Opinion: Princess Jasmine isn’t enough Middle Eastern representation


Art by: Auva Soheili

Princess Jasmine from the movie “Aladdin” holds signs stating representation matters. For many Middle Eastern kids, Jasmine is one of the only forms of Middle Eastern representation they have in popular entertainment.

Other than the one animated Disney movie “Aladdin,” I grew up watching blonde hair and blue-eyed girls on TV, wishing to be more like them.

Now, in 2020, it may seem that the film industry has reached the pinnacle of inclusion. But that could not be further from the truth. According to the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC), only 1% of television-series regular performers are Middle Eastern or North African. And 78% of that time, MENAs are seen as threats.

TV shows like “Designated Survivor” depicted Iranians as terrorists, and movies like “300,” about the Persian and Greek Wars, made Iranians seem barbaric. Subconsciously, I started to resent my heritage. I thought, “Why did I have to come from such a seemingly evil origin?”

However, this feeling was not exclusive to me; the negative portrayals of MENA cause many children of Middle Eastern descent to feel insecure in regards to their cultures, taking years of unlearning to once again feel pride in their background.

Furthermore, Middle Eastern actors are counted as Caucasian, which contributes to their inability to fill diverse hiring quotas. According to MAAC, those that are counted, are portrayed as foreigners 67% of the time. These “foreign” characters are then made to speak with a foreign accent, which reinforces the notion that MENAs are outsiders in this country.

Despite this reinforced rhetoric about Middle Easterners, it’s vital to remember that MENA characters should not be added to film productions purely to fill the diversity quotas; instead, they must be portrayed as wholistic, ordinary people that bring more to the table than just their ethnicity.

Thankfully, some television channels have stepped up to show more MENA representation. Freeform’s “The Bold Type” features a recurring Iranian, Muslim, lesbian character in a positive light allowing viewers to connect to a character that also happens to represent a Middle Easterner without reinforcing stereotypes.

And while strides like these have been taken toward inclusion in recent years, growing up, I didn’t have any character other than the animated Princess Jasmine that I felt I could see myself in. Even now, Middle Eastern representation remains low. Overall, 92% of scripted television programs have no MENA series regulars, while in contrast, 96% of television shows have at least one white character as a series regular.

To make amends, the film industry must commit to representing the diversity present in our nation. Had I grown up watching positive depictions of Iranians on TV, the personal obstacles I had to overcome regarding my insecurities about my heritage’s place in the U.S. could have been minimized.

For current and future generations of Middle Easterner Americans, representation must continue to expand because little girls and boys growing up deserve to see themselves represented in a positive light, to feel proud of their heritage, and revel in their differences.

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