Week 31: Aladdin

First Theatrical Release: November 25, 1992

First Home Viewing Release: October 1, 1993

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars (OK, so, this is my favorite Disney movie and I STILL gave it fewer stars than The Little Mermaid. What’s up with that? Well, it’s complicated. But mostly I couldn’t in good conscience give a movie 5 stars that so miserably failed the Bechdel test.)

Where I Found It: My personal DVD collection — I own the Platinum edition. (My family has the original VHS release, too.)

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Princess Jasmine. That. Is. All.


I should begin with a disclaimer that this post is going to lean more personal and less critical/academic than most of my other posts. Also, it is going to be LONG. Aladdin is my favorite movie from the Disney canon, so taking a “second look” (really, more like a 1000th look) is fraught with nostalgia and colored by the many ways Aladdin impacted my adolescent years. Watching it last Sunday, I went in searching for the answer to the question: Why does this movie mean so much to me? And why did it speak to me so deeply when I was a 12-year-old girl, seemingly leagues away from a story set in the Middle East about the intersection of magic, poverty, and royalty?

People are often surprised when they learn that Aladdin is my favorite Disney movie, possibly even my favorite movie of all time. Based on the types of stories I usually read and write, they expect me to be drawn to movies with more traditional (read: European) or literary roots. And based on my feminist sensibilities, they think I would gravitate toward the many options in which Disney offers up a female lead, some of which can even be considered strong women. The first time I saw Aladdin, I was surprised myself by how much I loved it — I had never been particularly drawn to stories with an Arabian flavor. But that wonder I felt upon my first viewing of it intensified into obsession as the years went by and Disney continued to feed my imagination with two sequels and a TV series (which I still have taped on VHS somewhere).  I started writing Aladdin fan-fiction before I even knew fan-fiction was a thing, and made quite a name for myself in the Aladdin fandom before I drifted away in college, penning my last fic at age 17.

So what was it that made Aladdin different from the first couple Renaissance movies? Its animation was not as beautiful as the rich, dark strokes in Beauty & the Beast, and I had once thought nothing could displace my devotion to The Little Mermaid. But something very important happened in that one year between the release of Beauty & the Beast and the release of Aladdin.

I went through puberty.

Although most people would not consider Aladdin the most romantic movie in Disney’s canon, I was obsessed with Aladdin and Jasmine’s relationship. While most people consider Aladdin to be among Disney’s “lighter” fare, to me it was VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS. Although romantic storylines permeate our culture and children’s media — particularly that put out by Disney — I had never really gotten it before. Watching Aladdin and Jasmine, for the first time in my life I felt the inevitable pull on my heart, that overwhelming realization that, I want that.

Aladdin and Jasmine embraceThis wasn’t a feeling that just any romantic storyline could produce, though. It wasn’t romance alone that enticed me — it was something particular to Aladdin and Jasmine’s relationship that I could never put my finger on. To this day, there is something about the way that Aladdin looks at Jasmine that gets to me. I suffered from insomnia as an adolescent, and I played out Aladdin and Jasmine’s love story in a hundred different times, places, and ways through many sleepless nights or hot days working in my dad’s soybean fields.

So for a long time — until I watched the movie again a couple days ago, in fact — I thought this was the true source of my devotion to Aladdin: that it had been the movie through which I had experienced a romantic/sexual awakening, and that it provided a safe place to explore ideas about falling in love and relationships that suddenly seemed much more pressing than they had when I was younger.

But I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to it than that.

“They’d Find Out, There’s So Much More to Me …”

I watched this movie so many times that I think its themes are probably deeply embedded in my subconscious, but I noticed them anew when watching it as part of this project. The thing that struck me most deeply, at least on a conscious level, on my most recent watch was Aladdin’s twin desires to be seen for who he really is — and his counterintuitive decision to hide it.

angry aladdinWe see this identity struggle begin almost as soon as he appears on screen. After he stops a prince from whipping two children, the prince pushes him into a pool of manure and tells him, “You are a worthless street rat. You were born a street rat. You will die a street rat. And only your flees will mourn you.”

The viewer can see the rage building on Aladdin’s face in this scene, but the comment lingers as he walks dejectedly home that night. One of the first things we learn about Aladdin is that he wants to be seen for “more” than his poverty, that he is more than the role he occupies in society. It’s not surprising, then, that he uses his first wish to give himself an outward appearance that commands the opposite reaction: people immediately assume he is someone worthwhile when he returns to Agrabah in the guise of a prince.

