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The FollowUP: Disney's Jasmine and the evolution of the "princess" aesthetics

Previously in this blog, I talked about how the aesthetics of the Disney Princess Brand have changed through the different iterations of Cinderella (read here). Since then, Disney hasn't stopped rehashing and remaking its old animated classics. On the contrary, it has doubled down on this business model and its remakes have become more common, more widespread, and more successful.

Since the 2015 remake of Cinderella, Disney has remade The Jungle Book (April 2016), Beauty and the Beast (March 2017), Dumbo (March 2019), Aladdin (May 2019), The Lion King (July 2019), Lady and the Tramp (November 2019), Mulan (scheduled for release July 2020) and Cruella (scheduled for release May 2021). Remakes for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Bambi are in development. Clearly, the live-action remake has become a staple of the brand and it cannot be ignored. Unfortunately.

Seeing that this industry trend will not go anywhere anytime soon, I've decided that it is time to come back to the topic and have a look at how they've continued to update the aesthetics of the princess brand for this day and age. 

We are going to do this follow-up by taking a good look at Princess Jasmine, both her iteration in the 1992 animated classic Aladdin, and in the 2019's live-action remake.


The Disney Company has, undeniably, redefined the fairytale in the popular consciousnesses and turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise Line. Proof of this is that if you open Disney+, you'll easily find its properties neatly structured among collections, one of the most prominent of which is The Princess Collection.

Why focus on Jasmine, you'll ask? Well, the last time I focused on the most iconic princess, the one that cemented the idea of what a Disney Princess was and the one that would become the basis for the Disney Princess concept and aesthetic. A concept and aesthetic that is by its very default white. 


Out of the twelve princesses that make up the official Disney Princess Line, only five, to this day, are non-white. In 1992, with the release of Aladdin, Jasmine became the first of these five non-white princesses and therefore set the tone for the representation of non-white princesses and women in general in Disney Animation.

So, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at how the corporate-powers-that-be have reinterpreted and adapted that very white concept an aesthetic to a non-white character and how it has evolved through the years.

BEFORE WE BEGIN, YOU SHOULD KNOW...

That the writer of this piece is a white non-Anglo-Saxon female with a very general knowledge of Arab culture and its historical fashions.

I'm just a well-meaning idiot trying to discuss the media that shaped us as children and trying to contextualize it in regards to the representation of non-whites, especially as it pertains to the highly marketable Disney Princess Brand.

I will inevitably be talking about cultural appropriation, as it's a story set in an invented Middle Eastern city produced and designed by a Multimillion-dollar White Corporation. I will inevitably talk about racial representation and where it inevitably intersects with gender issues.

What I will not be talking about is realism or a realistic approach to costuming, as neither the 1992 nor the 2019 movies aimed for a realistic aesthetic, leaning more for a cartoon style approach to the costuming and design. 

YOU AIN'T NEVER HAD A FRIEND LIKE ME! JASMINE IN 1992

It was November 1992, and the Disney Company had just released Aladdin, its 31st animated feature film, to critical and commercial success. A high energy comedy, the movie moved away from its highly successful predecessors in more ways than one. Aladdin was also the first Disney animated film with a human male protagonist since 1985's The Black Cauldron** and, more importantly, the first Disney movie centered around non-white characters.

**True, in between the two movies there's 1986's Great Mouse Detective and 1990's 
The Rescuers Down Under, but both star male mouses, not humans.

The movie was a clear attempt from the company to broaden the diversity in their movies. True, there would be no Middle Eastern consultant at no point in the creative process, and all the voice actors except Lea Salonga** (who voiced Jasmine's singing voice) were white Actors, but it was 1992. For many people, it was still a step in the right direction.

**Lea Salonga voiced Jasmine's Singing Voice. She is a Filipina singer and actress. 
She also voiced Mulan's Singing Voice in 1997.

It's in that context, in that attempt of change, of diversity, that we find Princess Jasmine. Despite the mixed reviews she got at the time, she is iconic for many girls who grew up in the '90s. She was outspoken, she was decisive, and she wore pants! She felt very different from any other princess Disney had put out before. 


When we first meet her, she is animated wearing what is basically a vaguely middle eastern-looking blue crop top and harem pants. This will be her main outfit throughout the movie.


This design aims to underline her wild and rebellious personality. She's fierce and she's independent! So she wears pants. But it also aims to underline her "otherness".  It's only vaguely reminiscent of middle eastern culture and it focuses more on reading as non-European than on anything else.

