Revisiting Disney: Aladdin

Revisiting Disney is a small project I’ve slowly been working on over the years to re-watch all the classic animated Disney princess movies. The goal has been to see what I think of them as an adult and view them through a feminist lens. This has been enjoyable for nostalgic reasons and because some of these movies have fantastic music and beautiful animation. Most recently, I watched Aladdin and it is no exception – the opening scenes of a dark blue desert night glowing with stars are stirring, and for several days afterward I walked around the house singing songs from the movie.

Today, the movie is headed with a small disclaimer on racism. I think it’s necessary to acknowledge the 1) negative stereotypes packed in to the first couple minutes including a scamming junk merchant, the song lyric “it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home,” and the description, by Jafar, of a thief as “my pungent friend”; 2) the decision to make “good” characters such as Jasmine lighter skinned and “bad” characters such as the guards darker skinned; and 3) exoticization and misrepresentation of Middle Eastern culture and of Islam. However, I doubt simply saying “this movie is racist sometimes” actually lessens the impact that racist depictions have. I’m not sure what the correct answer is, except to hopefully have a greater number of pictures with better depictions. The Arab Film Institute has a list of children’s movies that may be a good starting point.

Many of the earlier Disney movies had pretty non-descript princes – I’ve heard a handful of men complain that Disney movies imply a man only has to be rich to get a girl – but Aladdin is immediately characterized. He’s mischievous and witty – shown by his cat-and-mouse game with the guards; on good terms with the women of the town which indicates that he is respectful; and he follows a moral code. “I steal only what I can’t afford,” he sings and “gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat,” but when he sees two children digging in the garbage he gives away his hard-won food, showing that he is unselfish and kind. When Aladdin witnesses those same children getting yelled at by a pompous prince, he stands up for them – again showing that he cares for others. The prince is nasty to him, calls Aladdin a street rat, and knocks him into the mud – for the first time we see that Aladdin has some pride – the prince attacked him right where he is self-conscious. Aladdin likes himself and does not see himself as “just” a street rat; he is hurt by other people seeing him only for his social status and not for who he is. Overall, Aladdin is very charming. His generosity and compassion make him a good role model.

What about Jasmine? Previous Disney princesses were 1) beautiful, 2) good singers, 3) dreamers, and 4) friends with many cute animals who helped them do their housework. Jasmine fills all these requirements as well: when Aladdin first sees her, he stops stock-still and breathes “wow”. This reaction to Jasmine is certainly something that made an impression on me when I was younger. I still feel like it implies to young girls that being beautiful is of prime importance for getting attention or appreciation from others. Jasmine is also the most sexualized of the princesses so far. Not only is she portrayed wearing a very skimpy outfit (not at all like a hijabi would wear!), but the animators clearly spent a lot of time focusing on her breasts – even making them heave up and down when she is crying. It’s not at all subtle, and the emphasis on her large breasts seems to reinforce that sexiness is a component of beauty that girls should strive for. Thankfully, Jasmine’s characterization is not limited to her sexual appeal. She is introduced as being confident in herself and firm when it comes to making her own decisions – she has no problem turning away the pompous prince (and having a little fun at his expense,) and stands her ground when her father continues to insist that she gets married. Like previous princesses, Jasmine is a dreamer – she wants to leave the castle walls and see the world. She is brave enough to sneak away from the palace, although her limited experience makes her a little naïve when she finally gets out – like Aladdin, she hands food to a starving child, but unlike him she doesn’t realize she will get caught for stealing. This is where we see Jasmine’s other striking quality – she is clever and a quick learner. Aladdin jumps in to help her get out of trouble and she quickly picks up on the game and plays along. She first caught Aladdin’s eye for her physical beauty, but it is her ability to pole vault over the roofs that really makes his jaw drop. When I was younger, the excessive attention the animators paid to Jasmine’s body contributed to my self-consciousness and worry that people would only like me if I looked as curvy Jasmine does… However, Jasmine’s confidence is what I really admired in her and what continues to make her a good role model. I know a lot of adult women who still stay Jasmine is their favorite princess, and I believe this is the reason.

Aladdin’s charm as a prince comes down to how much he likes Jasmine – he daydreams about her and cares about what she thinks. Unfortunately, some of the pompous prince’s words about him being a street rat stick in his head – he does not feel that Jasmine will accept him as he is, and the evil Jafar plays on this to get him to run a dangerous errand to retrieve the lamp of the genie. “You’ve heard of the Golden Rule,” he says “those who have the gold make the rules?” It’s one of those statements that kids know is wrong and adults know is perhaps a little too correct. Because kids know Jafar is evil, his words are untrustworthy, so it is clear to kids that gold is not what Aladdin needs, but to be himself. Nonetheless, Aladdin is tricked into going to the Cave of Wonders, where we are treated with a little physical comedy with Abu the monkey and the magic carpet and then… the best part of the movie. It is wonderful to hear the talents of Robin Williams, as well as a little bittersweet. He provides the entertainment, the heart, and the conscience of the film. With the help of the genie, Aladdin decides to turn himself into a prince in order to be able to woo Jasmine, although Genie warns him that this will not make Jasmine fall in love with him. Genie is a much more trustworthy character than Jafar, so again this reinforces with kids that money can’t buy love.

When Aladdin eventually shows up at the palace in disguise as a wealthy prince, he becomes just as cocky as the other rich suitors. He boasts to the Sultan and Jafar saying, “I will win your daughter!” Jasmine hears his swanking and tells all three of the men off: “How dare you! Standing around deciding my future? I am not some prize to be won!” My mom told me once that the delivery of this line made her think of me, although I’m not sure I have always so successful at telling when someone was trying to manipulate me. Jasmine’s confidence and awareness of her self-worth allows her to remain clearheaded rather than being swayed by Aladdin’s cocky flirting and displays of wealth.

Aladdin tries again, later – Jasmine is not inclined to give him the time of day, but he shows that he is sensitive to her desire for self-determination so she gives him a chance. Jasmine is enchanted by seeing the world that Aladdin can show her and falls for the flirtatious charm that he had displayed as a “street rat,” but is clever enough to realize that Aladdin is the same boy she met in the marketplace. This should be Aladdin’s chance to open up and tell Jasmine the truth, but he is still too insecure and doubles down on his lie that he is a prince. The genie is a good influence, telling him to do the right thing. It seems obvious to the viewer that Aladdin is doing the wrong thing, and Aladdin’s lying leads to worsening situations and giving Jafar the opportunity to take control.

It is only through working together and using both of their wits that Aladdin and Jasmine can defeat Jafar. After fixing the problems created by his lies, Aladdin still has one major choice to make – whether to free the genie or become an actual prince so he can marry Jasmine. Aladdin’s moral code comes through in the end. He keeps his promise to free the genie, even though this means he will not get what he wants. The sultan is impressed by this and by Aladdin and Jasmine’s affection for each other, so agrees to let Jasmine marry Aladdin after all. Overall, the lessons of the movie are that money can’t buy true love, and about the prime importance of telling the truth and doing the right thing.

I think despite its flaws including some racist impressions and over-sexualization of Jasmine, this movie has good lessons for boys about being kind and honorable, for girls about standing up for themselves. It depicts a good relationship of Aladdin and Jasmine working together and learning to be open and truthful. I would still be happy to show this movie to a kid, but I would want to pair it with something else that gives a better view of Middle Eastern culture… including *ahem* some clothing that doesn’t make young girls feel uncomfortable about their breast size.

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