On July 15th, its as announced that the leads of Aladdin had been found, after much scrutiny and uproar over Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel being passed on. Mena Massoud is our delightful titular character of Aladdin and is of Egyptian descent, his casting was met with generally positive comments, however with Naomi Scott as the Arabian princess jasmine, fans and Internet trolls alike were angered.
Let’s get the facts and my personal opinions on the matter straight. Naomi is half English, and half Indian according to herself and most sources. Her mother was born in Uganda and emigrated to the United Kingdom. Do I believe the role of Jasmine should have gone to an Arab? Hell yes, be we can’t solely blame Naomi for the casting decision and we need to have an open discussion on Disney’s problematic Portrayal of middle eastern culture in the film.
Setting and culture:
The backdrop to the famous tale which in early versions is of Chinese origin is the fictional city of Agrabah. Conveniently located near the Jordan river and has a large Taj Mahal-Esque monument at the city centre. Jasmine is the daughter of a Sultan, which also existed in India and had a pet tiger named Rajah. Tigers are predominantly found in India and a symbol of the county and the name Rajah means Indian prince or king. My point is, for a movie set in Arabia, there is a ton of South Asian influence, with these being only a few examples.
Both Aladdin and Jasmine are undoubtedly PoC and displayed brown skin in the animated classic. As a kid with brown skin, surrounded by white princesses, they meant a lot to me and how I felt represented. However, as I grow older and hopefully wiser, I understand now that brown people are NOT interchangeable, now matter how included I felt. When the live action film was first announced, the Internet raced to draft their fancasts and at the forefront were Desi actors and Bollywood stars. Avan Jogia with his tousled brown locks and Zayn Malik with his melodious voice were amongst the most popular contenders. Keep in mind, the Internet had no issues that both these gentlemen are in fact, mixed(in an almost identical way to Naomi)
In Hollywood, when you’re brown, the only acting jobs available to you are that of the taxi driver or terrorist variety. There’s no discrimination in terms of your exact shade of brown or your ethnicity, that tinge of melanin makes you perfect to mutter incoherent Arabic or have no lines at all.
Dear Disney, I’m giving you one request. Grant me one wish with your magic lamp. It may seem like a big one, but I think it might solve some problems. You’ve already made the mistake of confusing cultures, so rectify it. Address Naomi’s heritage in the film, address the mix of cultures present at the time in the hustle and bustle of a busy city filled with travelers and merchants from different nations. It might make a world of a difference.
In light of the casting of Naomi, she’s received a ton of hatred and backlash. Her ethnicity is being picked apart and rumours are floating around that her mother is also mixed, making her “3/4” white. She herself, has contradicted this statement. When power rangers released, she was lauded as a PoC rep, but as jasmine, she’s suddenly too white. It must be slightly horrifying to have your identity butchered by strangers on the internet. I don’t defend her choice to take on the role and deny an Arab actress, but I do understand it. It’s the role of a lifetime for any PoC actress, who is already limited by Hollywood’s Eurocentric standards.
Disney executives made the choice to include south Asians when it came to casting, and the same behind the scenes team chose Naomi for the iconic role, yet they aren’t vilified to the extent that she is. If the past decade is any indication as to Hollywood’s treatment of PoC culture in film, we got off mildly. I’m not saying that we should accept their decisions, but it is a small step forward in terms of representation. If we look at the Prince of Persia, we had the Jake Gyllenhaal parading around with fellow spicy white, Gemma Aterton. In addition, we have two-timer Ben Kingsley( mixed English and Gujarati heritage) featuring in both Imposter of Persia and Avan Jogia’s (Indian and European ancestry) King Tut. Avan and Ben are both very much not Egyptian, yet proceeded with the projects anyway. With Aladdin adding South Asian elements to the film, it gave Disney the loophole to cast someone much like Naomi as Princess Jasmine.
If we take anything from this, it would be that there’s still a long way to go in terms of PoC representation. We should fight for our causes but think about people who are taking on those roles and who let them take on the roles. For now, I just hope the rest of the cast is mainly Arab, we know Will Smith as the genie is not, but considering that the genie was a magical entity voiced by Robin Williams, I am going to let it slide. Be mindful of the hate you spew, and let’s just hope for the best.
Then again, a friend did tag me in this hilariously accurate meme. Same name and almost exact age, DRAG ME.