Dear Lily June,
There is much to admonish about Disney’s Aladdin, as I addressed in Part I, not the least of which are its anti-feminist stances, its ethical gray areas, and its xenophobic animation. And yet, I find there is also much to admire, not the least of which are its feminist stances, its ethical lessons, and its economically inclusive story-line. And in response, Lily, to your possible future accusation that I’m a wishy-washy flip-flopper, I grant you only the words of Walt Whitman:
“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
There is no issue so simple that it can’t be seen from both sides, no Disney film so egregious (at least the ones I know from my era) that it can’t offer up some beneficial lessons. While I want you to live your life with passionate intensity, my dear, I also want you to see that there is a value to reserving ultimate judgment until you’ve walked around the whole elephant, being able to feel the tail and the tusk and the trunk and the torso and the magic carpet draped over its back before you declare what it is you’re encountering. That it’s actually a monkey in disguise.
So off we go with a little praise for this “diamond in the rough.”
In the first place, Jasmine does attempt to be independent, rejecting the oppressive laws that govern Agrabah and standing up to her father, the Sultan.
Despite the fact that she’s a princess, Jasmine doesn’t relish the trappings of her role. She, in fact, languishes in the palace, dreaming not of more riches or comfort but of more independence, come what may of it. A key to her character’s spitfire charm comes in the legal debate between her and her father:
Sultan: Dearest, you’ve got to stop rejecting every suitor that comes to call. The law says you…
Both: …must be married to a prince… […]
Sultan: …by your next birthday.
Jasmine: The law is wrong. […] Father, I hate being forced into this. (She takes a dove out of the cage and pets it.) If I do marry, I want it to be for love.
Sultan: Jasmine, it’s not only this law. (She hands him the dove, and he puts it back in the cage.) I’m not going to be around forever, and I just want to make sure you’re taken care of, provided for.
Jasmine: Try to understand. I’ve never done a thing on my own. […] I’ve never even been outside the palace walls.
Sultan: But Jasmine, you’re a princess.
Jasmine: Then maybe I don’t want to be a princess.
On the surface, this might not sound much different than Ariel arguing to her father, King Triton, that she wants to hang out in the human’s ‘hood. But if you look closer, this film is willing to be anachronistic for the sake of feminism. In real 9th century Syria, a woman might have been put to death for not only questioning a man and her father but also her government and its laws. Women who do this today are called…(wait for it)…women. Women who did that then weren’t called anything. There’s no need to call out to a beheaded corpse.
There’s also the mastery of the visual metaphor. While their debate is raging, Jasmine attempts to free a dove, a bird of peace, which her father crams back into its “cage” even though the “cage” is really just the palace window itself. The argument being made here is that privilege can be just as limiting as poverty. And Lily, if the Italian proverb is true that
“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back into the same box,”
then Aladdin is the pawn and Jasmine is the king (or queen). And neither is free under an oppressive regime that disenfranchises orphans and women equally. That they find each other and bond not over their perfectly chiseled abs or impossibly cinched waists but over the philosophical value of freedom goes a long way to demonstrate that Jasmine isn’t just a superficial nitwit. In fact, she’s saavy and saucy enough to throw first Prince Achmed and then Prince Ali Ababwa (Aladdin’s princely alter ego) out on their tiger-bitten butts when she thinks they’re treating her as just “a prize to be won.” Score one, anachronistic feminism. Score zero, anachronistic boxer shorts.
Another thing I really love about this exchange, Lily, is that the relationship cultivated between father and daughter is built on open, honest communication and trust. Here’s a Sultan who isn’t just worried about his kingdom; he’s also a man worried about his daughter’s well-being. Here’s a daughter who’s not just mindless royalty; she’s also a woman who wants to do things for herself and find love by choice. I can envision you and your father having similar dialogues, not over a kingdom, but over the best courses of action for your future.
In her insistence that she be able to choose her partner, Jasmine was an early advocate for consent. That makes her a far cry from the original story’s female lead, Princess Badroulbadour, who’s swept up into marriage by the rich and powerful Aladdin then swindled by the sorcerer (i.e. the “Jafar” character) into giving up Aladdin’s lamp. Disney’s Jasmine’s not even a blind romantic: She uses the conditional If I do marry, assuming for herself the right not to do so. At all. Take that, Agrabah. You might just find yourself turning into a matriarchy yet!
In fact, of all of the Disney movies, this one rewrites the tale it’s adapted from in a way to improve, not water down, the moral.
