Please Alert the Aladdin Casting Backlash: Representation is When Geography Matters

C: Growing up as Arab Americans, the Quibbling Siblings got used to characters purportedly of our heritage played on the small and large screens by just about anyone vaguely “dark looking,” whether the actor was white, Latinx, or whatever. Notably, for the better part of a decade, this was The Face Of The Middle East to many Americans:

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For those of us regularly munching kibbe and fatayer at the Lebanese picnic, however, it was really really obvious that that’s an Indian guy.

Cue the great Aladdin debacle of 2017. The filmmakers of the live action remake (because the nostalgia machine cannot be stopped) have come out and said they can’t seem to find an actor “of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent” who could play the role, despite searching for several days in London! So the internet — specifically a subset of the internet that’s passionately vocal about fairness — has pounced on them, deservedly. People who believe that Representation Matters are calling out the absurdity of the implication that such an actor could not be found. But oddly, most are not calling out the “or Indian” part of the casting call. Instead they themselves are pointing to many excellent actors from India, rather than considering the fact that we have no established Arab American or Arab British lead actors as the real problem here.

Thus, as food for thought for anyone who wants to express annoyance about this in a savvy, representation-conscious way, here’s a summary of the Three Big Problems with this well-intentioned uproar.

1. India is not in the Middle East

I know you know this. And most articles I’ve seen do acknowledge this, in a “teach the controversy” kind of way. Like, “Some people point out that Indian and Middle Eastern people are different, but wouldn’t Dev Patel make an awesome Aladdin? Also, Bollywood!”

Okay, but they are actually different. Different language groups, different cultures, different in typical appearance, quite often different in religion (though both have Muslim & Christian populations). Same goes for the other some-kind-of-Asian men being suggested (like the Filipino model whose picture I saw posted with a caption claiming him to be identical to Aladdin). The principle behind these posts is that these groups tend to have brown hair & eyes and tanner skin, and are underrepresented on film because they’re not pasty-white guys. Trouble is, you might as well be suggesting Latino actors to play Aladdin.

You know that would be messed up. I know you know it. But it’s time to apply that logic to the current situation.

2. Agrabah is definitely the Middle East

There have been several posts talking about how it’s unclear where Disney’s Aladdin is set, which is kind of true – I couldn’t pinpoint a modern country here. But it’s obviously set in a stereotypical cartoon fantasy Arabia. That’s why people who don’t like negative Arabic stereotypes got annoyed about the line: “Where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” That song is called “Arabian Nights,” by the way.

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Yes, the original story has a complex ancestry, but does that actually matter given that this is a remake of the Disney film, not a reinterpretation of the old tale? If you saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast, you know they might get momentarily confused about where the movie is set (as when a Frenchman by the name of Gaston remarks that he doesn’t know what “je ne sais quoi” means), but they are dead serious about being nostalgically, painstakingly faithful to the ’90s films. So yeah, this Aladdin is Arabic.

3. Men of Middle Eastern descent rarely get work in Hollywood

Truly: even Terrorist #3 may be a Russian actor. Women fare a little better, especially if they have a mixed heritage (like Salma Hayek and Catherine Keener), but for male actors of Arabic descent who have played actual leads you get Tony Shalhoub (of Monk, notably a cable TV show not a movie), and… um, is that it? Surely I’m missing someone. Apparently Vince Vaughn is a quarter Lebanese, if that counts for anything.

And is that because there are no Middle Eastern lead parts? HECK NO. How about Gods of Egypt or Exodus: Gods and Kings or Prince of Persia, just to start with the current decade? All of those, as you know, starred exclusively Euro-descended white guys, a longstanding tradition.

“Come on though, isn’t it better to cast someone who at least isn’t white? Isn’t that a victory?” Sure. Absolutely. I would love to see more Indian leads, more Filipino leads — heck, more Latino leads in Hollywood movies. And yes, if I had to choose between Dev Patel and Jake Gyllenhaal for this role I would 100% pick Dev Patel. If those were the only options.

But let’s keep our eye on the ball here. Disney came right out and said they’re having trouble finding an actor to play Aladdin. By suggesting they cast all these non-Arabic actors, you are proving their point. We need a lead actor of Middle Eastern descent working in Hollywood yesterday, but since there’s a shortage on time machines, let’s advocate for one to get his first major film role now.

 

Oh yeah… what about Jasmine in all of this? According to the Hollywood Reporter, it’s down to two actresses: one Indian, and one British of half-Indian, half-European descent.

