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Aladdin

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Aladdin is a strange movie to discuss in the context of Disney Princesses. Unless I’ve forgotten something, it’s the only official Disney Princess movie where the princess isn’t the protagonist. In fact, although she has a couple of scenes without Aladdin, Jasmine’s role in the movie isn’t that significant, and she’s absent for many of the important scenes. But I think it’s interesting to look at how Disney treats its female characters when they’re not the protagonist of the story.

And it looks like Disney put a lot of effort into giving Jasmine “girl power” and independence, at least in her dialogue and attitude. Unfortunately, they didn’t follow through and give her strength in the plot itself.

Jasmine gives a lot of lipservice to being Strong and Independent. She’s determined to marry for love, and is slowly but surely driving off all potential arrogant suitors. She yells at the male characters for trying to decide her future, declaring that she is not a prize to be won, she calls Aladdin out on his lies, and she runs away from the palace so that she can make choices about her own life. She’s a fun character to watch, for sure, and I think she’s intended to be a strong female character who contradicts the sexist assumptions and stereotypes of some of the men around her — Jafar’s statement that he likes his women “speechless,” for example, and the way so many male characters try to “win” her. She even tricks Aladdin into admitting that she’s a “fine prize for any prince,” and shouts at and rejects him when he agrees. And this is all great stuff.

But there’s not much to her beyond this lipservice. She wants to marry for love, but we don’t really know what else she wants. She’s spent her life in the palace, but we don’t see evidence of any hobbies or interests, unlike her father. She doesn’t have any friends or acquaintances or even servants beyond her father and her pet tiger. And sure, Aladdin doesn’t really have anyone except Abu, but other people in the city seem to know him, and we get a much stronger sense of his personality and struggles. More importantly, he actually gets to control his own life and experience character development. Jasmine has no such luxury.

When we first meet her, she’s being told that she must marry in the next three days, not only because the law demands it, but because her father wants to know she’ll be looked after once she’s gone. And at the end of the movie, she calms his fears by finding someone he can trust to take care of her, and he changes the law so that she can “choose” him. He won’t change the law so that she doesn’t feel she needs to marry, of course, or so she can rule. But he’ll let Aladdin be the new sultan if that’s what it takes for Jasmine to find a husband. And Jasmine is lied to and manipulated every step of the way. Jafar tells her that Aladdin has been executed, so she not only thinks Aladdin is dead, but thinks his death is partly her fault. Not the most healthy basis for a relationship when she eventually finds out that he isn’t dead after all. And of course, she doesn’t call out Jafar for his blatant lie once she realizes that Aladdin and Ali are the same person. She does call out Aladdin for lying to her, but he immediately weaves more lies instead of telling the truth, and in the end she forgives him without any further explanation.

Jasmine is also the only named female character in the entire movie. A couple of other female characters speak or sing, but they’re either negative caricatures of unattractive women, or they’re belly dancers. Every single one of them. In the end, even Jasmine is put into this role, and has to use her sexuality to attempt to save the day. I guess her intelligence and ability to read people that’s been clear for the rest of the movie wouldn’t be useful here. And then she fails and is trapped in an hourglass, forced to wait for Aladdin to sweep in and save her life. Just as he saves her from losing her hand in the marketplace, and saves her from being forced to marry Jafar. Just as he’s the one to finally “show her the world,” in one of the best sequences in Disney history.

Of course, Aladdin is the protagonist and Jasmine is the love interest, so it makes sense that he gets to perform the significant heroics here. Except this is inconsistent with previous Disney movies. In Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the male love interests fight and destroy the villain, while the protagonist plays the damsel in distress, or, at best, runs to try and help without actually doing anything to help at all. But in Aladdin, the protagonist fights and destroys the villain, while the love interest plays the damsel in distress. Strange how that works.

Aladdin is another gorgeous movie with fantastic music and lots to enjoy. The theme of “be yourself” is a good one. And it’s definitely progressive in lots of ways — including Jasmine’s response to her suitors and her situation. But it isn’t quite as progressive as it thinks it is.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

13 thoughts on “Aladdin

  1. I think your piece gets at this when it says that she runs away to make choices about her own life, but I would bring that out even more because I never thought that Jasmine’s frustrations were just about being forced to get married, although that’s certainly the big, short-term obstacle for her. She was ultimately unhappy because of her total lack of power, which I think the movie acknowledges, and even notes the irony that she has no power even though she lives in the center of power in the kingdom (I’m thinking of the scenes when Aladdin looks out at the palace, yearning to be there instead of where he is, but the movie makes clear that in Jasmine’s eyes the palace is more like a prison.) Part of her initial attraction to Aladdin seems to be both that he listens sympathetically when she says she’s “not free to make [her] own choices” in the palace, and that she sees him as a kindred spirit because he also feels “trapped” and powerless. Of course, Aladdin is powerless because he is poor; she is powerless because she is female — but the message in the movie, whether intended or no, seems to be that Aladdin can overcome his circumstances of poverty and gain more power; Jasmine can’t overcome being female and she gains no power in the end, unless you count her dad “allowing” her to marry someone who isn’t a prince, which, as you say, is very different from her having the freedom to decide if she wants to marry at all, or God forbid, rule the kingdom herself. (I mean, come on, Disney, this was 1993…would it really have been that revolutionary to end that way??)

