Jasmine and Esmeralda share more than a tan skin tone and fiery temper; they are also arguably the two most sexualised characters in Disney’s history.
Women of colour in mainstream media are often subjected to the same tired tropes over and over again: reluctant victim of oppression, fiery seductress, exotic dancer, and these get old fast. That’s probably why, when Disney decided to animate the stories of Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they decided to have the main female characters do something completely unexpected, something drastic and original; something to distinguish these movies from so many others like them.
Jasmine and Esmeralda; two animated women of colour, whose names mean a flower and a jewel respectively, effectively turn these tropes on their heads, by managing to fulfil all of them at once.
“They are both oppressed and rebellious, bewitching and spirited. They are smouldering and dark skinned and completely conscious of their own sexualities; foreign and exotic and unconstrained by the rules of ‘civilised’ society.”
They are a white man’s wet dream, and a constant reminder of the long lasting effects of colonialism and orientalism on how women of colour are seen in mainstream media.
It is at this point that I would like to offer a brief disclaimer: these two women are probably my favourite Disney women of all time; due in most part to their rebelliousness, their unapologeticness and their utter refusal to do what is expected of them. But it is also due to their thick, dark abundance of hair and deep brown skin that so resembles my own. I see myself in them. And this is what makes writing this article all the more bitter-tasting. These women represent me, yes. But they represent me as a one dimensional caricature, a fantasy, a fetish, an image warped through the lense of white male expectations.
Esmeralda and Jasmine are of different races: Esmeralda is Roma, while Jasmine is Arab, different time periods: 15th century France versus 9th century Arabia, and very different social classes, not to mention the plots of the movies they are in are completely different and yet their stories draw so many parallels, it is almost beyond belief.
Esmeralda is shown at the Fool’s Festival, earning money by performing a sequence that ends up as a cross between a strip tease- with the creative use of a spear in the place of a pole- and a lap dance, even going so far as to entice Frollo himself, stoking the beginnings of a fiery obsession. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it bears a resemblance to Jasmine’s sexy dance for Jafaar, complete with shackles and a new, red outfit, after giving him the brilliant idea to make her his queen. These are the most risqué scenes Disney has given us since the infamous Jessica Rabbit, and it’s hard imagining a similar one in today’s Disney movies.
However, these women’s sexualities are not simply used for screen time; they are brought upon as major tools in order to further the plots of their respective films. Jasmine saves Aladdin, by pretending to be in love with and then kissing Jafaar, using her body as a distraction, while an entire song is given to Frollo for him to lament his growing attraction to Esmeralda. He sings “I feel her/I see her. The sun caught in raven hair/Is blazing in me out of all control/Don’t let this siren cast her spell” as her fiery figure does yet anotherlustful dance in the fireplace.
In fact, the relationships of both of these girls with the male antagonists are overtly sexual in nature, both of them being seen to ‘seduce’ the men in question with their bodies, their movements sensual and purposeful, a far cry from the delicate waltzes and pirouettes of other (white) princesses. It was said best by the blogger Tassja:
“It’s no coincidence that out of the Disney princess menagerie, the WOC are the scantiest clad. It’s no coincidence that, while Belle and Ariel and Aurora are undoubtedly sexualized, that their sexual allure is composed of a wide-eyed innocence, a girlish shyness and naiveté, while Jasmine and Esmeralda move in deliberately sinuous lines, their bodies openly sexual and beckoning”(quote with line on left)
To be fair, Disney didn’t really try to hide it, what with director Kirk Wise saying Esmeralda was designed to look like she’d ‘been around’ in the commentary, and this casting call, which perfectly encapsulates their thoughts on this incredibly complex, beloved character. Never mind that ‘gyspyâ’ is a racial slur, and considered extremely offensive by most Romani people.
“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” – Tassja
Author: Mara Zain
Editor: Han Angus
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.