In 1989, Disney Feature Animation released its twenty-eighth animated film, The Little Mermaid. The movie grossed over $111 million in the United States alone and was the recipient of two Oscars (Office Box). The merchandise for the film varied from bed sheets and Barbie dolls, to pajamas and Halloween costumes. In 1992, an animated series based on the movie premiered on Disney television and ran for three seasons (IMDb. com). A Broadway production began in 2008, with “50 previews and 685 performances”, ending in August of 2009 (Jones).
Over the past two decades, The Little Mermaid has been reissued multiple times on VHS and DVD, finally landing the prestigious Disney Platinum Editions title and securing a coveted spot within the Disney Vault. Girls from age three to nine are the target audience for The Little Mermaid. However, the animated film appeals to both children and adults alike thanks to its vibrant animation, and colorful soundtrack. Film critic Roger Ebert credits the movie as “a jolly and inventive animated fantasy – a movie that’s so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney works of the past. While sales verify that The Little Mermaid was well received, there was and continues to be, a bit of controversy surrounding the animated film, particularly concerning feminists. Before the controversy is addressed however, the origin and conversion of the tale must first be examined. Disney adapted The Little Mermaid from an 1837 children’s folktale written by Hans Christian Andersen. “Folktale” is a general term for a story that originates in popular culture. Some folktales pass down throughout the ages, evolving and adapting to fit the current era and culture.
When Disney “remade” Andersen’s story, they culturally assimilated it. Disney replaced Andersen’s matriarchal mer-society with a patriarchy. Instead of losing her tongue to the sea witch, Ariel loses her voice via magic. Finally, Disney gives the little mermaid a happy ending, resulting in the modern wish for a happily ever after. The main thing that Disney changed was the goal of the protagonist. Andersen’s young mermaid did not transform into a human solely for love, but in order to gain an immortal soul. This reflects the importance of religion at the time of Andersen’s tale.
Within the tale, the little mermaid’s grandmother explains to her that mer-people do not possess a soul, and therefore have no hope of an afterlife. At the end of their lives, mer-people simply turn into sea foam. In order to obtain a soul, a mer-person had to marry a human. In Andersen’s tale the little mermaid does not obtain the love of the prince, he marries someone else, essentially sentencing the mermaid to death. In act of familial love, the mermaid’s sisters sacrifice their hair to the sea witch in order to obtain a magical knife.
If the young mermaid kills the prince with it, she returns to her original form to live out the rest of her days with her family. She fails to do this, but before turning into sea foam she is magically transformed into an air spirit, given 300 years of good deeds in order to earn a soul. In 1989, religion was not a primary focus, therefore Disney instead focused on the acquisition of true love, and a happily-ever-after. More than that, Disney changed Ariel’s goal as the story progressed. In the beginning, Ariel wishes to ‘escape’ to the human world that fascinates her.
She wants to learn, explore, and discover. However, after she saves Prince Eric, Ariel’s primary goal is marriage. The conversion of the tale is important in understanding how it represents the current culture, and why groups within that culture may dislike some aspects of the story. Media culture forms a substantial part of the education that regulates the norms. Children are impressionable creatures, influenced daily by what they see, and fairy tales offer some of a child’s first impressions of a male-female relationship.
Since animated films are not constrained to real world limitations, the Disney Feature Animation can depict characters any way that they wish. Everything is done deliberately, with purpose, and subtly enforces cultural programming or traditional gender roles. In this paper, controversy about the movie will be examined through the lens of a third wave feminist. Feminist theory bases itself upon the feminist ideal of equality between the sexes, and offers new perspectives on literary works and popular media. Third wave feminism began during the 80’s, and was in force when this film was produced.
Typically, third wave feminists seek to further the causes of their predecessors, but with a multicultural approach. They tend also to embrace a more traditional role while retaining their predecessors’ ideas about equality. In general, feminists celebrated The Little Mermaid as an improvement over previous princesses. As Roger Ebert stated during his review of the movie: “Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny. Unlike previous princesses, Ariel challenged male authority. However, feminists still criticized the portrayal of traditional gender roles within The Little Mermaid, as well as the movie’s obviously patriarchal world. Disney’s The Little Mermaid promotes traditional gender roles built upon a patriarchal ideal that bases itself on gender equating to sex. This ideal promotes men as naturally ‘superior’ and woman as naturally ‘inferior’, assumptions made based solely on the sex one is born with. The “good female” is represented through Ariel.