Dear Hollywood, Let’s Talk About Living Your Politics

C: Hey there, Hollywood. Did you know a lot of people think you’re “too liberal”? One’s another writer for this blog, in fact. But I gotta say: I’m not seeing it when it comes to this Casey Affleck situation.

E’s the prediction guru around here, but I have one rock-solid prediction for the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony: we’re going to hear some statements made against Trump. You know, the guy who sexually harassed women who worked with him, made them feel deeply uncomfortable and belittled, came on to them despite them being married or not interested, touched them without their permission, and used his star power to get away with it all. Just like your front-running Best Actor nominee.

From football to politics, this culture has a history of overlooking men’s treatment of women because we like what they’re doing otherwise. Despite the fact that jobs like, say, being the star of a movie or the president of a country can’t actually be accomplished without working with women — women whose hard work in supporting positions is essential to the overall success of the undertaking — we still manage to class misogyny and harassment as side-issues, not relevant to the man’s accomplishment.

No one is questioning that Affleck gave a great performance. But every year, some great performances don’t take home an Oscar. That award, by the way, is “Best Actor,” not “Best Performance.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, what makes a good actor in your eyes? What ideal will you hold up for the American public to admire?

Hollywood, I hope you change your mind about this. Because Constance Wu is perfectly right to say that “Casey Affleck’s win will be a nod to Trump.” And your inevitable statements at this year’s award ceremony about equality, acceptance, respect, and love will ring a little false on that account.

 

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TV actress Constance Wu: on point regarding hair + this issue

Questions I Have After Watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

C: Since I saw this movie yesterday, my brain’s been aswirl with pressing questions, like a dark smoky cloud with random flashes in it. Short of twitterbombing J.K. Rowling, this post seemed like the best way to alleviate that pressure.

Advanced Warning: all I’ve got here are questions, not answers, so buckle up for some heavy mental turbulence. (No, I’m not bothering with a spoiler warning. If you wanted to avoid spoilers, why did you even click on a post with this title? That one’s on you.)

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  1. Is this business about “physiological differences” between wizards and Muggles* (a) straight-up midichlorian bullcrap, or (b) faulty 1920s wizard science? I’d like B to be correct as I don’t see how it makes any sense, what with Muggleborns being a thing, and since the idea that wizards are a slightly different species sounds straight out of a Grindelwald or Voldemort propaganda poster. But, if I’ve learned anything from reading and watching a lot of historical fiction, it’s that all the good people in the past had Correct Modern Ideas and only bad guys held Outdated Notions. Newt’s the one who says this, so that’s unfortunately a point for Explanation A.
  2. Is being a Legilimens like being a Metamorphmagus? In other words, is it a special skill you can be born with, that other wizards can use spellwork to approximate? That’s the best explanation I could come up with for why Queenie could just read people’s minds — sometimes could not help reading minds — even though in the books, Legilimency was presented as a thing you do with a wand and an incantation.
  3. Why Newt Scamander so bad at catching (and keeping) fantastic beasts? I mean, I get that this is the driving plot of the movie, but seriously. He is the Beasts Guy. He literally wrote (or will write) the book on them. He should probably have a case with locks that work. He should probably not be climbing a chandelier to chase a niffler instead of using his dang wand.
  4. Speaking of fantastic beasts: at what point does their intelligence make them not so much beasts as people? I’m thinking particularly of bowtruckles here, since Newt has several conversations with the one who spends most of the movie in his pocket. In the original Fantastic Beasts textbook, Rowling mentions a few that talk, IIRC. How is intelligence measured in this world? At what point does a “beast” or “creature” qualify for status as a non-human people group e.g. centaurs, goblins, or mermaids? Or is there even a legal distinction there? This whole gray area is so rife with potential problems and abuses! (Update: This is addressed at length in the introduction to the original Fantastic Beasts publication from 2001. Yay, answers! Short version: it’s complicated.)
  5. Speaking of which, what is the deal with goblins in this movie? For starters, I’m not 100% sure who was a goblin and who wasn’t (the nightclub singer, for instance?). But I’m pretty sure the shady nightclub owner was a goblin, keeping up the pattern that all goblins Rowling’s characters have dealings with turn out to shady backstabbers. So they’re a race of gold-loving shady backstabbers? Problematic, Rowling.
  6. Was that elevator operator a free house elf? Because he was definitely wearing a snazzy little uniform — a.k.a. clothes. I sort of love the idea that maybe there is a free elf community in 1920s New York, but I also wonder if it was just a mistake (or he was another species). We only got a quick glimpse.
  7. Was Ariana Dumbledore an Obscurial? I went back and reread the relevant section of Deathly Hallows and it seems possible, though she only started repressing her powers after being attacked by Muggles. She was 14 when she accidentally killed her mother** which would make her older than the recorded Obscurials mentioned in Fantastic Beasts, but they kept her condition a secret so that doesn’t mean she wasn’t.
  8. Can adult wizards stop using their powers? Is the Obscurus only something that happens if you are a kid and prone to uncontrolled magical outbursts? The only case in point I can think of is Merope, and she died, but more of childbirth and being sad I think, so that doesn’t really prove anything.
  9. How is there only one wizarding school for all of North America? You think Hogwarts has staffing problems — just try hiring professors for a school with 10,000 teen wizards.
  10. Were they making a statement by having the two leads be so awkward? Whether it’s how the parts were written, or how Eddie Redmayne (Newt) and Katherine Waterston (Tina) acted and were directed, both came across as extremely socially awkward, timid, and just odd. Obviously this wasn’t by accident, but I’m wondering about the purpose behind this atypical choice. Was this a way of differentiating them from the original, confident and extroverted HP trio? Or going even further, a kind of “awkward people can be heroes too” message? (Like, “what if Neville and Luna were the stars of HP?” If so, props because that sounds great.)
  11. Why did the rain only affect Jacob when he stepped out in it, while seeming to work on people just looking out the window? If only people who touched the rainwater had their memories wiped, MACUSA would still have a pretty big problem on their hands at the end of the movie. (Also, what about government wizards who were out in the rain? Wizards aren’t immune to Obliviation!)
  12. Related: Why the heck did they let Jacob erase his memories? When you see injustice, you don’t just say “okay, I guess that’s how it’s got to be.” Newt has already established that he thinks the New Yorkers have a backwards attitude toward No-majs. The sisters clearly came around to this viewpoint. We know that in Britain, some Muggles are allowed to know about the wizarding world (family of Muggleborns, romantic partners, etc.). I always hate the fantasy trope of “now you must forget the magic thing, or your humdrum life will be ruined,” but here it literally feels like kowtowing to bigotry!