Ron Clements, the film’s director who aided in the script’s (many) revisions, wrote of the original tale,
“The original story was sort of a winning the lottery kind of thing…
“When we got into it, particularly coming in at the end of 1980s, it seemed like an Eighties ‘greed is good’ movie … Like having anything you could wish for would be the greatest thing in the world and having it taken away from you is bad, but having it back is great. We didn’t really want that to be the message of the movie.”
Arguably, the best message of Aladdin is that wealth is worth less than love.
Aladdin “steals only what [he] can’t afford. That’s everything.” As a thief, we should be questioning his moral integrity, and that should harm his ability to draw sympathy as a protagonist. But we get the sense, with his being an orphan, and the only two jobs available in Agrabah being sword-swinging palace guard or customer-swindling merchant, his occupational options are extremely limited. In fact, if it’s not too heady, the words of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia come to mind with Disney’s Aladdin:
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”
Clearly, Aladdin’s not so much a born-thief as a made-one. So we, as an audience, are clearly rooting for him when he keeps the arrogant suitor, Prince Achmed, from beating defenseless children in the street. And when Achmed replies, “You were born a street rat, you’ll die a street rat, and only your fleas will mourn you,” we want Aladdin to prove him wrong. We want him to achieve his ultimate dream that he softly sings to himself: “Riffraff, street rat. I don’t buy that. If only they’d look closer, would they see a poor boy? No, siree. They’d find out, there’s so much more to me.”
And find that out we do. For someone from exceedingly humble circumstances, Aladdin has the moral character in the first place to enter the Cave of Wonders and resist, unlike his monkey, its many temptations. He fulfills his quest honestly for what he assumed was a fellow prisoner, even when that prisoner’s code was a warped version of the Golden Rule: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” He does so to woo the princess whom he’s already in love with, not to necessarily “make it rain” with golden coins.
And despite the fact that he could wish for fame, fortune, and glory, all he ends up using the Genie for is: 1) to circumvent an unjust law governing courtship; 2) to be spared drowning, something he technically doesn’t even ask for; and 3) to grant freedom to the Genie himself. Aladdin, despite his human flaws is, after all, one of the good guys. And he was aided by one of the best guys, a real-life hero named Robin Williams.
Robin Williams’ genius will forever be memorialized in the Genie.
Williams himself wanted neither fame nor fortune from Aladdin, making a deal with Disney to only accept $75,000 for his voice-acting and to have his character make up no more than 25% of the advertising artwork for the film. Disney reneged, making the Genie a major character of the film and its marketing, and it’s not hard to see why.
The Genie’s humor and good spirits–as well as strong lessons and comedic allusions–makes him unforgettable in the world of Disney magic. His name may not mean much to you, Lily, but children of my generation cut their teeth on Robin Williams’ characters or voices in Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, Aladdin, FernGully, and so many, many more. The actor himself was plagued by self-doubt and depression, and yet, had a true gift–a real-life magic–for bringing loving, caring, moral characters to life. (He could also play a good villain, but that’s besides the point.) Ultimately, Williams couldn’t find freedom from his own demons, and a little over a year ago killed himself.
Lily, being “free” has nothing to do with your status, your bank accounts, the circumstances of your birth or economic or social stations in life. Being “trapped” can happen to princesses and paupers, to comedians and actors as well as waiters or janitors, and the ability to grant your own wishes in this life–not the least of which will be your own internalized sense of freedom–is a magic that Aladdin can inspire, but only you can accomplish. Robin Williams took with him a lot of magic when he died, and I hope you know, to me, you carry more magic than any lamp of Agrabah and if I had but one wish, it would be this, Lily:
I will love you endlessly, fiercely, but it won’t replace how you feel about yourself. Aladdin, the character, sends this message: He won’t let anyone tell him how to view himself or his actions. The Genie sends this message, trying to convince Aladdin that he’d be better to woo Jasmine as himself than as the persona of a prince. Jasmine sends this message, not accepting any suitor who doesn’t reflect the value she sees in herself.
Lily, love yourself. When you do, you open up a whole new world of possibilities in how you can interact with, and love, others. I can’t promise you I’ve always been able to do the same for myself. But I’d love to try harder to share that whole new world with you.
- “Disney Aladdin intertitle” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Disney_Aladdin_intertitle.jpg#/media/File:Disney_Aladdin_intertitle.jpg
- “Princess Jasmine disney” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Princess_Jasmine_disney.png#/media/File:Princess_Jasmine_disney.png
- Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements. Perf. Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, and Frank Welker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1992. Film.
- Culhane, John. (August 15, 1993). Disney’s Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film. Disney Editions. ISBN 978-1-56282-757-1.
- More, Thoas (2002). George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (eds.), Utopia. Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner (series eds.) (Revised ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81925-3.