Why does the Aladdin casting fiasco matter?

Article by: Cia Mangat

source / [image description: still from Aladdin (1992). Aladdin and Jasmine face each other with a sunset in the background. Jasmine holds an apple.]
Recently, Disney announced its casting decisions for the upcoming Aladdin live-action film. Mena Massoud, an Egyptian-born, Canadian-raised actor, has been cast as Aladdin; Naomi Scott, who is of British-Indian descent, as Princess Jasmine; and Will Smith as the Genie. The casting of Naomi Scott came as a disappointment to thousands of social media users who had hoped for Jasmine to be played by an actress of Arab origin, since Agrabah is believed to be in the Middle East. Users called out Disney for seeing brown people as a racial monolith in which cultures are interchangeable:

If - like me - you’re pernickety about historical and cultural accuracy in films, you’ll be disappointed to find that, in the 1992 animated Aladdin movie, Disney didn’t exactly do its homework when it came to cultural details, either. On rewatching the film, it’s obvious to me that Disney took various aspects of ‘brown’ cultures - mainly South Asian and Middle Eastern, which are poles apart - to create a hybrid caricature of the ‘other’. For example, the hat that Aladdin wears throughout the film is a fez, which originates from Turkish culture, yet his shoes are Mojari-style slippers, which are unique to South Asia. In case it wasn’t clear enough already, Turkey and the South Asian region are thousands of miles apart.

The fact that an Arab character is being misrepresented poses questions about the way people of Arabic origin are portrayed onscreen: Twitter user @KM_Heartbreaker and many others wondered how Hollywood could easily (type)cast Arabs as terrorists, but struggled to cast actors of Arabic descent as characters that aren’t heightened stereotypes of the ‘Arab’ we see in mainstream media. After all, it isn’t entirely uncommon for Arab actors to be told that they ought to use their race as a playing card in terms of landing roles.

Why does representation matter anyway? As pretentious as it may seem, I think that this quotation from Bertolt Brecht, a German 20th century playwright, fits my point quite well:

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
When issues are brought onto a cinema or television screen, it shines a light on them and shows that they are valid and normal. That’s why representation matters: without it, it can be incredibly difficult to accept who you are. If you’ve grown up seeing white characters deified and characters of your own race/ethnicity portrayed as criminals/terrorists/low-lifes/any other harmful stereotype, it’s going to make you feel ashamed of your race/ethnicity for life, and it’s going to make people of other races and ethnicities see you in a different light.

Remember, diversity is not and should never be optional.

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