Abeir Soukieh is an Arab-Australian poet and writer from Canberra who is currently completing her Masters in Anthropology at the Australian National University.
First things first, this is not a diatribe against Naomi Scott.
More power to her and to other women of South Asian heritage landing leading lady roles (under albeit essentialising circumstances in this case, but hey you gotta take ‘em where you can get ‘em). But, as a very strong believer in not absolving anything of criticism simply because it’s not as bad as it could have been, I will outline below my three main criticisms of the casting choice: 1) Interchangeable-Ethnic-Girl Syndrome, 2) distorted and insulated standards of ‘mainstream’ beauty, and 3) representation.
Now my first point is a pretty basic point – Interchangeable-Ethnic-Girl Syndrome; or the idea that all ethnic girls are interchangeable and, that if a casting opportunity should arise, this or that ethnically-inclined girl ‘will do’. Yeah, thanks guys, we all look alike. Only, we don’t. Additionally, there are legit tonnes of exceptionally talented and beautiful Arab girls out there. And I’ll have none of that king-cop-out ‘we-didn’t-know-where-to-look’ malarkey .
I mean seriously, you even had a picture to go by:
Next point – distorted and insulated standards of beauty. By distorted I mean the self-authenticating echo-chamber of biased voices that have the power to decide what is and is not real beauty, and how these standards serve to construct what can and cannot be considered ‘acceptable’ Arab or ethnic beauty.
By insulated I mean, protected or preserved.
I will demonstrate this by means of an example interaction that I’ve experienced more often than I can count:
“Where are you from? Like, what’s your heritage?” They ask me.
“Lebanese-Australian,” I reply.
“But you don’t look Lebanese,” they say, in like weird-admiration, “You look more European.” Then they look at me as though they’ve just given me the single greatest compliment on the planet.
Like I’m so lucky I don’t look Lebanese, or whatever their conception of what Lebanese is supposed to look like (probably bad). Like I’m so lucky I can pass off as European, or whatever their conception of what European is supposed to look like (probably not bad). ‘Bad’, in this sense, can mean anything from aesthetically bad, to morally bad, to academically bad, to so on and so forth.
The saddest thing about it is that half the time I receive these ‘compliments’, it’s either from Lebanese or otherwise recognisably “ethnic” girls. Naturally, the other half of the time, it’s from those considered to be “non-ethnic”, which is annoying as all hell and everything, but when it comes from a girl of the same heritage or similarly mixed heritage, it bothers me considerably more. That they should feel there’s something shameful or unpraiseworthy in being Lebanese in appearance and, in terms of Lebanese girls, that they should consider themselves to be of less value for both being and looking Lebanese.
Unfortunately, it’s a very common trick of the coloniser/local hegemon to imbue in their subjects/minorities a sense of worthlessness, to teach them to hate themselves, and to such an extent that the colonised/minority subject has internalised completely the inferiority imposed upon them by conceptions of what constitutes ‘pretty’/‘civilized’ or ‘ugly’/‘uncivilized’ appearance and behaviour.
But then if one should deviate from the stereotype in any way, she will likely encounter the kinds of ‘compliments’ that regularly recur in environments such as this;
“You’re not like any other Lebanese I know, they’re all hoes.”
“How many Lebanese do you know?”
“And what do you mean by hoe?”
“You know, uneducated, slutty—”
Which brings me to my final point – representation.
Let’s say a young Arab girl with more decidedly Jasmine-like features is to watch Aladdin under the impression she is about to watch a movie that, at least to some extent, will represent her being or future being in some capacity; in other words, a strong-willed, smart and beautiful Arab woman.
What will she see?
She will not see her eyes, she will not see her hair, she will not see her smile.
She certainly will not see her nose.
Nor her eyebrows.
Her skin colour will have changed.
She will not see herself in action, making active choices on her own behalf and unapologetically taking on archaic, confining and debilitating patriarchal law, tradition and custom.
She will see what is considered to be the ‘most acceptable’ version of ‘Arab’ presented before her. She will see the kind of ‘Arab’ that is ‘acceptable’ to be shown on screen.
That is, one that is not Arab.
And one that does not look like her.
© Abeir Soukieh, 2019
 Audre Lorde (1979) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House
Images © Disney, sourced from Google Images.