Consuming pop culture while feminist: Disney’s The Little Mermaid

picture of the author, age 6, on stage at a dance recital, wearing green mermaid tail and pink top with hands waving in the airWhen I was a little girl, I loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I mean, I loved it. I used to sit in front of the TV screen for hours at a time, rewinding the video as soon as the movie ended, to watch it all over again from the start. I used to – and I can’t believe I’m about to reveal this publicly – sit in the bathtub wearing swimming flippers, combing my hair and singing like Ariel. So I mean it when I say that I loved The Little Mermaid.

When I was about seven or eight, Ariel and I parted ways, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I had a roommate who was particularly partial to Disney movies, that I sat down and watched The Little Mermaid again. In the years since I had stopped watching the movie religiously, I had, obviously, grown up a lot. I had had my feminist “click” moment, and had started seeing the world through a feminist lens. I had started thinking about how women are depicted in advertising and movies and pop music lyrics and videos. I had been especially shocked and disappointed to learn, courtesy of a particularly fierce feminist English teacher, the origins of the fairy tales we tell young girls. The central message of the original Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is that curious young ladies who venture too far from home and get raped in the woods deserve what they get. But for some reason, it had never occurred to me to think about The Little Mermaid from a feminist perspective. When I sat down with my roommates at 19 and watched it again, The Little Mermaid just about broke my heart.

The Little Mermaid is, quite simply, a feminist’s worst nightmare. This movie is about, as a very wise friend of mine once put it, a young woman who gives up her voice to get a pair of legs so that she can snare a man. It’s about the triumph of “good” women – young, slender, silent and lovesick – over “bad” women – old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual. It’s about a young woman forced to choose between her father’s world and her husband’s world, and there is nothing in between. And there’s the unsettling fact that the song “Kiss the Girl” tells us that the “one way to ask” if a woman wants you to kiss her, is to just kiss her.

Of course, when it comes to Disney movies, the problems I’ve pointed out here are only the tip of the iceberg. Disney movies, and the full-length animated features in particular, are almost all problematic. Whether it’s how they deal with race, class, gender, ability or colonialism, all the Disney Princess movies have their problems. And of course, each of them is a product of their time. But knowing this makes me perhaps even more disappointed in The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, when feminism was alive and well and making its way into popular discourse. I can’t help but wonder if the movie is indicative of resistance and backlash to the changing role of women in America at the time. The thought makes me feel, if possible, even more disappointed.

The lessons we learn as children are incredibly powerful ones – they inform the way we view the world for years to come, and because we learn them at such a young age, because we just know them, we often never think to question them. When we do, it can be uncomfortable and scary, as though a person you’ve known forever has in fact been lying to you all this time. For me, my first adult viewing of The Little Mermaid felt like a betrayal. I had loved this movie, idolized its heroine, believing that her thirst for knowledge and adventure made her a wonderful heroine, and even dressed up as her for my year-end dance recital (yes, that really is me in that photo). And for all those years, it had been lying to me, selling me a harmful sexist message in a brightly colored package, complete with witty lyrics and a happy ending.

Watching The Little Mermaid as an adult made me realize the importance of being open to questioning everything, even the things you know – or think you know – to be true. Watching this once-beloved Disney classic post-”click” moment made me realize that once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, it’s very hard to stop. Once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, everything you know – or think you know – begins to look different. That’s what makes feminism so powerful.

and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

73 Comments

  1. Steveo
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I found a similar thing after I started looking at religion again long after becoming an atheist and studying science in depth. But confronting and ridding yourself of the old dogma you learned makes you feel much better, or at least it did for me!

  2. caeron
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    It is a side point to your excellent analysis of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but the origins and ‘meaning’ of little red riding hood in its multitude of forms aren’t known, if you can even say a folktale has a meaning (as opposed to a parable).
    You could read a particular version of the story and by analysis ascribe to it a social purpose, but to generalize about a piece of folklore isn’t useful. The stories are folded, spindled, and mutilated as they pass through time and space to serve whatever purpose the teller wishes. I personally believe that these stories are just the mass media of yesteryear. Scary stories with the innocent menaced or killed were as popular then as they are now.
    In Little Red Riding Hood, sometimes the girl is eaten, sometimes she outwits the wolf. In all versions, she is dutifully visiting her grandmother. So to say that the story is to warn women not to wander seems a stretch to me, absent a social context that would clarify that. I could as easily say that the ‘meaning’ of the story is that girls who dutifully visit their grandmothers should be killed. This latter ‘meaning’ is at least consistent with all the variants of the story I know.

