It makes sense that I am seeing “Prince of Persia” posters at bus stops and malls. The movie is set for release later this month. It does not make sense, however, that I am expected to believe Jake Gyllenhaal is Persian. He is not. In fact, I will not even address his character as “The Prince” in this article (or anywhere else for that matter). I will just call him Jake.
“Hey, look, ‘Prince of Persia,’” my brother said, pointing at the movie poster.
“You aren’t going to see that, are you?” I asked.
“Pfft, yeah right, I’m not going to watch that racist s&#%!!”
Jake and Disney, the studio responsible for this racebending/whitewashed atrocity (surprise, surprise), seem to have their fair share of fans and supporters. On internet forums and threads, I see fans writing things like, “Ooh Jake is so hot,” or “I Love Jake Gyllenhaal,” or “I’m so glad they chose him to play the prince!” I saw one comment where someone called the casting racist and the response was, “Get over it! He’s hot!”
As I wrote in last year’s post about the film, the level of ignorance is disturbing. It reminds me when the film “300” – a White supremacist’s wet dream – was released and many viewers spoke about the “hotness” of Gerard Butler as a way of covering up the film’s disgusting racism. In that film, which I have written extensively about, you may recall that the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the “good guys,” they are played by lovely White people.
The first insult is that people of color, in this case Persians and South Asians, are not attractive people. They cannot be “hot.” I know I am not the only person who has heard White people say, directly or indirectly, that dark skin is not attractive as light skin. The second insult is that heroic Persian and South Asian characters cannot be played by real Persians and South Asians. They don’t know what it means to be “heroic.” Only White people do.
This is blatant Orientalism. Jake is the Orientalist, he is not the Persian. He embodies the West’s history of domination in the East, where the “Oriental,” the “other,” must be spoken for, must be represented by the West, by the White man, and must be feared or even hated. The “Oriental” is obliterated into non-existence and not granted the freedom or access to represent him/herself. This is an example of what the late Edward Said called “positional superiority,” i.e. the White Westerner can exploit the East in such a manner simply because it can.
But, as some fans complain, Hollywood needs to sell tickets. It needs to make money. Poor Hollywood. Oh, then I guess that makes everything “ok.” So what if there was a missed opportunity to break rising stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners and South Asians. I’m sure brown people and real Persians understand that Jake and Disney need the money, right?
No. While some fans and viewers drool over Jake’s fake prince, I propose that protesters join forces with Racebending.com, which has been raising awareness about the whitewashing in “The Last Airbender, “ and boycott this film. We shouldn’t give money to a greedy industry that does not even allow minorities to represent themselves.
UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah: The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!
UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!
Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned. I am not disputing this. I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin. The only reason I say “brown” is because the character is depicted as brown in the first three video games. My argument, like Dean Obeidallah’s, is that talented Persian and South Asian actors (the female lead from the video game is Indian) should be allowed to play protagonists in box office hits (Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, plays the role of a villain, similar to how Dev Patel, another Indian actor, is playing the villain in “The Last Airbender.”) A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine. I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general. I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups. It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.