Wednesday, November 22

The Suitable Girl: #NotAPrize

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“You’re only in trouble when you get caught.”

I spent so many afternoons as a kid laid out on my carpet, my stomach pressed into the yarn while my legs swung behind me, watching Disney movies. My grandparents’ video store always kept me well-stocked on VHS tapes, and I would watch them until they broke down and could only show a blue screen. Aladdin was my second favorite after The Little Mermaid, and I watched it till I knew the script by heart.

Even readying my Aladdin cassette for the VCR felt ceremonious–like while I rewound it I was preparing for a trip to that hazy unknown place my parents came from, though that was definitely not true. There was something about the movie, how it had brown-skinned people I might one day grow up to look like, how it showed something like what my culture was, that pulled me in even before I understood what it meant to be part of a scattered diaspora. And Jasmine. She was so vital to this. With her big unreal eyes and huge tree-trunk braid, she was everything to me. She dressed like a cool older girl, all midriff and low-cut tops, and she didn’t listen to any of the adults in her life.

True, Jasmine is a hodgepodge of harmful stereotypes and erased cultures–she is the repressed brown girl who exudes sexuality for the consumption of older men all while looking like an exotic baby doll. Also, I read once that the fantasy city she inhabited, Agrabah, was a combination of “Agra” and “Baghdad.” So, even the world she lives in is the ignorant by-product of a bunch of white dudes who mis-read Arabian Nights.

And yet, for all her inconsistencies, her story still feels so familiar to me. There is only a thin line that separates us. Last year, Public Policy Polling created a survey and that 30% of conservative Americans were in favor of bombing Agrabah, again the made-up location from the movie. When I read that, it was hard to laugh–the divide between the fantasy of the film and our reality narrowed even more for me.

For better or for worse, the lot of brown women is tied up in this movie and in Jasmine.

Jasmine was such a symbol for brown girls, and I’m only realizing that now. To my overlarge child’s eyes, she was a pretty, brown-skinned princess who bucked tradition, remained feminine while being headstrong. But now I see her as a force: she may have been the over-sexed, orientalist, underage fantasy of a bunch of cartoonists but she also got a law changed so she could fuck a guy. Is that not everything?

As I read tweets from the part of Twitter entirely dominated by young brown women who talk openly about their sexcapades, dating lives, feminine health, and shameless hedonism, I see Jasmine as the beginning of that. South Asian and Middle Eastern women have been reclaiming their sexualities long before Aladdin of course; they’ve spent decades snatching their autonomy out of of the open jaws of patriarchal systems. But this new generation of Tinder-happy brown girls, the ones who use sex as a way of scratching to freedom rather than as a droll act of love, owes it to Jasmine.

There are so many moments in the film that stand out to me as indicative of something bigger than a simple cartoonish representation of brown woman-ness — there’s the scene where Jasmine seduces Jafar while in chains (remember she is only 15), there’s the scene where she refuses to have her marriage set up by her father (she yells “I am not a prize to be won!”), there’s the scene where she doesn’t let Aladdin lie to her or let him win her over with charm (he has to show her a whole new world beyond the palace, exactly what she always wanted, before she trusts him). Jasmine was slapping down fuckboys before we knew what they were. She weaponized her sexuality before we knew that we had to. She prepared us.

And beyond her greatest hits and lines, Jasmine was even powerful in her vulnerability. The scene of Jasmine stepping on the large square head of her companion tiger in her pristine, well-formed slippers before she climbed over the palace wall strikes me every now and then. How she held Rajah’s face in her hands, assuring the cat that she needs to do this, to leave and see what else is out there. It’s a small scene of teenage petulance and self-assuredness, as though running away from home always helped, but when I was a 4 year-old digesting this it made sense. It kept making sense for years after.

I have run away from home multiple times–first to college in SoCal, then to study abroad in London and back again for post-grad, and now to New York–and it has always helped. I too have fallen over walls into the waiting arms of boys who promised adventure and kindness. But equally I have caught myself or let myself come home to my parents and their benevolent rules.

Once I mentioned Jasmine, and how influential she was in my self-determination as a sexual brown girl, to a guy I was chatting with. He laughed and said I was a stereotype. He didn’t understand that there was a sisterhood created on a mutual fascination with and rejection of Jasmine and how the women that came out of that tense relationship agreed that they didn’t require male approval for anything.

Jasmine spent the whole film running after a sense of freedom, beyond her father’s laws and the palace she was forced to stay in. In the end she got her freedom, but she didn’t shirk her responsibilities as heir–she just completely capsized the system that made her unhappy. It’s a simple plot, but a powerful one.

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