    Also, on the who-saves-whom point, I’d note that Jasmine’s lack of power is also evidenced when she TRIES to save Aladdin from being dragged away by the palace guards, and Raoul says apologetically that he would but he’s acting on Jafar’s orders. It doesn’t matter that she’s the princess; Jafar’s word overrules hers and she’s powerless to help Aladdin. It’s great that the movie shows her doing what she can to stand up to Jafar AND report Jafar’s (claimed) actions to her father, who actually has some power to punish Jafar, even though he doesn’t do anything beyond reprimand the guy. But it’s still disappointing that Jasmine’s ability to actually do anything to help Aladdin is so limited.

    And finally — I still cannot deal with how frustrating that ending is with the Sultan finally at the end just being like, “Well, I AM the Sultan; I COULD just snap my fingers and change this marriage law that’s been causing all this trouble!” I know the movie has him saying the law wasn’t the only reason he wanted Jasmine to get married, but throughout the movie he seemed to act as though the law was something he had no power to change — the idea of his just changing the law is never part of the discussion until the very end. Legitimate feminist complaints aside about the fact that he didn’t really change it in a way that would have meaningfully empowered his daughter — does no one else have ANY sympathy for what Jafar must have had to put up with working for that guy all those years? Jafar is a terrifying(ly good) villain, but I really think he’s not operating from pure evil so much as he was just finally driven to insanity having to deal with the Sultan’s idiocy day in and day out.

    1. This is a really good point (both about Jasmine’s freedom AND about Jafar, haha). Her story gets diminished into “marrying for love will give her all she wants,” because Aladdin’s the hero and she’s the love interest and that’s the neatest way for them to get a happily ever after, but it certainly doesn’t start out that way. Which is disappointing again, considering that they seemed to at least *try* to make Jasmine self-assured and determined and all sorts of other traits that should make for a really compelling female character. It’s like they had all these great ideas for Jasmine, but got caught up in traditional narrative tropes halfway through.

  2. Hello, at first I’s like to say that I enjoy your blog very much:) You’ve named lots of things I feel, but couldn’t wrap in words.

    I’d like to put more about this aspect
    -she runs away from the palace so that she can make choices about her own life.
    And then what? Oh, she thinks that apples grows on the trees aka. has no idea about how the life works.

    Even as a child I hated “princess want to be free” cliché. OK, she wants to be away from palace and then what? Being a tailor or a seamstress? Or does she just want that misty freedom with all privileges like money, but no duties like actually earning them?

    A moral about having own life and following dream instead of melting in golden cage is perfectly OK, but why don’t the filmmakers have the courage to give the heroine any valid reason, show consequences of her decision and end with conclusion that it was hard but worth it? Need got heroines wanting to dedicate themselves to science, social work, art, literature, travellingor even feeling the call of agriculture, buying some land and baking bread. Everything is better when “wanting to be free” approach is boiled down to saying some standard phases then marrying the guy.

    PS. The fact that they glossed over the fact that Aladdin lied to get Jasmine was the moment when I started to ask questions about morals of the movies.
    PS2. Have you seen Winx Club? That show was conceived as a bad dream of every feminist.

    1. Thank you so much. :) That’s a good point about the “princess wants to be free” trope. I think it can well-meaning, because the setup that a princess can never make her own choices and must marry who she’s told to marry and doesn’t actually have any power despite her position in society definitely allows for some feminist ideas, or a good message about individual power at the very least. But if the writers don’t follow it through or articulate it properly, it can just come off as a superficial girl not realizing how good she has it, or how the real world works.

      I haven’t actually heard of the Winx Club before. *goes to google*

      1. That brings the question why don’t we see empowered princesses- suspension of disbelief can bear flying carpets and beggars marrying into monarchy, but idea that girls might know something is apparently still too revolutionary. Even in highly misogynist societies there were situations where king dads managed to make daughter a heir instead of transferring power to male stranger.