That stands behind the radical stylistic departure from the previously established "main look" for most of the white princesses.


At first glance, the design is more sexual and more lavish: two key visual elements of western orientalism. It doesn't have sleeves, it has the shoulders and midriff uncovered, and it has pants. It literally has nothing in common with the other classic Princess designs.

Instead, it does have a lot in common with Ariel's mermaid look.

 
Note, however, that this commonality is only found in Ariel's mermaid aesthetic (let's remind ourselves that mermaids are mythological, non-existent, magical creatures). The moment she becomes human, she is swiftly animated in a design that follows the humbler and more modest look of the other white princesses.

So, the visual language put forward for an eastern Princess is the same put forward for a magical creature and radically different from that put forward for a European Princess. This is deeply rooted in the orientalist tradition that is so widely accepted in the western worldview: the idea of the east as a place of magic and sexuality (both often intertwined).

This is even more noticeable in the design created for her to wear during her captivity and servitude under Jaffar.


For the climax, she is animated in a very similar outfit in red instead of blue, and a bra instead of a crop top. Both changes highlight the sexualization of the character at that moment in the story.

To this day, I am convinced that had she been a white princess, her costume wouldn't have been so sexualized. Was it a conscious decision with ill-intent? Probably not. I'm pretty sure there was nothing but goodwill while creating the character's aesthetics.
So why does this matter? Why does it have to be brought up again? Well, whilst sexualizing mermaids (a mythical non-existing creature) has little effects on real-life, sexualizing women of color does have a very direct and real-life effect on our society. Jasmine's non-whiteness and her gender play a key part in shaping how she looks. But these are not the only aspects that do: her role in the story is key in understanding the other big deviation from the Visual Princess Standard set by Cinderella.

Unlike most of Disney's princesses, she is only a supporting character in her film, taking the role of the love interest. To this day, she is still the only Princess from the official Princess Brand who is not the main character of the movie she's in. This means that she's not a character with an arc, which renders the costuming structure** of her predecessors quite useless.

**BRIEF REMINDER. The set costuming structure for most princesses since Cinderella 
is as follows: her main look is a humble, modest dress that reflects her kindness 
and essential qualities. At some point, she's rewarded for her goodness and that's when the 
BIG PRINCESS DRESS shows up, which tends to be linked to magic in some way or other.

In fact, that very structure is instead given to the film's main character: Aladdin.


This, most importantly, means that Jasmine doesn't have a Big Princess Dress nor a Big Princess Dress Moment.

Some people claim that the purple dress she wears when their marriage is to be announced, right before Jaffar reveals that the lamp is in his possession, to be her Big Princess Dress. 


For me, that isn't the case because firstly, it doesn't appear to be a reward for her in any way, and it has nothing magic about it: not the size, not the detailing not the narrative moment.

What all this amounts to is a radically different visual representation for Jasmine in comparison to the Princesses who came before her. And many of these differences will be carried on to the following non-white princesses while at the same time, posing a series problem when marketing Jasmine as a Disney Princess™.

WELCOME TO THE DISNEY PRINCESS BRAND 

Right after the Disney Animation Boom of the early 90s, the Disney Company realized that there was a particular draw to the very notion of "princesses". Disney, being above all a capitalist enterprise, decided that something had to be done to maximize the commercial gain derived from that fascination beyond releasing new movies.

As early as 1994, Disney made a deal with Mattel to create products featuring the most popular Disney Princesses, which became the first time the characters were all marketed in a separate franchise to their original films and the tentative birth of the idea of a Princess Line. They knew they were onto something.

All throughout the 90s, they would constantly try out new commercial initiatives revolving around the idea of a separate Princess line. In 1995, they released a series of VHS named as the Disney Princess Collection. In 1996, they released a Princess soundtrack album. And in 1998, in the UK, the first issue of the Disney Princess Magazine was published.

It wouldn't be until 1999 when the Princess Brand as we know it finally took its definitive shape. Disney Consumer Products launched an official Merchandise Brand exclusively dedicated to the Disney Princesses: dolls, t-shirts, lunch boxes... all marketed independently of their original movies. The original line-up consisted of Snow White, Cinderella, Tinker Bell, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esmeralda and Mulan, though both Tinker Bell and Esmeralda would soon be removed.

Since then, the franchise has. released dolls, sing-along videos, apparel, beauty products, home decor, toys and a variety of other products, becoming a money-making machine for the company and a staple in the formative years of many young girls born in the 90s and later.