  3. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    On board with you all the way. I always bring this up whenever we discuss the little Mermaid, but there was another ‘click’ moment for me in that movie, which is especially awful in the aftermath of the Hatian disaster — the role of Sebastian, the miniature Haitian helper “crab.” Disney has had trouble depicting issues of race and ethnicity all over the place, but in this specific instance, we see a French “chef” (i.e., colonial forces) trying to cook Sebastian, even going so far as to puff some flour on his face so that he turns white. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Disney for some reason wanted to make a mockery of the French colonization of Haiti, and I don’t think it’s any more of a stretch to say, good gorgeous that’s awful.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuuEDDyvzuE
    For more information about the history of colonialism and debt extortion that went along with France’s occupation of Haiti, this is a great place to start: http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/186/34476.html

  4. Nick
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me, from a gender-flipped perspective, of my own realizations on watching Revenge of the Nerds as an adult. As a kid, before I “got” all the sexual overtones, it just seemed like a comeuppance for all the types of people that were making my life hell. Then I didn’t watch it for years, because who watched teen sex comedies, really, until I was in my twenties and threw it on intending to get some nostalgic good fun.
    Instead, I was forcibly reminded that we live in a culture where violation of privacy and literal sexual assault–quite literal, the moon room scene is straight-up rape–are seen as legitimate ways for men who feel disempowered to get their own back. The themes are universally disgusting.

  5. Blithely Zealotic
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I desperately wanted the choir solo for the Little Mermaid when we sang Disney songs in High School. I had been compared to the Ariel since I was small, and wanted the validation.
    When I learned about the true Little Mermaid (the old tale), I was shocked. The protagonist wouldn’t have been able to walk on her new legs without feeling stabbing, horrible pain. Silent and enduring pain, she’d have to win over her prince. If she didn’t in the time allotted? She’d turn into sea foam and die.
    She didn’t win over her man, another woman did. And this protagonist was so good, so sweet and fair, that she even agreed to hold this woman’s train at their wedding. It’s a really sick lesson about which traits we expect in women, which traits we value, and which are viewed as desirable. So self -sacrificing, so good. It makes me sick to even think about it.

  6. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I find The Little Mermaid a mixed bag as far as gender issues go. The issues you brought up are all valid and make me uncomfortable, since it was my favorite movie as a kid too. (Although I’m willing to give “Kiss the Girl” a pass, because in context it is aaaall about the enthusiastic nonverbal consent. And now that I think about it, it’s an interesting way to externalize the constraints on women to be passive and unable to voice their desires–especially since it is treated as a constraint.)
    The thing is, though, that Little Mermaid and all the second-generation Disney films that followed it? Such a vast improvement on the previous “someday my prince will come” model. Despite all the craptastic princess marketing that’s tainted the image of the Disney heroines, Ariel, Belle, and their ilk follow a pretty distinctive pattern: they are constrained and unhappy in their current situation, they want something else, and they go get it. And that something else is not a handsome prince to whisk them away. The fulfillment of their desire takes place through the traditional fairy-tale model, with the prince representing what they want, but the desire itself has nothing to do with finding a man. Yes, it’s problematic that Ariel has been drooling over the human world for years and falling in love with a human dude is the kick in the pants she needs to get her to act. But that’s a lot better than having no desires, or subordinating her own desires for the sake of getting a prince. The prince is the embodiment of her already-existing desires.
    Basically, I look at Little Mermaid as a partial subversion of the fairytale model, or at least using that model for a different (and, yes, feminism-influenced) purpose. The buckets and buckets of issues involved in that model don’t all magically go away, the issues specific to the original fairytale often remain (hello, Beauty and the Beast and abusive relationships), and it being Disney, there is inevitably race fail and class fail and exoticism fail. But Little Mermaid and its 1990s successors aren’t total feminist nightmares.
    Anyway, it’s sometimes surprising what little kids pick up from movies like this. I think my four-year-old self somehow understood that the prince was a trope, that he wasn’t the point, because what I really identified with was the idea of being different and trapped and wanting something else. Even now, when I think of it, the first lyric that comes into my head is “I want more.”

