A confusing Disney announcement, a controversial Aladdin casting, and a slew of questions about the upcoming movie: Is this cultural erasure? Are we allowed to support it?
Disney confused the world last week by announcing that they couldn’t find actors to play the leading roles in their live-action Aladdin film — only to announce the actual cast a few days later.
Naturally, this gives raise to questions: was the public backlash against Disney’s assertion that they couldn’t find talented enough Middle-Eastern actors what ultimately rushed Disney to make a quick decision? Or was this all a publicity stunt, designed to bring more attention to the movie?
Either way, Aladdin is off to a rocky start. The controversy was far from over, especially since, while Aladdin will be played by Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud, Jasmine will be played by half-Indian, half-White actress Naomi Scott.
Earlier in the week many fans complained that Disney was purposefully ignoring the huge movie industry that is Bollywood, which has certainly produced a great number of talented singing and dancing actors. But other fans quickly made clear that it was wrong to expect or encourage South Asian actors to take on roles in Aladdin. The story is, after all, an Arabian one, they said — and to conflate the Middle East with South Asia is an ignorant Orientalist move, when they are two very different cultures from different parts of the world.
And considering the difficulties Middle-Eastern actors encounter in the industry, where they are constantly being typecast and refused leading roles, it makes sense to be outraged that yet another role has been taken from a Middle-Eastern actress and given to someone else. Jasmine may very well be one of the few positive representations that Middle-Eastern women can find (although, let’s face it, it’s still far from progressive.)
This, coupled with Scott’s half-White ascendance, has created much angry discussion, especially among Middle Eastern fans, who state that Aladdin is already being ‘whitewashed.’
It’s complicated. On the one hand, cultural erasure is a big and terribly present problem, and Aladdin doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to that — the original movie was notoriously problematic and changed most if not all the cultural influences of the original fable, making a story which already has confusing origins into a caricature of the Arab and Muslim world.
On the other hand, casting an actress of color in such a big role is still a breakthrough, especially when it’s been so rare to see any Asian actors in leading roles in a Disney production. It’s blatantly wrong and offensive to say that Scott’s mixed-race roots somehow makes her less of a person of color, or gives her unfettered access to privilege in Hollywood.
And while it would have been amazing to see an entire cast comprised of Middle Eastern actors, maybe Aladdin isn’t the hill we want to die on. Khaled A Beydoun made an excellent point in an opinion piece on Al Jazeera last week about the dangers of reducing Aladdin’s success to whether or not the actors cast are Arab. A much bigger question remains, and its answer could render any perceived progress in representation completely obsolete: will the live-action movie be as racist as the original Aladdin?
“To some measure, the demand to cast Arab actors to play the lead roles in Aladdin amounts to an endorsement that Agrabah is indeed an Arab land or an accurate representation of the Arab world.”
“The content of films dealing with Arabs and Muslims, the Middle East and the Muslim world are far more important than the racial identity of the individuals slated to play key roles.
After all, scores of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim actors have lined up to play the roles of terrorists in Hollywood and television productions, among other damaging caricatures. If the film’s ideas, images, and central themes disseminate Orientalist messages, then the fact that a terrorist is played by an Arab actor or Aladdin performed by an Egyptian actor is, ultimately, unimportant.”
In the end, none of this matters if the movie can’t change its key problem with how it represents the world, and the story, in the first place.
And who knows if we can even define Agrabah, and the accuracy of the races that comprise its population? The original seemed to be an amalgamation of Arab, Persian and South Asian cultures, and it remains to be seen if its location will now be more defined. When talking about the Middle East, there’s even a tendency to conflate Arab and Persian as the same thing — which isn’t accurate, either. With so little accuracy in the entire concept of Aladdin, it’s hard to judge whether casting choices are correct without dismantling the whole thing entirely.
That doesn’t mean that representation doesn’t matter at all, of course — it definitely, definitely does — but don’t demonize Scott for taking the role. We’ll still be having two actors of color leading a film that’s probably going to be a blockbuster.
It’s now up to Disney to redeem themselves for their tone-deafness in this whole affair by pulling off an excellent, carefully-written (and hopefully painstakingly researched) Aladdin adaptation that cures it of the original’s inherent racism. They’ll certainly have to answer to the public if this movie becomes another exotified, offensive depiction of one of the most unjustly slandered minorities in America.
As for the actors, let’s wish them well, and hope that they mark a new beginning for Middle-Eastern and South Asian representation.