Turning these characters into parts of a permanent merchandise line meant that new products need to keep hitting the shelves, which meant that churning new designs for all the princesses of the lineup every so often would be needed to keep those products fresh and, most important, marketable.

Those shifts in design might seem random, but they were not. They all followed a common pattern, regardless of the princess which it was forced on: the dresses got bigger, got glitter added to them, the colors got more saturated, the bodies where slimmed slightly down, and the hair got messier. All these changes are directed at making them look more youthful and closer to a more modern standard of "beauty".


How did this affect Princess Jasmine and her design? Well, the lack of a Big Princess Dress in her own movie became quite the bother when it came to redesigning her for the Princess Brand™. This meant that the dress that needed to be redesigned was not actually even a dress. but her iconic blue top and pants ensemble.


First, they attempted a few color changes, then glitter was added to the mix with a few additions of extra jewelry, make-up... but somehow, it still wasn't enough of a Big Dress Look.

What was the problem? Middle Eastern cultures do not wear dresses from which they could have taken inspiration from? I'm sure they do. But the redesign needed to keep the classic look recognizable enough (also, I am sure they would consider a more Middle Eastern look as less marketable than not having a dress**).

**A clear indication of that assessment is the fact that through the years, her more ethnic earrings 
got swapped by a pair of good-old hoop earrings that look snatched out of a teenager's jewel box.
 
Because of this, at some point, a glittery, translucent over-skirt was added to her iconic harem pants. Apparently, a princess really needs a skirt to be a princess.

These purely aesthetic changes for the sake of economic profit are very telling of what is being pushed to the public, particularly to young girls. What defines a princess is a big, sparkly, pretty dress beyond all else.

Despite its flaws, the original design seemed to come from a place of good-will and it seemed to be the result of a genuine attempt at diversity. And we believe that's why the character is remembered so fondly. 

Yet looking at the latter changes in the design for the Princess Line, these feel way more fraught** in its motives.

**The forced redesign of Pocahontas is also very similar in many ways. 
Go figure what these two characters have in common.

REMAKING, REHASHING, RELAUNCHING! JASMINE IN 2019

The success of the Disney Princess Line and the need for constant new products to sell found its best excuse to repackage, rebrand and resell the same thing they had been selling for years with the boom of the Disney Live-Action Remakes.

"New" films meant new looks for the old princesses and, therefore, new merchandise. Suddenly, you could be selling, at the same time, an animated Cinderella doll and a live-action Cinderella doll. Double the profit without the effort of coming up with new stories and characters. What a bargain!

After a string of unbroken successes translating animation classics into live-action, Disney confirmed that they would re-do as many of their previous successful animation films as possible and the question stopped being if they'd remake Aladdin, but when would they do it. Not long after, seemed to be the answer.

It was a logical move, after all. Jasmine is still, to this day, a hugely beloved character and a remake would allow them to repackage her for a new generation, as well as "self-correct" the previous criticism regarding the character, particularly of racial stereotyping, orientalism and sexualization of women of color. 

Unfortunately, they didn't really fix those problems, just changed how those were codified into the visuals and aesthetic of the character and switched it to use a more subtle and pervasive visual coding that, in many ways, was introduced through the costume design which played a key role in giving a concrete shape to the changes forced on the character.

Before I move forward, I feel that it is important to underline that this does not intend to undermine just how meaningful and empowering it is for young people of color to be able to go to the movies and watch a movie with a casting that reflects them. Despite the problems that I am about to point out there are objectively positive consequences of a movie like this existing. There is power in diverse media representation and we truly don't want to take that away from anyone who needs it. On the flip side, Disney, a corporate mogul, doesn't deserve an ounce of praise for anything. Having an all brown cast was literally the bare minimum, yet it was marketed as revolutionary. It shouldn't be. And I feel that some of the changes they included, only look superficially progressive and are instead rather reactionary, which is why I find myself writing this article.


So, with that very important bit of nuance laid as clearly as possible, let's get back to this mess.

The first thing that stands out is the fact that, unlike in previous remakes, her wardrobe has been truly expanded and modified, deviating quite a bit from her original aesthetic. She went from having 5 looks to having 8 different looks, of which only 3 have a narrative equivalent in the original. This is worth pointing at especially because in previous remakes, whenever a princess was involved, the original visuals were very much followed. The original Cinderella has 4 looks and the 2015 Cinderella has the same number of looks all of which have a narrative equivalent in the original**.

**This is also the case with Beauty and the Beast, but I was too lazy to go 
back and check the exact number of looks in each iteration. 


