When I was in high school, Disney (dis) released the animated feature film Aladdin, and I was elated. Finally, I thought, a Middle Eastern princess. Princess Jasmine was sassy, independent, and beautiful—a positive Arab/Middle Eastern character that little girls could see in themselves.
Even back in the early ’90s, it was a welcome reprieve from the relentless negative depictions of Arabs/Middle Easterners that accompanied the Persian Gulf War. Many Arab/Middle Eastern children had come to believe that Disney was not for them, and that being a princess was something for white kids. Then Aladdin came along, and we finally had our own Disney movie. It was a self-esteem boost, and helped create a sense of belonging for Middle Eastern children. They finally felt that their ancestry was included as a part of the diverse American landscape.
Disney got it right then. It’s a shame it missed an opportunity now.
One must not underestimate the power of seeing oneself represented in the popular media, be it in films, television, or the news. One study found that white boys’ self-esteem increased with higher amounts of television consumption, but that girls’ and African American children’s self-esteem plummeted. The primary reason given for the boys’ higher self-esteem was that they tend to see mostly white male characters, allowing them exposure to an array of positive and powerful models. Girls and ethnic minorities are much less likely to be exposed to characters in a diverse range of positive roles.
With the recent backlash in Hollywood surrounding the casting of white actors to play characters of color, Disney went to great lengths to mount a large-scale, worldwide search to find culturally appropriate actors for the live-action reboot of Aladdin. Reportedly, more than 2,000 actors read for the parts of Jasmine and Aladdin. The process resulted in Mena Massoud, a Canadian Egyptian, being cast as Aladdin; and Naomi Scott, a woman of British and Indian heritage, landing the role of Jasmine. The casting call included a search for actors of both Middle Eastern and Indian descent, presumably to widen the net of potential actors that could realistically depict Middle Easterners.
The backlash against Disney for choosing Naomi Scott, a woman not of Middle Eastern descent, to depict Jasmine is partially a response to the notion that individuals of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent are interchangeable. This is not the first time that South Asians and Middle Easterners have been mistaken for one another. Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, a Sikh man was murdered in a hate crime aimed at someone of Middle Eastern descent. Individuals of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent both experienced a rise in hate crimes post -9/11.
There is a psychological concept that explains this phenomenon called the outgroup homogeneity effect, where majority group members see the uniqueness and individuality within their own group, but see minority group members as homogeneous. In other words, the majority views the minority as all being the same.
In a climate that includes Muslim bans and general anti-immigration rhetoric, children of Middle Eastern descent are constantly bombarded with negative messages about Middle Easterners. Author and lecturer Jack Shaheen documented the longstanding negative media portrayals of Arabs in films and television. He noted that Arab characters tend to be terrorists; passive, oppressed women; rich oil sheiks; or brutes.
Aladdin was a golden opportunity to change that portrayal and give children a counter narrative of a positive portrayal of Middle Easterners using Arab/Middle Eastern actors. Disney did cast a person of Egyptian descent to play Aladdin, and Naomi Scott is a woman of color, a great improvement from casting white actors to play characters of color. However, Disney missed an opportunity to provide a little more magic to the little Middle Eastern girls hoping to see someone of their heritage playing Princess Jasmine.
Germine Awad is an associate professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and is an affiliate of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. She is also co-editor of the Handbook of Arab American Psychology.