Films like “Aladdin” do not accidentally harm us, they do so with intention so that they may continue to define our ways of life for us.
By Lily Bolourian
I will be the first to admit that I grew up obsessively watching Disney princess movies for years. I had pencil pouches, backpacks, dolls designed with princess-everything. For Halloween, I have gone all-out dressing up as Snow White, Belle, and Jasmine. At 26-years-old, I am still amused by the songs, animations, dresses, and escape from reality that those movies provided.
When Disney announced the plans for a live-action “Aladdin” film, my stomach dropped as I realized that every single orientalist stereotype that was born of that movie would now come full circle. For people of color the fear of erasure, whitewashing and racism is based on the experience of having it happen over and over.
Disney’s “Aladdin”, amazingly, manages to cast a net on two different continents and about a dozen countries and squeezes all of our unique cultures into one “exotic” box. Indeed, riddled throughout the movie are elements of Indian, Persian, and Arab culture.
The first spoken line in the movie is, “Ah, salaam” or “hello” in both Arabic and Farsi, the theme song is called “Arabian Nights” and the story takes place in a land named Agrabah ruled by a naïve sultan who praises Allah. Some would have us believe that cherry-picking themes from our unique and wildly different cultures and religions is a progression in society because it shows representation and honors the region. It does not – these representations are patronizing and offensive and done to further other cultures and people of the East.
These fictional representations serve many goals. With magic lamps, flying carpets and talking animals rampant, my humanity can easily seem fictional too. If we do not really exist outside of a colonial lens then it becomes a lot easier to harm us. Jafar, the antagonist is drawn as bearded and dark–trapping the Princess in his lair, forcing her into a suggestive costume, and demanding she submit to him–his portrayal is exactly how racists describe treatment of women by Muslim men. She tries to save herself by using her seductive charm to distract Jafar–the same charm that men use to justify violence against us.
This orientalist practice isn’t new but the continued perpetuation of it in 2017 must be called out because the damage has not been mitigated. In fact, casting live actors to play out this tale only makes these stereotypes seem more real. A stereotype is about more than hurting feelings, it’s a vicious attempt to intimidate and harm people of color–especially women.
According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, half of Asian women report experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Compare that to white women, where 21% report experiencing the same. The same resource says that between 5,200 and 7,800 Asians are trafficked into the United States every year – the largest demographic trafficked into the country. Using popular culture to depict Middle Eastern and South Asian women as either ultra-conservative and veiled or manipulative belly dancers encourages violence against our women. It strips us of our own narratives, our own stories, and reduces our humanity to the imagination of white people. Films like “Aladdin” do not accidentally harm us, they do so with intention so that they may continue to define our ways of life for us.
While Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa face a travel ban–including my own family–on Halloween, I can expect to see hundreds of white women dressed up in a Orientalized caricature of Middle Eastern women–Princess Jasmine. I can expect to see their faces dolled up with bindis and rhinestones. They will throw back shots and scream the lyrics to “One Jump Ahead” while wearing extra bronzer for full effect.
I will see white men in purple vests and fezzes – the same men, presumably, who terrorize girls like me for being Brown in a post-9/11 world. You know, the ones who mock our religions and ways of life, who characterize our cultures as barbaric, primitive, and uncivilized. The same people who got in formation to vote for an Islamophobic misogynist will now file a line to the nearest movie theater to clap along to our exploitation. It’s clear that the only people who will be served from the production of such a film are exactly the people who have and continue to colonize us.
The studio making the film has allegedly had significant problems with finding Brown actors that they deem fit to play Aladdin; however, the situation will not be made better even if the actors and actresses cast are non-white. While I highly support actors of color getting paid, rich executives are going to profit off of Orientalism and the race to find some random Brown actor is not going to make representations of us any better.
Because Agrabah is a fictional land of appropriation, filling it with Middle Eastern or South Asian actors certainly won’t make the film more accurate–if anything, it merely exists to validate the representation as fair. In other words, this film is not progress in representations of Middle Eastern folks because it relies upon tropes that harm us. Hollywood cannot be trusted to take a twisted fantasy landscape and turn it into a message of empowerment for Middle Eastern folks; they should put out this dumpster fire immediately.
Author Bio: Lily Bolourian is an Iranian-American feminist organizer, writer, and sociopolitical commentator based out of Maryland. When she is not leading on-the-ground mobilizations in support of abortion providers and reproductive justice, you can find her messing with her record player and breaking in her Docs. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for rants and selfies.