This, at first glance, may seem like an improvement from previous remakes. It might seem as if they weren't just rehashing the nostalgia for the original and actually trying something new. But if you look a little bit closer, it becomes clear that that wasn't the main reason behind such a major deviation.

As I've mentioned earlier, Jasmine doesn't follow the tried and true costuming structure that all her predecessors stuck to. This is basically because she is not the main character and has no character arc. Expanding her wardrobe allowed them the perfect opportunity to create the impression of a character arc and use that arch to remodel her aesthetics to fit that traditional Princess costuming structure which "allowed" her to have a Big Princess Dress Moment that Disney likes so much (because it is very profitable).

Also, not to be cynical, but such expansion of wardrobe allowed them a wider array of possible looks to sell more Jasmine Merchandise.

On a more serious note, this bigger aesthetic change also allowed them the opportunity to give the illusion of "self-correcting" the problems with hypersexualization and orientalism. The first one they "corrected" by forcing the character into a very traditional approach to demure and traditional femininity that demolishes the "rebel" aspect of the original character, and the second one they "corrected" by taking an eastern aesthetic and filtering it through a very white, very western gaze. So, at the end of the day, they fixed neither, just hid the problems in plain view.

Let's break this down a bit. A visual arc, you say?


To have a solid, comprehensive, and cohesive visual arc, you first need to have a solid, comprehensive, and cohesive narrative character arc. 1992's Jasmine certainly hasn't one, but neither does 2019's Jasmine, despite how hard it might try. And it tries hard.

Flimsy as it is, it goes as follows: Jasmine, a royal princess, finds herself stifled in the traditional role of princess (look pretty and marry someone who'll rule for you) and she believes she can be more than that. She believes she can be the best possible Sultan and rule herself, as she is more knowledgeable of Agrabah and its people than any foreign prince. She tries to defend her case in front of her father but the Sultan, being under the magical spell of Jaffar, doesn't listen. Once the Sultan is free of Jaffar, he immediately sees the logic of her case and agrees. She changes the law and marries Aladdin. The End. All in all, it's not enough to build a whole visual arc, but it could have allowed them a rather basic if cliched visual structure.

According to the narrative arc set for the character in the story, the main idea about her they had to translate into the costumes was the following: she feels caged in her life and she wants to break free. And the main evolution they had to capture was that she starts caged in and ends up breaking her shackles. Seems easy enough. To this day, I am baffled at just how much they did not stick the landing on this one. Let's break it down one look at a time.

For "reasons" I don't quite comprehend, she's first introduced to the audience in the marketplace pretending to be a commoner. This, for the costume department, means that the first ensemble she's introduced in has to be, at the same time, reminiscent of the character and foreign to it, which makes it really hard to start to establish clear ideas about the character from the get-go.


She's supposed to be dressed as it is traditional for the people of Agrabah: a simple light brown gown with wide sleeves that opens at the front to reveal a pair of pants coupled with matching veil. This is what we'll call the Marketplace look.

On top of this very subdued look, the design starts to integrate certain elements that will be linked to the character. First, we have the rich, colorful, silk detailing that points to the wealth her royal status allows her, and, according to the designer, that use of bold colors reflects her bold personality. Secondly, we have the addition of turquoise silk pants peeking underneath her gown, which is set as a recurring motif for her character that works both as a call-back to the classic Jasmine look and as a symbol representing her will to be free: she might be wearing a dress, but she's ready to start running at any given moment.

This look might have some character elements, but, being a disguise, it has practically nothing in common with the main character aesthetic established in her actual introduction as "Princess" Jasmine that happens a couple of scenes later with the Pink Barbie Princess look. 


This heavily decorated, luxurious, and gaudy, highly structured garment is meant to present the "Princess" side of her character: she's treated as a decorative element and she feels caged by that treatment. This is visually translated by the incorporation of heavy golden decorations on the gown and the use of weight (it's a heavy gown) and the presence of structured bust support (either a corset or boning inbuild in the costumes) which make movement difficult.

Beneath all that, we find again a peek of turquoise pants which, once again, is meant to represent her desire to break free from her cage.

Here, what stands out to us the most is the choice of color. The designer made the choice to break away from Jasmine's blue palette, instead of introducing the character in saturated, bright, bold pink. This was meant to be a visual short-hand for her boldness of character. I am not sure how well it reads.

This design also represents a change in course from the previous design simply because of the influences it chooses to prioritize. Whilst the Marketplace look takes from a lot of middle-eastern influences, the Pink Barbie look chooses to take influence from a mix of South Asian cultures. 


