Blackberry Blue, Aladdin, and Representation

As is turning out to be unfortunately usual, I had something to write that was topical last week but didn't have time to write until this week. I've been on my work placement as part of my MA studies at a children's literature museum, which has been absolutely wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is the mountains of children's books surrounding me at all times. I recently came across Blackberry Blue, a collection of fairytales by Jamila Gavin, and absolutely adored it. The tales are not specific stories like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty but use elements of many fairytales and related tropes to tell new stories with canonically non-white protagonists. They are beautiful, enchanting, well-told stories and I could not recommend it enough.

I was reading this book as the news that Disney is apparently unable to find a single middle Eastern actor to play Aladdin was making the rounds. There is, of course, an entire film industry full of middle Eastern actors being cast as nothing but terrorists, not to mention the talented actors Disney already employs to portray Aladdin in parks and cruise ship shows, and Disney is merely whining about not being able to cast Johnny Depp, but anyway; what struck me about this book is how simple making a protagonist non-white is. Here is the first physical description of the titular heroine of "Blackberry Blue:"

"Her skin was as black as midnight, her lips like crushed damsons, and her tightly curled hair shone like threads of black gold."

And there it is. One sentence. Not only is she black, but she is beautiful. How simple it is to not equate darkness with evil and ugliness! How easy it is to make sure the reader knows your protagonist isn't white. Yet all we hear is how hard representation is. It's too hard to write a non-white character in a fairytale. It's too hard to cast a brown actor to play a brown man. It is never too hard to do these things; it is the challenging of laziness to which people are objecting. It is lazy to continue to make all-white fairytales and films, it is boring to insist that representation is impossible, and it is simply bad practise to refuse to broaden your horizons in your work.

ETA: Disney has since announced the casting of Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin.


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