Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This Mermaid's Thoughts on The Little Mermaid

So, in this day and age of Disney Princesses and Feminism, we all have an idea of what Hans Christian Andersen's and Disney's "The Little Mermaid" are all about.  But let me recap for you who might not be as familiar as I am.

After hearing about her older sisters' adventures exploring outside of the ocean, a young Sea Princess is extremely curious about the world on land but has to wait until she is 15 for her chance.  During her exploration, she sees a ship crashing and saves a man who fell into the ocean knowing that men cannot breath underwater.  She falls completely in love with him.

Lo and behold, he is a Prince.  In desperation, she goes to the famed and feared Sea Witch to see if she could do anything for the Little Mermaid.  The Sea Witch makes a bargain:  The Little Mermaid has to give her voice to the Sea Witch in exchange for human legs.

In the Andersen version, she would feel like she's constantly walking on the sharpest knives, and there was no deadline for the Little Mermaid to have the Prince marry her.  However, the Sea Witch is merely helping the Little Mermaid because she was asked to help.  She actually stays with the Prince for a very long time.  However, the Prince still believes that another princess was the one who saved him from the sea.  In the Disney version, she has 3 days to get the Prince to kiss her, and the Sea Witch is mainly out for revenge and power. 

In the Andersen story, she sacrifices her life to keep him alive, but ends up as sea foam.  The Prince did love her, but not romantically.  The Prince lives a happy life with his other princess, and the Little Mermaid becomes a Spirit of the Air and eventually gains a soul, which mermaids do not have.  Clearly, the Walt Disney Studios couldn't have a title character die, so she gets her Prince, and her father blesses their union with a rainbow in the sky.

Ariel's name, in fact, is an ode to Andersen's ending, representing the Spirits of the Air. ad, photography by Annie Liebowitz
Romantic Point of View
Perhaps for some, Disney's Little Mermaid might be a symbol that dreams do come true, and that a Prince will then do everything in his power to protect you if you are willing to do anything for him as well.  After all, love should lead to an equal partnership.

In the Andersen version, the Little Mermaid truly sacrifices everything.  But because of her love, the Prince was able to live a long and happy life.  After all, love should mean that you are able to let your partner live their most fulfilling life.

Now, while I believe that we all deserve our happily ever after, there are some that seek that out and actively try to reach that fairytale goal no matter what.  Some believe they have to give up a lot, while others believe they'll only have to give up a little bit.  Either way, there is always something you will have to give up, even if it means that your partner doesn't have to.
Painting by Howard Pyle
Feminist Point of View
The general feminist point of view of the Little Mermaid is that she is a horrible role model for little girls.  She teaches girls that men will like you if you do not speak or speak only when you are spoken to.  She teaches that you should do whatever it takes to make someone fall in love with you, even if it means altering your body.  It also teaches girls that men and romantic love are more important than your family.

Here's a funny video about this point of view.

However, there is another feminist point of view that reflects upon this character: Ariel and the Little Mermaid are both strong female characters and role models.

Not only does she stand up to the patriarchal and perhaps racist system that her father uses to "keep her down" or oppress her, but she also seeks help from another female source.  In Andersen's version, there is very little about the sea king, and the majority of adult characters are all female.  The Sea Witch is more about the dark and mysterious side of femininity, and she wields her own power in that way.

Would the story have been different if she just tried to get his attention without the Sea Witch's help?  Ariel's original idea was to ask her friends to help her get his attention. Getting legs, though it was something she was curious about, wasn't necessarily her first choice.  It really wasn't until

In the Disney version, Ursula makes bargains with various merfolk who usually want selfish things they could actually attain themselves ("This one's longing to be thinner, that one wants to get the girl, and do I help them?  Yes I do.").  While Ursula is still the villain because of her harsh punishments, she also insinuates that she changed after being removed from the palace, though she doesn't specify whether she was a better creature back then or not.

In the Andersen version, she realizes that sacrificing her most precious asset prevented the Prince from really seeing who she was, but she also learns that causing more pain by killing him would not solve a thing.  She took responsibility for her actions and her choices.  Perhaps love doesn't have to mean sacrificing after all.

In the Disney version, Ariel actually stands up for herself after realizing that she had been tricked.  In fact, she doesn't let the fact that she was human and voiceless stop her from trying to do something about it.  Perhaps the only unfortunate part of the ending was that she couldn't stay a mermaid, though if Prince Eric loved her enough he would marry her regardless.

Historian Point of View
In the introduction of Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales written by Jackie Wullschlager, she basically breaks down his life story and mentions when he wrote certain stories.  There was some speculation that Andersen was actually bisexual, and often conflicted with his conflicting sides. Considering that Andersen and the 1800's had strong religious values, it makes sense that Andersen would question the validity of his soul and reflect that in his stories.

Being that mermaids are of two opposing natures, it is quite possible that "The Little Mermaid" was written about him wanting to be with someone but not being able to. I am sure that his version of mermaids without a soul was a reflection on how he felt separated from God because of his feelings.  The idea that the Little Mermaid would only gain a soul by being loved by a human and by sacrificing her happiness surely reflects on his decisions.
My Point of View
When I was young and had just arrived from the Philippines, it seemed that mermaids were quite popular in film.  "Splash" had been released under Disney's live-action branch, and (SPOILER ALERT) ended with the human male joining the mermaid in her world.  Shelly Duvall's "Fairy Tale Theater" also had their version of "The Little Mermaid," which was more true to Andersen's original story.  And of course, there was Disney's "The Little Mermaid," which basically solidified my love for mermaids.

The story and the mythology spoke to my own experiences, focusing mainly on really wanting to be part of a world in which I didn't belong and willing to do anything to fit in.  At the age of 5, after being bullied, I had already made the conscious decision to stop speaking Tagalog so that I would lose my Filipino accent.  I had given up my voice, and it isn't until after doing so did I realize that I had given up an important part of who I am.

To me, Ariel was a scientist and an explorer, collecting artifacts from a world she is curious about, much like my own collection of seashell jewelry and my interest in Middle Eastern culture through belly dance.  The Little Mermaid's strength in continuing to walk regardless of the sharp stabbing pain not only shows her resolve in getting what she wants, but also reflects on the pain involved in changing in general.

I personally never agreed with the idea that giving up her tail would make someone fall in love with her.  In fact, it's clear that the Prince in Andersen's version loved her but felt unable to communicate, whereas Eric loved Ariel knowing full well that she was a mermaid.

While Andersen's version mentioned that the mermaid would gain a soul with the love of a human, it was her grandmother who assumed that the Prince would not love her because of her tail - yet, what if she did try to interact with the Prince as a mermaid?  What if King Triton actually waited for Eric to wake up so that he could see Ariel as she truly was?  If he loved her, it wouldn't matter.  I do believe that if she were left to her own devices, "The Little Mermaid" would look a lot more like "Splash."
Splash Movie Poster
I remember being excited that Disney was going to release a sequel to their version of the story.  Though I did find it silly that they basically told the same story using her human daughter wanting to be a mermaid, I was more excited to watch Eric and Ariel interact with each other.  Even though their interaction was not as highlighted as Ariel's relationship with her daughter, it was clear to me that there was love.  Selfishly, it felt validating.

In the end, the lessons I learned from both versions of "The Little Mermaid" will probably stick with me for the rest of my life.  Your voice is your best asset, and giving it up makes you lose your power.  It's okay to explore other worlds and other cultures, but never lose sight of where you came from.  Trust your gut and seek help from friends rather than strangers.

I will always and forever love "The Little Mermaid" in any form that it's told.  And no one can convince me otherwise.

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