  7. Maeve
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s even more disturbing if you watch the sequel that came out about 7 or 8 years ago. Ariel is transformed from the vivacious and adventurous teenager, to a boring and worry wart mother. On the plus side, she does end up getting her fins back to try and rescue her daughter, but it’s still kind of frustrating that a woman can’t be married and have children and still have adventures.

  8. beckeck06
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    here’s a short (5pg) paper I wrote on the hans christian anderson version that might be of some interest to you… I was arguing that it COULD be read as a feminist text.
    H.C. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid; A Feminist’s Fairytale After All?
    At first glance, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid upholds all the usual narratives about women, down to the very thrust of the story: self-sacrifice for a man’s love. However, unlike most fairytales that gloss over and normalize the heroine’s sufferings, The Little Mermaid is unusually graphic in recounting the little mermaid’s trials. In effect, the brutal depictions of her sufferings problematize her sacrifices and call attention to the injustice of her situation. In addition, the ultimate failure of the little mermaid to win the prince’s love and her resulting death refute the legitimacy of such a paradigm. Though characters and storyline conform to the traditional narrative of women’s sacrifice and suffering in silence, Andersen’s graphic rendering of that story breaks the silence and with it, the validity of the narrative itself.
    Both in life and in stories, the pain that a woman suffers in order to “succeed” by societal standards is often untold and undervalued. History is replete with examples, in part due to utter lack of acknowledgement of that suffering, which implies that it is not true pain, and in part due to the Christian valorization of silent suffering. For instance, many women today get bikini waxes in order to satisfy the societal standard that women should not have body hair. Ultimately, pain that goes unacknowledged is never looked at critically. By calling attention to the little mermaid’s pain from oysters, walking on knives, and losing her tongue, Andersen does not glorify her sacrifices but lays open to question the purpose and worth of that which causes her pain. Dwelling on the gravity of her sacrifices, the reader questions the little mermaid’s decisions, as well as the society in which she lives.
    One type of pain that this story deals with is suffering due to a coming-of-age ceremony. When the little mermaid turns fifteen, she becomes an adult. As a right of passage, her grandmother gives her a wreath of lilies for her hair, and orders eight oysters to attach themselves to the little mermaid’s tail. Like many female coming-of-age practices around the world, the attachment of oysters is incredibly painful. A particularly distressing parallel today is the practice of female circumcision, which occurs in countries around the world, across cultures and religions. Yet, “Pride must suffer pain,” Andersen offers through the voice of the grandmother. This phrase embodies the traditional attitude towards female coming-of-age, and the characters in the story certainly do subscribe to this ideology. Nonetheless, with such forceful detail on pain, the reader cannot help but question if it is worth “pride.” The little mermaid herself supports the latter view, and thinks, “how gladly she would have shaken off all this grandeur, and laid aside the heavy wreath!” Although the characters’ behavior mirrors social norms, Andersen undermines the pattern by revealing the dark reality that goes with it.
    The side effects of the potion that the little mermaid takes to become human present an example of suffering for beauty. First, when “the little mermaid drank the magic draught, it seemed as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” This is eerily reminiscent of modern-day cosmetic surgery, considering the little mermaid was told, “Your fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome.” Furthermore, with every step the little mermaid takes, she feels as if she is walking on knives. Andersen considers this pain so important that he describes it vividly on several occasions, reminding the reader, at every step, of the price the little mermaid pays to please the prince. “She danced again quite readily, to please him, though each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives.” Later, “She climbed with the prince to the tops of high mountains; and although her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked, she only laughed, and followed him…” In some senses, her sacrifice seems exaggerated and unrealistic. However, it is not unlike the now obsolete practice of Chinese footbinding, or its modern reincarnate, high-heeled shoes. Indeed, Andersen’s exaggeration is intentional and serves as a harsh condemnation of a system that encourages such mutilation.
