Luca Zislin | Editor
Keeping with the tradition of remaking beloved animated classics, Disney released Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin on May 24th. At a point in history when Americans, especially American youth, are actively invested in furthering social change, it was no surprise that some vein of progressive ideology would surface in the film.
In Aladdin, this takes shape through Jasmine’s insistence that she alone should be Sultan as opposed to being married to another royal and relegated to the role of queen. Disney’s fourth-wave feminism reshaping of Jasmine as a character is a deliberate and obvious commercial grab at politically charged youth. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with this alone; if companies are willing to tell better stories, it doesn't matter if their intentions aren't pure. The issue is Aladdin does not tell a better story. The modern values entrenched in Aladdin are half-baked and arbitrary, and moreover, compared to the original, the new edition is restrictive and puritanical.
The first part of this argument has to do with how incredibly useless Jasmine’s feminist awakening is. At the end of the day, a movie’s objective is to entertain. This does not mean nuanced social movements should be excluded from children’s movies; rather, social movements can be integrated into classics to tell the story through a distinct, new lense. In Aladdin, Jasmine’s ambitions are just a prop. Jasmine’s aspiration to become Sultan in no way at all effect the core story line.
If you subtract Jasmine’s ambitions and even get rid of the original song wherein Jasmine demands her voice be heard (“Speechless”), the film is still entirely understandable and unchanged. Hence, Jasmine begs for her voice to be heard and she is heard, but at the same time, she is effectively silenced because what she says is virtually meaningless.
The only role Jasmine serves in the film is Aladdin’s motivation. That’s it. She doesn't defeat the villain, thereby excluding her from being the hero. She doesn't even aid the hero in his journey! She is just romantic motivation. This is why Jasmine’s feminist twist is purely a commercial ploy by Disney; they didn't try to tell a nuanced story where a female lead changes the fate of Agrabah (Aladdin's fictional setting)––they merely threw a couple progressive lines in and called it a day.
When Jasmine becomes Sultan at the end, the audience is expected to celebrate. The issue here is that Jasmine does absolutely nothing to suggest she is capable of being Sultan. In its defense, the movie tries to give Jasmine’s father justification for making her Sultan. In a scene towards the end, she sings a cathartic song and then says something defiant to Jafar, the antagonist. Great. But this does not mitigate the fact that Jasmine is a teenager who has spent most of her cushy life isolated from greater society in a palace. Jasmine is a rich girl who isn't a total idiot––this does not make her qualified to be the leader of an entire nation.
That being said, as a thought experiment, imagine if Jasmine were a male named Jake. Jake’s daddy decides Jake can be Sultan because Jake spoke out once against the antagonist who literally worked for Jake for years. No one would find this plot rich or fulfilling.
That is why Aladdin is a pretty shallow interpretation of feminism. Jasmine is a better case study on nepotism and elitism than a shining example of a female in a position of power. Jasmine demands a voice the entire film but not a single person is denying her voice. Her father listens to her and respects her judgement. Aladdin listens to her and respects her judgement. Thus, when she demands to be listened to, it comes off as more entitled than empowered.
This brings us to the biggest pitfall in Aladdin: the greatest social tension is not gender, but class. We see starving children begging for scraps. Then, we see ultra-wealthy Jasmine adorned in a decadent dress in an elaborate palace surrounded by guards, servants, royals, and gifts. An idiotic suitor comes expecting to court Jasmine, Jasmine’s father allows her to reject him, and we’re supposed to think, gee, Jasmine surely deserves more agency. It sucks to be her.
Everyone around Jasmine is less fortunate than her by a monstrous degree. Aladdin cheerfully sings “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat.” But there is nothing cheerful about the fact that in Agrabah, an able-bodied adult male cannot find the legal means to support himself. In fact, we only see two types of people: the royals and their guards and the rest of the peasants.
The point here is that if Disney wanted to explore a mature problem in its film, then the glaring issue that goes unaddressed is the socioeconomic inequality in fictional Agrabah. Trying to paint Jasmine as society’s victim is not just unfounded, but simply bad storytelling.
