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Color Conscious Casting and Once Upon a Time

Everyone’s favorite fairy tale show has finally cast some characters of color! Beloved Aladdin and Jasmine, and nefarious Jafar. The only major character missing from this version of Aladdin is the genie in respect for the late Robin Williams.

When the show was first casting for these characters, the call had been for Sinbad (Middle Eastern/Arab or Northern African) and Scheherazade (Middle Eastern/Arab). It ultimately became for Aladdin, Turkish Deniz Akdeniz, and Jasmine, Indian-Chinese Karen David. Israeli Oded Fehr was ultimately cast as Jafar replacing Naveen Andrews.

Obviously the casting team for OUAT has improved since the first two years of the show where everyone was white except the villain, Regina (Lana Parilla). The four other characters of color who were killed in their first episode. The casting for this new arc wasn’t color blind, but color conscious.

Color-blind casting or more “appropriately” known as non-traditional casting is the practice of casting a role without considering the actor’s ethnicity in attempts to diversify a cast. Unfortunately, this has led to casting white actors playing South Asians in a production of Jesus in India and a white actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop. Color-blind casting should be an attempt to stop whitewashing, yellow/brown/red/black face, but it has been used to add more white actors in roles that deservedly belong to actors without diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Like OUAT, media should strive for color conscious casting which intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to “oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world” as explained by the American Theatre.

Color conscious casting also requires much intentional work on the part of a writer in crafting a character’s backstory and motives. Instead of casting someone and then changing the character to fit, characters are written with a certain ethnic background in mind. This consciousness can and should extend to other identity markers like gender, sexuality, and disability. All categories where representation could really improve on screen and elsewhere.

In an industry where there has been very little change in the numerical representation of non-white racial and ethnic identities, specifically only 25% of the characters in Hollywood’s top grossing films from 2007-2014, color conscious is a strong step towards better realistic representation. Of the top 100 films in 2014, only 17, less than a fifth had non-white lead or co-lead actors!

Of course there are purists who would jump in to say that the original story from which Aladdin was adapted in the One Thousand and One Nights (where Scheherazade is protagonist) actually features a Chinese cast. Plus Aladdin is as messed up as any Disney movie with songs about beheadings and the ambiguous location and ethnicity of the characters.

Still with two major new heroes and hopefully a well written storyline, this new aspect in OUAT could be a success. Most importantly it could and should be another reason for why everyone should switch to color conscious instead of color blind casting.

At the very least viewers will get less beige screens to watch.

Image courtesy of ABC


Written By

Seher obsesses over show ratings and usually writes about media representation issues. Otherwise, she's reading away for her graduate program in anthropology.


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