    Perhaps the most telling example of silent suffering is little mermaid’s sacrifice of her voice. Once again, her natural character fits the stereotypical ideal–she has always “been silent and thoughtful.” Nonetheless, in order to have her chance with the prince, she must entirely forsake her voice. As payment for the potion that will turn the little mermaid into a human, the sea witch cuts out her tongue, violently claiming her right to be heard. This picture is a clear statement about the female voice in society. Although no one else in the story knows that this is the reason for her reticence, the reader does. And though her other sufferings are consequently “silent sufferings,” the reader still knows, and Andersen’s insistence to make visible her pains to the reader challenge the tradition of “silent suffering” and problematize the lack of female voice in society. Andersen adds that silent suffering may be the worst kind of suffering. In his story, mermaids cannot cry because they “have no tears, and therefore they suffer more.” This story itself can be seen to serve as the mermaids’ tears, making visible their suffering so as to validate, and lessen it.
    Apart from the explicitness of pain in this story, Andersen also departs from the usual, victorious, fairytale ending. Unlike Disney’s famous counterpart, Andersen’s original little mermaid does not get the man. The strongest female voice in the story, that of the sea witch, even warns her of this before the little mermaid takes the potion, saying that to do so is “very stupid” and will bring her sorrow. Andersen’s version rejects the traditional model that promises social rewards for sacrifice and suffering.
    Paradoxically, the little mermaid does indeed win an immortal soul. This twist was not included in Andersen’s original version of the story, and has complicated ethical implications for our heroine. Andersen sets up a world in which the prince’s love is equated with the attainment of an immortal soul. Each time a character mentions the prince’s love, a reference to an immortal soul follows. They are effectively one in the same. All of the characters who live in the sea are women, with the sole exception of the old sea king, who is essentially absent. Conversely, the characters on land include the prince’s slave-girls, the prince’s parents, the prince’s bride, and, of course, the prince. The characters on land are defined by their relation to the prince. Thus, merpeople represent women and humans represent men. With this understanding, Andersen’s ascription of a soul to humans but not to merpeople can be read as an innate, divine justification for men, but not for women. In his world, women must earn such justification through marriage to a man. With Andersen’s revised ending, in which the little mermaid joins the daughters of the air in purgatory and then presumably attains an immortal soul, women’s dependence on men for divine justification is abolished.
    Even as this dependence is abolished, the spiritual hierarchy is upheld. Unable to at once refute the paradigm from within it, and completely escape it, Andersen’s new vision continues to credit men with innate spirituality, and makes women earn it. Granted, it is consequently less a story of receiving Adam’s rib , and more a story of self-sacrifice. Indeed, this revised twist turns the previous discussion on sacrifice on its head, reverting to traditional veneration of self-sacrifice and suffering. The little mermaid wins an immortal soul through her “good deeds,” presumably putting the life and wellbeing of the prince forever before her own. Perhaps Disney was right to discard the religious theme, as it seems incongruous to the initial attitude of the text.
    Andersen does not provide a positive example for readers to follow. Instead, his story is reflects the traditional ideal in a failed fairytale. Yet, her failure offers an empowering, feminist critique of this paradigm. Furthermore, The Little Mermaid may be validating for women readers who see their own pain openly expressed. Lastly, the story serves as a warning to other “little mermaids” who might be tempted by societal pressures to follow the little mermaid’s example– A life choice like the little mermaid’s does not lead to happiness for women.