She is slender, beautiful, and innocent, and shown only in dresses whilst in human form. The “bad female” is portrayed through Ursula the sea witch, who is ostracized from society. She is depicted as selfish, masculine, and disobedient. Ariel is the pure Madonna figure, and Ursula the whore, demonstrating her bodily wiles. Prince Derek represents the “good” male form, one that is strong, handsome, and kind. He is also a good provider. Both the “good” place pressure on males and females to live up to certain standards. Feminists tend to focus on both Ariel and Ursula’s presentation of the female body.
Ursula stresses good looks over voice and intelligence, stressing that “The men up there don’t / like a lot of blabber” (Menken, “Poor Unfortunate Soul”). She represents not only ‘woman,’ but performs woman as well. She teaches Ariel about makeup and body language. Ariel learns gender as a performed construct through Ursula. Ariel has an unrealistic body type. She seems so slender that she could be anorexic. Feminists touch upon the fact that she sacrifices her legs, and physical changes herself in order to ‘get a man. ’ Sometimes feminists compare her decision to that of modern women who choose plastic surgery.
They also look negatively upon the fact that in order to have power or earn a man, The Little Mermaid states that a female must be beautiful. The conversion of Andersen’s matriarchal tale to Disney’s portrayal of a patriarchal society is evident to fans of the original tale with the removal of the little mermaid’s grandmother. Patriarchy presents itself straightaway in the film to those unfamiliar with Andersen’s tale with the song by Ariel’s elder sisters who identify themselves first and foremost by their father: “Ah, we are the daughters of triton / great father who loves us and named us well” (Menken).
The fact that in the end of the movie, both Ariel’s father and her beau are her salvation cements the patriarchy. While feminists do embrace Ariel’s personality, they reject her dependency on others. Ariel neglects society’s expectations, and shapes her own destiny (even if it is marriage). She goes outside of her culture for love, challenging and disobeying her father in the process. But, she is dependent on others throughout the majority of her film. Her animal friends help her on land, and during the denouement of the film both men rescue her.
Ariel’s father trades his life for hers to the sea witch, and Prince Eric essentially rescues all mer-people from Ursula, including Ariel. It is Eric, not Ariel, who saves the day and kills the villain. Disney’s The Little Mermaid presents an exciting, romantic, and cheerful version of Andersen’s original tale. In making this animated film, Disney attempted to present a new heroine, one who was adventurous and a bit rebellious. While sales verified that The Little Mermaid was well received, it was not without complaints.
Feminists disagreed with the portrayal of traditional gender roles, the depiction of the female form, and the obviously patriarchal society with requisite hero. However, attempts were made to think outside of the box, and the goal of the film was ultimately to entertain young children, and the movie did entertain. And the children, who have since grown up, still sing along. Works Cited Ebert, Roger. “The Little Mermaid. ” RogerEbert. com. RogerEbert. com, 2011. Web. 28 January 2011. Jones, Kenneth. “Davy Jones’ Locker: Broadway’s Little Mermaid to End Aug. 0; National Tour Planned. ” Playbill. com. Playbill, Inc. , 30 June 2009. Web. 28 January 2011. “The Little Mermaid. ” Box Office Mojo. IMDb. com, Inc. , 2011. Web. 28 January 2011. Little Mermaid. Dir. Howard Ashman, et al. The Walt Disney Company, 2006. DVD. “The Little Mermaid. ” IMDb. com. IMDb. com, Inc. , 2011. Web. 1 February 2011. Menken, Alan. “Daughters of Triton. ” The Little Mermaid. The Walt Disney Company, 1989. Soundtrack. Menken, Alan. “Poor Unfortunate Souls. ” The Walt Disney Company, 1989. Soundtrack.