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Meral Barlas Headshot

The World in Black and White

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THE LITTLE MERMAID
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When I was little, one of my favorite movies was The Little Mermaid II. I know, random movie to like. There was one specific reason why I loved this film so much -- Ariel and Eric's daughter, Melody, had long, black hair. As a black haired, brown-eyed Pakistani, this excited me, because there was finally a princess I could pretend to be.

Yes, there's always Jasmine, but she's the one princess whose film totally revolves around the male. Take the title for a start, Aladdin, not Jasmine. In Cinderella, on the other hand, the prince does not even have a name, let alone carry the title of the movie. And yes, Jasmine may have been independent and progressive, but now, viewing the film when I am 16 and not 6, the way she dresses in the time period makes her look more like a lady of the night rather than an Arabian princess. And, what's even more disturbing is that she is the only princess who has to use her feminine assets to distract Jafar so Aladdin can get the lamp. Don't get me wrong, I still love that film, but is this the type of image Disney should be sending to young girls?

Look at Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, etc.; you see only purity and innocence in their stories and themselves. The roles of non-white princesses are barely glamorous, with Tiana becoming a frog, Mulan disguised as a man and Pocahontas being "civilized" by a white man. The pattern just goes on.

Starting with the "Age of Exploration," Europeans began to explore and colonize the rest of the world, and the concept that "whites" are the bringers of change, hope and prosperity has unfortunately existed across many modes of media ever since. From the real world to the literature that portrays it, society is still so defined by race and color that the minority is relegated to unimportant and stereotypical roles. Literature and popular culture of the west consistently perpetuate its own superiority through the degradation of nonwhites.

It was not until recently that blacks portrayed roles other than maids and nannies in Hollywood. The first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, even won for her portrayal as a slave in Gone With the Wind -- a Civil War epic based in Georgia. Move to more recent years, and even after civil rights, it seems as though not much has changed. The Help was an extremely moving film -- a story about blacks being repressed by Jim Crow Laws, and their white savior who lets their voices be heard.

Captain Phillips is a 2013 film about the hijacking of a U.S. ship by Somali pirates, based on a true story. The film glorifies Captain Phillips and portrays him as a hero. In reality, none of his shipmates considered him a hero, he did not volunteer to die for them, and one of them even sued the Captain for putting them in danger. This is yet another example of the western glorification of the white man; Hollywood wants audiences to sympathize with the Americans, not the Somalis. No background information is given about the Somalis; we only know they want money. Hollywood deems the rest of their story insignificant. After all, if the audience sees more of their poverty and living circumstances, they might see them as real humans with problems and issues that need to be solved. But by doing so, Hollywood would not be able to purport the theme of good vs. evil, or rather white vs. all others, with its happy ending of the white hero saving yet another day.

"White-washing" is constant. From birth, Caucasian Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses surround people -- it is hard to find a nonwhite hero or princess, and even if there is one, they are an anomaly, not the norm. Whenever I go to watch a thriller, I know the villain before he appears, as the chances of him being a Muslim, a Mexican drug lord, a black gangster, etc., are high. Okay -- at times, he may be a Russian mobster but with a deep, deep accent.

This idea that whiteness can make you a better, happier person has been ingrained in everyone's psyche, even if they are not white. For now, it seems most literature will continue to support the thought that being white will not only bring you joy but means that you will also be the bearer of anything that is good. Otherwise, you must stay on your side of the fence and wait for a white man or woman to come save you. We might have films in color now but it seems as if some things are going to stay black and white for a while.