  9. Leonorah
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I think your observations about the Little Mermaid are pretty accurate, and it definitely has a lot of anti-feminist elements. (Although if I were going to nominate a Disney movie as a feminist’s worst nightmare, it would be Cinderella.)
    I also dressed up as Ariel and loved the movie a lot as a kid, and although some anti-feminist messages might have sunk in (believing a good girl was “pure” and non-sexual, which I didn’t reevaluate until I was older) I think what really appealed to me was that Ariel was a capable female heroine who made decisive and difficult choices, and kind of rebelled against what was acceptable. She knew who she was and what she wanted, even though a lot of that did revolve around a man.
    I’m not trying to apologize for the problematic parts of the movie, I just want to say that recognizing them doesn’t mean you have to condemn the whole thing and feel like you were deceived as a child. We live in a sexist society and there are harmful sexist messages in just about everything, and we should look for those messages and criticize them, but not let them ruin our enjoyment. There are still a lot of really good things to appreciate about that film, such as the animation and music. And Ariel does have a few empowering qualities.

  10. Nikaara
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I was another die hard Little Mermaid fan. I watched it constantly after it came out on VHS. One of my clearest memories of my fourth birthday is going to Toys R Us to get the Ariel and Eric Barbie dolls the night before.
    Because I still listen to TLM soundtrack and feel like a bad feminist for all the reasons already mentioned, I like to delude myself by explaining the movie like this: Ariel may have traded her voice in for a pair of legs, but Eric fell in love with her voice. You know…her opinions? It works if you tell yourself it does!

  11. Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    This kind of mythology influences our childhood and then our adulthood, and I always note when people even my age assume that situations in their lives will resolve themselves like some ancient Hollywood plot device.
    I think perhaps we need to take a close look and determine what we consider “harmless” when it comes down to what she show our children or allow them access to without contemplating the consequences.
    But there are also ways to worry about this so much that it destroys your peace of mind. Like everything in life, a balance must be struck.

  12. allegra
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    James Thurber, a humorist for _The New Yorker_ in the ’30s and ’40s, in spite of suffering from some acute masculinity anxiety and writing occasional sexist tripe, wrote a more feminist-compatible version of Little Red Riding Hood: ” … for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.” :o )
    In _Fables for Our Time_. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/quotes/picnicba.html
    lol. It gets me every time.

  13. valencia_o
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Refreshing, succinct observations!
    Though my friends and I value the Disney canon nostalgically, there is indeed some insidiously devastating sentiment contained in that endearing 2-D animation. Some stories, honestly, can’t even be appreciated ironically, perhaps least of all Disney’s version of “The Little Mermaid”.
    I’d like to point out, as someone who is currently a student of the Romantic poets – whose era was famously rife with vivid social commentary in literature, especially as it applied to women’s sexuality – that the preachy Little Red Riding Hood story is, in addition to operating via scare-tactic, centered on a blatant reference to female genitalia, that, is the clitoral hood.
    I have to disagree, though, with the idea that feminism was “alive and well” in 1989. From what I’ve read, the ’80s were a devastating time for feminism, an infamous setback from the past two decades. The ’89 release of “The Little Mermaid” seems a fittingly detrimental way to round out the decade. :(

  14. darthflamingo
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s one of the more obvious ones, but if you’re looking to be really appallingly shocked, watch Disney’s Peter Pan, again.
    Gender role messages abound, but I’m pretty sure the worst offense is the song, “What makes the red man red?”
    When I asked my mom about it as an adult, she said that she cringed every time it came on screen. I can’t believe they let me watch it in the first place.

  15. zes
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Interesting.
    To me this is much more a tale of a girl who has left Plato’s cave and brought back the tale of the world beyond, but those who are content with shadows on the walls try to hold her back.
    The father wants the girl to have no sexuality (no legs, because with the tail, she has, well, no vagina) and be under his thumb, and the older woman (Ursula) ALSO wants to control and diminish the girl’s sexuality. It is the other WOMAN who tries to take away Ariel’s voice and tells her that “it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word, and after all dear, what is idle prattle for?” and that men, “dote and swoon and fawn, on a lady who’s withdrawn; it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man”. This is actually insightful, because all too often this is something women do to one another. Honor killings, I am told by a friend who works in a deprived Muslim area, are more often carried out by men, but actually ORDERED by matriarchs of the tribe whose power and standing within that system is fragile but at least it is something, and it rests on their ironclad control of the younger women. Too often we see women policing each other to stay inside the patriarchy’s boundaries.
    Ariel fights back in her thirst for knowledge and sexuality, that is set in contrast to her ditzy sisters who only care about putting on makeup. She does not want Eric in particular – she has never even seen him when she sings of how she wants to be in another world, one full of books and science and (very Prometheus / Plato) fire, singing, “Betcha on land, they understand, and they don’t reprimand their daughters – bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand.”
    Eric is simply from that world. Indeed he is the feminist partner. He falls in love with her because she is strong, she saves his life. Then he decides to marry her because even without a voice, she is funny and interesting. He doesn’t want to keep her down; it doesn’t occur to him (and he still loves her to the point of risking his life for her when it turns out that she is trans!).
    Ariel eventually gets to be in that other world. Her father capitulates and realizes he does not own her and that she must be allowed to grow up. With a feminist partner her voice is not taken away and she goes to live in the brave new world on her own terms.

