Hollywood Still Gets This Story Wrong

I remember my mother not wanting me and my siblings to watch Walt Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Ten year old me didn’t understand why, and she didn’t articulate, perhaps not to crush our childish dreams. It was exciting to see a movie that showed us. When you don’t regularly see yourself in popular culture, you’ll take whatever scraps are thrown your way. Here was a movie based in a part of the world that belonged to me. 

As a mixed race child, I was always guaranteed to see my white self on the larger screen, but constantly reminded by the surrounding culture, peers, and adults that I was not really white. So if Disney was going to make a hero out of a poor brown kid, I was in. While I enjoyed Aladdin, laughing along with my siblings at the Genie and romanticizing the love story and defiance of Jasmine, as I grew older I began to see that Disney’s tale exoticized and villainized us. 

Colorism was defined by Alice Walker as“prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”. Colorism has been perpetuated throughout all social, political, and economic systems, and influences identity and self-worth, playing a key role in discrimination and internalized oppression. Colorism in film has been a mainstay since the medium’s inception. From Georges Melies orientalist ‘The Terrible Turkish Executioner’ (1904) and DW Griffith’s black-faced portrayal of slaves in The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Emma Stone’s recent casting as East Asian in ‘Aloha’ (2015), colorism persists. 

 Aladdin was famously modeled after Tom Cruise, with light skin, anglo features, and a US accent. Similarly, Jasmine is anglicized with just the right amount of “ethnic” - curvaceous hips, almond shaped eyes, long lashes, shiny wavy black hair. Then there’s Jafar - dark skinned, thick accent, large nose and other noticeably Arab features. Jafar is the direct contrast to Aladdin. Just think about that. Disney took the time to draw a light skinned Arab hero and a dark skinned Arab villain - that’s a lot of hours, a lot of time to maybe sit back and ask if it’s going to hurt some little brown kids. 

Weaved into colorism in Aladdin, there are terrifying displays of gender and sexuality. Jafar is presented as a sexual predator against Jasmine whose only hope is to be rescued by Aladdin. Jafar’s ambiguous gender presentation and sexuality, are contrasted against Aladdin whose primary motivation is his pursuit of Jasmine. Jafar has coded feminine features, narrow eyes framed by what appears to be eyeliner, a wispy slender figure that dwarfs in comparison to Aladdin’s masculine build. All of this works to illustrate a character whose evil stems from his darkness and ambiguous gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, Aladdin’s deceptions of Jasmine to win her favor are easily forgiven, and praised. 

More recently, Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) was criticized for its portrayal of Xerxes and Iranians in general. The story is centered around the Greek defeat of Xerxes’ invading forces. The premise alone is one of whiteness triumphing over brown. Casting Rodrigo Santoro, a Brazilian actor, as Xerxes implies that all brown peoples are interchangeable. Xerxes is written as a ruthless savage, with exaggerated features, and an overtly feminine and queer presentation. The irony is that queerness was a normal part of both Greek and Persian cultures. 

In the context of 300 whiteness not only works to colonize and erase Black and brown identity, but also anything other than heterosexual and binary gender presentation. Casting Santoro works to simultaneously uphold white supremacy and villainizing Iranians and peoples from Western Asia, while also erasing Santoro’s identity and ultimately labeling his brownness as equally evil.

I remember looking for myself on film, for some inkling of me, and was so busy looking for little brown me, I wasn’t capable of articulating a need to see queer me. Upon further reflection, being Black and brown in a white supremacist society means to queer space. Our very existence defies expectations, but should not be a placeholder for our sexualities. Ironically, the majority of the world is people of color, but white supremacy is so insidious, so ingrained, that to be of color means to be considered a minority, to be considered less than, and means to work hard to find accurate representation. And our work is made even more difficult when combatting colorism alongside racism.

SWANA (Southwest Asian, North African - note that Southwest Asian is a more geographically and accurately racial description of the commonly used term “Middle Eastern”) peoples need to more aggressively include ourselves in discussions on colorism in media. When asked about casting white people in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) as Afghans, Tina Fey brushed it off, declaring that SWANA are caucasian anyway. US legal standards have deemed SWANA peoples as caucasian, but rampant violence and discrimination directed toward the communities proves otherwise. 

There is a movement within the SWANA community to reclaim racial status, and the US Census Bureau is pushing for MENA (Middle Eastern, North African) to be on the 2020 census. Historically, during the US push to ban Asian immigrants in the 19th century, specifically targeting the Chinese, Syrians went to court to request classification as caucasian. The court ruled in favour of the Syrians. This decision excluded SWANA folks from federal reports, benefits, and possible support as an underrepresented group. With Trump’s presidential win, violence against SWANA peoples has drastically risen, as well as violence against people falsely presumed to be SWANA. After all, when representation is predominantly negative, and casting is done so falsely, brown folks become interchangeable.

Categorizing SWANA peoples as caucasian has emphasized the false promise of whiteness, as well as internalized oppression of seeking whiteness. The idea that achieving whiteness is the goal, dehumanizes and erases diverse identities within SWANA communities, and re-emphasizes the idea that lighter is better. SWANA identities include varied cultures, languages, and religions. Part of the colorism that plays out is the racialization of Muslims, emphasizing the myths that all SWANA are Muslim, and vice versa. 

The reality for SWANA folks is that being legally white does not mean being included within the world of white privileges, and passing for white does not create a cocoon of safety from the very violent realities of white supremacy. Finally, SWANA as white means a re-enforcement of rampant anti-Blackness that white colonizers have spread into all corners of the world.

So much internal effort is placed on creating understanding of the various religious and cultural identities of SWANA folks, that other identities are often ignored. While there are movies that feature queer SWANA characters, they are few and far between. ‘My Beautiful Laundrette'  (1985) successfully weaves race, class, and religion, but the film is over 30 years old. Openly bisexual Iranian Desiree Akhavan, wrote, directed, and starred in ‘Appropriate Behavior’ (2014), a film about her experiences with dating and family relations. The film is light and enjoyable, despite deep material. Unfortunately, it is difficult to expect perfection, and casting Spanish-Vietnamese Anh Duong as Akhavan’s mother is lazy. 

That said, ‘Appropriate Behavior’, Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ (2015), Riz Ahmed and Rami Malek’s rise to fame, are all signs of hope. Oscars for ‘Moonlight’ (2016), Viola Davis’ for ‘Fences’ (2016), Asghar Farhadi’s for ‘The Salesman’ (2016), and others, along with the critical acclaim and box office success of ‘Get Out’ (2017), are certainly motivating factors in terms of diverse racial and sexual representation for all people of color. Ultimately, they remind us that it’s not about white society getting our stories right, rather it is about telling our own stories. Our stories are so often relegated to the sidelines, we have to take hold, and express them ourselves. It’s about other little brown kids seeing multitudes of themselves, and knowing that they too can participate in their creation.

 

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