As kids, we grew up watching Disney movies like it was nobody’s business because let’s face it, they’re fun, exciting and even educational. For many of us, they are our first connection to the world of media and all that it has to offer and simultaneously what it doesn’t.
Disney movies and animations are great but they might not be great for representation when it comes to brown people or even Asian people as a whole. The closest thing to representation of someone Asian that i remember growing up is the racist caricature of the Siamese Cats from Lady And The Tramp. And although that would never be acceptable today, this does not mean that these sentiments are long gone.
Talking about the Hollywood media landscape, more and more Asian cast movies are being made with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ as one of the most prime examples. However, it is important to keep in mind that this movie with an entirely Asian cast only represents East Asians and that too from a very elite minority. Time and time again we see Hollywood only appreciating the kind of Asians that are “whiter” and therefore more palatable to audiences whereas brown people are left wondering what went wrong?
Take the recent struggle that Guy Ritchie had while casting the main lead for his rendition of a live action Aladdin. Of course now we know that Mena Massoud of Egyptian origin is the main lead alongside Naomi Scott and we really love that! However, as per a report by The Hollywood Reporter at the time, things were looking really bad and we might have ended up with someone like Jake Gyllenhaal who was cast as the Prince of Persia. I mean, come on.
Although we ended up with a pretty acceptable cast for the remake, it is important to note that if the goal of the film was to be completely authentic, why is the cast so scattered and random (Naomi Scott is of Indian origin not Arabic)? Well, a good answer for that is, because the original Aladdin animated movie also boxes all brown, Arab and maybe Muslim? people into one category.
I mean think about it, the mystical city of Agrabah which is somewhere in the Middle East but reminds you of the Indian city of Agra? The racist and prejudiced intro music aptly titled “Arabian Nights”, however was a whole new world unto itself. With lyrics like, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” and “Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face”, one really can’t expect to find good portrayals of Middle Eastern or characters with a vaguely Muslim identity.
However, to give credit where it’s due, the live action remake has not carried on with the same lyrics which have been altered with far more acceptable lyrics which include, “You can smell every spice / While you haggle the price / Of the silks and the satin shawls.”
What’s more is the thick Arabic accents that were only awarded to the guards and the other “common Arabs” while our two leading characters sported American accents are no longer present and instead we see a wide range of Middle Eastern, African and Asian actors and actresses donning their own unique diction.
Nearing $450 million on the box office already, this version of Aladdin might just change the way little brown kids view themselves on the big screen and identify with similar characters but we still think we have a long way to go.