The Same Old World: How the 2019 Aladdin Fails to Rectify the Mistakes of the Original

By Alexa Smith and Gabrielle Wongso

In 1992, Disney released Aladdin, which immediately became an instant classic. The movie received critical acclaim when it was released but it also faced backlash from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for the racist depictions of Arab culture (Frook, 1993). Since the film’s release and initial backlash, the film has continued to receive major criticism about its depiction of people of color and Middle Eastern culture. Through its 2019 remake, Disney hoped it would fix some of the depictions through a modern lens. Unfortunately, the movie failed to achieve its goal due to the lack of representation behind the scene and its ability to open more problematic issues along the way.

The list of the cast and crew of the 2019 Aladdin remake. While majority of the principal casts are people of color, the people behind the scene is still flooded by white male producers and creators. | Images from IMDb

The 2019 movie made some significant changes from the 1992 movie, including casting more people of color, revamping Jasmine as a character, and removing many of the offensive stereotypes contained within the lyrics of the songs. Even though the filmmakers hired cultural consultants and sought advice from different communities, these efforts fall short due to the lack of representation behind the decision making process.

In 2017, Professor Stacy Smith found out of the 100 top movies of 2016, only 17% of creator jobs are filled by women, and even less those who identified as person of color (Smith, 2017). In 2019, it does not seem to change as only 14.4% of directors of theatrical movies were people of color (Vary, 2020) and Disney contributes to the issue. The creative team behind the 2019 film remake, only consists of one person of color in a leadership position. Dan Lin is the producer of the movie and identifies as Asian. While Disney “sought advice from a Community Advisory Council comprised of Middle Eastern, south Asian and Muslim scholars, activists and creatives” (Alsutany, 2019), it is clear Disney still views Arab, South Asian, and Muslim culture as one monolith.  

If the movie were to be led by a person from Middle Eastern or South Asian background, it would allow the cultural background of the story to flourish even more. Then, it would not have diluted the different cultures of these unique countries and regions to be combined into a singular, exotizied culture.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Many critics believe that Scott is the wrong actor to be Jasmine as she is South Asian and British decent rather than middle eastern. | Image courtesy: Digital Spy https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a27491725/aladdin-2019-songs-naomi-scott-princess-jasmine/

While the movie was able to cast people of color predominantly, there was still controversy over the casting of Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Colorism is defined as “the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people of color over their dark-skinned counterparts” (Hunter, 2005), and Scott’s casting is a prime example of this. 

Scott is a British actor who is a mixed-race of English and Indian. For many of her South Asian counterparts, it is clear Scott has much lighter skin compared to others. As South Asian women continue to be flooded with advertising and messages that promote lighter skin as a beauty ideal, Hollywood enforces the same message through its casting of lighter skin actors of color. The casting of Scott as Princess Jasmine shows how the bias of the past continues to persist, “This iteration of Princess Jasmine ticks all the boxes of the Hollywood formula for casting a woman of color: a name that’s easy to pronounce and looks just white enough.” (Salam, 2019). Aside from Scott, the other major casts, including Mena Massoud who played Aladdin, Nasim Pedrad who played Dalia, and Marwan Kenzari who played Jafar, all have light skin. It’s a step-up from the original Aladdin’s mostly white cast, but it’s still clear Disney has a bias towards lighter skin.

The guards who chase Jasmine and Aladdin clearly seen to have much darker skin compare to those who are guarding the castle and the princess. Next to the guard is an extra who can be identified as a white actor having brown-face| Image courtesy: Disney

While the main characters all have light skin, actors with darker skin can be seen throughout the movie in the background. Oftentimes, however, they are portrayed as antagonists or villains. In the One Jump scene, the guards who are trying to capture Aladdin and Jasmine clearly have much darker skin compared to Aladdin and Jasmine. This shows how Disney continues to enforce the stereotype of men with darker skin as bad people that should be avoided. 

Disney also admitted to applying brown faces to dozens of white actors for Asian crowd scenes in the movie believing that they are not able to find talents in Asian communities (Jones, 2018). Through the gesture, it shows how Hollywood and Disney failed to recognize actors of color and their talents.

Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders| Image courtesy: Bustle

In the 2019 movie, Disney introduced a new character Prince Anders. Prince Anders is the only white character to appear in the movie. In the original one, there were no white characters. Disney’s intentions for this remain unclear. It could be argued that Prince Anders was there as a foil to Aladdin. He has a small role and is really just there for comedy. His comments on Jasmine’s looks contrast with Aladdin’s first interaction with her – making Aladdin seem genuine and Anders seem shallow. However, the addition of a white character could also be seen as Disney’s attempt to appeal to a white audience. A white character being added to a movie that originally only had characters of color implies that there is something unmarketable about a movie only containing people of color. While people of color are expected to relate to white movies, white people aren’t expected to relate to movies with people of color. Hollywood has consistently had a problem with representing people of color. In 2016, only 29.2% of characters in top grossing films were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (MDSCI Staff, 2017). With this statistic in mind, it could be seen as offensive that Disney felt the need to shoehorn a white character into a movie about people of color who rarely get their own screentime. 

To make matters worse, in late 2019 Disney announced that Prince Anders is receiving a spin-off movie. This came days after Mena Massound, the actor who played Aladdin, could not get a single audition despite being the lead in a billion dollar movie. Through the creation of the spin-off, it ultimately shows how Hollywood still values those who are white rather than people of color. Despite the diversity efforts that Hollywood claimed have taken.

Screenshot from the movie | Image courtesy: Disney

The White Gaze 

The White Gaze is the assumption that the consumer is white, therefore, creating the movie or art through the lens of white consumers (Alonge, 2017). In the 2019 movie, there are many cultural references and events seen through white male filmmakers, such as the gaze through Prince Anders and the wedding events. 

Through Prince Anders, the audience learns to exoticize Jasmine. In the scene where Jasmine was first introduced as a true princess, the audience saw her beauty through Prince Anders eyes as he and his soldiers gaze to Princess Jasmine. As the audience saw Jasmine, it cut to Prince Anders’ reactions to indicate how the audience should react to Jasmine with Dalia, her assistant and Rajah, her pet. Then through Prince Anders’ comments, while it has some good intentions behind it, it ultimately comes off as exotizing Princess Jasmine, as he indicates that her beauty is foreign to him.

Through Prince Anders’ comments and gaze, it shows Hollywood’s biases towards Orientalism. Orientalism is a way for the West to imagine, emphasize, exaggerate, and distort the difference of the Middle Eastern, Arab Culture and people compared to those in the West (Said, 1978). Through Orientalism, the West essentially emphasized its superiority to those who live in the East. Through Prince Anders’ comments and gaze, it shows how Middle Eastern and South Asian culture are still a foreign culture to those in the west as well as exoitizing princess Jasmine.

Image edited by Gabrielle Wongso |Image courtesy: Disney, New York Times

Another example of Orientalism is the movie’s use of clothing and culture from various South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Some critics praised the diverse cultures represented in Aladdin, but they also failed to acknowledge that this mixing of cultures in a movie made for western audiences creates stereotypes and lack of understanding. These issues could have been solved through more representation of people of color behind the scenes. 

While it is clear that Agrabah is a fictional place, the possible location and the cultural influence around the area continues to be debated. Some believe that Agrabah is a middle eastern place due to the opening song “Arabian Night” and the amount of middle eastern musical influence. At the same time, the castle is believed to be influenced by the Taj Mahal, indicating Indian culture in the movie. Through this combination of culture, it indicates how Indians, South Asians and Arabs are interchangable  (Salam, 2019). With the remake of the movie, Disney had the chance and the intentions to fix the culturally insensitive parts of the original. However, since they picked white directors, producers, and writers these attempts fell flat. By combining so many different countries and cultures, Disney continues the narrative that all Asian or even foreign countries are the same. It enforces stereotypes and ignorant beliefs of countries outside of America. Disney could have used the remake as an opportunity to pick one culture to focus on.

