I recently got the urge for a Disney marathon and wanted to finally revive my favourite of them all, The Little Mermaid. My sister and I would watch it on VCR on repeat, rewinding back to the start in a scratchy blur of colour, ready to sing along with Sebastian and his crustacean band again and again.
This time, the magic was lost on me. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun. The colourfully animated underwater world, harking back to 1989 (a time before mass CGI animation broke loose), was still impressive. I found myself rooting for justice against the raucous charm of the sea witch Ursula, and honestly, what’s not to love about a crooning Jamaican crab?
The thing is: Ariel just isn’t the girl I thought she was.
The original fairytale, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, did not end with the same ‘happily-ever-after’ as the Disneyfied version. The Little Mermaid does not marry the prince and remain human. Instead, she surrenders her tongue in a bargain with the sea witch to win the prince, and she is warned that her newly acquired legs will cause her relentless stabbing pain. The prince, on meeting her, encourages her to dance and she performs for him despite the agony of the act. However, her gamble is not rewarded, and the prince becomes engaged to another. The Little Mermaid can say nothing to reveal herself as his saviour during the storm at sea. She is doomed to a broken heart, and worse, the fate of dissolving into sea foam.
Her mermaid sisters offer her a reprisal in the form of a dagger, and she can return to the sea if she kills the prince before his wedding. The Little Mermaid cannot murder him, and so she evaporates into sea mist. The twist is that she becomes ‘a daughter of the air’, and rather than disappearing into nothingness, she gains an immortal soul.
The original story is far more tragic than the Disney adaptation, but arguably both endings finish with her being set free either culturally or spiritually. In the film, Ariel regains her voice once Ursula is defeated and she is transformed into a human by her father, King Triton. This is significant as he once despaired of her curiosity with the unknown world above the waves, yet later grants her legs to live as a ‘part of their world’ permanently.
The Little Mermaid marries her prince, and they kiss on the bow of a boat with a procession of mer-people waving farewell from the surface. Ultimately, Ariel chooses the unknown: a life with legs, a human prince, and a place where she imagines ‘bright young women, sick of swimming.’
This life comes at a price, though. Her family cannot visit her on land, and it is a place that serves up her fishy friends on seafood platters. Is Ariel’s drive to explore a different life so strong that she can happily abandon her former existence completely?
It’s important to remind ourselves that mermaids haven’t always enjoyed good PR. Mermaids have been awarded a more sinister history in literature and sea lore. Homer writes of deadly sirens in his epic Odyssey, where they use their mesmerising voices to seduce seamen to rocky deaths:
‘Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did…’ (12.184-189)
A voice is more than an instrument for the sirens, whose songs have the power to lure men to their doom. They are formidable females who are able to captivate even the strongest sailors. With this in mind, when the Little Mermaid surrenders her voice to the sea witch, she essentially gives away her agency and the very essence of being a mermaid. Her beauty remains, but her power has been stripped away.
Even the adjective ‘little’ which prefixes her title in the Disney version only emphasises her powerlessness, as it seems to diminish her. It’s easier to imagine Ursula calling Ariel ‘the Little Mermaid’ as she steals her power, or her father despairing of his disobedient daughter by using it in a patronising way to show her youth and lack of worldly experience. Either way, by using coy descriptives such as ‘little’, Ariel becomes belittled by those around her.
In the Disney version, Prince Eric seeks a bride that sings the tune that he heard when he was salvaged from the shipwreck. Of course, it was Ariel’s song and there is dramatic irony in the way that she has surrendered the tool that would have made him automatically love her. Ariel’s desperation to live above the waves and marry the prince forces her to sacrifice her most precious gift – her voice. The song would have sealed her happiness, but by using words, she could also have revealed her identity as his stormy rescuer. When the sea witch removes the Little Mermaid’s voice, she removes her temptress powers and forces her to communicate through her actions.
Disney portray Ariel as a loveable and girlish mute, who flicks back her hair, bites her lip and clumsily stumbles into the arms of her prince. Asides from briefly snatching the reins and launching a horse across a ravine, her sense of curiosity and self assurance seems lost. Gone are the days of fighting sharks in shipwrecks, hoarding human artefacts in a secret lair and having fiery spats with her father.
Instead, she is filled with earnestness, waiting impassively for the prince propose to her. She simply nods, smiles and dreamily combs her hair with a fork. The prince does not seem overly concerned in getting her to regain her command of language, and readily accepts that she is in shock from surviving her own shipwreck.
Let’s take a closer look at Sebastian’s seductive Kiss de Girl song:
There you see her
Sitting there across the way
She don’t got a lot to say
But there’s something about her
And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl
Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
It’s possible she wants you, too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl
Fictional spell aside, this is song is about submission. Ariel’s predicament of making the prince fall in love with her is made worse by the fact that she is so helpless relying on her looks alone. A pond full of singing creatures are hell-bent on the idea of him kissing her. It is only her as a still, silent beauty that Sebastian refers to, and although he mentions ‘there’s something about her’, it does not convey her sense of adventure, rebellion, or intelligence. She cannot physically speak, but the line saying that ‘She don’t got a lot to say’ seems obtuse, suggesting that the ideal woman expresses herself only through her beauty. The audience is encouraged to overlook this in their anticipation of a romantic conclusion.
I’m not alone in my perception of the ginger mermaid. Especially when you look at how far equality has come with the new red-headed heroine Princess Merida in Brave. Ariel sacrifices so much for her happy ending, but is her life with the prince worth it? Altman and DeVos claim that:
‘[Disney] betray Andersen’s tale while it exploits society’s obsession with physical beauty and romantic love’
What do you think?
Does Ariel become a strong woman complete with her own voice? Or is the Disney version a fairytale with as much substance as sea foam?
The original fairytale summary, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid
Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults, by Anne E. Altman and Gail DeVos (2001), p.187.
Ariel’s song, ‘Part of your world’, Disney Sing Along, http://youtu.be/mGoXtSw0Ias