Sometime ago, Disney announced it was adapting a live-action version of one of its most beloved franchises, Aladdin. I say franchise because it goes way beyond a simple animation classic. Aladdin is a multi-million dollar asset, considering the spin-offs, merchandise, and image rights that continue to bring in revenue for the conglomerate. However, this adaptation, which was entrusted to Guy Ritchie (who recently butchered a King Arthur remake), has faced controversy since its announcement, mostly to do with casting.

It was announced that 24-year-old actress Naomi Scott, who’s a native of Hounslow, United Kingdom, will portray Princess Jasmine in the upcoming film. This news has caused quite a stir among the Internet community, who were expecting someone of Arab descent to play the role, not someone who’s half-white and half-Indian.

While the original film takes place in a fictitious kingdom called Agrabah, it is generally assumed that it happens somewhere in the Middle East. On the contrary, according to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), Aladdin is an impoverished wastrel in “one of the cities of China”. So why in the world do people think the cast should be of Arab descent?

Associate Professor of Law at the University of Detroit Mercy, Khaled A Beydoun, explains that it has to do with Orientalism. The term refers to a colonialist representation of Asia in a stereotyped manner, which is often exaggerated, overgeneralised, and untrue. In his article published by Al Jazeera, he cut right down to the fundamental issue of Orientalism. He explains it is “a system that reduces the Middle East, and its elaborately diverse peoples, cultures and faiths, into a backwards monolith”. But more than that, he argues that Aladdin is “an enterprise that generates extravagant profits from perpetuating these misrepresentations”.

It will come as no surprise, but Hollywood has been making money off misrepresentations for a very long time. Some of the more prominent examples include Katherine Hepburn playing a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed (1944), Mickey Rooney as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and of course, Patricia Medina as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and His Lamp (1952).

This year, Marvel (incidentally, a company also owned by Disney), offered us another glaring example of misrepresentation in Doctor Strange. The movie essentially revolves around the classic trope: white man attains enlightenment by travelling to the mystical East. And when you think it can’t get worse, they throw in Tilda Swinton playing an androgynous Tibetan mystic.

By now, you may be tired of hearing the drone about racism and whitewashing in Hollywood. I feel that way sometimes. However, Beydoun says something in his article that reminds me of why misrepresentation is an issue that we need to continuously discuss. He says, “The film disseminates dangerous representations of the Middle East and its people to the youngest and most impressionable minds, at a time when Islamophobia is intensifying in the US, Europe and beyond.” 

While “dangerous” may be too strong a word to describe the misrepresentations in Aladdin, I agree with Beydoun that we need to be mindful. I also think this consideration should extend to all cultures, and not just Middle Eastern ones. While some might argue it is just for entertainment and should be taken with a pinch of salt, we must consider the negative impact that such misrepresentations in popular media will have on the young. Perpetuating stereotypes often results in misunderstood cultures or even xenophobia. The whole thing is made worse by the fact that conglomerates are making millions off this. So before you buy a ticket to watch Aladdin, think about the wealthy executives reaping a profit from ripping off an entire culture. 

Main image courtesy of imagepop.com

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of AUGUSTMAN.

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