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Gender Role Reversal in Disney's Aladdin
In her article, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies,” Elizabeth Bell suggests that female characters in Disney movies are allocated to one of three roles based on their age: Young women are helpless princesses in need of rescue, middle aged women are femme fatales bent on destroying their younger counterparts, and elderly women are the young women’s benevolent, magical, asexual helpers (Bell). This formula holds largely true for the early Disney films Snow White (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1950), and Cinderella (1959), but begins to change in the later Disney fairytales.
One such fairytale is Aladdin (1992), which lacks major female characters in both the middle and late stages of life. This, however, does not mean that the movie lacks the traditional archetypes of ingénue, femme fatale, and fairy godmother. Instead, it presents these traditional archetypes in a nontraditional way: as men, with Aladdin and the Genie cast as ingénue and godmother respectively. Aladdin, born into poverty and accompanied by an animal companion whom only he can understand, has far more in common with Cinderella and Snow White than he does with any of Disney’s previous princes. In fact, his rags-to-riches transformation almost exactly parallels that of Cinderella, with each of them winning the heart of their royal love interest through the intervention of a magical helper. In both cases, this magical helper fits Bell’s description as aged, plump, and largely asexual (119), with Cinderella’s godmother being clearly postmenopausal and the Genie being vaporous below the waist until he is freed at the end of the film.
There is one scene in particular in which the parallels between Aladdin and the Genie and their female counterparts, the princess and the fairy godmother, are uncannily clear. It takes place just after the Genie has rescued Aladdin from peril befitting an ingénue, namely burial alive in the collapsed Cave of Wonders. Aladdin and the Genie, along with Abu, have flown the Magic Carpet safely to a lush green oasis in the middle of the desert, and after some conversation, it comes time for Aladdin to make his first wish.
In a medium angle shot backed with greenery, the Genie, a hulking blue figure, millennia in age and apple-shaped like Bell’s fairy godmother (119) leans on Aladdin’s arm and casually asks, “How ’bout it? What is it you want most?” A jump cut focuses on a medium shot of Aladdin, humbly dressed in an open vest and fez and possessing a pointed chin, rather than the square, angular jaw line of earlier Disney princes. He scratches his head and, in a sheepish, vulnerable manner atypical of previous princes, discloses that he is in love. Another jump cut focuses on the Genie, who, complete with a glowing sign of a crossed out heart on his chest, reminds Aladdin that he cannot make anyone fall in love. The conversation continues in shot/reverse shot as Aladdin waxes poetic about Jasmine, swooning against a tree trunk and eventually collapsing in a love struck sigh. Longing for the love of a beautiful princess far beyond his station, Aladdin’s demeanor expresses worshipful humility rather than princely gallantry and charm. The Genie listens sympathetically, in one shot even donning a French accent and a beret and speaking in melancholic agreement as Aladdin laments that Jasmine can only marry a prince. Finally, Aladdin has an epiphany, asking the Genie to make him a prince.
The camera tracks diagonally up left to the Genie, who sits cross-legged in midair, wearing a frilly pink apron, which he quickly shrugs off, and searching through a book of “Royal Recipes.” According to Bell, the typical Disney grandmother provides comic relief through her “initial ineptness” (119). The Genie is no exception. He is clumsy in his initial handling of the magical book, causing him to be briefly attacked by creatures within its pages to the tune of quickly changing comic sound effects. After removing a distraught-looking chicken from the book, he is pinched by a crab and then nearly stabbed by a knife-wielding arm before finding a page entitled, “To Make a Prince.”
