The Problem with Aladdin’s “Feminist” Princess Jasmine

Pop Culture

The Problem with Aladdin’s “Feminist” Princess Jasmine

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

There is a breakout scene in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin in which Princess Jasmine finds her voice. Tired of being told that women like her are “best seen and not heard,” Jasmine finally decides that enough is enough and sings a song about empowerment and freedom. Yet curiously, that song and her efforts at making her presence felt at a crucial juncture in the story amounts to nothing in the larger narrative of the story. This scene, just like the reimagination of Jasmine, exists in the film to convey just one thing: Disney’s earnest attempts at a progressive rebranding.

In the original Disney tale, the spirited Princess Jasmine of Agrabah was hardly bothered about her place in the lineage or her claim to the throne. She wasn’t also about girl power. In Guy Ritchie’s Agrabah, we look at Princess Jasmine through the prism of a feminist gaze: The Sultan’s daughter has serious problems accepting the law of the land that says she can never claim the throne and has to marry a prince, who will be the Sultan by default. It’s evident that Jasmine has been taking notes from the contemporary avatars of the Disney Princesses – Belle who loves her books more than the admiration of men or Moana, who defies her father to explore the world beyond her kingdom. Except, in the case of Jasmine, her feminist politics seem mere fan service; a force fit in a tale that has never been about the gorgeous girl in the palace.

For generations of little girls, Disney has been synonymous with princesses with luminous eyes and lustrous hair, who are armed with the occasional rebellious streak that lands them in trouble. But all roads eventually lead to a happily ever after, gazing into the eyes of their Prince Charming. It was out-and-out fantasy but one that worked. The candy coloured world of Disney Princesses was that magical place where we could be safe from the terror of Math problems, power cuts and harsh summers. It was where many of us saw a three tiered wedding cake for the first time and drooled over glass slippers. We all also grew up secretly wishing for a fairy godmother who could conjure a whole new wardrobe out of thin air for our first date with the dashing Prince.

But Jasmine is no Elsa. And Disney’s attempts at retelling this classic for a perhaps more precocious generation of young ladies, is painfully ham-handed.

But times have changed. Back in 2010, Disney, which had over eight decades built a world-wide empire on the strength of its Princess franchise, arrived at the conclusion that young girls were no longer enamoured by that romanticised idea of feminism that had their mothers in thrall. Stung by the growing criticism of the gender stereotyping that was repeatedly called out for being regressive and outdated in a new world, they changed the title of their 50th release, “Rapunzel”, to a more gender neutral Tangled. They also gave her enough meat and action parts to run shoulder to shoulder with the dashing male protagonist. The new Rapunzel was done waiting to be rescued. In Tangled, she captures the male lead and arms twists him to help her escape. This Rapunzel was made for the world exploding with swashbuckling characters who do so much more than just wait in their tall towers for someone to rescue them.

Since then, Disney has created a host of progressive tales. Their Princesses are now not your usual neighbourhood damsels in distress. Instead of fairy godmothers or magic wands, they wield bows and arrows, swords and shields and soaring ambition. Think Moana, Merida, Mulan, feisty young women who have shattered the glass ceiling in Disney palaces. My five-year-old daughter for instance, is a fan of Elsa who is nothing like any of her Disney sisters, and marks the Hollywood behemoth’s most successful attempt at creating a culturally relevant, feminist icon. There is a strong buzz that Elsa, who inherited the kingdom of Arendelle from her father, will have a “lady friend” in the sequel, given that she has not shown any romantic interest in men, even scoffing at the idea of “love at first sight” that powers so many of the Disney tales. If Elsa truly comes out of the closet, as many believe she will, it will be a milestone for the studio that has been so far been flirting with inclusiveness, such as the new Beauty and the Beast’s “gay” moments.  

If Disney merely dipped its toes in the waters of gender politics with Beauty and the Beast, it had gone full throttle with Frozen. In Elsa, the studio not only created a character that could stand up to the might of the live action superheroes with her stupendous power to manipulate ice, they also gave her a staggering emotional arc, making her worthy of adulation and hero worship. Elsa is at once, a loving sister, a tormented hero plagued with self doubts, a gifted young woman who is overwhelmed by her own powers, and a Queen who must keep the well being of her subjects in mind. She takes the chilling charisma of the Snow Queen, a pinch of Avenger’s star power, a dash of Marvel magic, and dollops of Disney glamour and tosses it all up in a heady, sensational cocktail. But more importantly, unlike Jasmine, at no point do her actions, words, gestures or intent make concessions for her gender.

But Jasmine is no Elsa. And Disney’s attempts at retelling this classic for a perhaps more precocious generation of young ladies, is painfully ham-handed. The problem with Ritchie’s Aladdin is that it tries too hard. In a uni-dimensional tale about a boy and his genie, a new track about the Princess wishing to connect with her subjects and being well-read enough to rule the kingdom, feels like hammering a square peg in a round hole. Even when Jasmine does get her moment, crowned as the Sultan by her father, we fail to cheer for her, because her story is never strong enough to hold our attention or our hearts. It’s merely false advertising. The inner struggle and negotiation with power that defines Elsa and the other super girls of Disney, is no more than surface embellishment here.

Even worse, Jasmine is completely ineffective even as a pivotal character and despite a roomful of books, ambition, and a massive royal bengal tiger by her side, Jasmine is exactly where she was before Disney tried to reinvent her for a younger, contemporary audience – an exotic beauty on a magic carpet. And this New York Times essay titled “Rewriting the Past Won’t Make Disney more progressive” succinctly captures the problem with Aladdin’s Jasmine track, “The shoehorned-in progressive messages only call more attention to the inherent crassness of Disney’s current exercise in money-grabbing nostalgia.” Sadly, like Jasmine, we can’t stay silent about that, either.