Saturday, 1 August 2015

By Order of the Princess

In case this is your first time visiting my page: I believe that in order for us to build more and better female protagonists in the media we love, it is necessary to acknowledge the positive aspects of the ones that already exist (and also to not always cry foul whenever they don't act like perfect role models. In order for characters to be great, they'd have to be people first). Apparently there's this weird fear in certain people that once we accept existing characters as having the right to exist on their own terms, somehow artists will stop making new or even better ones. I'd argue that it is in fact this incredibly negative criticism and ridiculously high standards that female characters get almost by default which holds artists back from even trying.
Furthermore I fear that constantly and exclusively highlighting negative aspects plays a large role in perpetuating exactly those negative aspects by constantly reintroducing them into the cultural zeitgeist (the full-force resurrection of "true love's kiss" just for the sake of subversion comes to mind, even though the straight-up example hasn't really been relevant since the 1950's).

And as always, there will be spoilers for the movie Aladdin (1992).

By Order of the Princess
Disney's Aladdin

Princess Jasmine is the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah. Her father intends to have her married before her sixteenth birthday, both to satisfy the law and to make sure she is provided for (I guess he didn't consider their massive wealth as the ruling class of Agrabah). She refuses to marry for anything less than love and hates being treated like a prize for some prince. Because of this conflict, as well as her desire to see the outside world, she runs away and bumps into Aladdin. He gets arrested by the guards, and she fails to free him due to Jafar's influence. She returns to the palace, only to be told by Jafar he has already been beheaded for the crime of kidnapping the princess. Aladdin, having been used as Jafar's pawn to retrieve a magic lamp but failing to deliver thanks to his thieving monkey, returns to Agrabah in the disguise of prince Ali. However due to her previous experiences with her suitors, she refuses to even talk to yet another prince until she realizes who he really is underneath the facade.

Most of her characterization here isn't found at all in the original One Thousand and One Nights / Arabian Nights version of the story (which supposedly isn't in the original Arabic version but was added by Antoine Galland, who allegedly heard it from a Syrian storyteller[1]). A notable example is that the Disney version added the meeting between Aladdin and Jasmine in the market to create a more genuine relationship before it is revealed she is the princess. The Arabian Nights princess (named Badroulbadour or Lady Badar al-Budur) by contrast is treated far less respectfully by modern western standards. That version's Aladdin falls in love and intends to marry his princess based solely on catching a glimpse of her without ever even talking to her.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823-1903) -
Scheherazade (storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights) 

Consider this short fragment from Penguin Popular Classics Arabian Nights (adapted by Jack Zipes from Richard F. Burton's translation), in which Aladdin asks the jinnee to kidnap the princess and her husband from their bed for fear that they should consummate the marriage. The sultan previously having promised his daughter's hand to Aladdin:

However, he did not allow his burning desire to get the best of him and treated her with respect.
"Oh, most beautiful of princesses," he said, "don't think that I've brought you here to dishonor you. Heaven forbid! No, it was only to prevent the wrong man from enjoying you, for your sire, the sultan, promised you to me. Have no fear and rest in peace."
- Arabian Nights, p.162 [2]

This continues for two nights with the princess and her husband shivering in fear until they have no choice other than to annul their marriage. The princess of the original story submits to the law and is forced to marry whomever her father deems worthy through increasingly ridiculous dowries, for instance requiring Aladdin to produce forty platters of pure gold filled with gems, brought by forty white slave girls and forty black eunuch slaves (The song 'Prince Ali' functions as a rather nice satire of these gifts). She is presented as overjoyed that her new husband can produce these massive amounts of wealth in such short time, but otherwise she's marrying a strange man she only previously met while he kidnapped her and her then current husband.
Her most meaningful action during the story is to be tricked into handing the magic lamp to the sorcerer who previously tricked Aladdin into getting it from the cave (Jafar from the Disney version is a combination of the Moorish sorcerer who traveled the world searching for the magic lamp, and the sultan's vizier who intends for his son to marry the princess). A far cry from the intelligent princess we know from Disney's adaptation who refuses to let anyone else decide her destiny.