As I hope is already clear to those who know me, I truly enjoyed this movie. But these questions need answers. And no, I will not just go look it up on Pottermore. It’s time for some old-fashioned close reading and theory-spinning, people!

*I’m going to keep calling them Muggles unless I need to refer to the U.S. wizards’ attitude towards non-magical people, because at this point I just can’t get used to “No-maj.”
**Dumbledore’s mom: one of the thousands of Victorian women named Kendra. Um, sure, Rowling.

Marvel Changes Release of Black and Female Superhero Movies to Low Box-Office Months

Image credit to collider.com

C: Well, it’s official. Marvel Studios’ first film starring a non-white superhero (no, green doesn’t count) will NOT be a summer blockbuster. It can’t be. Even though the movie has yet to be made.

The news came in the form of a “blah blah don’t mind me” appendix to the exciting announcement that the Ant-Man sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, will actually feature a gosh-darn woman as a co-star — right up there in the title with the man! This is big news, since Marvel has now made 12 movies which feature women only as supporting or ensemble cast members.

E: You know we Quibbling Siblings love us some Marvel Studios, but seriously, that is beyond overdue.

C: Agreed! Sadly, the press release also included two much-less-cool updates: the move of the Black Panther movie from July to February 2018, and of the Captain Marvel movie from November 2018 to March 2019. The first solo female superhero film and they’re releasing it in March? As they have done with no other Marvel movie?

M: When was it slated for originally?

C: November. Which is also an unusual month for a superhero film, though Thor: The Dark World was released then (a fact I recall since it was my first date with my fiancé!). November also has the Thanksgiving holiday — it’s a family-friendly month at the box office overall. March is more of a pensive-dramas type month.

E: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.  March doesn’t compare to November for a prestige opening, although that’s when they opened the Divergent films, so we know that it’s not a total wasteland. Like February.

M: Just as a random example.

E: On the other hand, hey.  Maybe Marvel’s going to make a play to make the rest of the year viable?  They’ve been doing very well with August, after all.

C: Guardians was released August 1st, which is unusual but still leaves a fair bit of summer vacation time. Everything else so far except The Dark World and The Winter Soldier has been in that sweet May-July corridor.

M: Hmmmm… Yes, the Divergent movies opened in March. So did the first Hunger Games. I wonder if Marvel is seeing that and relying on the fact that they know female action hero movies can succeed then? Maybe they think opening the FIRST one then gives them the best chance of success (and least competition) — then, once Captain Marvel has a built-in audience, they can move it to the summer or holiday schedule for its sequels?

