The studio behind the upcoming Aladdin remake (directed by Guy Ritchie) reportedly struggled to cast a Brown actor who can act, sing, and dance—after much Internet uproar, newcomer Mena Massoud and the light-skinned white and Indian actress Naomi Scott were cast as Aladdin and Jasmine. Besides the obvious issues with a major studio saying there simply wasn’t a “right fit” among 2,000 actors who auditioned for this role, there’s definitely an elephant in the room, and this time, it’s not Abu in the second half of the movie. That elephant is the source material of Aladdin itself—a misogynist, xenophobic white fantasy. No surface-level representation such as casting Mena Massoud, Dev Patel, or Riz Ahmed in the lead role would have changed that.
Aladdin is set in nonsense “Agrabah,” a faraway place that’s “barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” a line from a song so racist Disney changed some of the lyrics the year after. Agrabah is basically “Arabland,” a fictional place that real Americans are down to bomb, replete with popular imaginations of the Middle East as a sandy desert under the rule of violent Islam. In the opening scene, after we are introduced to the exotic climate by a heavily-accented vendor who tries to sell us his wares, Aladdin skillfully avoids being punished for thieving. He later saves Jasmine from the same fate—if you steal in a violent place like Arabland, you lose your hand.
Aladdin is a white fantasy, and that’s hardly surprising, because the film is basically some white guy’s foggy notion of the Orient. It’s most likely a made-up story, added to a translation of A Thousand and One Nights by a French guy in the 18th century. Directed by white guys Ron Clements and John Musker, the 1992 movie was written by them and other white guys Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Its cast featured not even one Arab or South Asian voice actor.
Disney may be catching flak now for its poor representation of the POC experience, but let’s not forget that at the time, Disney was known for making stories just about white people and marketed Aladdin to people “of all races” in its “biggest ethnic marketing campaign ever, selling the film to Black and Hispanic children in the U.S. Disney thus conceives of “Brown” as a monolith that could encompass Middle Eastern, South Asian, Black, and Latinx experiences, so a “Brown” story could appeal and represent all shades of skin—making “representation” yet another careless rendition of the Other. Aladdin is thus fixed firmly within the gaze of white supremacy—the superior, Christian society that is not mentioned directly, but alluded to in juxtaposition to the brutal depictions of a hybrid Arab-South Asian culture and the film’s underlying anti-Islam messaging. At the time of its release, Aladdin served as a panacea, a sweeping solution to the vacuum of non-white narratives for children, callously delivered in a continuation of its rich racist legacy. This movie was, essentially, a way to justify neocolonial, imperialist white feminism. The film director Jean-Luc Godard noted Americans tell the “best stories” because they “invade a country and immediately construct a narrative justifying it.”
Misrepresentation of Islam is a uniquely Western weaponization of oriental tropes. As Edward Said said of depictions of orientalism,”whenever in modern times there has been an acutely political tension felt between the Occident and its Orient (or between the West and its Islam), there has been a tendency to resort in the West not to direct violence but first to the cool, relatively detached instruments of scientific, quasi-objective representation.” At the core of this Aladdin remake is a response to rising Islamophobia, but not the woke kind you hope for. Because of the Islamophobic nature of the source material, without significant changes, this remake is in tacit support of Islamophobia. As Said goes on to explain,“in this way Islam is made more clear, the true nature of its threat appears, an implicit course of action against it is proposed.” Between the timing of the movie during a huge rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and the (mostly white) people behind the camera, it’s hard to be hopeful about Disney’s motives.
The 1992 movie’s racism extends beyond its setting by presenting a plethora of classic, deleterious Othering: It mispronounces Arab words including “Allah,” depicts nonsense scribble instead of real Arabic script, and codes its characters to reinforce racist and Islamophobic tropes. Main characters that the audience is meant to admire, like Aladdin and Jasmine, have Western features, lighter skin, and American accents, while nefarious or impoverished characters like Jafar and shopkeepers have beards, hooked noses, and thick, Middle Eastern accents. Jafar’s evil is further manifested in his curly beard, traditional clothing, and “queer coding”—while Aladdin is clean-shaven, mostly shirtless, and very hetero. These kinds of audiovisual cues are not accidents in the slightest. Want to know the real reason it’s “impossible” to find a good Brown fit for Aladdin? It’s because Aladdin’s character design was inspired by Tom Cruise.
