Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan

Ever since I was a young girl, I was infatuated with the Walt Disney Corporation princesses, I loved the theme song that opened every movie and I especially grew fond of almost every one of the feature films that I grew up with during the 1990’s. I would not wish for a princess that looked like me (yet), no, I was content to day dream of what it would be like if I had beautiful porcelain white skin and blond hair. It wasn’t until the release of Aladdin (1992) when I personally could identify with an animated character that looked like me and had some the same culture as I did.

Three years later Pocahontas (1995) was released and I found myself, once again, feeling more connected to a heroine who needed to be independent, but I still stayed loyal to Jasmine (to this day) in that she was my favorite princess of all. When Mulan (1998) was released a few years later, I thought that Disney was on the right path, showcasing a new breed of independent and strong multiracial and multicultural women helped introduce a young impressionable audience with images, albeit some stereotypical images of these foreign, exotic characters and their stories. Each of these characters of color is presented in their own unique ways, each embodying a different race/ethnicity and a different culture, however, the extent to which each portrayal is accurate is debatable.

Princess Jasmine, the love interest of Aladdin is portrayed as quite exotic. With her big, wide eyes, foreign jewelry, two-piece silk outfits (that do not ever manage to cover up her shoulders and stomach), and her satin flat slippers are lovely, but foreign. For many families and their children Princess Jasmine was the first Arab character that they were introduced to via mainstream media, and the stereotypical images that were created then has lasted until this day. Princess Jasmine is a free thinking young woman, who refuses to be married off to someone she does not want or love. She is clever, witty, and is not afraid to break some traditions.

Princess Jasmine’s character is not your stereotypical Arab woman, but her fashion (dress) and her environment is straight out a Persian fairytale. Princess Jasmine is still portrayed as what Kathleen Reedy theorizes as “the harem girl,” Reedy makes the observation that “these women rarely exist as individuals, but almost always belong to someone, either a relative or a master.” Because Jasmine is dressed in revealing clothing and is shown as an exotic, beautiful woman that is meant to be put on display, Reedy says that Jasmine’s behavior completes the stereotype that Arab women are subservient and inferior to the their men.

In the opening song of the movie has a slightly racist undertone with the lyrics stating: “I come from a land…where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The lyrics were later changed to “where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home (Maio 1999)," because the Arab American community protested the stereotype that Arabs are barbaric and violent; the image of the angry and brutish Arab man who barely speaks English is present in the minds of many, especially after watching how the minor characters in Aladdin such as the soldiers, sheiks, and thieves.

Princess Jasmine is also used to illustrate a point about pressure from parents to get married as soon as a woman is of age. Even though her father is a fairly jolly character and spoils his daughter, he foolishly persists that she gets married which ends up doing more harm than good. The notion of the stereotypical Middle Eastern custom of arranged marriage is tip-toed around, but it is still there nevertheless. A pressured marriage is also evident in Disney’s next movie which starred a woman of color.

Pocahontas, which was released in 1995, and was the first Disney heroine to be based loosely on a real person, and her story based on some factual events. Before watching this movie as a young girl I had no other interactions with Native American people other than the few that were featured in Peter Pan. I thought that Pocahontas’ character was very noble and intelligent, and I loved that she wasn’t made from the same mold as Cinderella or Aurora, by this time I was looking for a free spirited role model and the fact that Pocahontas was unconventional in everyway appealed to me. I watched Pocahontas character development with interest; the theme of respect for “Mother Earth” gets wrapped up in everything Pocahontas does. Her role as the Native American girl who can speak to nature and has immense respect for the plants and animals is a positive one, but still stereotypical of Indigenous Peoples.

Another stereotype is one that life isn’t complete until one is married and Pocahontas, like Jasmine, is pressured by her father to get married. Her father, Chief Powatan, is a strong, but safe presence throughout the film, reminding Pocahontas of her duty to her people and that she needs to be married and start a new journey with her betrothed warrior Kocoum. While I wouldn’t say that this obstacle to our unconventional princess is stereotypical of Native American culture, I will say that it is sexist to suggest that a woman isn’t complete without a man. Another stereotype that was dominant throughout the film was the idea that Native American Indians are savages.

In fact the song from the movie “Savages” is poignant in describing what some of the White settlers thought of the American Indians when Ratcliffe, the villain of the movie sings, “What can you expect from filthy little heathens? Here’s what you get when the race are diverse. Their skin’s a hellish red; they’re only good when dead. They’re vermin, as I said and worse, they’re savages! They are not like you and me, which means they must be evil.”

