Before the Disney version of Mulan came out and before anime landed in the Western hemisphere, the only character I could physically identify with was Princess Jasmine. Sure I spent a lot of time on the playground pretending to be the yellow Power Ranger or the Asian-looking girl in Captain Planet, but they were minor tv characters who didn’t have a gorgeous Arabic street rat chasing after them.
Jasmine had it all, and even though her culture was as foreign to me as to everyone else in Ohio, I understood her. In “Arabian Nights” the men sing that they come from a faraway place. “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” There may not have been magic carpets and camels in China, but was I accused of being barbaric? All the time. Lots of my classmates asked if I ate dogs and cats, and even though I didn’t, it wasn’t much better when they saw the whole fish, whole shrimp, and offal we ate at parties. It wasn’t their fault, the photos of China in our world history book looked like this.
I was Aladdin-obsessed. I didn’t buy new toys very often, but most of them would be related to the movie, like a huge frames poster of the couple on their carpet ride, or a decapitated head of Jasmine similar to this one which let you style her hair and, if you were small enough, wear her jewels. It was the only one on sale for $5 at the store, and I remember wondering if that was because most girls didn’t want a princess of color as much as the white ones. Being a minority paid! That was a great day.
Jasmine was the first princess of a non-white ethnicity, but also the first which didn’t command the central narrative. Soon came along Pocahontas and Mulan (and no more white princesses), but I was losing interest in cartoons around that time and, ironically, they were too ethnically immersed. My six year old brain just wanted a girl who looked like me swanning around in pretty dresses and making out with a prince. Jasmine gave me what I wanted at the right time, and for that she’ll be my ultimate Disney idol.