Let’s not forget Genie, an important non-human character who embodies the vile trope of the magical negro, a term popularized by Spike Lee in 2001 to describe a saintly Black character who exists to illuminate a white character’s emotional journey. Genie, who lives only to serve, complains throughout the film of eternal servitude, and longs for freedom. This character is going to be played by Will Smith in the live-action film, and I only hope Disney agrees that the character is due for an upgrade.
Jafar and Jasmine (Photo credit: Disney)
Embedded deep within the obvious orientalism in Aladdin’s landscape is an unsolvable issue, unsolvable because it is inextricable from this boys’-adventure tale plot. It’s Jasmine. Jasmine, who has a decidedly non-Arabic, but still oriental and feminine name, and was named after a non-Arab actress, is introduced to us as a probably-teenager who is being forced “by law” (and her Santa-faced, bumbling father) to marry within three days of the movie’s beginning. She is the canvas on which white feminism paints its own image: She doesn’t wear a hijab (except for when she’s masquerading as a poor and thus “backward” Muslim) and longs for love in a marriage while playing with caged birds. She’s the “right kind of Muslim”—the rich woman who bears little cultural markers of difference and rejects the shackles of her religion for liberated sex. She is voiced by blonde Linda Larkin, who gave the character a breathy baby voice, fitting in with the rest of her persona: a barely-clad, animated sex doll whose fate revolves around the men in the story (This is where white feminism as written by white dudes fails miserably).
Jasmine has very little agency; her role in the film is entirely dependent on the men around her—her father, who admits that it’s not just because of the law that he’s forcing her to marry, but because he wants a man to “take care of her;” Jafar, who first wants to marry her for the power but then reveals it’s just lust for young flesh; an Aladdin, who spends most of the movie stalking her, going so far as to break into her bedroom at night and lie about his identity. And let’s not forget that sex slave scene, where a cuffed Jasmine seduces Jafar in what could only be BDSM fodder.
Jasmine has a few moments of self-determination, even if tinged with desperation—she escapes the palace to see the world, and invokes her role as princess to save Aladdin. But unlike Gautama Buddha who escaped his sheltered life as a prince to understand suffering, Jasmine goes on a joyride-sans-car to find romance and adventure in the arms of a prototypical aspirational street rat who’s obsessed with proving his “worth” and watches her palace from afar with unabashed longing. This rapscallion can show her a “whole new world,” access that he has on account of his secular inherent value as a “diamond in the rough.” Jasmine is only released from the “law” at the end of the movie when her father tearfully looks on as Aladdin and she canoodle, finally happy that the ownership of the “beautiful bloom” is satisfactorily passed onto a man who has proven he can protect her—a man who brings Americanized ideals of love marriages and cross-class pairings to Jasmine’s fettered life. Ella Shohat notes in “Gender in Hollywood’s Orient,” ”darker women, marginalized within the narrative, appear largely as sexually hungry subalterns.”
The most damning evidence of the intersectional misogyny of Aladdin? Jasmine is the only woman character. That is, if you don’t count the “loose” women and commoners who make fleeting cameos in songs with no real lines. Orientalism colludes with misogyny to subjugate women of color in a unique way.
This is the problem with fairy tales. They present alternate universes that explain our own. They’re peddled by oppressors and designed to make us feel better about our lack of awareness and our privilege. Your beloved Aladdin explains why Brown people are an evil monolith, and need to be subjugated by Western imperialism and liberated by white feminism.
In Agrabah, people are barbaric but a select few are just like us—in search of love, sweet secular love. Bemoaning the casting choices of white ass Guy Ritchie and his film bro crew is not going to improve POC representation in Hollywood or change the basic issue with Aladdin—which is Aladdin itself. Trust me.
Correction: This article previously misidentified which racist lyric was changed in the song “Arabian Nights.”