Last month I talked about tropes and the Bechdel test, and how I can apply them to my childhood favourite films. This month I’m getting cracking with one of my all-time favourite films from both my youth and my adulthood: Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Please note that this episode of Feminist Film School contains spoilers for anyone who has somehow failed to watch this classic in the 27 years since its release.
How does it compare to the source material?
For anyone who doesn’t know, The Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story Den Lille Havfrue. In the original story the titular mermaid is permitted to visit the surface on her 15th birthday. When she does, she sees and instantly falls for a human prince, and saves him from drowning when his ship is involved in a storm. To her dismay he never sees or notices her, and instead he mistakes a female bystander for his rescuer. She makes a bargain with a sea witch to swap her tail for legs at the expense of her tongue. The transformation feels like being sliced apart with a sword, and every time she steps on her new feet she suffers excruciating pain.
Although she forms a close friendship with the prince, he is obsessed with the girl he believe rescued him, and having bartered her tongue for her legs, the mermaid is unable to set the record straight. The prince subsequently marries the other girl while the mermaid looks on, devastated. On the wedding night, the mermaid’s five sisters surface, and they offer her a dagger from the sea witch, which they had traded for their beautiful hair. If the mermaid murders the prince with the knife, and dribbles his blood on her feet, she will become a mermaid again and be allowed to rejoin her sisters. However, she is unable to go through with the task due to her enduring love for the prince, and instead throws herself and the dagger overboard and dissolves into foam, before ascending to the state of airborne benevolent spirit, bound to act as a guardian for 300 years before ascending to heaven.
There’s a lot not to like about this original story with regards to feminism, not least the overt messaging that women suffer unbearably for love while men coast along oblivious and impervious to the heartbreak they’re leaving in their wake (lots of water-based puns there, I apologise). The mermaid not only suffers great emotional pain, but literal physical pain in an attempt to win her prince’s affections.
In this respect, the Disney adaptation tones down a lot of the turmoil, while still staying relatively faithful to Den Lille Havfrue. This is probably because cutting out tongues, suicide and trading hair for instruments of murder aren’t very family-friendly, but ultimately it means that there is far less violence exacted against the central character. Also, while the mermaid in the original story is 15, the Disney film ages her up a year, making Ariel one of many cartoon child brides. I will never understand why, when they could make their characters any age they please, Disney’s decision-makers want to create stories about girls in their teens getting married.
Are there any tropes present?
Of course there are. First and foremost, Ursula the Sea Witch falls very squarely in the “Evil Matriarch” category. Also, something I find somewhat troubling, Ursula’s appearance was based on the drag queen Divine which could subliminally reinforce the idea that non-binary presentations are inherently bad, evil or dangerous. Also, Ursula is one of the few full-figured characters present, creating the dichotomy of attractive/thin characters being good and unattractive/larger characters being bad.
While Ariel does rescue prince Eric in the first instance, he later rescues her and slays Ursula. It’s a common theme in Disney films that, no matter how involved a female character is in a final battle, the man or some coincidental clumsiness is always the downfall of the antagonist. This probably has a lot to do with the traditional role of female characters as Damsels in Distress, as well as the idea that women are victims and men are saviours.
This film also suffers from a case of the Mystery Mothers, as Ariel has multiple sisters, a present father and no mother to speak of. Do mermaid hatch from eggs? Do they spontaneously come into creation? Where is Ariel’s mum?
It’s also possible to argue that Ariel falls slightly (very slightly) into the Trophy and Manic Pixie Dream Girl categories, and I should also point out that Ariel literally says the words “But daddy, I love him!” which is the stuff cliched teenage drama is made of.
Anything else troubling?
Well, one thing that really struck me was that, following Ariel’s very passive seduction attempts during the song Kiss the Girl Ursula calls Ariel a “tramp.” In a kid’s movie, over a kiss that doesn’t actually happen. I don’t need to explain why that’s bad. Also, the fact that there’s a song called Kiss the Girl which encourages a man to kiss a mute woman without her consent is, well, problematic. As it happens, she shows signs of non-verbal consent which sort of make it okay in context, but all the same…
While there is not as much explicit discussion of physical and emotional pain as a consequence of Ariel’s pursuit of love, she is still disempowered by her agreement with Ursula. It doesn’t help that when Ariel voices (sorry) her concerns about communicating with Eric once she’s relinquished her voice, Ursula says, “You’ve got your looks, your pretty face, and never underestimate the importance of body language.” This smacks of ableism; if you’re conventionally attractive your other limitations don’t matter. In fact, Ursula’s song Poor Unfortunate Souls is full of pervasive language, and even includes an unnamed female character making a magical barter to be thinner.
And finally, does it pass the Bechdel Test?
Erm… sort of. It depends what you’d classify as a “conversation.” Ariel’s sisters (all named) sing a song introducing themselves. At one point Ariel and Ursula discuss the terms of their agreement, though the agreement is hinged around Eric, so this is on dodgy ground. Also, Carlotta the maid briefly talks to Ariel about being washed on shore by a shipwreck and Ariel responds non-verbally (because she has no voice at this point). I’d say these facts in combination should probably edge The Little Mermaid into passing territory, but barely.
So… what have we learned?
On the one hand, The Little Mermaid is an entertaining film about asserting your identity despite your upbringing and fighting for what you love. On the other, it’s a film about a teenager disobeying parental safety instructions and casting her family aside for a bloke she’s seen once, disabling herself in the process and ultimately aiding in the execution of a giant squid usurper before becoming a child bride in a very 80s wedding dress.
Join me next month for Anastasia (1997)
– Elena the mermaid