Modern Mermaids: How did feminism influence Disney’s Little Mermaid?

In the 150 years between the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in 1837 and the 1989 release of Disney’s film adaptation much change had occurred in the human world. Two waves of feminism had occurred, and a third wave was underway. It was during this third wave that Disney’s red-headed mermaid heroine Ariel was birthed. She entered into a world much different than that of her nameless counterpart in Andersen’s tale.
Here she was part of a distinctly third wave feminism world where mermaids had come to represent “some of the tensions in American feminism between reformist demands for access” and “radical refigurings of gender that assert symbolic change as preliminary to social change”. She was a symbol of women’s ability to access patriarchal systems and of the sacrifices these women had to make in order to do so. This was different from how Andersen had first conceived his little mermaid heroine, who was meant to be autobiographical character for him. Although Andersen had been raised a peasant, at this point in history fairy tales were mainly only consumed by the educated upper classes: his little mermaid was meant to representative of his struggles to “pass” in “the aristocratic circles that offered him patronage”.
Andersen’s tale and Disney’s cinematic telling are certainly not entirely distinct from each other. Present in both versions are issues of gender, class, and passing. They also each ascribe to a belief in love-at-first-site and supplant the little mermaid’s initial general curiosity about the world above with romantic desire for a man. However, the mermaid’s personality and actions, her transformation, and the way her story ends are quite distinct from each other. It is in these differences that we can see how third wave feminism altered the tale from its original version to its Disney film adaptation.
When Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid and in H.P. Paull’s English translation, the little mermaid is described as “a strange child, quiet and thoughtful” with her beauty being emphasized as “the prettiest of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea.” Disney attempts to add a bit more depth to her personality and to assert her as a stronger, role model-esque heroine. Charles Champlin wrote in his 1989 review of the film in The Los Angeles Times that the writers portrayed Ariel as “a resourceful, independent-minded and even headstrong, insatiably adventurous and active young woman”. While it may be true that Disney’s mermaid had a more developed personality, and was at least on first glance independent minded, many feminists took issue with this reading of the film.
In the third wave of feminism, Disney’s The Little Mermaid was frequently read in the context of women’s overcoming the white male systems of society. “White male system” is used by Ann Wilson Schaef as a term to characterize the dominant culture of American patriarchy. For Ariel, the human world is the white male system she seeks to access, while life under the sea is the marginalized culture of those who do not fit into the American norms of white men. Those under the sea are aware of the human world above, but live in fear of and limit their access to it, while those on land regard the world under the sea as “nautical nonsense”, an invisible world lacking “cultural validity”.
From an ecological feminism perspective, another distinctly third wave ideology, the contrasts of the worlds above and below the sea are taken into an even deeper level of meaning. From this viewpoint, there is a “racist and colonialist perspective” that associates “the merpeople, and by implication Caribbean and other equatorial peoples, with a closer-to-nature, live-off-the-land indigenous lifestyle inferior to the industrial lifestyle” of the human world. This draws up the issue of the little mermaid’s love-at-first-sight, which is present, along with class movement, in both Andersen’s and Disney’s readings, but which takes on a more significant meaning in the Disney version due to its historical context.
Love-at-first-sight depends upon a woman’s possession of marketable products which include: “physical beauty, acculturation, singular traits”. Although Ariel and the prince first meet when she rescues him from drowning, much of their love develops during the time in which she attempts to pass as a human without her voice. It is her physical beauty, her ability to fit into the culture of the human world (a.k.a. white male system), and ultimately her ability to pass via performance that enable her to reach her happy ending (i.e., marriage). Passing and performance are essential to the little mermaid’s ability to win over the prince and achieve access to the human world.

Ursula performs "Poor Unfortunate Souls"
Ursula performs “Poor Unfortunate Souls”