This cultural confusion could have been fixed if the studio chose a person of color to lead behind the scenes. However, they took the easy way out and used diverse casting as a surface level fix. 

Image courtesy: Disney, Amazon UK

American Accent

Finally, the movie still distinguishes those with American and foreign accents. This was a complaint about the original movie from the ADC that Disney brushed off at the time (Frook, 1993).  Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie, who are all the good guys, have American accents. Dalia, the Sultan, and Jafar all have some “foreign” accents, with each representing different kinds of “foreign.” Jafar being the main antagonist still maintains the Arabic accents, as if showing foreigners are bad and the Arabs are different. The Sultan and Dalia both seem to represent Hollywood’s idea of foreigners to be less smarter than those with American accents. Cementing the idea that those with foreign accents and non-eurocentric features are untrustworthy and bad. (Alsultany, 2019).

References

Abady, S. (2019, May 24). The Aladdin remake still can’t get Arab culture right. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90354146/the-aladdin-remake-still-cant-get-arab-culture-right

Acuna, K. (2019, August 15). ‘Aladdin’ producer explains why they made changes from the animated movie: ‘We didn’t think it held up in today’s day and age of female empowerment’. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.insider.com/why-live-action-aladdin-makes-changes-from-animated-movie-2019-8

Alsultany, E. (2019, May 30). How the new live-action Aladdin seeks to break Hollywood stereotypes. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/aladdin-movie-remake-arab-muslim-middle-east-naomi-scott-mena-massoud-a8933221.html

Edwards, C. (2019, May 31). Aladdin star responds to Princess Jasmine casting controversy. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a27669540/aladdin-mena-massoud-princess-jasmine-casting-controversy-naomi-scott/

Hunter, M. L. (2007). Race, gender, and the politics of skin tone. Routledge.

Hurley, D. (2005). Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess. The Journal of Negro Education, 74(3), 221-232. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40027429

Jones, A. (2018, January 07). Genie, brown up some extras for Aladdin. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/genie-brown-up-some-extras-for-aladdin-z9s922xb3?wgu=270525_54264_16055920372943_a5fcf182e4

Jones, A. (2018, January 07). Genie, brown up some extras for Aladdin. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/genie-brown-up-some-extras-for-aladdin-z9s922xb3?wgu=270525_54264_16055920372943_a5fcf182e4

Kiefer, H. (2019, December 07). Aladdin’s Prince Anders Is Getting a Spinoff, And Now You’re Down to Two Wishes. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.vulture.com/2019/12/aladdins-prince-anders-is-getting-his-own-disney-spinoff.html

Romano, A. (2019, May 24). The fraught cultural politics of Disney’s new Aladdin remake. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2019/5/24/18635896/disney-live-action-aladdin-controversy-history

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Saeed, S. (2019, May 28). 5 ways the new Aladdin film is less racist than the cartoon version. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/film/5-ways-the-new-aladdin-film-is-less-racist-than-the-cartoon-version-1.866824

Salam, E. (2019, May 24). The fairest of them all? Two cheers for Aladdin’s browner Princess Jasmine. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/24/aladdin-princess-jasmine-brown-colorism-disney

Sandwell, I. (2019, May 21). Aladdin star teases Princess Jasmine’s “powerful” new song. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a27491725/aladdin-2019-songs-naomi-scott-princess-jasmine/

Staff, M. (2017, July 31). Hollywood sticks to the script: Films aren’t more inclusive, despite a decade of advocacy. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/mdsci/hollywood-sticks-script-films-arent-more-inclusive-despite-decade-advocacy

Vary, A. (2020, February 06). Women and People of Color Still Underrepresented Behind the Scenes, Study Says. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://variety.com/2020/film/news/diversity-hollywood-behind-the-scenes-ucla-study-1203494631/

Yam, K. (2018, January 10). Disney Admits To Darkening White Actors For ‘Aladdin,’ Sparking Outrage. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/disney-aladdin-skin-darkening_n_5a54e36fe4b003133eccb275?guccounter=1

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