Jasmine, Aladdin, and the Power of Nonviolence
by Rachel MacNair
The recent live-action version of the movie Aladdin didn’t deal much with specific consistent life issues. The only one brought up was war, and that was only because the villain wanted it, though never got beyond planning. Yet the fleshing out of the characters, compared to the 1992 cartoon version, led to a theme about power. The movie uses the theory of power that nonviolence has always been based on. And of course nonviolence has always connected all of our issues.
Hungry for Magical Power
We can start with how startled the genie was to discover that his new “master” wasn’t a greedy power-hungry person, as the genie was accustomed to. His first words to Aladdin were, “Oh Great One who summons me,” a line that would be more expected by the kind of people who try to find the genie’s lamp. As part of the more realistic plot lines that go into live-action movies, as opposed to cartoons, people who seek out the lamp would be those kinds of characters.
It seems funny to refer to a story with a genie doing magic as “more realistic.” But it’s common in live action films based on previous animation that the implications of the story are better thought out.
Instead, the genie finds in Aladdin a young man who actually asks the genie what he, the genie, would wish for – a whole new idea. And what the genie wanted was his freedom. Naturally. And for the first time, he found a man who wasn’t quite so power-hungry, who said that for his third wish he would give the genie his freedom.
Yet the genie had seen what power of the magical kind does to people. He clearly had bitter experience. He was cynical enough to expect this would happen with Aladdin as well. When it came time for that third wish, the genie turned out to be correct: Aladdin had gotten a taste of power, and couldn’t let it go. In the original cartoon, the issue was that Aladdin was lying to everybody. In this version, the idea that power had gone to his head was more to the point.
Aladdin’s first wish was to be a prince. This wasn’t for the sake of being a prince, but for the sake of impressing a specific woman, Princess Jasmine. He’d fallen in love with her, but she was legally obligated to marry only a prince. Therefore, he needed to be a prince.
In the original cartoon version, Aladdin got “dolled up” and then, by golly, he was a prince. The live-action version paid a little more attention to what that means: where was his country? Ababwa was made up, of course, so the question of whether he was actually a prince, simply because he had such impressive riches, was asked.
This becomes all the more important when the villain, Jafar, steals the lamp he originally sent Aladdin to get, and uses it in the very way that the genie feared. And while in the cartoon version the genie was clearly unhappy about having to fulfill Jafar’s demands, in this version, there was more: you could see in the genie’s face how very much it pains him to have to do this yet again.
The Nonviolent Rebellion
Jafar wished to be sultan. And the genie took the royal clothes off the Sultan and put them on Jafar, put Jafar on the Sultan’s throne, and stood by ready for enforcement. So the guards concluded that their loyalties must now shift, because the magic had happened.
But here is where the nonviolence theory of power comes in: Princess Jasmine made a direct appeal to the guards. Where was their loyalty really? Was it not up to the people to determine a ruler, and not up to someone who managed to find a genie and make a wish?
The guards realized this was so. Who was wearing the clothes didn’t matter. Who was sitting on the throne didn’t matter. They had loyalty to the same man they had pledged loyalty to before.
Neither Aladdin nor Jafar were able to become a prince or a sultan by magic. Magic isn’t how power works.
Power works because people cooperate with those in power – primarily, because they understand the power to be legitimate. Tyrants can strike fear in people, but that’s a very difficult way to maintain people’s cooperation. Only an understanding of legitimacy keeps power without tremendous and unsustainable inputs of violence over time.
In this case, the withdrawal of power happened right away. But then, the illegitimacy of the power grab was quite blatant; in real life, clearly stolen elections are common triggers for nonviolent uprisings. In front of Jafar, Jasmine pointed this problem out to the guards. They could see it immediately, and responded accordingly.
The figure of Jasmine herself has become quite a bit more powerful in the recent version. The new song for this movie, Speechless, is a passionate song in which she declares that she will not be speechless. (See a clip or full lyrics)
But her power doesn’t come from a desire to lord it over others. It comes from a compassionate desire to help others. Her power, using compassion, would be seen as more legitimate, and therefore easier to sustain in a willing population.
Her father, the Sultan, sees this. Earlier when she had proposed that as his only child she should be the next sultan, and that she had the needed skills, he had responded that a woman wouldn’t be sultan. While not illegal, it was against tradition. Yet after she demonstrated how courageous and effective she was, in the face of a magical onslaught, he saw that she would in fact make a very good sultan. He told her she would be the next one.
The Third Wish
As for Aladdin, he realized the danger of leaving a genie with magical powers that the genie himself would rather not use. He also realized that he’d been slipping into a power-grabbing mindset, and Jafar had just given him a model of how horrific that road could be. So he did keep his promise and he used his third wish to free the genie.
This was the same plot point in both the cartoon and live-action movies. Yet in the recent version, the genie was stunned because he wasn’t expecting it. He thought Aladdin had become like the other “masters” he had had, since Aladdin had pretty much said so earlier. At least, the genie would have thought, what Aladdin wanted was relatively benign. And Aladdin’s desires were a huge relief after dealing with Jafar (a problem solved through a trick from Aladdin that took advantage of Jafar’s blind power hunger).
Aladdin sacrificed using his third wish for himself and instead used it to free the genie. This showed his compassion. He went back out on the street in his street clothes; a sacrifice for a friend is what he intended to do.
And of course it was that compassion that was a major appeal to Princess Jasmine.
That and his knowledge of what things were like on the street would be a tremendous help in her work as sultan. She was the one qualifid to do the work, and he recognized that (another major appeal for her), but he had a contribution to make as someone not in the upper class.
The feminist sensibilities in Disney movies are improving considerably over what they used to be. While Snow White in the 1930s sang “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” the cartoon Jasmine didn’t want to be pushed into marriage with a pompous man. With this latest movie, she developed into a Jasmine who wanted and deserved a leadership role.
Yet it’s still common in Hollywood that women gain equality by becoming as violent as men. Rather than catching on that violence is bad for the men committing it, along with everyone else, the penchant in many movies to use fantasy violence as a fantasy problem-solver is still strong, and shoving women into that same mold isn’t really feminist progress.
It was refreshing to see a strong woman leader who wasn’t merely nonviolent in the sense of not being violent, but who assertively used nonviolence principles to solve the violent problem in front of her.
For more of our posts on movie and TV reviews, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)