        I think Winx club may be worth post or two- it’s immensely popular in Europe and some parts of Asia (with cartoon, films, comics, live shows, catchy music and tv channels duelling for the right to air it) and apparently in USA too since Nick bought franchise from Italian creators after 4th season. On the first moment it seems that’s a cartoon about empowered female fairies, but they managed to put so many bad aesops that you can play anti-feminist bing with it. Boy lied to you about being single? It’s that other girl’s fault. People who adopted you are not your real parents and deserve to be dumped when the biological ones appear. Are you 18 years old whose parents divorced? You MUST bring them back together. And of course all girls are princesses, even if it brings nothing but plot-holes (how they want to be sole heir to the throne AND follow their dreams to be fashion designer?). All girl have “traditional” female dreams apart from sole nerd who got the smallest amount of spotlight but when she get it she turns into walking cliché, etc. And everything revolve around the boys- your friends, your goals, your parents and pets, nothing matters when you are
        And the worst thing is that I’m sure that creators aren’t some ind of anti-feminists who advocate 3K attitude. It wasn’t conscious effort, but something that just happened to surface between real story.

        Sorry about this rant, but I think that shows to pre-teen girls deserve a feminist spotlight, since in that age kids take lessons from cartoons seriously.

  3. The male rescues the female story means, in my point of view, that a man have to prove his worth to win a woman’s love, by overcoming some great obstacle or defeat an enemy. In real life, the equivalent should be to be good at sports or earn enough money, we men often think that a woman is more likely to love a great sportsman or a millionaire.

    By defeating Jafar Aladdin also earns the Sultans approval to become his successor, while an appointment in the Sultans Guard should be more appropriate. Interestingly, in the Arabian Nights version of Aladdin, the princess poison the evil wizard at Aladdin’s request.

    1. I think that’s interesting, because although Aladdin proves that he’s worthy to the Sultan at the end, Jasmine thinks he’s worthy from the very beginning. In fact, she likes Aladdin far more than she likes Ali, until *Ali* proves that he can be a good person. He might believe that he has to fight to prove his worth and win her love, but he has both worth and her affection from the very beginning.

    1. Thank you! :) I LOVED the sequels and the TV series when I was a kid, although I haven’t seen them in years. I’d be worried that they’d turn out to be terrible if I saw them again.

      1. I also worried that, but I checked them after all; they’re all on YouTube :). Actually, apart from some of the laugh-straining “hijinks” that Genie, Abu, and Iago get into, several episodes of the series hold up remarkably well!

        I recommend “The Secret of Dagger Rock”, “The Citadel”, “Garden of Evil”, “Raiders of the Lost Shark”, “Web of Fear”, “The Hunted”, and “The Lost Ones” for the air of mystery and the way they expand Agrabahn mythology. Also, characters like Mirage and Mechanikles are quite entertaining.

  4. My Jasmine feelings are pretty mixed. Well, my Jasmine-in-context feelings are pretty mixed, since when I think about her without going over her role I just love her.

    I think part of the problem is how they treat her pov. They do give her one, and I like how they both back up her feeling trapped and demonstrate that she has no idea how bad it is outside the palace, while allowing her to be both willing and capable of learning how to live in it given a chance in that rooftop leaping scene with Aladdin.

    At the same time, her situation and Jasmine herself are plot service; they make her fears tie into the villain plot instead of using the plot to give her character development, as you say. Jafar wasn’t just made out to be someone taking advantage of systemic injustice. He was the main problem. They did make an attempt to say he wasn’t the only obstacle by picking up the law subplot at the end of the movie, but they didn’t actually explore it, which might have led to actually raising relevant questions–like why doesn’t the Sultan change the law earlier or to something that will let her rule alone for as long as she chooses–instead of setting up Jasmine’s situation only for it to become focused on whether she will want and accept Aladdin until the end of the movie. The law ends up being serving Aladdin’s pov of wanting a better life/wanting to court the princess towards the middle of the movie more than it’s used to explore Jasmine’s situation. Of course, now I’m trying to imagine a Disney movie exploring systemic sexism in a foreign country–a Middle Eastern analogue country to boot–and I really don’t want to go there. This movie’s racist enough as it is.

    On the positive side, her character has dimension and her pov is given weight by the narrative, even if it isn’t the most important. The main plot probably wouldn’t change much if they had shown her at all beyond contriving a way for Aladdin to see her face and showing that slave girl scene; Aladdin could still want to better his life and marry a princess and defeat an evil villain who has power over her. But I do think giving Jasmine the personality she displays and letting her choices push the story forward at times make the movie different.

    Sidenote: Have you read the Jasmine Diaries series of posts? It deals with the construction of Jasmine versus that of the white princesses before her, and the author’s personal identity issues relating to this. From this blog (it’s not far down): http://irresistable-revolution.blogspot.com/

    1. You’re definitely right. I really feel that Disney was trying to create a strong, interesting character with her own perspective, and that they just fell into well-worn tropes along the way. It could have been so much better than it was.

      And thank you so much for sharing that link! I’ve never seen that blog before, and it’s fantastic!

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