At the end of the film, Jasmine becomes Sultan and immediately marries Aladdin. Yes, in her very first act in a position of power, she does something so incredibly important and reflective of her strong-willed nature. The audience can only wonder what is happening in the rest of Agrabah where hungry children wander the streets while angry guards patrol with weapons. Disney passed on the opportunity to make the 21st century Aladdin a critique on class, probably because that would be a much harder story to tell.
The second part of the argument will venture into more controversial territory. The original Jasmine is arguably one of the sexiest of Disney princesses. Her midriff and cleavage are exposed. In the new movie, Jasmine is noticeably fully covered and abandons any trace of her iconic teal outfit from the source material.
When questioned on the reasoning behind the stylistic change, producer Dan Lin said, “We wanted to modernize the movie, and some things are inappropriate these days for families.” Disney equates Jasmine’s exposed body to something that is inappropriate. This message itself is entirely dated and more destructive than any trope used in the 1992 movie. Females are being told that their own bodies are inappropriate.
Will Smith’s genie is shirtless for long portions of the film, but that is not inappropriate. A grown man can expose his entire chest casually like there is nothing to it, but the tables turn when a female is in question. Disney’s “enlightened” Aladdin enforces a double standard.
There was something empowering about the nature of Jasmine’s wardrobe in the first movie. Jasmine was basically dressed in a bra and pants, and yet, it did not affect the way the other characters interacted with her. Aladdin never treated her like a sex object, and her father still listened to her and respected her.
Through this angle, the 1992 Aladdin is more enlightened than the 2019 one. In the original, Jasmine wears what she wants, chooses to dress in an objectively sexy manner, and is treated with respect. In the new movie, Jasmine is covered up for the sake of the families watching.
It is time we stop telling females there is something lewd and indecent inherent to their own bodies. Why shouldn't young boys and girls see Jasmine’s belly button and breasts but should see Genie’s belly button and chest? There should be no problem unless there is something shameful about the female figure, which Disney apparently contends there is.
Jasmine had to cover up to become a character with political ambitions, but why? It would be more forward-thinking if Jasmine could simultaneously be sexy and powerful. Genie is explained to be the most powerful being in the entire universe, and he does not have to wear a shirt.
In the Disney universe, unsexy females can have power and sexy females can't. Compare the fates of skimpy Ariel, who simply becomes a bride, to androgynous Mulan, who is lauded by the emperor of China. Any exposure of a woman’s body is a sign of weakness, and any hint at sexuality is deemed unprofessional.
For men, it really doesn't matter. Sexy, shirtless Li Shang in Mulan can still be a high-ranking general. Disney’s Hercules delights women who swoon over his partially exposed muscular body, and he ends the movie by becoming a literal god. Sexuality simply exists as just one facet of the multidimensional male character.
Women are multidimensional creatures, too. Women can be sexy, promiscuous, ambitious, brave, humorous, and intelligent all at once. Disney thinks this is only true for men. They will only give us aggressive, awkward warrior Merida from Brave, or cutesy, naive Rapunzel from Tangled, or sexy, Jezebel Jasmine from the original Aladdin.
The actual way to write better female characters is to add more dimension to their character, giving them complex desires, inner conflicts, and personality traits. Merely giving a female a single aspiration is not a more nuanced portrayal of women.
Furthermore, female bodies are not sinful or evil or inappropriate. When little girls are taught from day one that they must cover up in order to prevent offending the eyes of men, they are actively being repressed. We continue to live in a society where women should act within the parameters of what men deem appropriate, while men forgo shirts and openly talk about their sexuality and still reach positions of power.
See, if Naomi Scott’s Jasmine waltzed in the iconic tiny, turquoise two-piece outfit and was still power hungry, maybe I would feel an inkling of hope. Instead, I found Disney’s Aladdin to be a boring, draconian cash cow filled with vaguely feminist sound bites.
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