Fortunately, Pocahontas isn’t all stereotypes; there are more positive representations of the Native American culture, partly due to the fact that Disney hired American Indians to work on the film and act as consultants during the making of the film. The detail the Disney animators put into the characters and scenes were right on with their background drawings and storyboards, so much so that I also was taken away by this sudden exposure to “authentic” representation. Remember other than Peter Pan; I hadn’t had any other American Indian or First Nation influences. Christopher Finch states that “Pocahontas is notable for historically accurate settings (Finch pg.334),” and I drank every detail in as best I could. I loved each one of the animated full-length feature films my parents bought me and I absolutely loved the next Disney film to portray a major character that was a woman of color.

Mulan, the thirty-sixth animated feature film to be released from Disney was an instant hit. This particular movie addressed a host of topics included the in-group prejudice between the Huns and the Chinese; sexism, by exploring the double standards of marriage commonly applied to women, but not men and touched a little on xenophobia – a fear of the foreign outsiders. I didn’t really catch any stereotypical slips, if anything Mulan defies gender norms and the image that Asian women are passive, instead, she changes out outward appearance to match her inner strength of being a woman warrior who is an independent outsider, resolute and aggressive in her efforts to institute correct order (Berry pg.68).”

I also found it interesting that the alias Mulan takes on as “Ping,” which according to “Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Stories and Sketches” by Maurice Baring, "Ping" in Chinese means soldier-man, and it is a derogatory termed used to reference one’s contempt for a man. So even though Mulan’s character fights very hard against double standards and sexism by almost winning the war single-handedly, she is still not really accepted after all of her efforts until recognized by the alpha male – the Emperor of China and even then when she returns she is romanced by the now love-struck captain of the Chinese army.

Mulan, as well as Jasmine and Pocahontas struggle under the pressure her parents put on her to get married and start the traditional accepted life. This motif is common across different races, but it seems that it is especially important in these three character’s cultures respectively. Each protagonist deals with this life changing recommendation of marriage in their own way. Jasmine escapes behind the palace walls to “slum it” with Aladdin who is the epitome of “the bad boy,” Pocahontas covers up her feelings by hiding them all-together from her family and friends until it is too late, and Mulan runs away and changing her outward appearance to become more respected and bring her family honor.

The positive and accurate multicultural representation of the different races of Disney’s heroines has steadily increased over the years, and with the coming of the first African American/Black American princess in the “The Frog Princess” due in 2009, there is hope that even more characters of color will be made a part of the Walt Disney Corporation’s famous legacy.

It is Disney’s best interest to portray more positive images of People of Color in their fairy tales as “these images…have particular important of children in the internalization of White privilege (Hurley 2005).” Disney movies are a fundamental staple in the foundation of almost every child’s experience and with that much influence, Disney needs to continue working on reinforcing positive and non-stereotypical images of their characters, and adding more major characters of color into the elite Disney Princess group is a good place to start.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. It was a good read.

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  2. I'm doing my thesis on Disney's representation of females in their princess movies. I haven't been able to find anything by Kathleen Reedy. It would really be helpful, what was the name of the article by her?

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  3. Kathleen Reedy, “Terrorists, Thieves and Harem Girls: The Influence of US-Middle Eastern Relations on the Portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood.”

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  4. hi im writing about diney and racism and i was wondering if you could help give me some pointers about how some disney films are racist
    thanks

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  5. this is dumb. 'stereotypical middle eastern arranged marriage'. this is still forced upon all women in the mid east, let alone NINTH CENTURY ARABIA. welcome to the real world.
    here eyes are colored brown -__-
    mulan, same thing, not 'stereotype' fact!! we're talking about medieval ages. omgosh.

    "cut off your ear if they don't like your face" this still holds true in arabia today, again, welcome to the real world. however, this is, again, 9th century arabia in the movie.

    what else..oh, 'stereotypical environments' what the hell, the animators base it on what those places actually looked like. wtf.

    this entire thing you've done here is pointless and kills brain cells.

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    1. You idiot, do you even live in Arabia to say that all or most are forced into marriages or that people randomly go around cutting off peoples ears, or that authority figures do it because they don't like their faces, or do you take all your information from the television and magazines? Retard.

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    2. Don't pitch a fit because someone wrote a piece that opposes your preciously held racist views.