C: I would like to hope that’s the rationale, but I also feel like they’re letting down the side simply by being so cautious. You’re Marvel! If you tell people to buy a woman in a cape, dammit, people should buy!

M: As for Black Panther, February worries me. A lot. No one opens things they think are going to be hits in February. Yes, maybe Marvel thinks they can own any month, and wants to make it viable, but is that the more likely scenario? Or is it more likely that they’re burying it already?

C: When a studio moves a film that’s been made to February it means they expect it to tank. When they move a film they haven’t made yet to February… does that mean they’ve already decided they’ve don’t need it to make the big bucks?

E: I don’t know — it’s awful early for them to be giving up on Black Panther, isn’t it?  I mean, I don’t even think they’ve cast it yet. They have to be thinking that they can succeed with movies at other times in the year, or they’d only be making 2 or 3 a year. I’m sure you’re right, M — they must consider March a female-friendly month.  And they’ve been so smart up till now about rolling out their properties. Perhaps they want to make Black Panther the event of February. It doesn’t seem like their style to make a quick knock off; it’d hurt the brand.

C: Yeah, I really can’t imagine them thinking that way.

M: Well, the lead role is cast, the awesome Chadwick Boseman. Rumor is that the villain will be Andy Serkis (the character he played in Age of Ultron).

C: Oh that’s right, they cast Boseman to appear in the next Cap movie, didn’t they? Maybe they think that’s sufficient introduction?

E: If he’s featured prominently, he could generate a lot of positive attention…

M: I agree with everything you’re saying, but putting it in February this far out just seems like an odd choice. I know they want to space things out, not be competing with themselves, and be able to properly hype everything, and where Ant-Man was already a big hit they’re giving its sequel the primo slot. Still, you’d think with that in July they could do April for Black Panther

C: Or early May and late July, as they did with Thor 1 and Cap 1.

E: Indeed.  Well, February is Black History month…

M: That’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of! That might actually be a really successful marketing plan.

C: That is meaningful, but I’m not sure the box-office pull of Black History Month competes with the box-office clout of, you know, summer. Were it any movies other than these two that they were putting in this new February-March territory I’d put it down the reasons of “we’re Marvel, we can do anything” — but to me, this is NOT an auspicious way to premiere the two most “daring” (so sad that’s true in the 2010s…) of the upcoming projects.

M: Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling, too.

E: Yes.  I agree.  I was not actually serious about Black History month being part of the marketing plan; definitely needed the sarcasm font there.

M: You may have been sarcastic, but I think that may actually figure in. Think about it, if you’re Marvel and choosing between February and March, and you can release the first superhero movie with a black lead in black history month, or a week after it, doesn’t it make sense to try for that tie-in?

C: At the very least, I can see Marvel using that to pat themselves on the back if it does succeed wildly. Which hopefully it still will! But it’s hard to understand why they’d want to pitch this into “Special Interest Movie” territory. Superheroes are for everyone. That’s the whole point.

E: As Marvel Studios, of all studios, should know.

How I Met Your Mother: How They Let Us Down

C: What with good shows getting abruptly canceled and once-good shows outliving their watchability, it’s not often I see the preplanned finale of a series I’m invested in. And in fact, I almost gave up on How I Met Your Mother at the end of last year (we can agree, I think, that Season 8 was pretty dismal), but I hung on because I was curious about The Mother. Yes, that ploy got me. And while the premise of Season 9  — the whole season taking place over Barney & Robin’s wedding weekend — should have been terrible, there have actually been some great episodes, especially those featuring the funny and delightful Cristin Milioti. Oh, and let’s not forget Billy Zabka. The gang lacked fizz with Marshall on a too-long road trip, but once Jason Segel was back in the mix, we got some scenes as good as anything in the earlier, classic seasons. I had no fears about the finale.

As it turns out, that confidence was a mistake.

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March 2014 Movie Preview

E: The Quibbling Siblings are crazy about March; we’ve been waiting for this month for a year.  Why, might you ask?  I’ll give you a hint for the first exciting arrival: we’re Marshmallows.

C: By the way, this preview’s going to be M-lite (increasingly as you scroll down), since he and Mrs. M have their own exciting new arrival, of a non-cinematic variety, debuting. Like, right now, as we write this!

E: That’s right – a very special ingenue will have made her first appearance just before you read this.  Our new niece is March’s most exciting release for our family.

C: Sorry, Veronica Mars!  But we’ve got lots of love left over for you — promise.

March 7th Continue reading