Representation can’t be the end game for a fair society, but it’s a good place to start. Since falling in love with the forthright Arab princess as a child, Yasmine Kandil hasn’t lost sight of her peerless impact, 30 years since the Disney film was first released.
On a trip to Walt Disney World as a teenager, it dawned on me how much everyone loved The Lion King. I never felt a strong connection to the film, at least not like others did. As we walked over a wooden bridge, entering the Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland on a sweltering Floridian summer’s day, I asked my mother why she thought my brother and I grew up with such an affinity for specific animated Disney films. She explained that we like the films she does, because if she showed us one she wasn’t the biggest fan of and we became obsessed, demanding daily rewatches, she would also be stuck watching them.
That seemed like a perfectly rational answer, which pacified me for the better part of a decade. Now with over 4,000 miles between the two of us, I pester her over endless voice notes, digging deeper into her curation of films. She now says that not long after I was born, she spent many hours scrolling through eBay, searching for Disney classics on VHS. In fact, it was so difficult to find them in any shop at the time, that she had to obsessively outbid other buyers up until the very last second to actually get her hands on them. Over the blurred yet cherished years of my childhood, we would watch animated films from a wide variety of studios – yet no VHS tape was rewound in our household more than Aladdin.
Catchy songs and Robin Williams’ charming Genie aside, Aladdin captured so many hearts over its compelling emotional strength. Between a self-proclaimed street rat realising his self worth, a love story surpassing class-related boundaries and the emancipation of an enslaved genie-turned-companion, there is so much to love. The story was inspired by a compilation of 18th century Middle Eastern folk tales called One Thousand and One Nights, or perhaps better known in Western culture as Arabian Nights. The fictional kingdom of Agrabah ruled over by Princess Jasmine’s father, The Sultan, has no link to a singular geographical location in our world, but draws inspiration from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, the bustling souks of North Africa and the remarkable architecture seen in Indian buildings such as the Taj Mahal. Its representation of the Middle East is slightly muddled in a way that treads a line between ignorance and imagination. Despite being a crucial part of my upbringing over the 10 years I spent living in Dubai, it is not lost on me that the film employs stereotyping and Western-centrism at times, which starts with the line ‘It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home’ in the film’s opening sequence.
Aladdin was released in cinemas in November 1992, in the midst of Disney’s prime Renaissance era. The fairytale grossed 540 million USD at the box office, double of what The Little Mermaid made just three years earlier. As a matter of fact, if Aladdin’s box office statistics are adjusted for inflation, today it would have made over 1 billion USD, as its live-action counterpart directed by Guy Richie did in 2019. Aladdin proved to Disney just how successful stories that explore heritage could be, paving the way towards the cultural appreciation now seen in films including Coco and Encanto.
Whilst the titular character is essential to the story, Princess Jasmine arguably became the face of the film’s legacy. As a child, she never ceased to capture my undivided attention. She is the first princess of colour, with all five who came before her (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle and Ariel) being white. I spent the first half of my childhood in Canada, where my parents had immigrated to. As a young girl living in the Western world, Aladdin was one of the strongest ties I had to my Arab heritage. Not only did I see similar physical features, but we also practically shared a name. In my pink princess-themed bedroom, I had a picture frame on my bedside table with the floral origins of my name and its English translation, Jasmine, inscribed on it. The importance of that representation cannot be overstated.
Following the success of Aladdin, Princess Jasmine remains one of the most influential Disney characters. Subject to endless prejudice, she is unable to be her father’s heir, and instead is to be married to a nobleman or prince who will ascend the throne. Even in the face of these circumstances, Jasmine is never passive. When I moved to the UK for university, I was repeatedly asked if I was allowed to drive, or wear what I wanted – it became clear how warped many people’s perspective or Arab women was.
Although Jasmine accepts her fate as ineligible to rule Agrabah, she refuses to let the men in her life, notably her father and his liege Jafar, to make her decisions for her, saying she “is not a prize to be won”. She is strong, and actively seeks out her independence by sneaking out of the palace she had been bound to her entire life. In the more recent live-action adaptation which saw Naomi Scott portray the princess, adjustments were made to the original story so that Jasmine, despite still being forced to find a suitor, will be the one to rule her kingdom.
In the 30 years since Aladdin was first released, seven more Disney princesses have greeted the world, nearly all of which have stories that explore diverse cultures. Jasmine’s tenacious spirit and determination to speak up for what she believes in have set the blueprint for all the heroines who followed her. Aladdin is a critical stepping stone, leading towards the progress starting to flourish. Positive Middle Eastern representation remains sparse. But it remains special that I got to grow up with a strong Arab princess at the forefront of my childhood.