The Tvtropes page for Aladdin characters lists Jasmine as "taking a level of badass" in the series, implying she was less so in the first movie. I disagree somewhat. Not so much when talking strictly about Jasmine engaging physically, for which she does get a lot more opportunities in the sequels, but as a reflection of her general character. As with several of the infamous Disney sequels, I feel the sequel movies and TV series get a very integral part of her character wrong and as a result reduces Jasmine's potential.
In the first movie, Aladdin dreams of a comfortable life in the palace while Jasmine is the one who wants to go out to see the world. In fact as Prince Ali, Aladdin manages to get Jasmine to fall in love with him by taking her on a magic carpet ride to see the world during the "A Whole New World" sequence  (as well as a result of her realizing he is the boy from the market she liked). His ability to free her from palace life is what she finds so attractive and it's something her other suitors couldn't possibly provide.
Then suddenly at the end of Return of Jafar, Aladdin announces he would like to go see the world instead of living in the palace. First movie Jasmine's frustration with palace life and her every intention of going out to see the world gets reduced to her basically nodding and realizing that ... "oh yeah, I guess I kinda wanted to do that too", but otherwise that motivation from the first movie has become rather lost. As a result we have a large number of situations in the sequel movies and series where Jasmine is perfectly fine hanging around the palace and usually requires an outside force to get her out. Despite her initial desire to get out of palace life, only occasionally does she end up the catalyst for the adventure.

In Aladdin, Jasmine is presented as being every bit Aladdin's equal, except with less experience of the life outside the palace walls. When she gets caught for accidentally stealing (having no concept of such things), she is saved not only because of Aladdin's intervention, but also because she catches on to Aladdin's scheme and manages to play along convincingly. Later just before the final battle with Jafar, she pulls off one of those schemes on her own to distract him in an attempt to give Aladdin an opportunity to steal back the Genie's lamp. Considering her sheltered upbringing, it's likely she learned that trick entirely from mimicking Aladdin (a fast learner indeed).

It's not all bad in the sequels though. When Jasmine is pushed into active duty, she proves very formidable indeed. In Sandswitch the witch Sadira uses a spell to take Jasmine's place. Subsequently Jasmine shows capable of dealing with the guards, infiltrates the palace and undoes Sadira's magic, even though the animals aren't all that helpful and she has to go up against the Genie. The episode Forget Me Lots even provides a nice 'what if' scenario in which Jasmine is turned evil, showing she would be one of Aladdin's most competent and deadly opponents if she were villainous by nature (although one could make the case that's she's probably not all that rooted in a good moral center if mere amnesia makes her comfortable with hostile takeovers).

Jasmine as the big good

Jasmine is one of those Disney Princesses who often gets put up as one of the prime examples of being a princess in the tower (in this case, a palace) who must get rescued by the male hero. In other words the critics are once again reducing an awesome female character to a single, horribly simplified, event (here's one particularly bad image). Not only does Jasmine not act like a stereotypical princess in the tower, barely any of the Disney Princesses do, her role in the story is also much larger than her being the reward for the hero (again, princess Jasmine not being a reward and her ability to make her own choices is an important plot element).

Think about Jafar's motivation. What is he trying to accomplish and why does he need to lamp to do so? Well he is trying to rule Agrabah. Okay, well he already has the Sultan under his control and he has enough power to order the guards to murder a visiting prince (who do so with glee). The situation with Aladdin's (fake) beheading also reveals that he possibly could casually and officially execute people he has picked up from the marketplace. He only got reprimanded for it this time because Jasmine complained to her father about it. Even then he seemed more concerned with easing out their relationship than with Jafar's horrible abuse of power.
So why did Jafar so desperately need the Genie if he already had most of the power and getting rid of- and replacing the Sultan wouldn't be that hard? That's right, the one element he has no control over: Princess Jasmine.