  16. Icy Bear
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    This is a lovely reflection, and I’ve felt much the same way about many of the things I loved as a child. There was a time in which I thought The Little Mermaid and some of the other more recent Disney princess films could be thought of as feminist – after all, they typically include determined women who stick up for themselves and transform their own lives to reach their goals. But then I remembered the fact that Ariel is only concerned about removing herself from the world under the sea rather than, for example, working for social change for all the mermaids, the blatantly racist portrayals of life under the sea, and her idealization of ‘human’ life (which is not-so-subtly coded as white, aristocratic, and European). Plus, as you mention, it’s all about getting a man, and those lyrics to the ‘Kiss the Girl’ song are disturbingly rape-y. Ugh, I hate that movie with such a passion!
    I do feel like Disney is trying to be feminist by including ‘strong’ heroines in many of their films… but they fail miserably, perhaps by sticking to a silly form of feminism that misses all intersectionality and views getting what you want as the one and only goal. Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit…

  17. ElleStar
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Interesting analysis, though I’m wondering where you got the information that Sebastian is Haitian. Where did you hear that? I’ve a few good friends from Haiti, and their accent is nothing like Sebastian’s. However, this could be because the voice actor is from the US.
    Wikipedia states that the accent is “Caribbean,” and I always thought it was vaguely Jamaican.
    I wonder if it’s a metaphor as complex as you represent. I’m not arguing that it isn’t or that it wasn’t an intentional. I just really wonder if a writer on a Disney movie is going to spend so much time with an a relatively unknown (to most in the US) bit of history.
    Another, simpler explanation could be that French food is often considered luxurious and the best in the world, so a prince would have a French chef of course. And that crabs are tasty.
    I’m not disagreeing with your analysis. I just have to wonder if it might be a little overwrought.

  18. pesematology
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I found the antidote: Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue.
    http://www.rambles.net/donoghue_witch.html

  19. pesematology
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Then again, at least the original gives you full disclosure. If you’re good and sweet and kind and never speak up, you will wash away and disappear. In the Disney version, you get Rockette legs.

  20. supremepizza
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    The problem with deconstruction is that it creates brand new meanings out of whole cloth. We can read into stories whatever it is we wish to find. It reminds me of the time my internationally known feminist English professor, said her deconstruction proved the “Shelob the Spider” passage in Lord of the Rings was a rape reference. Sam the Hobbit’s sword was the phallus and down it went from there. You get the picture. Obviously texts can have multiple meanings, yet at the same time it does no good to invent meanings where none exist.
    I can’t say I’ve watched the Little Mermaid so I can’t make any points about this. But to suggest Little Red Riding Hood is an excuse for raping adventuresome little girls is, to borrow another word from that English professor, balderdash.

  21. katemoore
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I highly, highly doubt the filmmakers even knew about the colonization of Haiti, let alone intended to make a statement about it.

  22. Nik
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s an interesting theory, but Sebastian was originally British. Large parts were even recorded that way before they decided to make him Jamaican. I don’t think Sebastian’s nationality is supposed to be indicative of anything.

  23. sara
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been struck by the implications regarding female sexuality: As a mermaid she can’t have sex, because her legs are literally locked together. The moment she gets legs (and the ability to open them), she loses her voice and is placed in jeopardy. That’s quite the message!
    OTOH, I always took the Disney movie as offering an almost feminist cautionary tale to young women about the dangers of sacrificing your voice and identity for a man. The deal the Little Mermaid strikes with the Sea Witch is so obviously a bad one, and the outcome is good only because her friends and people who love her make significant sacrifices to try to undo it. I certainly walked out of the theater (at 9) thinking I would never make a deal like that!
    As far as the Hans Christian Andersen story–yeah, it’s fucked up, as is much of his writing (the Red Shoes? The Little Match Girl?). He seems to have been a pretty messed up guy.

  24. Athenia
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I feel sad about the crappy elements of The Little Mermaid, I remember that Ariel was an adventurer–before she met Eric, she wanted to be a part of another culture–she wanted to learn and understand.
    I don’t know about you, but for me, the most indelible moment of the movie was ‘Part of Your World’–an anthem of adventure, a quest for knowledge and love. And that’s what has stayed with me all these years. :)

  25. Brianna G
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Yeah… I agree with the analysis above about the elements of female submissiveness and expectations, but I don’t think that’s what we should take from the Sebastian character. They wanted Sebastian to have a distinctive voice that would sound “right” singing the jazzy songs of the undersea scenes. Chefs in Disney are always French. I think Sebastian is more a throwback to jazz and the idea of black minstrelry rather than a comment on French colonialism.
    It’s easy to see how racism and sexism crept into Disney films since most of the writers and producers were either racist and sexist or working from original works that were. I don’t really think it’s too likely that they intentionally stuck in a political reference that didn’t even directly involve the United States, unless you happen to know that one of the writers or somebody was deeply passionate about Haitian colonialism or something.

