This has nothing to do with the actors themselves, and everything to do with Disney being culturally insensitive.
Disney announced today that they have given the roles of Aladdin, Jasmine, and the genie to Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, and Will Smith respectively. A lot of people are upset by the fact that Naomi Scott is Indian, and not middle eastern like the casting call asked for. (She’s actually only half Indian, but that’s an entirely different conversation.) And you know what? I’m upset too.
Disney made a big deal about casting Polynesian actors in Moana and respecting that culture. Why can’t they do the same for Aladdin? By asking for middle eastern actors, then casting an Indian woman anyway, I feel like they’re lumping us all together as if we’re interchangeable. Arab culture and Indian culture are completely different. Just because we may look the same to you, doesn’t mean we are.
A lot of Indian people were happy about the casting. Many people were suggesting Avan Jogia should play Aladdin, but he’s Indian too. And plenty of websites posted listicles of who they thought should play Aladdin, majority of whom were Indian actors. Here’s the thing: Jasmine is the closest thing brown girls ever got to their own Disney princess. You can’t find a single Indian girl who didn’t love Jasmine growing up. All of them will tell you they identified with her in some way. Whether it was her skin, her nose, her thick black hair, or her disapproval of arranged marriages. So I get why many other Indians consider this a win.
I found a thread on twitter discussing why Aladdin is inherently more Indian than Arab, but there was one major flaw with the argument: it was based on the animated movie. This is the other half of the problem. From what I understand, the original movie drew its aesthetic from a combination of Indian and Arab architecture, clothing, etc. While you can argue all you want that “Aladdin” has Indian influences -and you will certainly be right- you need to accept the fact that it was made in the 90s, long before we were on the internet talking about representation, and Disney took quite a few liberties with it. And by that I mean, Do not look at cartoon made by white people in the 90s for historical or cultural accuracy. So, I don’t think we should base our arguments of whether or not Jasmine is Indian off of the animated movie. Also, when a movie begins with a song titled “Arabian Nights,” I don’t think you can argue about where it takes place. This is a remake, after all. For all we know they might be fixing the cultural inconsistencies in the live action version.
In most cases, Disney’s live action remakes have been done incredibly well, and always add something special to the story (you should watch Maleficent. It was really good). My hope was that they would clean up the story a bit, ditch the Arab stereotypes, and add some theme to it to make it relevant. But that hope has gone out the window because they messed up right from the get go.
As much as I can understand Indians wanting to claim Jasmine for themselves, especially after seeing so many annoying Indian stereotypes on TV, I think we need to step back with this one. We think Indian people aren’t represented properly or enough, but when was the last time you saw a character on TV who was clearly Arab, playing an Arab who wasn’t a terrorist? I know Indian people want to be represented just as badly but I don’t think we need to claim characters for ourselves at the expense of other people of color. That seems a little counter intuitive. Isn’t this like, Arab Erasure or something?
But here’s my REAL problem with this: If we allow Disney to view Arabs and Indians as interchangeable, they’ll do it with every other culture, and then we’ll never get the Indian Warrior Princess story I’ve been praying for. Okay? Okay. I know you’re all going to see the movie anyway because it’s exciting but I’m just really upset about it.
Moral of the story: What do you expect from the same company who already cast a native american man to play Jafar’s son.