Despite the somewhat problematic Orientalist nature of Princess Jasmine, she was still important due the fact that she was a non-white princess and provided much needed representation.

Gurjinder Khambay, Contributor

A Hero I Needed

The release of the new live action Aladdin has had everyone talking and so many people are excited, including myself. Growing up, Aladdin was my favourite Disney movie not because of the plot line or the songs, both admittedly good, but because Jasmine was a brown heroine. In her almond shaped eyes, brown skin and black hair, I saw someone who looked like me. This was not that long ago, but there were so few characters of colour on TV, and whilst there has been some progress, it’s come in small steps.

I always wanted to be like her. Whenever there was a costume day or Halloween, she was the character I’d pick – not because I loved her that much, but because I thought I couldn’t really be another character who was white. I know now, and I knew then, that a character’s race wasn’t the most important thing. A character is all about their choices and their personality traits, but representation was and still is important. We love characters because we see ourselves, the best and the worst, in them. They become our outlet for our ambitions and greatest dreams, but every character I saw was white. When I was young, I’d always be the Jasmine in a group of friends playing princess games, because well… I looked the most like her. She was Middle Eastern, and I am South Asian, despite the fact we’re both brown, we’re not the same. I’ve heard enough people say that we have a brown princess – that’s representation, right? But not every brown person has the same culture, and not every brown person is the same.

When a young kid sees someone on screen who looks like them and does all of the things they want to, it shows them that they could too. Fiction enables us to put ourselves in another world and another place, it lets us be things beyond our wildest dreams, but to do that you need to be that character and sometimes it’s hard when every character is white. You don’t always need characters who are the same as you, but when you have none it sends a message that people of colour are not present in these stories, or if they are, they’re resigned to being a side character.

For years whenever I read books or wrote stories, the main characters were white, because that was the default. For so many years after seeing that everywhere, it was beyond my young imagination to see the main character as not white. For so many years, I wanted to be too because I figured if I could emulate them in every way, as every child wants to do with their heroes, then I could be as smart and as brave as they were. Not having a role model of the same ethnicity means you are unable to see yourself as the saviour in your own fairy tale, and the worst thing is that I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. 

In the past couple of years, we have seen more South Asian representation on TV – Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj are just a few – but there needs to be more. More characters who are not resigned to side roles, who are the heroes of their own stories, who are our new superheroes and wizards. We need more of them because it shows us that not every hero has to be white, and maybe that was Jasmine’s strongest point after all.