Everyone tells me it's wrong. Everyone tells me this movie is filled with foolish, dangerous, ugly messages to young girls.
Yes, Ariel abandons her family and gives up her blossoming singing career in pursuit of a cute guy she's never spoken to. Yes, she modifies her body in order to be near him, and must make him fall in love with her using looks alone. It's a terrible, terrible message.
But that's not quite right, is it?
If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll have read my modern hard-news retellings of the old princess fairytales. I reinterpreted The Little Mermaid as a trans allegory. Here's the first article:
Race change for
Sea King's youngestAn insider from the Pearl Palace today revealed that the Mer-King's youngest daughter has undergone elective species reassignment. The Princess, 15, is now living as a human. This announcement confirms recent rumours about the Princess's species orientation.The source said the news was "not really a surprise", as the Princess had displayed human-sympathetic tendencies from a young age. She is the owner of the largest human artefact collection in the known Ocean, and has made a number of highly-publicised visits to the Surface to observe cargo ships and coastside human communities.It is not known who administered the procedure, but it has been confirmed that the Princess obtained it without parental consent. Magic workers are required to obtain guardian consent for transformations on patients younger than 21 years.
(If you missed these and want to catch up, here are the links:
Issue I | Issue II | Issue III | Issue IV
Subjects include Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella.)
Reading the story this way makes it clear that marriage to Prince Charming is only a secondary goal. What the Little Mermaid really wants is to live as a human. She felt an affinity for land long before meeting the Prince. In both Hans Christian Andersen's and Disney's versions of the story, she hoards man-made artefacts and spends most of her time dreaming of the surface. In the original tale, she designs her garden in the shape of the sun, because she dreams of seeing it without having to gaze up through the murky waters of the sea.
Well, I love that I can look at this story through a queer lens, but even better! Turns out the Disney version is far worse than a feelgood bastardisation of the original. It's a humanist rewrite.
I read this article at Overthinking It a few months ago but stumbled onto it again yesterday. For those who haven't got time to read the whole article, its contention is that Disney's Little Mermaid is a retelling of Eve's expulsion from Eden. (Warning: high density soundtrack linkage ahead. Click if you're not afraid of being judged by those near you.)
Ariel lives in an underwater paradise where life is de bubbles. Her daddy is King of the Sea, and she's got everything she could ever want, but still she makes the "big mistake" of succumbing to her powerful curiosity about the world on the surface. And so she makes a contract with the devil and is expelled from paradise, cursed with mutism, and sentenced to a limited mortal life (if she fails to marry Eric, she effectively dies and is sent to Ursula's garden of unfortunate souls).
As warned, earth is a dangerous, sometimes terrifying place. But you know what? Ariel has no regrets about her fall. She's thrilled to bits. Learning, observing, investigating, engaging. Remember that scene where Eric takes her on a coach ride? It's not Eric she's excited about. It's the whole world. The world she dreamed of.
She never repents. She never regrets her choice. She cares about her father but she knows he is wrong - and in Disney's film, he realises that too. It was actually his lack of support that landed her in trouble with the devil. In the end, the Almighty King of Heaven grants his daughter her one wish - the right to live a free life. He permanently expels her from his paradise, not for punishment, but in the recognition that she will be happier on earth.
Now, you may disagree. But that is a message I can really get behind.
What's interesting is that Hans Christian Andersen's original story is a highly religious one.
In the world of his story, mermaids don't have souls. They live 300 years and then dissipate forever into the foam of the sea. Superficially, the Little Mermaid's dream is the same as Ariel's, but allegorically speaking, her goal is to gain an eternal soul by marrying a human. She suffers great hardships as a result: her tongue is cut out; her feet bleed like they are being stabbed by knives with every step she takes. If her Prince marries another, she will die with nothing. And in the end, he does marry another - but she does not die. For her suffering and devotion, she is rewarded by becoming a good spirit who can earn a soul and a place in Heaven by doing 300 years of good works.
When I was younger, I loved the tragedy of this original story. I was a dark kid. I sided with the Phantom of the Opera, remember? But I obviously didn't get it. I thought it was a sad ending, but Andersen meant it to be a happy one - yay, she didn't get a soul the easy way, she earns one the hard way, and thus truly deserves it!
Of course, this makes no sense to the culture of today. She did not do what she should have done in order to achieve her goal. Instead of finding a way to explain to the Prince that she was the girl who saved him, and therefore the one whose memory he loves, she devotes herself to him like a slave. She sleeps on a cushion outside his bedchamber. She dances for him on command, despite her agony. She accepts his engagement to another and resigns herself to suffering and quick death. Yes, she is good for choosing not to murder him (a last-minute bonus option that will release her from her contract). But suffering without protest is not a solution, and in our culture, we would not say she deserved reward. Relief, yes. But not reward.
I still think Disney has sold a lot of superficial shit to young girls through its Disney Princess merchandise racket. I still think this fairytale obsession with princesses, beauty and pretty dresses is a worry.
But if girls are paying attention to the stories they're being told by Disney's movies, there is hope. Ariel is the first of the princesses to be characterised in an admirable way. The earlier three (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) were rather old-fashioned in their values and gender rigidity. But from The Little Mermaid onward, Disney's princesses are modern women, and finding love is usually represented as part of the metaphor for their efforts to reach their goals.