Disney’s Representation of Asian Americans: Static or Improving?

Esha Singhai, Staff Writer

     Asian Americans across the country excitedly packed theaters on Nov. 25th, 1992, awaiting the movie which would go on to shatter glass ceilings and the stigma that Asian Americans could not hold the lead in a movie without being put off as the trivial side character. “Aladdin” received raging reviews from fans and critics alike, who were infatuated with the vibrant setting, thrilling love story and humorous dialogue. 

     As a young child, I too watched this movie in awe, finally feeling represented by a princess with the same skin tone as me. With only a limited knowledge of the world, I saw this movie through rose-colored glasses. My admiration for this movie stemmed from the connections I made between my own traditional clothes and Jasmine’s, yet that was the only connection I could make.  

     In retrospect, “Aladdin” was actually a shamefully racist melting pot of Arab, Indian, Pakistani and Persian culture. The directors had written off the origin of this movie, a Middle Eastern folktale, to encompass what they assumed their audience would enjoy—a hodgepodge of the flashiest aspects from multiple Asian cultures. While I wasn’t able to notice this as a child, it is almost too visible to me now. 

     While it can be argued that “Aladdin” was still an honest step from Disney towards increased cultural inclusion, the subtle whitewashing of the main characters has contributed towards the conflicted childhoods of young South Asian girls. In the original “Aladdin,” background characters had exaggerated facial features—thick lips, hooked noses and strong brows—but Aladdin and Jasmine possessed glowering Eurocentric features. This was well matched by their voices, as it was an all-white cast who played the role of them.  

     Guy Ritchie, director of the live-action “Aladdin” remake, claims to have taken steps to reduce the racial disparities apparent in the film. While he did diversify the cast significantly, the expectations for representation should not be set this low.

     Disney continues with its misrepresentation in other shows, including “Jessie”. Disney introduces one of the characters, “Ravi,” as loving spicy foods, having no ability to make friends and speaking with a thick Indian accent. Though I have no biases against individuals who contain these same characteristics, it was an incredibly stereotypical character to be put on a children’s T.V. show. Even when the creators of “Jessie” tried including an Indian dance of some sorts, they used clichéd instrumental music and westernized dance moves. 

     This was apparent again in “Phineas and Ferb” with their token POC character, “Baljeet,” who unsurprisingly, also had an Indian accent. Baljeet was depicted in a similar manner to Ravi, being given limited screen time and the common “antisocial-smart guy” image. 

     Over the summer, I was lucky enough to speak to Maulik Pancholy, the actor who played Baljeet, about his perspective regarding how his character was portrayed by Disney. His response was disquieting, as he had to find a way to voice his struggles with feeding into such a stigmatized character. He felt that it was almost crucial for Indian characters to have an accent in current day television for them to even be noticed, a disheartening yet real truth. 

     Nevertheless, Pancholy has worked tirelessly to reduce the stereotypical version of Baljeet the directors have put out, in an effort to support young individuals who view Baljeet as their only source of representation. Fortunately, he’s been successful in his endeavors, as the directors have incorporated his feedback into making the character more than just his ethnicity. Baljeet has evolved over the course of the show, being given more screen time and having a snarky yet humorous personality.  

     Disney is not perfect–not even close. But the story of Pancholy and his success in crafting a more accurate representation of a South Asian character has opened a world of possibilities and hope that this trend will continue. While Disney still has ways to go in terms of improving their characterizations, small achievements serve as a hope for people of color that they will finally get the representation they deserve.