Be YourselfAs he fumbles in his attempts to woo Jasmine, he disregards the Genie’s advice that he be himself, telling him, “That’s the last thing I want to be.” And it’s no surprise, considering that so far being “himself” has not been good enough. Although he only begins to get through to Jasmine as Prince Ali when he allows his personality to show, he is still desperate to convince her that his “prince” identity is his “true” self. He wins her, but he realizes quickly that their relationship is built on a shaky foundation. This tension between his desire to present as someone else to keep Jasmine’s approval and his desire to be himself comes to a head when he goes back on his promise to the Genie. The burden of being someone else for the sake of approval and even love quickly becomes too much for him to bear, and he tells the Genie he can’t free him because he “can’t keep this up on my own.” He then snaps at his friends who have overheard the entire argument, something he never did before he donned his princely guise.

I remember feeling shocked by the emotional honesty of this scene when I saw it in the theater. It was the first time a character Disney set up as the hero acted in a decidedly unheroic fashion.

When I watched it this week, suddenly it fell into place why this movie had resonated with me so strongly when I saw it as a kid.

Aladdin spends the entire movie wishing someone would see him for who he really is, and at the same time, he is terrified that Jasmine will not buy his Prince Ali persona. This performance of an alternate self for the approval of others is something that we’ve all encountered at some point in our lives — but never, ever as strongly as when we’re in middle school.

Between the time that I saw Aladdin in the theater and the time that it was released on video, I became the target of a bullying campaign at my school. Already struggling with the usual self-conscious performance common to adolescence, after that experience I became utterly terrified of anyone seeing me for who I really was — I was sure that people would only use the deepest parts of myself to hurt me. My biggest fear was that my younger sister would say something to someone at school that would reveal something about who I was when I was really being “me,” and that the world would deem it utterly unacceptable. It got to the point where I no longer even wanted my best friend to come over to my house, because the strain of being both my home self and my public self was just too much.

Aladdin typifies that strain, condensing the entire middle-school experience of struggling to find acceptance by both the self and others into three days his time, and 90 minutes mine.

I’ve commented in a few other posts that Disney films that did not particularly move me when I was a child choke me up now that I’m an adult, The Fox & the Hound and The Little Mermaid being two examples. With Aladdin, I had the opposite experience. When I was younger, I used to cry at the end of the movie — during the sequence in which Jasmine professes her love for Aladdin, and Aladdin tells her he’s “got to stop pretending to be something I’m not,” even if that means losing her.

Cue 13-year-old Lacey's tears.

Cue 13-year-old Lacey’s tears.

I always thought I cried because I was just a big sap when it came to Aladdin and Jasmine. But now I realize that it was because I was seeing a barely realized dream playing out on my TV screen nearly every day, because the idea that someone might see you for who you really are and love you anyway seemed too good to be true, because it was utterly heartbreaking not to know if I would ever find that for myself.

I didn’t choke up the slightest bit during this scene when I watched the movie this week. It no longer represented an impossible dream.

“A Whole New World — With New Horizons to Pursue”

Although I latched on to her as the single female in the movie, I did not particularly relate to Princess Jasmine — as an awkward adolescent, rejecting a string of suitors fighting for my hand seemed like a pretty good problem to have. But as a girl who didn’t quite fit in growing up in a small town, I did relate to her urge to know what was “beyond the palace wall,” although I was as yet too scared to really ponder that question in depth. (I assumed that if the world I knew was bad, the world beyond must be worse.)

to be freeEven more prevalent than the theme about learning to be yourself is the one about feeling “trapped” by the roles you occupy — Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie all chafe against various constraints and yearn for the freedom to “be their own masters.” So perhaps fittingly enough, it was through Aladdin that I was able to get my first glimpses of freedom from that small town and the roles that constrained me.

First, it simply gave me a place to escape in my mind, which is as good a place to start as any. But then the short-lived Aladdin comics published the address of another Aladdin fan in its letters page, because she wanted other fans to write to her. She was the same age as me. I did write to her, and got hooked into a network of pen pals that could put any social media site to shame. Who were these people? Although a handful were older or younger, many of them were other 13-year-old girls who, for their own reasons, found the same solace in Disney that I did. For the first time, I learned that there really were other people like me in the world, even if they lived in Indiana and Tennessee and New Jersey. I found a place where I could be accepted and even celebrated for being who I was, and among whom my Aladdin fan-fiction was a cherished community asset rather than a dirty little secret. And this was all before the Internet!

Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie all found their own freedom in the end. And so did I.

“It’s Barbaric, but Hey, It’s Home!”

Despite all my residual love for Aladdin, it seems irresponsible not to address the issue of cultural appropriation.

While our relationship with the Middle East may not have been as charged in 1992 as it became in years afterward, there was still enough tension to ruffle feathers. I remember when the news broke that the studio was changing a lyric in the opening number, “Arabian Nights,” from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense …” I thought the protests were silly when I was 12. Now, I know they were justified.

JafarThe other criticism was that the only character who looked like a traditional Arab was Jafar, the villain, whereas Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan looked like dark-skinned Americans.

I do wish Disney would tread a bit more carefully when it comes to a bunch of white dudes telling stories from other cultures. While the scenes in the marketplace and many of the background characters seem appropriate to the time and place, my pet peeve with the movie’s portrayal of Middle Eastern culture is in Jasmine’s outfit.

Prostitutes? Or just Disney ignorance?

Prostitutes? Or just Disney ignorance?

In the original “Aladdin” story, Aladdin falls in love with the princess because he catches a glimpse of her face as she lifts her veil before stepping into a public bath. The significance of this underpins the importance of modesty even in ancient Arab culture. While plenty of women in the background of the movie (and, let’s face it, it failed the Bechdel and they’re pretty much ALL in the background) are dressed in appropriately modest garb, all the young, attractive women are dressed as harem girls. Or to put it more bluntly: in Arab culture the only women who would have dressed the way the young women in Aladdin do would be prostitutes. While the women swooning over Aladdin in the balcony during the “Prince Ali” number (who may be the same ones who mocked him in “One Jump Ahead”) certainly could have been prostitutes (along with, seemingly, a Madam), there really is no justification for the way Jasmine dresses — as a princess, modesty codes probably would have been even more fiercely enforced against her. After all, her father won’t even allow her to leave the palace. (Although when she does, she dons culturally appropriate clothing for the first time.)

Look, I'm in disguise as someone who understands the culture!

Look, I’m in disguise as someone who wears culturally appropriate clothes!

Essentially, the clothing given to the young, attractive women in Aladdin seems to be drawn completely from Western fetishes with harems and belly dancing — and traditional belly dancing was not an erotic art, but something women performed privately for other women.

Unfortunately, blunders like this only contribute to the “othering” of Middle Eastern countries, making them out to be exotic and mysterious rather than places that are as complex and nuanced as any other. In an era when assumptions and misconceptions about the Middle East run rampant, the addition of Aladdin to the canon didn’t exactly help.

However.

My mother once asked me, “Isn’t it better for Disney to make movies with dark-skinned characters and mess some things up than not represent those characters at all?”

I think the answer is yes — that in general it is better to try and to blunder than to remain forever ensconced in our own safety zones. And while, in an ideal world, Disney could have made this movie with a lot more deference to the culture it was portraying, it was the first time that it featured dark-skinned heroes at all. [And for the record, conspiracy-theory-esque claims that Aladdin’s skin gets “lighter” as the movie goes on and he becomes a more “honest” character are totally bogus. Aladdin’s skin tones change based on whether he is in the sun or in moonlight/shadows. That’s just the painters adjusting for setting, dude.]

Aladdin was my first real exposure to the Middle East, and while it was a grossly inaccurate one, my love for it piqued a curiosity that eventually led to a deeper understanding, which has been more necessary than ever in these past years of pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment. The movie pointed me to the original story, which led me to read more of the Arabian Nights. Then I began reading contemporary novels set in the Middle East, and I studied Islam for my research project when I took a World Religions class. As I got older, I tried to incorporate more cultural accuracy into the Aladdin fan-fiction I wrote. While I am not an expert on the Middle East by any means, I’ve certainly looked more deeply at it than I ever would have if not for my love affair with Aladdin.

Of course, all of this could have happened with a more culturally accurate movie, too — but in a movie that was basically well-intentioned and warm-hearted, I tend to agree with my mother that misrepresentation is better than no representation.

And regardless of the mostly valid cultural criticism of the film, the fact remains that it was the right movie at the right time for me — that in many ways, it both changed and saved my life.

a whole new world

If, like me, you still can’t get enough of Aladdin, check out these new and upcoming renditions of the story …

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