I took my daughter to see the new “Aladdin” film on Wednesday. I know it’s been panned by some reviewers, but we enjoyed it.
The costumes were gorgeous, but hard to place — in terms of culture. They were an Indo-Persian mix with actresses in sari-like bodices and petticoats but also wearing head scarves that drape but don’t conceal their hair. What’s the message in all of that?
Turns out there may be a religion story in all that costuming but, if so, reporters missed it. Folks did notice that the female heroine Jasmine was more covered up than in previous bare-midriff incarnations.
USA Today suggested that was no accident.
Jasmine's signature outfit from the animated "Aladdin" is iconic. You know the look: low-riding turquoise harem pants paired with a tiny off-the-shoulder top that leaves the princess' belly button out in the open.
That is not an outfit that exists in the new world of Disney's live-action "Aladdin."
"The (animated) movie was done in 1992. We wanted to modernize the movie, and some things are inappropriate these days for families," says "Aladdin" producer Dan Lin.
So there was a rule on the "Aladdin" set to make sure the movie achieved that goal: "No midriff," Lin says.
And … why? Disney-market families are more culturally conservative today than in the ‘90s? Since when has Hollywood embraced modesty?
Oh, yes, when money is involved. And since the movie has that Middle Eastern setting and might appeal to audiences in that neck of the world, we can’t have anything too racy, can we?
I’m only guessing, but this is a good time to ask if Hollywood has actually gotten serious about marketing realities in the Muslim world. That would be a big story, in terms of business, culture and religion.
Fans of elaborate costume design will likely support the filmmakers' decision to keep the famous princess more covered up. Instead of wearing monochrome bra tops and baggy pants, Jasmine is dripping in sumptuous gowns with gold detailing, elaborate trains and vibrant jewels that highlight her regality over her sexuality.
Again, huh. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” and it’s safe to say that this “regality over sexuality” standard was not emphasized there.
The bottom line: Hollywood doesn’t embrace restraint unless forced to.
Yes, she still has a turquoise frock (with a bronze detail right over her stomach), plus clothes in orange, fuchsia and cream.
But, notably, there is no skimpy red "slave" outfit like in the animated film.
By the way, Jasmine isn't the only character who's less sexualized in the new film. Aladdin – whose signature animated outfit is a bare-chested torso with a purple vest and pants – actually wears sleeves this time around.
However, the genie, played fabulously by Will Smith, is bare chested.
The Washington Times went more into the “why” behind it all.
The Jasmine character in particular has been under fire from feminists as well as Muslim critics in recent years as an offensive role model unworthy of showcasing to impressionable young girls.
“The majority of Princess Jasmine’s numerous flaws stem from the fact that she is completely inaccurate and offensive to her culture. From the clothes she wears to the way she speaks, Jasmine does not represent Arab or Muslim women at all but rather a disgraceful woman in their culture. Unfortunately, Jasmine is not a suitable role model for young girls,” complained a woman writing at FanPop.com last year.
Does Jasmine really represent Arab culture? The original story of Aladdin is set in western China. But the 1992 animated Aladdin film made him an Arabian youth in a Persia-like city — even though Muslim boys don’t go bare chested like Aladdin did.
Jasmine is also a Disney creation. Aladdin’s love interest was called Badroulbadour, a tough name to fit into Disney lyrics, no doubt.
This fashionista.com piece has more descriptors of what went into the actual costume designs and, as I suspected, the head designer did throw in a South Asian (India) touch. There were, however, some ridiculous parts of the piece.
"At the core of it, we wanted the film to be a celebration of Arabic culture," says Michael Wilkinson, who's designed costumes for an expansive range of films, from two decades of suburban chic in Jennifer Lawrence's "Joy" to iconic superheroes in "Justice League" and "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice."
The reporter should have stopped him at that point and asked a few factual questions.
For lots of women, “Arabic culture” means covering themselves completely in black robes. No shimmering turquoise and peacock-themed outfits there. Maybe the royalty factor kicked in there.
A consistent "peacock motif" is seen throughout her jewelry and clothing, notably, elaborate beadwork on her veil accenting the update of her blue (and more modest) top and trousers. "A good metaphor [for Jasmine] is a peacock [trapped] in a royal garden — a beautiful rarefied world — that wants to be a free spirit," Wilkinson explains. The majestic bird is also symbolic in the Middle East and South Asia, plus the color palette coincidentally match Jasmine's signature hues.
Costume-wise, the movie is South Asian, not Middle Eastern. Jasmine’s tiger is named Rajah, for heaven’s sake. It’s Bollywood with all its glamour. Then good old Hollywood breaks in, like with Jasmine giving Aladdin a very public kiss at the end — something that traditional societies in the Middle East would never allow. Ditto for the more scantily clad dancers in the finale number.
But in the way most of the characters -– down to the palace guards -- are so covered compared with animated film is kind of nice, especially when you get to see all that gorgeous fabric and jewels getting swished around by hero and villain alike.
Fastcompany.com explained how the movie was one huge Hollywood effort to banish nasty stereotypes about the Middle East, but that it went nowhere in terms of breaking new ground.
It’s as if Disney was so afraid of perpetuating the same cultural stereotypes it has been chastised for in the past that it opted for bland safety over vivid characterization. There’s very little on screen, beyond the lush color of the elaborate sets and costumes, that gives us the sense that we’ve been transported to an Arabian kingdom. Call it pseudo-Arabia.
So the main complaint I’m hearing is the movie’s faults are more cultural than religious. It reflects on Arabs or Iranians more than Muslims. I know Aladdin is showing in India, but will it land in theaters from Tunisia to Tehran?
I hope someone’s out there covering that. It’s an interesting case study in the new realities of the global marketplace.