As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Disney. Love, because I grew up with Disney princesses. I frequently find “A Whole New World” from Aladdin stuck in my head, and it feels like snorting grade-A nostalgia every time. I remember wondering what the clouds could have felt like as a child, and imagining the exhilaration of flying on a magic carpet across the world. Hate, because of the gendered and racist images most Disney films curate—the Eurocentric beauty ideals, the racist caricatures and white-saviour tropes, the erasure of women’s ambitions for “Love.” My nostalgia is tainted with disappointment, mostly because of how unsurprised I am.
Let’s look at Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, for instance. I want to start off by reiterating that I love Jasmine. I love her wit and spunk, her rebellious nature. I love her large almond eyes and her toffee-skin. I have always found her to be one of the more intriguing and relatable princesses. However, the image she represents resides in a crossfire of multiple oppressions.
Jasmine is socio-politically situated as a Middle Eastern/South Asian woman who is sexualized and objectified. Her life is controlled by the men who live within it, and she spends most of her life trapped within the confines of the palace walls. Her image has been moulded within the hands, and from the subjectivity of, Disney’s designers, of privileged white men.
The image of the white princess–of Cinderella, Belle, Sleeping Beauty–is established on the dehumanization of women of colour, where women of colour exist at the bottom of the colonial hierarchy. Throughout the age of European colonization, women of colour were objects of the male, colonial gaze, used as sexual receptacles for white colonists, only to eventually be tossed aside for the elevated white woman. Let us juxtapose this idea with traditional images of femininity, as represented by Belle, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. These princesses are young, white, pure, soft, graceful, fill-in-the-blank. In contrast, princess Jasmine is hyper sexualized, scantily clad, and portrayed as an exotic temptress.
One of the most disturbing and problematic scenes in Aladdin is when Jasmine pretends to seduce Jafar to distract him from Aladdin’s arrival. Remember that? The clothing she wears, the gold-shackles, the tempting and alluring body language, is every white, colonist’s wet-dream. Jasmine is the only Disney princess who has had to objectify herself in this way. Except, of course, for Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who shimmies her hips and breast in the market square, which basically turns into a pole dance. Remember that? A far cry from Belle and Cinderella’s innocent pirouettes.
These images are an archetype of the white colonial fantasy. The enticing dark-skinned woman, desirable like cinnamon or other spices that were the corporate backbone of the colonial enterprise in the East. In the white colonial imagination, racialized and ethnicized bodies symbolized the bountiful, resource-rich lands that were coveted by Western powers. Like those lands, their (read: our) bodies had to be constructed as needing and welcoming a white conquest, as ripe for the colonial picking.
For women of colour, the images constructed of us are our real, our everyday, these images walk in our skin and look through our eyes. The degradation and violence these images endure is done to us. These images have a real and consequential impact on how women like me, understand ourselves in relation the the world around us.
Whether I fully recognized it or not, the images of these women have shaped who I am. They were the only princesses who I could identify with, who I could look at and see someone like me reflected back. It’s one thing for white women to reject stereotypes and expectations of womanhood and femininity. But how does a woman of colour reject or resist these images when their humanity isn’t even fully acknowledged? I wonder how hyper-sexualized Disney images of women of colour that are built on a history of sexual-violence shape our reality and self-awareness.