  26. Justin O
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I never really got the “giving up her voice” criticism, maybe someone can help me out. She did give up her voice, but that was because Ursula convinced her that’s what she needed to do. But she didn’t actually win the prince over until she got her voice back. I thought the moral was that women need to NOT silence themselves if they want to succeed. Of course, the movie equates succeeding with getting a man, which is one of the problematic parts for me, but I don’t get the giving up her voice problem when the movies morals seem to come down pretty hard on the side of NOT giving up your voice.

  27. Pantheon
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree with some of your points, but I have to point out that Ariel wanted to be human and live on land long before she met Eric. She didn’t exactly give up her life for a man, she gave up her life for the life she wanted instead, which happened to work out to include a man she also fell for. Its not like she hated living on land and only agreed to it to be with Eric.

  28. prince of nothing
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    If only Andersen didn’t tack on that botched happy ending, it would have been a great tragedy.

  29. nikki#2
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Mulan all the way.

  30. MLEmac28
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    In the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, there was a big part about the mermaid learning that she can get a soul and go to heaven if she becomes human, instead of living forever as a mermaid, and so enduring the pain wasn’t just to get a man. Also, she could have turned back into a mermaid after he married someone else by killing him in his sleep, but she didn’t because she loved him too much, which I don’t think is such an awful message. Also, I believe she did manage to get a soul at the end, with the moral being that everyone can be redeemed through God, or something.

  31. konkonsn
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    The Little Mermaid always confused me because some of its messages are very anti-feminist, but then the song lyrics for “Part of Your World” have this:
    “Bet’cha on land they understand
    Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
    Bright, young women sick of swimmin’
    Ready to stand”
    So, like, subtle feminism? Or it could be Disney, like a lot of pop culture, is good at seeing the overt sexism in ideas but forgets the nuances.

  32. MLEmac28
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read interpretations of the Little Mermaid which point out possible allegories to transpeople. Arial had a pretty strong attraction towards humans before she met Eric; right before she saw his ship, she even sang a song about how she wanted to be “part of their world.” Also, she didn’t go to Ursula until after her father had found her lair and destroyed everything that was precious to her.
    I don’t think Little Mermaid is an ideally feminist movie by any means, but I also don’t think its as much as a nightmare as other movies, particularly the Disney movies from the 50s.

  33. Lydia
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I file “The Little Mermaid” under “Guilty Pleasures.” Yes, I understand that it’s about a girl who risks everything just to get a man and that bothers me. (I’m also bothered by the message that everything rides on your ability to marry the first man you’re ever attracted to which, well, most people don’t do…) But my memories of taking forks from the kitchen with my cousins, calling them “dinglehoppers” and getting scolded by my grandma for using them as combs are just too powerful and sweet. Partly it’s that I never really had a moment of horrible realization with The Little Mermaid. I had an outspoken feminist mother growing up and she made clear her (justified) objections to elements of the movie. And as long as she felt I understood these things, she didn’t have a problem with me watching it, especially since aspects of it really are good. Like the music. I’m sorry, I can’t find any fault with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s songs. As a musician myself, I have mad respect for those guys’ talent. And I can’t bring myself to be offended by “Kiss the Girl.” Personally, I’ve never had a man ask me to sign a consent form before attempting to kiss me and I’ve never really desired one. I see nothing wrong with trying to seize the moment when you feel it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, nobody’s harmed. Usually people do “ask” by trying it. Both male and female.
    So I continue to enjoy watching The Little Mermaid, I just recognize that it’s not terribly enlightened. I don’t see anything wrong with. And I also think that, as my mother’s approach demonstrates, it’s possible to raise a child with awareness of these things without completely spoiling her fun dancing around to “Under the Sea.”

