How I Learned to Stop Decrying the Problematic and Not Really Care About Prince of Persia Anymore

image via the New York Times

Prince of Persia opens today, and I was so much in conflict over it.

It’s called Prince of Persia and all the characters are played by white people! Except the comic relief and villian (based on Ebert’s review)! They’re using history like fantasy! What’s with the British accents! Why is everything so aggressively flesh-colored (all fleshes, but still)!

Not to mention my brain kept going off on Orientalism.

Then I told myself to shut up and think about this. First, this is a fantasy. Second, it’s based on a video game. Third, it’s a summer movie blockbuster made to make MONEY.

So to organize my thoughts, I mapped them out. And now I have, for you, the seven stages of “How I Learned to Stop Decrying the Problematic and Not Really Care About Prince of Persia Anymore.”:

1) Wasn’t the video game, called “Prince of Persia,” using Orientalism for fun?


2) The video game is inherently for fun, so the Orientalism could be written off as being used for fantasy.


3) Isn’t using Orientalism for fantasy bad?


4) It IS just fantasy, meaning it’s made based on imagination.


5) The said Orientalism is more based in Arabian Nights than the usual ethnocentric stupidity.


6) The Arabian Nights are awesome tales, and one of my favorite tropes of fantasy writing.


7) Is said trope Orientalism?


No, I don’t think so.

The thing with Arabian Nights is that it’s a mainstay of fantasy and story-telling, like Medieval Knights (heh) or Ancient Egypt or American Westerns. What’s important is that we realize this–that the times of the Arabian Nights was not filled with jewels and genies at every turn but probably Crusades and people trying to conquer each other, that in Medieval Times hygiene led to lots of fun diseases like the plague and cholera and other stuff based on dirtying the drinking water with dead people or our own waste, that Ancient Egypt had disturbing royal hierarchies filled with incest and concubines, and that the American West suffered from crime in an honestly not very fun way.

Perhaps the problematic element of these tropes is actual knowledge of the times and the lack of division between the historical fantasy and actual history. With a strong delineation, these tropes can exist in a fun way without affecting our judgment of reality.

Despite these realizations and pondering, I’m still unhappy that a movie like Prince of Persia couldn’t include more people of color. I mean, the people they have are good looking and for a summer blockbuster it makes sense to use already known actors, and it is based on fantasy–but one called “Prince of Persia.” Surely that calls for some Persian or Persian looking people, and not just as background characters. And honestly? Diversity is a potentially good marketing ploy, because you can include a whole new audience. Plus, if he’s supposed to be Persian but is played by a white character, it already shows a certain anachronistic display–why couldn’t it apply to people of color as well?


One Response to “How I Learned to Stop Decrying the Problematic and Not Really Care About Prince of Persia Anymore”

  1. The “racebending” of Avatar: the Last Airbender (show) & The Last Airbender (film) made me think about this & I have to disagree. In a “generic Western fantasy” like Lord of the Rings (which isn’t generic but rather foundational) or any of the cheesy sci-fi shows, “white” remains the default. Considering that their myth-base is a fantastic reconstruction of a non-existent feudal mash-up, stealing liberally from different countries & time periods, but predominantly from Western ones, it isn’t appalling– just plain old Eurocentric. By the same token, there are non-historical Eastern mythology mash-ups. Fantasy films that steal from China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia– smashing them together. Or shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender which draws on Inuit, Pacific Islander, Aztec, Japanese, Chinese….lots of different non-Western cultures. The thing is– when you cast THOSE, I think you should cast non-white actors. The same way you’d cast a person of German ancestry to play King Arthur or a British guy to play Aragorn or whatever. The same holds true. I don’t think it is a sin to make a fantastic “Arabian Nights” setting that ignores history in favor of sweet blue domes & radical knife fights; THAT isn’t Orientalism, or at least not a virulent stripe. I DO think that casting white people to play the roles is white washing, though.

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