Jafar can't order Jasmine around and she's not suggestible enough to be hypnotized (remember: even with phenomenal, cosmic powers changing reality to his wishes, Aladdin has a hard time fooling her), furthermore the guards won't lift a finger against her. So, unless he acts before Jasmine rises to power (the movie is a bit vague about it but it seems like she'll become queen/sultana as soon as she gets married, not necessarily after her father's death), he'll be kicked out of the palace and his time is running out.

"At least some good will come of my being forced to marry. When I am Queen, I will have the power to get rid of you."

So while being able to rule overtly was certainly one of the reasons why Jafar would want the power of the Genie, the most troubling obstacle in his way was not the Sultan, but princess Jasmine. So, until Iago suggested the plan of marrying her instead, Jafar's best plan to get the "helpless princess in the tower" out of his way required the help of an all-powerful Genie.

Aladdin as a criticism of the court

Jasmine's refusal at following the law by marrying one of her suitors and instead wishing to marry for love provides a rather interesting parallel to Shakespeare's King Lear (even more so if you consider Lear's motivation for staging his test of love as leverage to get his daughter Cordelia to marry the suitor of his choice rather than it merely being a gesture of his own vanity). Jasmine, like Lear's Cordelia, refuses to play by the rules of the court while their fathers are foolishly set in their ways.
You might even consider Jasmine's preference of Aladdin over her suitors as a sort of criticism of corruption and petty facades at the court. We are introduced to Jasmine after her latest suitor angrily storms out of the palace. When he entered the palace he rode on a horse with great dignity in a fabulous outfit. Then a couple of young kids get in his way and we find out this fantastic-looking prince is actually a massive jerk. Aladdin, a thief who had nothing in the world, is through his kindness and ultimately righteous personality preferable than these fake, abusive princes (we see this just a scene prior when he shares his food with the kids, which required a lot of efforts dodging the guards to acquire). The conflict there was that although Jasmine rejected the formal ways a princess is supposed to act, Aladdin himself was unaware of this and still played the courtly game as he thought was appropriate. This is in contrast to the original story where Aladdin's wealth is indeed by which he is measured.

In my previous article on Ariel and the Little Mermaid I argued that a reoccurring theme in the Disney Princess movies is not for the prince to save the princess with her being his treasure in the end, but for the prince and princess to learn how to work together to overcome the villain (or the shopkeeper near the beginning). They are partners who both have unique perspectives and skills they bring to the table and I even used Aladdin and Jasmine as an example. Aladdin lying about his identity to fool Jasmine really is what keeps them apart and prevents them from figuring out Jafar's deception until it is too late (although the movie doesn't really show Jasmine puzzling over how this guy could still be alive despite Jafar having him beheaded).

Jasmine doesn't really go through a lot of character development, she's a fairly static character. The only thing she lacks is a full grasp of all the facts, and even then she has everything figured out pretty early on (Jafar = no good. Prince Ali = boy from the market). In this movie it's Aladdin who needs to overcome the weakness in their relationship for them both to succeed, and for the Sultan to grow a spine for the sake of both his daughter and Agrabah.


Princess Jasmine is a bit hindered by not being the main protagonist of the story, but this doesn't mean we should sell her short as a mere princess in the tower. She's smart, craves adventure and doesn't like not being in control of her own destiny and this makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Links & References

Images from:
Disney's Aladdin (1992)
Disney's Aladdin (TV series) (1994)
Scheherazade (Wikimedia commons) by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823-1903)

Alaeddin; Or, The Wonderful Lamp by Sir Richard Francis Burton

2. Jack Zipes, Richard F. Burton, Arabian Nights: A Selection (1996), p.162

1 comment:

  1. You are spot on about all of this. Especially in your opening paragraph.

    It is doubly cringe-inducing when a character is touted as a perfect role model when they're just not. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why I haven't watched Brave yet.