Her next look is what I call the Sexy Boudoir look, which consists of a turquoise onesie (at least we think is a once piece) underneath a yellow robe with big billowing sleeves. 

This is a look for what amounts to a private moment for the character and yet it still has a highly structured bust, which certainly, matches the point in the story: she feels constricted by her life in general, so her gowns are always constricting.

As for the color, well, we can make some sense out of it. In the Marketplace look, which she wears in a moment which she, despite pretending to be someone else, is feeling more comfortable than in her regular life, the main pops of color are yellow and turquoise. On the contrary, in the Pink Barbie Princess look, which she wears as a Princess while performing her royal preassigned role, the main color is neon pink. It makes sense then than in this private moment, where she is relatively comfortable and being herself, she is wearing yellow and turquoise.

But that's about the last time the color palette makes sense.


In her next scene, where she's waiting to have a secret and private rendezvous with Aladdin, she is wearing a neon pink and magenta layered gown with a structured bodice. It's a very rigid and voluminous gown that doesn't quite match the situation. 

First and foremost, there are no pants peeking in this look, an element that has been established as something that represents her true self and her true desires (the desire to break free, to be more active in her life, etc.). This for me is quite the red flag. It is a consistent codified element that just disappears at a moment where it makes no sense to do so.

There is also no trace of the iconic turquoise. A color that has been linked to the character in much the same way as the pants.

On top of that, the design for this moment, which is supposedly a private moment for her, uses very bold pinks and magentas, a set of colors previously linked with her public role as a princess. Shouldn't she be wearing yellow and turquoise, according to how everything has been codified up to the moment?

This creates a certain narrative dissonance between what's going on and the visuals tagged to it. It's quite jarring, to be honest. It reads as messy design choices.


This continues in her next design, the one she wears during the Prince Ali musical number and afterward, whilst receiving the Prince at court. The design is, once again, a highly ornate, rigidly structured Orange Extravaganzza. 

Structurally it matches the coding established by the film: it's a public dress for public function and it is extremely rigid and constricting. Good.

And yet, the color is switched. Why is she wearing yellows and oranges? Wasn't that a "private" palette? Where are the traces of turquoise? Have we abandoned that coding?

Once again, where are the peeking pants?


Well, they must have been saving it all for THE big moment. Apparently.

The very night after Aladdin arrives as Prince Ali, they hold a ball at court, and Jasmine shows up wearing the films' reinterpretation of the much-awaited Classic Jasmine look. Much like in the 1992 version, this look consists of a top and a pair of harem pants. The main changes introduced are changing blue for turquoise (a change that had already happened at some iteration of the Princess Line merchandise), removing the midriff, and adding a lot of decorative elements.

The stylistic change from what was previously established to this is quite the leap, making the whole thing feel tagged on. Yes, according to her narrative arc, she is trying to break free, but going from the extra-heavy gowns with a lot of structure, to a pair of pants with a top is quite the jump.

On top of it all, choosing to have her wear this at this point in the story makes no narrative sense. This ensemble feels much more "liberated" than anything she's worn before, but story-wise, she's not. Her big "break free" moment is at the third act when singing Speechless, not during a ball scene with Aladdin trying to seduce her. But, alas, right after the ball, comes the Whole New World scene and there's no way they were going to have her not wear the Classic look for that. Because while it is not a huge character moment within her character arc it is a big moment for the audience.

And here is where everything falls apart. The movie prioritizes having a big nostalgic moment for the audience, rather than saving this ensemble for the big character moment.

They clearly expanded her wardrobe so that the appearance of this classic ensemble would function as a sort of Big Princess Dress moment, but didn't take into account where that big moment would actually happen for the character. Let's not forget that her goal is to become Sultan and to prove herself worthy of that power and responsibility. It would be at a major narrative moment in which she gets to do that when a Big Princess Dress moment should happen. How does a romantic duet even is considered remotely close to that?


And so, the rest of the visual arc feels very inconsistent because of that decision. Next time we see Jasmine, she actually breaks free and faces Jaffar, completing her sort-of character arc, and yet this costume (which we'll call Oh My God, Go Back to Blue) feels like a step back from the previous one in many regards.

First and foremost, this is a more constricting gown than the Classic Jasmine Look: it has more structure, more layers, and it even has an over-skirt!

Secondly, it once again goes for pink and magenta, with very little turquoise. Wasn't pink meant to stand for what she doesn't like about her life and turquoise for what she truly is and wants?

It makes absolutely no sense. She should have been wearing the Classic Jasmine Look right at this moment, not during Whole New World.


