Cultural Appropriation and Aladdin

by Dr. Punita Rice Culture

Cultural Appropriation and Aladdin

I have a confession to make: I’m really excited about the live action Aladdin. Even though it’s problematic, racist, etc. I’m also exhausted by the weight of conversations around cultural appropriation and the desire to just, like, enjoy a movie sometimes. Read on for some thoughts on cultural appropriation and Aladdin…

So I just recently read an article on the issues with how the movie is going to be inherently problematic, fetishizing, exoticizing, inaccurate, etc., and is going to be an epic mess of cultural appropriation. (And cultural appropriation and Aladdin have gone together since long before this remake was conceived of. The story of Aladdin itself is cobbled together from stories that originate from a lot of places).

I actually agree with that preemptive assessment.

In fact, as an education researcher whose work focuses on South Asian American students’ experiences in K-12 settings, and as the director of an outreach organization aimed at improving these same students’ experiences in schools, AND as a PoC woman myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about issues of representation in the media, especially as related to how South Asians are portrayed.

And I know a lot of similar dissecting and unpacking has been done recently about entertainment about Brown American people: The Big Sick, The Mindy Project, Master of None are all imperfect. (And these are projects actually created by Brown American people!).

Yes, Disney worked hard to find Brown actors – and for this, they obviously do not deserve a cookie. With the amount of pressure major studios are getting for putting an end to whitewashing, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re going with what’s now expected of them.

…And the fact that there is such little representation of US that I have always felt a special connection to Disney’s Aladdin and am excited about the live action movie is sad, because it means I’m willing to accept even a caricature of something vaguely resembling my culture in the mainstream, even though I wish it were done better, even though I’m dissatisfied with the current product (this tumblr post nails what I’m getting at on the head).

But… I also want to watch Aladdin.

Wrestling with the dichotomy of wanting to enjoy things and being aware of why those things are problematic is an ongoing struggle. Engaging with issues of representation is opening a box that can’t be resealed; in so doing, you lose the luxury of ignorance, which means you lose the luxury of just getting to indulge in things that are “problematic” (and LOTS of things are problematic).

But sometimes, like my friend Kemi put it, “I just wanna enjoy stuff without feeling like I’m not woke.”

Right. I just wanna sing “You’ll Never Have a Friend Like Me” with the party starter aka Big Willie, and I wanna see the CGI magic carpet. But yeah, I mean it’s definitely racist.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? No seriously, I don’t have an answer.

How do we balance being aware of things being terrible with just wanting to throw our hands sometimes and say CAN I LIVE? How do we solve the cultural appropriation and Aladdin puzzle?

P.S. – What Music Makes You Cry?

About the Author

Dr. Punita Rice

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Dr. Punita Rice is a wife and mama, an education researcher, a writer, the founder and director of ISAASE, and an advisor with Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Doctor of Education program. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here. Punita also writes about life, culture, education, and motherhood here on her blog. She works from home in Maryland, and drinks a great deal of coffee.