Poor, Unfortunate Little Mermaid… the Good and the Bad

I’ll admit it, watching Ariel sing and swim around the sea makes me happy inside. The Little Mermaid is cute and fun and magical, and it’s a part of my childhood. What would’ve the pool been without pretending to be a mermaid? Boring, that’s what. But no amount of childhood nostalgia can remedy the fact that it’s unfeminist (At least, partly.)

I’m not talking about that whole big shlazoo with the cover art and all that. I actually couldn’t care less about that. I mean the actual story. Ariel is out in the ocean where she’s not supposed to be, doing things she is not supposed to do, and then falls in love with another species (an unattainable, highly sought after, rich and powerful other species). Ariel obsesses over Eric. I’m pretty sure that had she been on land, she would’ve been a stalker, perhaps collecting locks of his hair out of the garbage can. She fills an entire sea cave with stuff she has collected from… above. (Not unlike how people collect Alien artifacts I might add) And it becomes creepier when you think that she must have gotten all of this stuff from shipwrecks. She’s collecting dead mens’ things (but in the pursuit of education).

Anyways, when her dad finds out and says No, you can’t marry this human, you can’t leave our family, you need to stop this crazy-shit obsession with what you can’t have… she goes to a witch. Naturally. (I don’t think Ariel really realized why King Triton said no, or why she shouldn’t be hanging around ships. It’s the fear of discovery, I think. Triton’s no dummy. He fears the humans, and with good reason to. Let’s say that a human had seen Ariel, a beautiful and mysterious woman creature. What do you think would happen? They could catch her, for one. There are probably nets on board. And two, the humans are going to want to collect/find/study these strange new beings. And if they’re found to be a threat, the humans would hunt them and exterminate them. Don’t deny it, you know it’s true.)

Back to the witch. Of course, when your daddy says no, you dabble in the Occult. Like I was saying, this is basically the universal Plan B. Now, everything that has happened up to this point, merely trifles compared to what happens here. She sells her voice to the witch for a pair of legs. What she has in fact done here, however, is turned herself into a sex object. Ariel can no longer communicate any ideas, feelings, thoughts, opinions, anything. Zip. She can’t sign, nor write, nor does she have any basic knowledge of how people run things up on land. She brushes her hair with a fork, for god’s sake. She has no idea what she’s doing. Ariel goes up there dumb, deaf, and blind. All she has is “body language”. How do you make someone fall in love with you with only body language as your native tongue? Yeah, I thought so.

Let’s just play the lyrics, shall we?

URSULA:
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle pradle for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man

I think the implications of this song are pretty plain, which is unfortunate because it’s one of my all-time favorite Disney songs ever. Telling young girls not to speak because guy’s don’t want to talk to them is not the greatest message in the world. In fact, it’s one of the worst. Telling a woman from an early age not to be smart, not to think, not to express herself is the devolution of society. And don’t think that because they’re children they won’t pick up on these sorts of things, because they do. I knew the words to this song when I was young. But I’ll come back to this.

Let’s not forget that not only did she give up her voice, she gave up her entire family. She has like, what, twenty sisters? Granted, we only see them in the very beginning, and it appears Ariel is the odd sheep out, but is that really enough to literally cut off all contact with them? Over a boy you’ve never even spoken to before? (Singing to his unconscious body doesn’t count.)

And let’s just consider the cultural and historical context in which we find ourselves here. The Little Mermaid must’ve been set in England sometime in the Victorian era, meaning that love was a very subtle and nuanced and serious thing. And while love probably happened relatively quickly, Ariel has no cultural clues to make her understand. Women in this time period were groomed and educated specifically for courting. And Eric finding her alone, mostly naked, in the middle of the beach would have been so very, very scandalous  Single women were not even  allowed out of the house unchaperoned. Girls weren’t allowed to talk to guys until they had been “introduced”. Guys weren’t allowed to touch women, even their hand, unless they were out walking and she was about to trip. Girls weren’t allowed to look back over their shoulder at anyone. How is Ariel supposed to catch the attention of a Prince when she checks if someone is dead by listening to their foot? But I digress.

