Thursday, March 08, 2018

Something I Just Realized About the Little Mermaid

Okay, so here's something I was thinking of yesterday, and it wouldn't surprise me if you already knew this, but Disney's The Little Mermaid has a horrific message, like, really bad.  I was thinking this, because I've been starting to expose my toddler to a lot of the cartoons I grew up with, including The Little Mermaid, but up until now, I didn't think very deeply about it.  So, now, I'm going to break it down for you, and include a little history lesson.

The Original

I'm guessing most Americans my age have had much more exposure to the Disney reimagining of The Little Mermaid, rather than the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale.  Let me lay this down right now, HCA was a devoted Christian, and unfortunately, that's pretty much all of what his stories are about.  His idea of a happy ending is killing off his characters (sometimes horribly) and letting them go to heaven.  The Little Mermaid is no different.

See, here's the thing; the mermaid wants to be human, right?  But not for the reasons you think.  She wants to be human because mermaids don't have souls.
"Why have not we immortal souls?" asked the little mermaid, mournfully. "I would gladly give all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars."
Andersen, Hans. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (The Complete Collection) (Kindle Locations 8052-8055). Kindle Edition.
She's interested in humans, she's met and rescued the prince at this point, but what she really wants, is to go to heaven like the humans do.  Because HCA was a raging believer.  Oh, and hey, there's a way around that whole, mermaids don't have souls thing;
"No," said the old woman; "unless a man should love you so much that you were more to him than his father or his mother, and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter—then his soul would glide into your body, and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give to you a soul and retain his own as well; but this can never happen.
Andersen, Hans. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (The Complete Collection) (Kindle Locations 8060-8063). Kindle Edition. 

So, the little mermaid's like, "Hold my beer, Grandma," makes a deal with the Sea Witch and becomes human, in hopes of snagging herself that handsome prince and oh, yeah, a human soul.  As with the Disney version, she loses her voice, but, there's an added bonus that her new feet suck.  Walking on them is described as incredibly painful.  But she makes it work.  Every moment with the prince seems to be agony (which he constantly fails to notice), but she goes through it anyway, because love.  And souls.  The prince, however, thinks she's awesome, but is not the girl who saved his life, so he says he can't love her or anyone else.  Until he finds another princess and is about to get married.

The night before the wedding, the mermaid is going to kill herself.  Her sisters make a huge sacrifice to set up a deal: either the little mermaid murders the prince and becomes a mermaid again, or she dies and becomes sea foam.  She chooses to die instead.  But, even though she's foam, she's offered the opportunity to be a "spirit of the air" and "earn" a soul by doing good deeds for hundreds of years.  And everyone lives (or dies) happily every after.  Yay!

Yeah, that's pretty much the theme every one of HCA's stories follow.  They almost always end with death, either tragic or otherwise, and then heaven.  I have a big book of his fairytales and they are all in that vein, pretty much.  You can see why this message is both disturbing and somewhat problematic, right?  The little mermaid sacrifices everything, only to be ignored and thrown away like garbage and she still does the right thing.  Her reward?  She gets the opportunity to serve humans until it's decided she's "earned" salvation.  I'm sorry, she decided not to murder the guy, even though it meant she would no longer exist.  Giving up her life for a man who did not love her and who treated her like a servant and ignored her pain isn't enough, and she's still gotta work for it, while he gets to go off and live happily ever after?  Uh, what?

The Disney Version

This updated retelling also has its share of messed up issues, but the biggest one, the one that really struck me, is that it pretty much says that what women have to say is pretty much never important.  I think they wanted their message to be the opposite, and I think they may have managed to convince a lot of people, parents and kids alike, that this isn't what they're saying, but it is.

Like in the original version of the story, the price for legs is Ariel's voice.  Okay sure.  At this point, I like to joke that the true message of this story is why we never allow minors to enter legal contracts without parental consent.  But, Ursula spells things out pretty well; guys don't like chicks who gab, they're mostly out to snag some arm candy, so it's not like she's going to miss it anyway.  And Ursula is evil, so the audience should see that this is a lie.  It's supposed to be a falsehood, spun to trick Ariel into signing a contract that she can't fulfill because she needs to be able to talk.  But if you pay attention, you realize, it's not.

Here's the big issue; Erik falls in love with Ariel without her saying a word.  We see them getting closer and closer to the kiss, so much so that Ursula has to throw a wrench in Ariel's romance game by showing up and bewitching Erik.  Having Ariel's voice is not enough, she needs to brainwash him as well.  And she doesn't bewitch him by telling him about herself, or sharing her opinions about, well, really anything, she does it by singing wordlessly.

The worst part, is that even when Ariel gets her voice back, there is no conversation between her and her prince.  We pretty much skip immediately to the marriage.  Keep in mind, that even before she lost her voice, they have not had a single two-way conversation of substance.

So, was Ursula wrong?  Did Ariel need her voice?  Sure, because Erik decided he wasn't going to marry anyone except the girl who saved him, but come on, he fell for her when she was mute.  Erik doesn't know Ariel, and we never see him getting to know her.  Because in this narrative, what she thinks, what she has to say, isn't important.

What Ariel has to say is never important.  Before she becomes human, her opinions and desires are
overruled by her father.  Once she gets legs, she can't even express those opinions properly.  Ariel is muted throughout the entire movie, not just the second half.  This is never rectified.  Because the moral isn't that women should have a voice, the moral is, love your man and everything will work out.  This extends itself to, what you look like and being pleasant is way more important than what might be going on in your heads, ladies.

Yeah, I know this isn't a new discovery.  Disney has been a hot mess with its messages to young women for a long time.  I guess it might just be hitting me harder now that I'm older and exposing my kids to this stuff.  At least with this new generation of (Pixar) princesses, things seem to be picking up.  One can only hope for the future...


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BLANDCorporatio said...

I won't claim the Little Mermaid (the Disney film) tried particularly hard to convey a message of female empowerment, but I suspect they weren't going for "what Ariel has to say is unimportant" either, when they have her get the prince despite the muteness. The film's story probably was conceived as a simple fantasy tale of overcoming an obstacle. It's not that she didn't have important things to say, or that it wouldn't have been easier if she could say them. But through her pluck and charm and whatever else, she manages to win over the prince, despite the muteness.

I mean, if her winning the prince over despite the muteness is the problem, then let's change that aspect of the story. But no, it still doesn't look right, because what we end up with is very similar to the original story, only Ariel is not looking to some transcendent purpose, but merely looking to bag a man. That's the extent of her character-- she wants the prince. And if that's all she wants, then maybe all she needs is looks and charm.

Then again, maybe there's more to life than wanting princes.


Anonymous said...

I think Blandcorp's onto something.

It occurs to me that there's an essential narrative reason why Ariel has to lose her voice: If she could talk, she could explain in about sixty seconds that she is the same girl who saved his life and fascinated him with her singing -- and the story would be over, problem solved.

Of course one could invent a different problem -- maybe the walking on knives thing -- maybe the way Ursula grants her wish has a hidden trap, like she's going to slowly die or something. But this is wandering further and further away from the original story.

On the other hand (how many hands am I up to now?), it's not exactly unheard-of for Disney to make major changes in a source story. "Frozen" has almost nothing to do with "The Snow Queen" (hey, we're back to HCA again), except a fondness for snow. So maybe we should be lobbying for Disney to do a new revision of "The Little Mermaid."