Last but not least, the movie closes with a wedding and, accordingly, Jasmine is granted a Wedding look. And to be honest, it's probably the only ensemble for which I have no complaints whatsoever. It fits the very loose visual motives the film has previously established and it fits the point in the story.

It's a dress, but much less restrictive than any of the rest and it's in cream, yellows, and turquoise,  which are the colors we've previously established as representatives of her true character.

Still, all in all, the visual arc of the character doesn't work and it makes the whole look incohesive and a slave to nostalgia and corporate truisms. A Big Princess Dress Moment is absolutely worthless if it is not earned and backed by the narrative, and it totally isn't here.

It's also particularly appalling the messy use of coding through color. It feels more like higher-ups trying to push into the design colors that are very easily marketable to little girls and their parents. This to us is particularly crystal clear because of the hyper saturation of those colors, a trend that has been happening to all the princesses since the launch of the Princess Line. Apparently, at some point, some market study determined that high saturation in Disney Princesses meant more toys sold, and this hyper saturation of the princesses' aesthetic has been happening slowly but steadily since then.


Even setting all that aside, what's much more worrisome to us is how these changes affect the gender and racial issues related to the character and its representation, which both intersect at various points.

Let's first have a look at how they tried to fix the heavy orientalism in the design. The answer is quite simple: they took as a reference for the design a lot of South Asian influences, making the references more specific and less "simply oriental looking". And that's good. What's not so good is that all these influences were heavily filtered through the western gaze, making central to the design elements that might not be super obvious to most viewers but that are very western.

The most obvious of these elements is the incorporation of a corset or structured bust. Traditionally a lot of Asian cultures, including South Asian, have not used corsetry to achieve their traditional silhouette. The incorporation of said corset reshapes completely the traditional South Asian silhouette and brings it much closer to a western silhouette and dress structure.


I feel it's important to point out that when I talk about the incorporation of a corset, I am using the concept "corset" to abbreviate. The thing is that no matter how much research I did I couldn't figure out exactly how the bust was structured, even if it's clear to the naked eye that it is somehow structured: this can mean a corset, boning incorporated to the dress itself, etc. At the end of the day, all these methods are trying to reproduce the effect of a corset on the silhouette, so I simply talk about "the incorporation of a corset".

This rigid structure for the bust is perfectly visible in the Classic Jasmine look, where thanks to the stylistic choice of covering her midriff with a transparent bodice, you can see the rigid boning that's going on.

This, precisely, also reflects perfectly the usage of western visual elements inlaid in the design. This transparent bodice is extremely reminiscent of a trend in wedding gowns that was particularly popular in America a few years back.


Much in the same way, the hairstyling and the obnoxious presence of hyper-modern heels, instead of the more traditional South Asian footwear, gives the whole design a certain patina of prom-look, which in turn ends up reading as very western.


This is a very insidious form of indulging in forcing a western worldview onto the representation for a non-western character that to us feels as exploitative as the design choices for the 1992 character did, just in a different way. It doesn't feel like fixing the mistake, more like hiding it.

Despite what many people will try to deny, the long-lasting legacy of colonialism and the accompanying world view is baked into every facet of every culture on the planet. And you certainly are not going to begin to fix that by hiring a white British director and a white Australian costume designer to bring to life a non-white story.

In a similar way, a female gaze would have been helpful in fixing the critiques of hypersexualization that hung over the character's design in a more efficient way.

It is obvious that they were aware of those critiques, as they went above and beyond to avoid the iconic midriff. If only they'd realize that the midriff itself, as a body part,  is not what makes a look hypersexual.

Funny enough, the design element they wanted to eliminate was the only thing they couldn't eliminate completely, because as Disney is well aware, nostalgia sells.

Because of this, we find ourselves in the absurd situation of having to have a midriff for the Classic Jasmine look because it is expected and nostalgia is a huge economic driver for Disney, yet trying to avoid it at all costs because the company wants to seem woke without having to do the actual heavy work. Therefore, the designer is forced to, at the same time, have and not have a midriff. And that's how you end with a see-through corset. 

Just for our own mind's tranquility, I'll go on a rant for a brief second. Indulge me.

The thing is if they were committed to this fake midriff idea, why keep the ensemble as a two-piece? Why not sown the top and the pants together and have a onesie? it is visually very off to have a covered fake midriff on top of a sort-off but not quite midriff that accidentally happens every time the actress has to raise her arms. It's a really bizarre design choice.


