A Feminist Disney Review of Disney’s Aladdin… Final Feminist Rating: **~ 2.5/4 stars (see bottom for breakdown)
Aladdin is one of my favorite Disney films, and as a little girl Jasmine was one of my two favorite barbies. It’s a mix of both feminist-friendliness, and feminist-whoa there, not cool.
Jasmine was a great character, especially considering this was almost twenty years ago (1992). Like many of the 1990’s disney females, she had the spunky/rebellious personality that became almost their trademark. What I like about Jasmine though is that in many ways, she turned the princess story on its head. From the beginning of the film, she is running away from palace life/marriage to a prince, rather than towards it. She establishes herself as a critical decider in her own fate. She also develops strong feelings for what the movie refers to as a “street rat.” I think this was a pretty positive portrayal of romance because it really showed love as being about a personal connection and about mutual interests rather than about the impossible-to-ignore allure of wealth, ease and stature that would normally accompany “marrying a prince.” This might be a weird detail but I also liked that her companion animal was a (usually) ferocious tiger, rather than a cutesy mouse or iguana or whatever. Not that those things were bad, it made her a little less… “adorable cutesy wootsey we don’t have to be afraid of your little vulnerable girl-ness” whatever. However, it is definitely worth pointing out that she is really the only main female character/voice in the film; all the other main characters are men.
I also liked that this film went a little further than some of the films and showcased parts of the kingdom we wouldn’t normally see, where children were living in poverty and showcasing the economic problems facing “beggars.” Although to be fair, this view was very limited and the conclusion of the film didn’t necessarily promise a better life for the poorer segments of Agrabah, if I remember correctly.
So now we have to get to the problems of the film. I would say the biggest problem is its portrayal of arab people and arab culture. It is hard to miss that the stupid and evil characters in this film are more arabic in feature, while the heroes/good guys in the film are more european/not arab. Jasmine’s father, the Sultan, is portrayed as a well-intending but rather doddling and dim leader, and he is wearing a more traditional turban and beard throughout the film. Jafar is definitely more arab in appearance, also having a turban, beard, darker skin, and is also another queer-coded evil villain (his facial features, small waist/body build and mannerisms are more effeminate than the other males in the film, which leads to a villainization of queer/fem). From here:
“American stereotypes often suggest that Arab men are not real men because they lack machismo. Jafar’s eyes also appear to have eye makeup, similar to Jasmine’s eyes.”
Aladdin, on the other hand, has a more european appearance- he is cleanshaven, lacks a turban, has lighter skin, and his clothing is also less traditionally arab. Genie is obviously blue and not “European” per say, but he is also definitely not arab in any way.
“Our question: In a city full of Arabic men and women, where the hell does a midwestern-accented, white piece of cornbread like Aladdin come from?”
As you can probably tell, I cruise a lot of random websites in order to add to my own thoughts; not all of them are informative in the traditional sense, but it helps me know where people stand on things. On one forumsite, people all seemed to agree that there was nothing racist in these movies and it seemed like a stretch/carrying racism “too far” to think it has these problems. Someone even was helpful enough to point out that,
“The darker skin and twisted noses you are talking about with the evil villians, i dont think thats anything to do with racism. Its all about painting the picture. Those features help the audience to identify that they are supposed to be the evil/bad guys.”
Oh, a character being darker and having a non-european nose helps the audience know he’s the bad one? Good to know. Not that they would have been tipped off by the COMPLETELY EVIL THINGS the character does, or anything. That audience isn’t going to get the point until you make the good guys light and the bad guys dark! Multiple people in that thread, in fact, pointed out that the evil characters are usually “ugly” while the good guys are “attractive” without actually realizing how rooted in culture their ideas of beauty are, and how it is being used to the disadvantage of others in these films.
There has been controversy over the lyrics in several Aladdin’s songs, especially the line in the merchant song, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home!” which was changed on the DVD version to, “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” Along with the “thieving ways” of the merchent who introduces the story, the guards (and Jafar, of course) also help to further stereotypes of arabs being inherently violent, like when they ensue multi-person chases after street beggers stealing, you know, apples, with giant knives. (it’s good to note the context of this film: the Gulf War was occurring when Aladdin was being produced)
Overall, although the movie might “intend well” by showcasing part of the arab world rather than the generic-euro world Disney characters usually live in, they really did their message a disservice by stuffing it with a bunch of racial stereotypes and tropes.
The other thing that bothers me about the film is the way it constantly uses imprisonment and slavery as a plot device. I don’t know if I can fully describe what about this makes me uncomfortable since it’s obviously shown to be a bad thing, but it just seems kind of weird. I feel like if we consider that this is pretty much the only “Arab world” disney movie, that might be why- imprisonment and slavery never occur much in Euro-world Disney. The characters experience a number of different conflicts there, but rarely if ever is it slavery. Just seems to hearken back to a lot of imbedded cultural codes about “what arabs are like/ what bad arabs are like.” I also thought Jasmine’s portrayal in these scene was highly questionable- she is chained up made to look very sexy and “tricks” Jafar by seductively tricking him by feeding him grapes. A lot of the portrayal of women in this film was very American based and went against the basic cultural context of what Arab women in Agrabah would have been dressed like (certainly not mid-driff baring princesses?).
Coming back to the issue of poverty, while it’s good not everyone lived in a happy-go-lala land of easy wealth, in a way, wealth was easy in this movie, and Aladdin went from rags to riches in about an hour and a half. There’s always this thought in the middle/upper class that anyone can make that climb so long as they’re willing to do the work and not be lazy. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes that’s just ignoring a lot of inherent privileges that the middle/upper class tend to have, that the lower class tends to not have, and which makes their potential climb upwards inherently more difficult than it would be for someone already “at the top.” From this site again:
[Aladdin] also embraces what one would call American values. He feels trapped by his poverty and hopes to one day rise up and achieve success; Aladdin wants to obtain the American dream of success and living well. He also loves the idea of freedom and being able to make choices freely. Jafar is the complete opposite. He is portrayed to be more Arabian than Aladdin through speech, appearance, thoughts, and actions. He symbolizes evil and disorder.
There is probably more going on with the arab stereotyping that I’ve missed just because I myself have been raised in America and don’t have a ton of experience examining things from that cultural perspective.
Oh my, I do love Aladdin the film, but cannot deny it is just as problematic, if not in some ways more so, as any other Disney movie.
Breakdown of Rating:
Promotion/Equal Voice given to women: **
Representation of Women present (are they more than typecasts of female stereotypes etc): ***
LGBTQ representation: *~ (1.5)
Gender Binary adherence: **~