Now, I don’t think there can be any question that this movie is both racist and sexist. But it was less so than I would have expected, from a movie made in 1926 Germany.
First, the sexism: there are only two women with names (plus a witch), and they’re there to be pretty, get kidnapped for their prettiness, then to get rescued and married (except for the witch, of course). Our women are:
Pari Banu, the princess of the magical Wak-Wak island (yes, that is its name.) Achmed watched her bathing, hides her clothes, chases her through the forest, and kidnaps her (the movie even uses the word kidnap!) only then it turns out that even though she ruled the demons of Wak-Wak island, she was trapped there (?) and so he had, in fact, rescued her. She gets kidnapped a good half-dozen times and Achmed faithfully rescues her every time, and they get married and live happily ever after. Hurray!
…and Dinarsade, Achmed’s sister, whom the evil African magician desires. She marries Aladdin after Aladdin finds his magic lamp, and she is very much a posession: when the African magician (who, by the way, has no name, only that description) takes his revenge against Aladdin, Aladdin complains to Achmed that, “Everything had disappeared– the palace, the princess, and the lamp.” (emphasis mine).
However, I thought Dinarsade was actually very interesting. Her marriage seemed a little less arbitrary than Pari Banu’s (she walked over to Aladdin’s house and presumably liked what she saw), and this is what she was doing when Aladdin got his first glimpse of her:
Playing chess! With another woman! (And, okay, also with a slave-girl fanning her. But still. Chess!) I expected her to be lounging around looking decorative, like Pari Banu, but no, she seems to have her own life and interests, and even a brain! In the realm of silent films, where nobody speaks unless it’s vital to understand what’s going on, this may even count as passing the Bechdel Test… if only her friend had a name. But still! It completely exceeded my expectations.
Okay, so the women were still primarily sex objects, emphasis on object, as in prize, but you know, that’s something people are still struggling with 90 years later. And actually, by showing all these women with female friends, and especially showing Dinarsade playing chess with a female friend, this movie gave us a more human princess than Disney does. Seriously, name a Disney princess who casually hangs out with a female friend. There are none! They all have male animal mascot friends, and ignore the other women around them. Actually, even “grown-up” movies tend to show women who are totally isolated from other women— I think this movie did a better job of showing women’s lives than the last movie I saw in theatre!
I don’t know if that’s sad, because we haven’t learned, or cool, because Lotte Reininger made a great film for her times, but it’s certainly something.