Not a Prize to be Won: A Woman’s Agency in Agrabah

As the first month of this new year draws to a close, I begin my Disney blog series with its first installment: a feminist exploration of Princess Jasmine.

 

Aladdin was the first Disney movie to feature a non-Caucasian princess. Finally, little girls with darker skin and hair could see themselves in a Disney Princess.

But how well did Aladdin portray Jasmine’s nationality and culture?

The movie takes place in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah. The narrator is our first impression of this land, and one of the first lines in his opening song is: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” This sense of barbarity continues later on in the movie when a marketplace vendor nearly chops off Jasmine’s hand for stealing an apple. Not exactly painting a positive cultural image.

Although they are Middle Eastern characters, both Aladdin and Jasmine have typically Caucasian features, other than their hair and skin color. Which characters do have the stereotypical Middle Eastern features? Jafar, Gazeem (the “humble thief” who gets eaten by the Cave of Wonders in the beginning of the movie), the palace guards, the narrator, & various background characters. In other words: villains and side characters.

Also be aware that almost every name is mispronounced. I grew up pronouncing Allah incorrectly, which in certain company can be upsetting and offensive. I didn’t even know that Aladdin and Jasmine had their name pronunciations butchered until I watched the movie with a friend of mine who speaks Hindi as her first language.

In short, if someone tells you Disney doesn’t whitewash, because they didn’t make Jasmine into Jessica, you can show them the realistic depictions of the princess whose name should be pronounced “Jaz-meen.”

historically accurate Jasmine - model
image courtesy of bustle.com
historically accurate Jasmine - drawing
historically accurate Jasmine courtesy of deviantart user Wickfield

Of course, Jasmine’s role in the movie is what you’ll want to focus on when discussing Aladdin with your kids. And Jasmine’s role and experiences would have been very different had the creators chosen to follow realistic cultural values. We’ll assume the movie takes place around the beginning of Islam because they reference Allah, and Jasmine is allowed a say in who she marries – just a bit later in history her consent would not have been required for her marriage. Suitors come to her, and she has the power to tell her father that she will not marry them. When Jafar suggests to the Sultan that he should choose for his daughter, the Sultan argues that she didn’t like any of those suitors and he can’t pick someone she doesn’t like.

But this time period also means that Jasmine would most likely be one of four wives. Depending on her husband’s opinion of her, she might still be considered a “queen,” but probably not one with much power.

Instead, Jasmine is the heir to the throne in her own right. Her husband will become Sultan through her. She is the one with the power.

Jasmine is well aware of this power she has. We see this when she tells Jafar that the one good thing that will come of her being forced to marry is that “when [she] is queen, [she] will have the power to get rid of” him.

Yet when Jasmine overhears her father, Jafar, and Aladdin talking behind her back about who she will marry, she tells them off. She is indignant, and she is not afraid to let them know it. And rather than berating her for speaking in their presence, the men are actually ashamed of their behavior when she calls them on it. (Well, not Jafar, but he’s the bad guy! I mean, Jafar also says that being speechless is “a fine quality in a wife.” Make sure to point out to your kids that there’s a reason it’s the bad guy saying that!)

Jasmine’s reaction in this scene is what to emphasize with your children when you watch Aladdin together – not just your daughters either. Jasmine’s expectation of how she deserves to be treated is how all children should learn to treat people. And the crazy thing is, the words Jasmine uses directly contradict what a realistic society of the time would not question: “I am not a prize to be won.”

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