Like most people my age, I grew up during the Disney Renaissance: a time when Disney’s Animation Studio brought us some of the best animated films, and soundtracks, of all time. In fact, the first movie I remember seeing in a theater was The Lion King. And like most girls, I was enamored with stories that featured the beautiful and bubbly Disney Princesses. I’d stake $2 that most girls my age had at least one of the following when they were younger: Pocahontas bed sheets, or a night gown that featured any combination of Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, or Snow White. You can imagine my excitement for live-action versions of these films. Yes, there’s a chance that Disney would ruin the source material, but I’m confident in saying that Disney has done a great job so far of capturing the essence of the originals — this year’s Beauty and the Beast remake exceeded my expectations by far. So, as excited as I am for Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin, I was pretty disappointed by the casting choices.
This month, the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe started trending on social media. This conversation was created by Netflix and the women of Black Girl Nerds about representation in pop culture. I immediately thought of the Disney Princesses and how I felt watching these films as a little girl. At the time, I noticed that I looked different than a lot of the dolls, cartoons, and girls in picture books I saw. My mom tried to find toys and entertainment that had girls of color as the main character or in the toy section, but options were limited. Pocahontas was an obvious choice, but even though she was spirited, witty, and good-natured, she was also super tall, and seemed way too old for me to relate to. I gravitated towards Princess Jasmine: smart, sassy, and unafraid to stand up for herself. But most of all, she had dark hair and pretty brown skin, which, when I looked in the mirror, is what I saw.
The live-action adaptation of Aladdin has had a rough start, from criticism over Guy Ritchie directing the film to rumors of trouble casting main characters. As of now, they’ve chosen Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Marwen Kenzari as Jafar, and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. This cast is gorgeous: when I first saw the announcements, I said, “Damn, Jafar is fine,” and then immediately felt really weird about it. This movie had so much potential for groundbreaking representation. Here you have one of the only films from the Disney Renaissance to be re-made with an all non-white cast, with pretty much an unlimited budget, and an opportunity to feature Middle Eastern actors in roles outside of the typical stereotypes we see in film and television. But, the studio decided to go shades lighter than we saw in the 1992 original. To say the least, I was very disappointed.
This matters because colorism — prejudice in favor of lighter skin — is still an issue many communities of color try to combat, with no help from skewed representations in media. As a light-skinned black women, I’ve been aware of the concept of colorism since I was in middle school, and could further define and recognize this in the products and entertainment I consume. It’s no secret that the handful of opportunities for people of color in the media tend to go to people who are lighter-skinned, and Aladdin is clearly no exception. And while this conversation has typically centered around the black community because of its ties to slavery, colorism definitely affects non- black people of color as well. For example, telenovelas typically feature fairer Latinx actors; I’ve actually never seen a novela with an Afro-Latinx lead. As for Asians, South Asians, and actors of Middle Eastern descent, there’s hardly any examples to choose from because representation is extremely minimal, which is why different casting decisions in Aladdin would have been so monumental.
These days, companies and studios are beginning to recognize that people of color desperately want better and truer representations of themselves in the media. Nina, a biopic starring Zoe Saldana, flopped famously due to the casting of a lighter-skinned black woman to play Nina Simone, whose lyrics specifically discussed the issues of being a dark-skinned black woman in the United States. And the success of Girl’s Trip as opposed to A Rough Night, two very similar (in concept) films that premiered this summer, further proves that a cast does not need to be whiter or lighter to break records.
I was baffled that Disney decided not to take this unique chance to cast not only someone of Middle Eastern descent, but someone of darker complexion as the first live-action Disney Princess of color. How monumental would that have been? I’m sure Naomi Scott and the rest of the cast will do a wonderful job, and I’ll enjoy the movie as much as the other live action Disney films. I am saddened by this missed opportunity for a new generation to get a whole new world of representation — an opportunity to give an untapped population of kids the chance to walk away from Aladdin and say it was the #FirstTimeISawMe.