But rants aside, while removing the midriff does sort of try to "fix" the hypersexualization of the character, the new design is still problematic in its own way.

This character has been an icon for so many young women who sort of saw something in her freedom and decisiveness and carelessness in how she interacted with others despite how she was dressed. The 1992 movie sexualized her but never shamed her for it.

Instead, the new design is based on a very demure and very stereotypically feminine notion of womanhood, much more restrained and controlled. It swaps open sexuality for a highly codified one. The structured bust and the silhouette overall play into this idea of "good femininity", the one that teases instead of directly indulging in "sexuality". Because "good women" tease what's underneath and don't show. It plays right into this idea of good, strong women being prim and decent in relation to their body image and sexuality. To me, this feels like a very reactionary take on female representation hidden behind a patina of "progressiveness".

But, and it's a big one, the biggest problem for me is found at the crossroads between feminine representation and racial representation. Let me explain.

Disney was highly criticized back in 2015 for having Lily James, who played Cinderella, wear an hourglass corset for the Ball scene. And in 2017 the company was highly praised for not forcing Emma Watson into one for Belle's Iconic Yellow Gown.


Yet, here, with a character who had a look that would have allowed to play with silhouette without the use of a corset, the film chooses to confine her to a corset for the whole movie, and no one raised a single concern. And that's frustrating because never has it been more obvious just how differently we treat a character if they are white than if they are ethnic. Key concerns for white Princesses don't even register to the general audience when regarding an ethnic character.

We are telling young white girls that corsets are a tool for repression, that they have to embrace their natural bodies and sexuality and then we are telling young brown girls that corsets are actually not that bad and that expressing their sexuality is wrong because the western world reads their bodies as sexual objects in themselves.

It certainly feels like a step back from what was already problematic but repackaged for it to be much more subtle.

WRAPPING IT UP

At the beginning of this article, we set ourselves to explore how the Disney Princess aesthetic has continued to evolve and, especially, how the Princess concept and aesthetic have been implanted onto a non-white character. The most fitting answer,  having had a thorough look at the whole array of iterations, is "problematical".

I know that's not a very satisfying answer, but it's the most accurate.

As I said a few years back when we did the same with Cinderella, the process that had turned these iconic Disney characters into profitable merchandise under the "Princess" label had stripped the original narratives of their actual values and turned them into a list of aesthetic elements and we explored just how problematic that was.

Well, when you add systemic ingrained racism and sexism into that already dodgy mix, the result is never pretty. 

These Disney live-action remakes exist for the sole reason that nostalgia sells. On top of that, the company has seen an opportunity to broaden its appeal by painting a coat of "wokeness" onto their preexisting property. It's that thing you like, but WOKE!**

**Credit for that amazing synthesis of the New Disney Ethos goes to Lindsay Ellis. 
Go watch her video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU1ffHa47YY

Except it's really not. It takes the aspects of "woke culture" that are easy to turn into products and avoids any deep change, which is what the material really needs to "fix" the original problems. They have only been willing to self-correct in as so far as the changes are easy, superficial, and marketable. Which, in itself, is a rather cynical response to the issues that were being criticized in the first place.

But of course, that's what they'll keep doing because they don't want to lose any possible audience members. 

This means not really making any meaningful change so as to not alienate conservative viewers.

This means casting actors of middle eastern descent for the roles (which, as we've pointed out before is the bare minimum) but refuse to have that consideration when assembling the creative team and process behind the cameras, which is where true diversity would have affected the result on the screen. A middle-eastern director might have looked at the story and the characters in a different way. A middle-eastern costume designer would have brought more cultural representation to the designs and maybe wouldn't have shaped Jasmine to fit so many western ideals. 

What this proves, above all, is the need to be critical of all aspects of the media we consume, and even more importantly of the media children consume, as it tends to be incredibly formative. 

So, next time someone tries to get you to praise just how "progressive" Disney is, take a step back, and have a good critical look.