There is a jump cut to a medium shot of Aladdin, into which the Genie lunges, asking Aladdin to, “Say the magic words,” to which Aladdin replies, throwing out his arms with gusto, “Genie, I wish for you to make me a Prince.” There is another jump cut to a full shot of the two characters, and after a brief victory dance and cheer, the Genie is suddenly attired as a fashion designer in a gray vest and pants, black shoes, and a pale yellow open collared shirt. In the same instant, a golden dressing screen appears in a flash of the kind of magical sparkles Bell refers to as, “Disney dust” (Pflugrad 2). The screen is adorned with mirrors, a tie, a bright pink turban, and posters of the Genie clad in various fashions. The Genie takes Aladdin’s measurements, and suddenly, after another explosion of sparkles, this time accompanied by the sound of chimes, Aladdin undergoes a Cinderella transformation, his ragged pants, open vest, and fez replaced with regal white clothing, complete with a violet-lined cape and bejeweled turban.
Aladdin attempts to flash himself a dashing grin in the mirror, and the Genie, assessing his appearance, decides that he needs a steed. Rather than simply creating one, he decides to use Abu, just as Cinderella’s fairy godmother used Cinderella’s friends, the mice, to create horses. As Abu cowers behind the Magic Carpet, he is assaulted with a barrage of multicolored “Disney dust,” propelling him forward in spite of his panicked, scrambling efforts to the contrary. A jump cut back to Aladdin and the Genie reveals them standing on a stage in front of a glittering blue curtain, Aladdin behind a lectern labeled, “Al,” and the Genie standing under a spotlight beside him in a pale blue suit and red bow tie. The Genie, in the style of a game show host, presents Aladdin with his, “very own brand new camel!” to the accompaniment of a drum roll as the spotlight and the camera pan left to show Abu contorting amidst a sprinkling of golden sparkles and turning into a rather unhappy looking camel. Deciding that a camel is not grand enough, the Genie turns Abu into a curly-maned white horse, followed by several other creatures, including a car and a duck, in an attempt to find something suitable. Finally, spattering a distraught Abu with a generous supply of sparkles and shouting an incantation, the Genie transforms Abu into an elephant, who upon seeing his own reflection, trumpets in terror and scrambles up a tree, which sags to the ground under his weight. Finally, with the Genie’s flamboyant announcement, “Hang on to your turban, kid! We’re gonna make you a star!” the camera zooms out, and we see a virtual fireworks display of “Disney dust” exploding over the palm trees of the oasis.
Aladdin is unique among Disney fairytales because it breaks the tradition of casting women in the archetypal roles of princess, femme fatale, and fairy godmother and instead replaces these female stereotypes with male equivalents. Its name stands out among Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast because its sole eponymous character is male. Accordingly, the story focuses on the title character of Aladdin, rather than Jasmine, the film’s Disney princess. This is a break from previous Disney fairytales, which were either focused mostly on Disney princesses, with their princes playing comparably minor roles, as seen in Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid, or had their focus split between two romantic leads, as seen in Beauty and the Beast. As the title character, the orphan and commoner destined for royal marriage, and the film’s pure of heart “diamond in the rough,” Aladdin fits the description of a classic Disney princess better than that of a Disney prince, a character universally born to wealth and privilege in the other Disney fairytales.
Aladdin and the helpful, bumbling, aged, and asexual Genie form two thirds of Bell’s trio, which Katy Dye suggests is completed by Jafar as a male femme fatale, in the first Disney film to completely reverse the gender roles of its fairytale characters. With Aladdin, Disney breaks its former rigid pattern of casting women as rivals for a royal male suitor and instead performs a complete reversal of gender roles so that ultimately, Aladdin better fits the role of the Disney princess than Jasmine, who has been cast in the role of the Disney prince, sought by both the young ingénue and his jealous middle aged rival. This is a clear illustration of Disney’s recent increase in flexibility in its portrayal of gender roles.
Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Disney, 1992.
Bell, Elizabeth. "Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women's Animated Bodies." From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Eds. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Hass and Laura Sells. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1995. 107-124.
Dye, Katy. "Jafar." Topic: Fairy Tales, Walt Disney, and Cultural Criticism. 9 Apr. 2008.
Pflugrad, Laura. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Why Am I Always the One at Fault? 2007.