I probably wouldn’t have watched the new live-action Aladdin remake, but it was the birthday girl’s outing of choice. Social media had prepared me to cringe at just how problematic this beloved movie from my childhood really was, full of Orientalism, cultural conflations and racist tropes. But there I was with tears streaming down my face during the “A Whole New World” sequence, smudging the 3D glasses and my real glasses both, moved by the surrealness of watching the song in a new rendering. Briefly, I forgot the different sort of pang that had come earlier – seeing that Princess Jasmine, unlike her animated counterpart, was light-skinned. I was surprised by how hurt I felt, grasping then just how powerfully her original incarnation had impacted me.
As far as princesses go, it was 2009 before a black girl, Tiana of The Princess And The Frog, was illustrated. Amazingly, brown kids like me had Jasmine back in 1992. She was a rare representation. Not of brownness per se, but of darker skin (the actor in the remake is half-Indian: technically brown, but light-complexioned). Jasmine, the cartoon, was properly brown, “like dosas, samosas and stikki chikki”, as the title of a children’s book on skin colour goes. This was why I was also vividly drawn to Esmeralda, from the often forgotten The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Brown like caramel and sapotas. Brown like me.
My skin tone is the kind that gets bleached out in sunlight and in smartphone selfies (there’s a historically racist bias in photo technology, some of which remains in play with manufacturers today). I prefer my true colour, and I wish to be visible as a darker-skinned woman who is achieving things, going places, and yes, is even attractive. I want to claim and share the space, the void really, caused by colourist erasure. It is currently over-run by light-skinned brown celebrities criticising racism in the West but promoting fairness creams and practising casteism in India.
An international publication once adjusted the settings so much on my portrait (which perfectly captured my true tone) that I looked positively pink. Bubblegum pink. Someone must have thought they were doing me a favour, like how people are quick to say like it’s a compliment, “Don’t worry, you’re not so dark.” Conversely, any fetishizing of dark skin takes me right back to the creepy man who told me when I was little – “Black Beauty. Like that book you’re reading instead of talking to me.”
But I am worried. Even today, many children do not have enough positive acknowledgments of their appearances. This includes all non-normativity in: skin colours, body sizes, hair textures, the shapes of facial features, heights, (dis)abilities, illness-related conditions, amputations, scars and more.
There’s a feminist twist in the new Aladdin and it can’t compensate for the whitewashing of the iconic original Jasmine for me. Despite all that character’s flaws, she was a way for some (though not all) darker-skinned children to see ourselves as being at the centre, admired. She was beautiful. For those of us who didn’t know we were too, it meant the world to be shown a reason to believe it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 13th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.