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  6. "Anonymous said...
    hi im writing about diney and racism and i was wondering if you could help give me some pointers about how some disney films are racist
    thanks"

    -> Just have a marathon movie night and re-watch a few Disney movies you haven't seen in years...I'm sure you'll be surprised by all the racist characters and jokes that weren't so evident 10 years ago.

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  7. To the last poster who said this blog post is "pointless and kills brain cells."

    Thank you for reading and commenting. Maybe I need to re-vist this post and update it. I did write this a few years ago - but I still stand by the main point: The three women of color characters are stereotypicaly portrayed in ways that I think are inherently racist.

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  8. This is truly eye-opening...I am doing an english essay on this and this really helped...I am also doing stereotypes in the movie Aladdin and you have so many points for just feminism...Awesome job and very good argument! I really think that Disney needs to take a look at what they are doing and the impact of their work in the real world...and whoever said it was pointless, seriously, take a look at the messages Disney portrays and also see from a coloured person's point of view!

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  9. good article! But just to point out, in the movie "Aladdin" Jasmine's eyes are completely brown. I'm not sure where you saw that they were blue.

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  10. I did wish to point out as well that Jasmine has brown eyes.
    Also, do you not think that perhaps Disney wished to portray stereotypes because it helps send a message? Your analysis of the song savages points out that it is indeed racist, but my dear that was the whole point of the song! Consider the settlers of that time period, that WAS how they felt and what they thought. It wasn't Disney presently being racist towards the native american people, but rather pointing out how ignorantly racist the WHITE people of that time period were. I don't feel that them being considered 'savages' is a stereotype, so much as factually what they were considered by the English settlers. The racist lyrics of the song are meant to show the current day viewers, the racism which existed in the young days of north america, and to help represent just who the Bad Guys were in the movie.
    Also, marriage is not reserved for only the coloured princesses. And factually, when you take each movie and consider when it 'historically' is depicted, there was a much stronger push for marriage, arranged or not, in all races and nationalities. I think you'll be pleased that Disney made a new princess who though faced with arranged marriage, does not in fact marry, yet. Merida, is a good role model, but marriage should not degrade women from good role model, to not. I think that misses a point entirely. All in all, you expressed yourself very well and I did enjoy reading this. It certainly inspired me to think more about the issue, and surprisingly write something. Thank you. ^^

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    1. I completely agree with you, especially with what you said about "Savages". I think it is also important to note that the Native Americans were also singing "savages", to show that both sides did not understand each other.

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  12. Disney did not invent sleeping beauty, beauty and or snow white. I think it is important to be aware of the fact that the earliest disney films are based on european traditional tales which feature europeans as the main charachters.The reason there is no fatherly figure pressuring snow white or cinderella to marry is because that would stray very far from the story.I dont think it is fair (since we are all about fairness), these traditional tales to disneys racist tendencies. Lets not forget that it is the romantic, fantasy enviroments and charachters that children are drawn to.

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  13. They are not racist, but cultural. However, Disney could have done a better job in making clear that not all, say, Arabs behave the way they do in jasmine, nor Chinese in Mulan, nor native Americans in Pocahontas. I am Native American and Christian, so I don't believe in trees with spirits or anything like that. So yes, it is a little stereotypical, but not racist for the most part, as it show the dignity of girls of many cultures/heritages.

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  14. They aren't racist. They are for children, fairy tales. I come from a Native American family, I don't see Pocahontas as offensive at all. If you complain about the marriage issue, Sleeping Beauty, a white princess, has the most to complain about; she is just a damsel in distress. Also before this point in time, women have been married off as soon as they are of age in all parts of the world. Plus, if you read the original story of Aladdin, you would think Disney liberated Jasmin from being a object.

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    1. Good point. I thought about Aurora being a good European example of a betrothed princess. Jasmine straight up says things that clearly do not objectify her.

      "How dare you [three men], all of you. Standing around deciding my future. I am not a prize to be won." -Jasmine

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  15. Interesting post! I came across it while Googling the topic. I just wanted to point that Chinese languages often use the same pronunciation and phoneticization (differentiated by their tone) to mean many different things, so the character for Mulan's alter-ego "Ping" might be completely different than the Ping mentioned in the book by Maurice Baring. I've studied Mandarin for three years, and tone actually is everything. What may seem like the same sound to a Western listener could register as absolutely in meaning and connotation to a native Chinese, and the distinction is all the more clear when represented visually by a character.

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Thoughts?