Back to the song: Because Ursula is the one singing Poor Unfortunate Souls, and because Ursula is the head honcho of evil in this movie, the song was meant to be ironic. Even though this message was getting sung, it was coming from the “bad guy”, the voiceless plan didn’t really pan out for Ariel, therefore: don’t do it. At least, I hope that’s what was intended. (The problem with this theory is the voiceless plan kind of actually did work out for Ariel. Eric was in love with her, he was just under Ursula’s spell. It kind of seemed like she had Eric pretty early on. Flotsam and Jetsam were just getting in their way. [Interesting aside: Flotsam and Jetsam are terms to describe wreckage from a ship.]) Fairy tales, after all, were originally horror stories meant to scare children into behaving. Perhaps Ariel’s story should be read as a cautionary tale. Ariel made wrong decisions, and we should learn from them. However, she also made right ones.

This movie is not horribly deplorable. You needn’t whisk away your child’s copy of the movie or trash your precious memories of Ariel, nor do you have to feel guilty about loving Ariel. I still do! While some of the Little Mermaid can be seen as unfeminist, there is also another side to this sand dollar.

A few feminist things about Little Mermaid:

Ariel is strong. She sees what she wants, and she goes to get it, relentless in her pursuit. Even though what she wants is a boy and not graduating from Harvard, that doesn’t make the strength of her struggle across obstacles on land and sea any less valid. Wanting a boy (or a girl) is okay. Being in love and wanting a family doesn’t make you unfeminist by any means.

Although, Ariel is very much invested in her education. She searches dangerous places, shipwrecks swimming with blood-thirsty sharks, just to collect not only forks and old candlesticks, but in lucky cases books and paintings. She risks life and limb to educate herself for her own education of a culture that is not her own. When have any of us risked so much to learn about Africa or Korea? She fights against the singing career all her other sister’s have thrived in to create something new, something of her own. She pushes against her own societal norms for adventure, excitement, and individuality.
She’s brave, independent, determined, intelligent, talented, confident, honest, caring, and true. Even though she makes mistakes, she’s a good role model for women.
And I know she doesn’t actually think you can check if someone is dead by listening to their foot. That was scuttle, who also taught her a fork is a comb. Moral here: watch out for idiots, kids. And adults. Don’t stop avoiding idiots just because you’re an adult. 

Ursula could have (perhaps) just stayed a young hot brunette up on land, but she’s not the kind of woman to give into vanity. She has some make up on, yes, but she has the power and the magic to shapeshift into anything and anyone, and she chooses to be her eight-
legged self. There’s something to be respected in that. Ursula is, if nothing else, a very powerful woman, rivaling King Triton–the ruler of the entire Ocean, and at one point even overpowering him. Ursula can definitely hold her own. And while malicious and vindictive, she’s a pretty badass ruler. (A totalitarian ruler of evil.)

Eric falling in love with Ariel, considering the culture he lives in, shows men pushing against their own stereotypes, societal pressures, and expectations. He’s a strong character, a decent man. He fought for Ariel, risking his life, even when the girl of his dreams turned into a fish and the woman he was about to marry turned into an octopus. Without hesitation, even when Ariel was a little different, and there were plenty more fish in the sea, he dove into the ocean after her.

King Triton really loved his daughter. Even though he came off angry and oppressive (probably due to his raging temper), he was just trying to protect his family. And when push came to shove, he gave up the power of the entire ocean to save just one of his children. He was a fair and just ruler, uncorrupted and unseduced by the potential for totalitarian power. He is a family man with true family values, a wise leader to be respected and learned from. In the end, he understands Ariel’s love for Eric is more than just a teenage crush. He sees eye-to-eye with his daughter, and mutual understanding is what gives the movie a happy ending.  

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