a negative light. When it comes to needing to portray them in this negative light, e.g as an Islamic extremist, the media has no problem finding someone of the correct origin for the role. However, when it comes to them being presented in a positive or nourishing light, they’re erased. Such being shown in Disney films such as ‘The Prince of Persia’ where, Jake Gyllenhaal, plays the main role of Dastan – a street urchin turned royalty of Persian descent. Alongside him is supposed to be a fierce Arab princess named Tamina, that sacrifices herself when her city is invaded by the Persians, but instead Gemma Arterton was casted and displayed a serious brown fake tan. Whilst showcasing the rich and beautiful historic setting of Persia, a white man and a white woman has stolen the show and role from a Middle Eastern man and woman, yet again taking away positive representation from them.
Mara: As many people have previously pointed out, it is interesting to say the least, that the difficulty Disney is having casting Arab leads has not been mirrored in other movies, such as the few hundred actors who played Iraqis in American Sniper, or the ones who played ‘terrorist assholes from Fuckheadistan’ in London has Fallen. Or how about British-Iraqi actor Amrou Al Kadhi who has been asked to play a terrorist on screen some 30 times? Egyptian Ahmed Ahmed who played Terrorist Number Four in Executive Decision? Palestinian-American Waleed Zuaiter who had an *explosive* death scene in Law & Order: Criminal Intent?
Shurti: The popular franchise has both empowered me and let me down – the latter definitely happened in 2011 on hearing the leads for the Aladdin musical were named Adam and Courtney. Not exactly what I had in mind. Despite allegedly having thousands of Middle Eastern and Indian actors reading for the parts of Aladdin and Jasmine, Disney has still struggled to find actors for Aladdin and Jasmine but yet were easily able to cast the Genie, who is to be played by Will Smith. This fact is surprising to many brown people of color, who all know talented actors and singers within their own communities.
Farah: Apparently, Disney is having trouble casting Arab leads for Aladdin. But, somehow Hollywood always manages to find an Arab willing to portray themselves as the stereotype of a terrorist. I’m extremely angry. Jasmine has always been the princess I connected with. During these times where Islamophobia is on the rise and I feel underrepresented the most; no one is helping us feel like we belong.
Now the 1993 Aladdin originally has already been critiqued for the way it homogenizes brown culture. What examples of that have you seen of that and why could that be a reason the casting process got so muddled?
Fate: If we look back at the original ‘Aladdin’ animation, the ignorance that Disney holds towards the culture and rich history of the Middle East is prevalent. The writers have interwoven South Asian culture with Middle Eastern culture as if they are one. This particularly being shown through the darker complexion and costume of the Arab characters as if they are South Asian, as well as the use of location as it is set in modern days Jordan/Iraq region.
Mara: What many people don’t actually know is that it is stated in “Creating Jasmine (Stuff They Don’t Tell You): “Art Director, Bill Perkins wanted to incorporate the look of Arabian text and architecture into Aladdin. Once such place to compare with Jasmine is the Taj Mahal. At closer inspection of Jasmine, you may notice similar arches and curves in her clothes, jewelry, hair, and features.” This quote basically sums up the flagrancy of Aladdin’s Art Crew in their definition of what exactly they considered ‘Arabian’ and this perfectly explains the absolute mess of a movie they gave us.
Shurti: The story of Aladdin is a vague one based on stereotypes of brown-skinned foreigners. The fact is, Disney is yet to introduce a South Asian Disney Princess, and perhaps hoped to avoid doing so by portraying Jasmine as a representative of a homogenized brown culture, which simply does not exist. In the original Aladdin movie, Disney borrowed from elements of South Asian and Middle Eastern culture and claimed to accurately portray an Arabian story, which was not the case then, and certainly would not be the case were they to do it today.
Farah: Aladdin is set in Jordan/Iraq yet Jasmine has a tiger named Raja. The soundtrack includes a song called “Arabian Nights” but the palace was inspired by the Taj Mahal. It seems that we’ve all finally realized that Disney never cared about representing us, they see us all as the same and none of us can claim ownership because Aladdin is simply a mixture of Eastern cultures.
Before Naomi and Mena were announced as Jasmine as Aladdin there were multitudes of fancasts featuring mostly actors from either Bollywood or those of the South Asian (mainly Indian) diaspora. Why do you think so many people simply did not know the difference between Arabs and South Asians?