In the third wave of feminism gender came to be viewed not as a concrete construct, but as a performed part of identity. This viewpoint is especially true in interpretations of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at this time. Ursula is the only other strong female character in the film besides Ariel. When Ariel visits to ask about being transformed into a human, Ursula sings the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” which has come to be read as a scene of drag queen performance. It is here that Ariel learns that gender is a performance, “Ursula uses a camp drag queen performance to teach Ariel to use makeup, to ‘never underestimate the importance of body language,’ to use the artifices and trappings of gendered behavior”. Ursula has the ability to retrieve Ariel from the patriarchy she seeks to align herself with, but instead Ursula is made the villain, for “in the white male system it is much easier to be silent than to be seen as monstrous”.
It is in this scene that the little mermaid’s transformation occurs: her body is altered as her fin is split into two human legs. The same transformation at the hands of the sea-witch occurs in Andersen’s telling as well, but the Disney version sanitizes a very important element from the Andersen version. In the original tale, it is written that “each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives”, meaning that each step as a human caused the little mermaid real physical pain. This element of pain is completely nonexistent in the Disney version, perhaps simply because it is not child appropriate, but its erasure draws up larger issues of feminism.
Without the element of bodily pain “the legs indicate Ariel’s compliance with the beauty culture, rather than her desire for access, mobility, and independence”, her transformation does not bring her anymore ability to be active member of the white male system, in fact it decreases her ability to do so. She not only gives up her fin; she gives up her voice as part of her transformation as well. In The Little Mermaid, and particularly for Disney, “Women do not need to speak to men to engage in building human-to-human relationships, but only need to seduce and serenade them into a male-female cultural order.” The ability to perform and pass as a human woman is more necessary for success in the white male system than to develop genuine relationships with real effects.
Ariel’s purchasing of her physical transformation with her voice is viewed as symbolic of how “many women who enter ‘the workforce’ or any other ‘male sphere’” during the third wave of feminism wrestle “with the double-binding cultural expectations of choosing between either voice or access, but never both”. However, what we see in the end is that Ariel does not have to choose between voice or access, she can have both, but only through the aid of her father and husband.
Disney’s happy ending is extremely different from the darker ending of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. In Andersen’s version, the little mermaid refuses to kill the prince and throws herself into the sea where she dissolves into sea foam. She joins the “daughters of the air” where she learns she can earn an immortal soul by performing three hundred years of good deeds. Disney, it can be argued, subverts this message of a woman’s ability to have her own self-actualization process and earn a soul on her terms. Ariel only earns both access and voice after participating in the matricide of Ursula, the only other strong female character, forcing Ursula into a state of “silence and absence”. Her father wields the magic that allows her to become human without the sacrifice of her voice and her husband wields the power to raise her into access in the white male system through marriage.
The Disney version of The Little Mermaid was distinctly influenced by elements of the third wave of feminism. It attempted to create a woman of agency and independence, but was in some ways less successful in doing this than Andersen was. It is important to realize that Disney took a distinct path in how it chose to interpret Andersen’s tale, drawing on elements of drag queen performance, erasing the mermaid’s physical pain, and ultimately allowing the Ariel access to the world above with both a human body and voice.

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Modern Mermaids: How did feminism influence Disney’s Little Mermaid?

8 thoughts on “Modern Mermaids: How did feminism influence Disney’s Little Mermaid?

    1. poulakose says:

      Thanks. It certainly would have been difficult for Disney to articulate the pain of the little mermaid while still keeping the film appropriate for modern audiences of children.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This post is very well articulated. I’ve never drawn the lines for the Little Mermaid to feminism but I can see it now. Would you say you’ve noticed this before or was it with the help of our class. And do you believe most people would know of the connection you’ve made here or just think its another Disney film?

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    1. poulakose says:

      I think that this class definitely helped me to see how fairy tales in general can carry a deeper meaning based on their cultural and historical contexts. I know that when I’ve talked about the feminist readings of Disney’s Little Mermaid with family and friends, they’ll disagree at first but after thinking about it admit that these other layers do exist. It’s interesting to think about especially as new Princesses are added to the canon.

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  2. I really like how you weaved Little Mermaid’s analysis with information about the third wave of feminism in the United States. Disney’s version definitely tried to portray women as more independent, but I agree it was not as successful as the original. Keep up the great work!

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    1. poulakose says:

      I’m glad you thought I did a good job bringing third wave feminism and the adaptations of the tale together. Thank you!

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  3. I always thought that Disney movies “put women in their place” with the feebleness and naivety of the lead females in every single movie. In fact, I don’t even think they had that big of a voice until the more recent Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen movies were released. These stories were based almost entirely on women coming into their own. Frozen even made fun of the typical Disney stereotype of “love at first sight” on several occasions. Just something to think about.

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    1. poulakose says:

      That’s kind of what I saw in my research. That feminism made Disney give the illusion that they were creating these strong heroines, but in reality (especially in the case of The Little Mermaid) were making them weaker and more objectified than in the original tales.

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