Monday, September 12, 2011

Disney's Jasmine is the Archetype of White Colonial Fantasies

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

As a woman of color, I have a love-hate relationship with Disney. The bald-faced racism, sexism and imperialism make me cringe, and have left psychic wounds that require a lifetime of decolonization to heal from. At the same time, many of the images and songs are almost synonymous with my childhood, icons of the inspiration, creativity and love that shaped my early desires. I yearned with Ariel to explore the world beyond my own, and break free of Sinhalese gender norms for how ‘good girls’ behave. The scenes with Belle walking down the street with her nose in a book spoke to my own bookish little girl heart, and I even imitated the action a few times. I still get a little lump in my throat at the Circle of Life sequence in “The Lion King”, and my heart swells with fierce pride when Mulan chops off her beautiful dark hair and girds herself for battle. At the same time, the constant and unquestioned elevation of hetereosexual marriage, the unspeakably Eurocentric beauty standards, the racist caricatures and white-savior tropes and the circumvention or downright erasure of women's ambitions in favor of 'Love', are deeply troubling. This schism of love and loathing that informs my relationship to pop-culture is a consequence of being a WOC in a heterosexist, white supremacist society, and this schism forces me to acknowledge that, when it comes to its princesses of color, Disney operates with clear double-standards. This was meant to be a one-post look at how Jasmine's body is inscribed with histories of colonial-sexual violence, the vestiges of which WOC navigate daily; but as I started writing and looking at her pictures more, I realized that my relationship to her, and my own body/sexuality, is far more complex than could be encapsulated in a single post.
 
First, let me start by saying: I LOVE Jasmine. I love her wit, courage and diplomacy, and her rebellion against patriarchal norms. I love that her image - the long hair black as deep night, the almond eyes, and dark-toffee skin - makes me recognize and love those aspects of my own body. If we lived in a world unburdened with the history of European colonization, where skin color was not fused with a hierarchy of power and desirability, the image of a beautiful, sensual brown girl with a bare belly and midnight eyes would be simply that: an image, one among many.
But that's not the world we inhabit. In the world as is, white female-identified bodies are coded as the ultimate embodiment of femininity and all its attendant connotations: innocence, sensitivity, virtue, grace etc. By constructing an image of the sanctified white female body, colonizer mentality justified the rape and enslavement of women of color who were deemed exotically savage, wild, oversexed and un-rapeable. Where colonialism gave birth to Orientalism was in the fetishizing of power and conquest, whereby women of the 'East' were imagined as exotic temptresses beckoning alluringly to white men from behind sheer veils in sumptuous harems.
In the white colonial imaginary, their (our) bodies came to symbolize the bountiful lands of the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian
Gulf that were coveted by Western powers; like those lands, our bodies had to be constructed as needing and welcoming white conquest, as ripe for the colonial picking.
Thus, Jasmine was born.
She is the archetype of white colonial fantasies: the alluring dark-skinned woman, exotically desirable like cinnamon and indigo and other spices that were the corporate backbone of colonialism, a hedonistic indulgence counterpointing the tastes of 'civilized' Europeans. Profitable, but not an equal by any means. Exploitable, and therefore undeserving of respect. In the words of Ursula Rucker: "good enough to fuck but/ not good enough to vote". In white patriarchy, a woman's body is an object to be traded and bargained with; a woman whose body is deemed easily accessible, loses her value and her right to respect, to human dignity. This is how the First World regards the lands and people of the Third World whose resources they have gleefully plundered and monopolized, and this is how WOC are symbolically, culturally and sociopolitically situated in white colonial hegemony. Thus the politics of land theft and resource usurpation, of cultural imperialism, systematic rape and dehumanization, intersect on our bodies and shape our sexual self-awareness. 

Fast forward to the present, and Jasmine's image haunts our collective psycho-social conscious, informing how WOC are not only seen but treated, reflecting the colonialities of power that persist between global North and South. 

It's no coincidence that out of the Disney princess menagerie, the three WOC (Pocahontas, Esmeralda and Jasmine) are the scantiest clad. It's no coincidence that, while Belle and Ariel and Aurora are undoubtedly sexualized, that they're sexual allure is composed of a wide-eyed innocence, a girlish shyness and naivete, while Jasmine and Esmeralda move in deliberately sinuous lines, their bodies openly sexual and beckoning. Consider the posing of Jasmine's
body here as she bids goodnight to Aladdin and this sequence in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", where the fanatical Frollo envisions Esmeralda's dancing body entwined in flames, conflating Brown female sexuality with satanic temptation: both are disturbing not the least considering that Disney is often touted as a symbol of innocence, of childhood and fantasy and play. Of course, the real reason Disney is able to evade criticism is because it protects the 'innocence' (read early racism/ignorance) of white children/ societies and venerates the bodies of white women: in short, the powers that be, the powers of white, colonial heteropatriarchy allow Disney to thrive because it benefits and solidifies the status quo. In its sexual scapegoating of WOC, and its exotic romanticizing of colonial histories, Disney is but an agent of imperialism, psychologically invading and colonizing our collective psyches under the guise of "childhood innocence". Only those of us who know that innocent childhoods are a privilege, understand that when it comes to WOC Disney movies are interchangeable with colonial tracts, with Orientalist paintings, with Columbus' journals, with John Smith's fantasies.
 
When I see images of Jasmine, I'm torn between love and anger. Love, because her image is my image, the image of our women, dark, voluptuous, almond-eyed, bold and courageous. Torn, because it's an image that is filtered through colonial gazing, that reinscribes a historical value system on the bodies of young WOC. Even now, at 25 years old, I grapple with the meanings and desires embedded in Jasmine's image and in Esmeralda's dancing. Hopefully these posts will speak to other WOC who have struggled with the same issues, so that we can begin speaking back to images and desires that simultaneously oppress, haunt, empower and seduce.