Fate: Looking back at the movie through a different lens has allowed me to realize how much of a mess the movie really is. The two rich cultures have been simplified and mixed up so much that to people who are neither Middle Eastern or South Asian, it seems as if brown people are all the same and just separated by borders. It’s clear that both South Asians and Middle Eastern people not only need more positive representation in the TV and film industry but also in the news as well. By reporting solely on things such as the Syrian conflict and ISIS, this results in people being ignorant of the booming film industry and talent over in the Middle East. As a result, South Asian actors and the existence of Bollywood are being pushed by fans, unknowingly encouraging the erasure of one of the main aspects of the film – its Middle Eastern origin. In the end, the ignorance held by Disney not only causes confusion to all but is also disrespectful to both people of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin.
Mara: There can be no doubt that the characters in the movie are indisputably Arab. This is thanks to Disney’s Distribution President Dick Cook saying that “Aladdin should be judged as “an entire work where the hero Aladdin, and Princess Jasmine also are Arab.” Therefore, there can be no argument as to the ethnicity of the characters and consider South Asians for the role is both racist -an “all brown people are the same” mentality- and an offence to Arabs who have long since been waiting for representation beyond the usual barbaric caricature. Aladdin strung together a few generalizations about North Africans, Middle Easterners and South Asians, borrowed some architecture and clothing, then blurred out our distinctions to create a single ‘one size fits all’ brown city, characters and hero.
Shurti: With the fear of white-washing in mind, I get why fans have been “fan-casting” the live-action Aladdin movie using their favorite brown-skinned actors and actresses. Zayn Malik, Dev Patel, and several Bollywood actors have been popular picks for Aladdin, but would a South Asian actor be an appropriate pick for a movie set in the Arabian peninsula and one adopted from the Arabian Nights? Disney has used Aladdin to appeal to many people of color, from India to Egypt and Yemen. The aesthetic of Agrabah, the fictional city Aladdin is set in, borrowed elements from Arabian countries, South Asia, Persia, and Mughal-age India. This film has grouped us all as one and people who aren’t from said culture who haven’t done research wouldn’t know any better.
Farah: I’m upset especially at the other POC who seem to not care about Arabs/South Asians being interchangeable in a way. I was angry at South Asians at first for wanting to steal the spotlight. But after talking with some of them, I began to understand. Aladdin isn’t Arab. Aladdin isn’t South Asian. Aladdin isn’t Persian. Aladdin is all of us. Aladdin is all our stereotypes of dark skin, big noses, hand chopping, ownership of women, and instability. Aladdin is the white man’s fantasy of the Eastern side of the world. Each of us felt like Aladdin belonged to us and we deserved the role, simply because it’s the only Disney movie that makes us feel we actually have some representation.
What are your hopes how Aladdin turns out and for the roles available for South Asians and Arabs in Hollywood now the leads have been casted?
Fate: I hope that the Aladdin live action turns out great but the fact that they’ve whitewashed the character of Jasmine, for me personally will take away from the greatness that could be. It just wouldn’t sit right with me and would bother be throughout the movie. In terms of it opening more roles for Middle Eastern and South Asian people, I feel like it wouldn’t really do much simply because of how they’re just brown people playing the role of brown people, but even then Disney has still shown ignorance. East Asian stars like Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu have become very successful and have been in applauded movies, however, this hasn’t made it easier for East Asians to get movie roles or be represented properly, so I doubt it’ll be different for Middle Easterners or South Asians. However, I hope I’m wrong though.
Mara: This story drives home the dire need for us, as people of color, to create our own narratives rather than depending on those made primarily for Western consumption to represent us. It shows the growing necessity for storytellers, actors, directors, and writers of all ethnicities, to ensure that the reckless bastardization of our cultures seen in too many movies -including Aladdin- comes to an end.
Shurti: I hope that Disney is able to find actors that accurately lend to the story they are telling, whether that be Arabian or South Asian. While the original Aladdin movie inspired so many brown-skinned little girls and boys across the world, it was far from a perfect story. South Asian and Arab actors are both still underrepresented in the media. Representation matters. However, there is a difference between good representation and bad representation – a movie that misrepresents a culture or uses brown people to capitalize on tropes and stereotypes held by the West is not a step forward for people of color. Hopefully, Disney chooses to allow Arabian actors to play a part in telling the story of their own culture in an accurate way, also that brown actors of all ethnicities have the chance to tell their own stories and play a bigger part in Hollywood as well.
Farah: I would like this to be a learning point for all us brown people, we need to speak up more about being underrepresented. This movie pits us against each other in a way, we should do the opposite and come together and speak the truth. We as brown people need to be treated better represented better, and get along together. As for other POC, I’m still quite disappointed that a lot of them disregarded any of our feelings and thoughts towards the matter. We fight a lot for various racial issues, I personally have boycotted a lot of movies due to the misrepresentation of a certain ethnic group. Why can’t you do the same for us?
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.
From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.