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Comments

  1. First comment for me. You say it my girl <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! Hope you enjoyed the article! And thanks for commenting! it's always more than welcomed

      Delete
  2. Ugh, I eat this content up. Inject it right into my veins. Ever since I found your Crimson Peak articles, I've been a huge fan! I'm a concept artist, so what I do is kind of related to costume design, but mine's just for 3D models. Still, always appreciate the insight about influence and construction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you!! I'm so glad you enjoy the blog! You're a concept artist? Wow, that's amazing, it's such a key role in a production. Like I've been in tiny productions where there wasn't one, and it becomes way harder to have the visual departments coordinate and go in the same direction.
      I'm super glad you found this article interesting, because I was just so worried about it. Like, the designs rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, but it was hard to articulate why for a long time.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! It's always encouraging :)

      Delete
  3. I don’t know if my first comment shows up or not, it’s seems to have disappeared. But shortly, you mentioned 5/12 Disney princesses being poc not being hight but they did them exclusively from 1992-2009 and the next Disney films are Raya and the Last Dragon with South-East Asian lead and then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latin princess musical Encanto. So two might be coming up, or maybe not if they are hugely popular and have their own lineups, or that the former as non-musical isn’t included and who knows anything of the later yet. Anyway I care more about the movies than the merchandise myself. Hopefully Covid doesn’t delay Raya further, it was supposed to come out in November but Soul took its spot and now it’s coming out in March.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! I think there was some internet error or something, because the first comment that you mention don't show up on the notifications nor on the blog :(
      As far as what you mention, I'm aware of their future projects, and I'm really excited! I also care more about the movies than the merchandise.
      But it is hard to ignore, particularly with the remakes (way more than with original films be it from the 90s or current) that merchandize plays a part in the design. That's why I tend to focus on it.
      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting!

      Delete
  4. Hello !
    I wanted to thank you for this great, great article and the work you obviously put into it. The analysis was on point, informative, and I've learned a thing or two about film costuming which are now going to enter my list of points to check while watching movies. I'm off to read the rest of the blog !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello! I'm super glad you enjoyed the article! I was quite unsure about how to tackle certain issues.
      There's not a set way of looking at any aspect of filmmaking, to be honest, but if my way of looking at it helps, then help yourself to it. I'm glad to be of use!
      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Delete
  5. After reading your take on the way the princesses have changed looks over the years, culminating with their live-action versions, I'd be interested in seeing your take on the evolution of the princesses' costumes in the parks. The current slate of designs are a lot less vibrant/cartoony and more pastel than their previous incarnations, and they've completely redone Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan in an attempt to make them less cartoony versions of their ethnicities. I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on those.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! Thanks for reading my articles, first of all. Again, sorry for the delay in answering... I'm the worst.
      It sounds really interesting! I would like to read about it!
      Unfortunately, the Disney parks are not my area of expertise. Like, at all.
      I've actually never been to a single one of the Disney Parks. I'm Spanish, you see, and the closest park I have is the one in Paris, and my mom thought that if she made the economic effort of traveling to Paris, she wasn't going to waste a single hour in a Disney Park. And I've never been to the States...
      So, I don't think I have the background or knowledge to write about it.
      Still, thanks for commenting! And sorry if I let you down...

      Delete
  6. The costume design for this movie was so disappointing,the entire "Jasmine's mother was Indian" seemed like a shoddy excuse to cover up for her horrifically inaccurate outfit.The only outfits that looked decent were the marketplace and the speechless outfit.The clothes looked like a glamourised,Europeanized rendition of vaguely ottoman silhouettes in modern Indian fabrics.The clothing is such a terrible mashup,the pink court dress has flat gold discs which is Pahari influence,the courtyard pink outfit has a fabric that looks like Chanderi silk,the golden outfit appears to have Kaanjivaram silk in Paithani colours with Rajasthani motifs.The fabric choices made no sense,and looked extremely wrinkly as if they literally repurposed sari fabrics for Jasmine.Except saris are quite thin and meant to be draped rather than cut and stitched.Not a single dress had gathered skirts,and the corset bodice were extremely Western.The bodices might have been inspired by kurti kanchali,but those are separate outfits(kanchali to cover the bust and kurti to cover the back and waist)but the way the movie depicts it is like stitching a waistcoat pattern to a shirt to save time.It would have made sense for jasmine to wear a cotton peshwaj(an Indian outfit of Muslim royalty)with a caftan overrobe instead of such weird overly structured Western style gowns and bear no resemblance to any culture,whether Middle East or South Asian.Subtlety and authenticity jumped out of the window in this movie and Disney still had the guts to pat its back for desexualizing Jasmine but keeping her just as inaccurate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your comment and your input. You worded everything I felt but couldn't actually talk about because I have a huge gap in knowledge when it comes to Asian historical fashion.
      Still, even to my uneducated eye, it was obvious that they were doing just an "exotic" version of the Western Princess Dress and it drives me nuts.
      And the whole "desexualizing Jasmine" coupled with the "westernization" of her costume sort of read as saying that eastern aesthetics are sexualizing whilst western aesthetics are not. And that's just wrong on soooo many levels...

      Delete

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