One of the biggest announcements coming out of D23 was the news that Guy Ritchie had cast his leads in the live-action Aladdin movie. Speculation of Will Smith’s casting as the Genie was confirmed, and after months of auditions, which took place across the world, the leads of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine were filled by little-known Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud and Power Rangers star Naomi Scott.
Unsurprisingly, there was a social media backlash over the casting, mostly to do with the casting of Jasmine (Scott is half-white, half-Indian). This was because Disney had put out a worldwide casting call for young men and women of Middle Eastern or Indian descent to audition for the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine, with over 2,000 people applying, and while Scott does have Gujarati heritage she is, aesthetically speaking, probably the whitest non-white actor they could have possibly cast.
The casting choice has been cited as the latest example of the film industry’s colorism – a form of prejudice which sees actors and, especially, actresses of color with a darker skin tone overlooked and less featured on screen than those with a lighter skin tone. It’s understandable, then, that many fans of color were disappointed with the Jasmine casting, as they saw the live-action Aladdin film as not only an opportunity for non-white representation on screen, but also to represent an ethnic aesthetic authentic to the Arab world that the fictional Agrabah is set and inspired by. Scott’s casting doesn’t exactly support this notion because unlike Princess Jasmine, she is mixed-race, light-skinned and of Indian and not of Arab descent. However, this latter point is not entirely clean cut as the original Aladdin story isn’t entirely a Middle Eastern tale, begging the question: should Aladdin and Princess Jasmine be Arab, Indian or Chinese?
Aladdin first appeared in One Thousand and One Nights, a famous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age (between the 8th and 13th Century) which was first translated into English, and renamed the Arabian Nights, over 400 years later. The stories are not just Arabic tales, but also have roots in Persian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Jewish and Egyptian folklore and literature. The story of “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” didn’t even appear in the collection until French translator Antoine Galland added it in 1710. According to Galland’s diaries, he had heard the story from a Syrian scholar in Aleppo – but no one has actually been able to find an original Arabic source for it.
Galland’s tale isn’t even set in the Middle East – it’s actually set in a Chinese city, and Aladdin is not an orphan but a poor Chinese boy living with his mother, with the only other location mentioned in the story being Maghreb, North Africa, where the sorcerer is from. The assumption of a Middle Eastern origin comes mainly from the character names, like Princess Badroulbadour, which means “full moon of full moons” in Arabic. The Sultan is referred to as such and not in Chinese terms as “the Emperor,” and other characters are clearly also Muslim, not Buddhist or Confucians, as their dialogue is filled with devout Muslim remarks and platitudes.
While Chinese Muslims did exist – the Hui being the most famous, dating back to the beginnings of the Silk Road – Galland’s version of the story is indicative of the Orientalist tradition of Western storytellers that sees the conflation of diverse Eastern cultures into one. As Krystyn R. Moon explains in Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s:
“Aladdin, which most people today associate with Persia and the Middle East thanks to films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Disney’s Aladdin (1992), was one of the more popular nineteenth-century productions set in China because of its romantic and moralistic storyline and its potential as a spectacle…Composers and librettists sometimes chose Persia as the setting for the tale because One Thousand and One Nights was from that region of the world and, like China, was a popular imaginative space for Americans and Europeans.”
This “imaginative space” allowed white Westerners to purport an unrealistic and fantastical impression of Eastern cultures, which for many people of Arab, Indian and Chinese descent is not exactly representative. Disney’s 1992 animated film imagined up a fictional Middle Eastern city to set its story and replaced nearly all the original character names with ones stolen from The Thief of Bagdad, another movie based on “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” and written by white filmmakers too.
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