Disney Aladdin

‘Aladdin’: Middle Eastern enough?

In its latest stage and screen riffs on a fantasy tale with Orientalist roots, Disney makes a highly selective push for representation

By MELORY MIRASHRAFI

One month before Disney’s new live-action Aladdin opened in movie theaters nationwide, the Broadway tour of the hit musical came to Portland. While millions of viewers across America are flocking to see both adaptations of the 1992 classic, only one version features any actors of Middle Eastern descent.

This comes as no surprise: There were no Middle Eastern actors in the original, either. To this day, I remember the moment I learned Princess Jasmine was voiced by a white woman. When I was twelve I primarily identified with Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (an introverted reader with an engineer for a father), so I was disappointed to be assigned Jasmine as my character at a Disney-themed birthday party because of my “Arabianness.” Princess Jasmine has since followed me around as the only “Middle Eastern” Disney Princess (Jasmin also happens to be my middle name, which doesn’t help), and although there’s no such place as “Agrabah,” an inevitable connection formed between the two of us, making it particularly shocking when I realized that the voice I had been listening to had never been Middle Eastern at all. While Jasmine’s vocals are done by Filipina singer and actress Lea Salonga, her speaking voice belongs to white American actress Linda Larkin, a difficult truth to swallow as someone who grew up identifying with Jasmine in part because she looked like me.

While the new live-action movie version of Aladdin in theaters attracts praise for its inclusion of Middle Eastern actors in its cast, it’s unsettling that the simultaneous Broadway tour is seemingly void of any such effort. Recent Disney endeavors such as The Princess and the Frog and Moana seem to seek cultural specificity and an acute awareness of race in a push for equity, diversity, and inclusion.  It’s certainly also worth noting that both of the aforementioned examples are animated, circumnavigating certain elements of the casting process, such as embodiment. Why, then, the gap between what is seen on stage and screen when it comes to Aladdin?

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Andrés Felipe Orozco as the Calip in an onstage revival of Kismet in Neustrelitz, Germany, 2019. Photo: Tom Schweers

AS AN IRANIAN-AMERICAN THEATER-MAKER and cultural consultant, I often ask what keeps a production from accurately representing a certain region, ethnicity, or culture. While Aladdin (2019) takes steps to right the lack of accurate cultural representation, it falls short of erasing Disney’s xenophobic legacy – one that stems from a combination of the tale’s Orientalist origins, as well as a history of misrepresentation of Middle Eastern people in theater and film.

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