  34. Libbierator
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    It…it doesn’t…it doesn’t make me sick to think about it.
    It did, for a while. For a while, I felt similarly to the way all the above posters and the author of this article did and do.
    But I love Disney.
    I still love Disney and still sing it in the shower (as opposed to the bathtub) and find that the people who love Disney are people I like to be around, and that Disney can have a lot of good messages in it, despite the incredible sexist, racist, classist, imperialist, and I’m probably missing several, overtones.
    It is my continual inner struggle to *not* lose hope in Disney, because to do so is to lose hope in myself. I am a Disney girl, and a feminist; a singer, a dreamer, a poet, a writer, a person with ADD, and a feminist. Feminism, though it is a part of my personality and a significant one, is not who I am entirely; and Disney is part of my makeup. I don’t want it to go away.
    I tried to forget about Disney. I really did. But some things I cannot let go.
    So I see myself as a step in the process of eradicating patriarchy; I am a step, and not the entirety of the answer. And thus I can still love Disney. I am a person, not Feminism itself; I am a feminist *among other things*. First and foremost a feminist but when I did let feminism eradicate the rest of me, I was absolutely miserable.
    Disney gives me hope, and love, and happiness in some of my darkest times. I have no desire to take that away.
    Yeah, I have to continually shush the voices in me that point out the sexism and racism and classism that’s constantly inherent in the films. I know. I see it. It’s very, very hard to stop seeing it. But it’s also very, very hard to change the world when you’re depressed because you are depriving yourself of what makes you happy.
    It’s not easy. It’s a struggle. But if you still love The Little Mermaid, go ahead and watch it. You’re not evil if you do so. You are a complex person.
    Which isn’t to say you have to; if you can let it go, great. I just wanted to say, here, that I can’t. And I’m still a feminist.

  35. Lydia
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100%. These stories are so old and exist in so many different forms, it’s impossible to attribute a single, definitive message to them. It is probably safe to say that, as a general rule, stories that existed before the advent of feminism are not going to have terribly progressive portrayals of women but I doubt that’s a shocker to anyone. There’s a difference between pre-feminist and anti-feminist.
    The Little Mermaid is just pre-feminist. (Although it’s not actually a fairy tale but a published work by Hans Christian Anderson.) It’s chock full of all kinds of ideas that don’t age terribly well–a girl’s primary goal in life is to get a man, a woman’s beauty is more important than her brain or personality, self-sacrifice is valued above all other things. What do you expect? It was written in the 19th century. If anything, I think Disney tried to modernize it a little by introducing the idea that Ariel yearns for adventure and the entire human world and not just the prince, but they could only do so much. It’s just not a story that holds up against modern sentiments. Disney should have realized this but they didn’t. (The original also had a lot of Christian themes which, once removed, frankly don’t leave that much.) I’m not letting them off the hook for it, because, even though it’s a pre-feminist story, as you noted, it was not made in a pre-feminist time and there’s no excuse. But at the same time, I’m unwilling to condemn all traditional stories just because their portrayals of women don’t pass the feminist test. The feminist lens is important but it’s not the only lens through which to view things. Old folklore and stories can still have value.

  36. Lydia
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Revenge of the Nerds is truly egregious. I first watched that when I was about 9 or 10 and that moon room scene completely horrified me even then. I didn’t really know anything about rape but I knew what sex was and that doing it with someone who only wants it because she thinks you’re somebody else is not okay. Plus I really objected to the fact that the girls are basically just things that the nerds steal away from the jocks for “revenge.” I didn’t have any kind of feminist rhetorical framework to fit these thoughts into but they were there all the same.

  37. Lydia
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Er, I think that IS a bit of a stretch. And I’m a person who wrote papers in college about the racial subtexts of Disney movies. I think the point of that scene was that French people are weird and have funny accents. That’s it. You can definitely make a case for Disney having an issue with representing minority characters as physically small, ineffectual critters. (I wasn’t so thrilled with The Lion King’s neurotic, high-pitched New York accented, “oy”-shouting mongoose). But I think that’s a result of pure insensitivity and the failure to examine old stereotypes they took for granted. Which is not okay but it’s also not some white supremacist agenda.
    As for the puffing flour thing, well that corresponded to the line “now some flour I add, just a dab.” Which was written by Howard Ashman, a gay Jewish songwriter with a previous history of working on musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut novels. Not to stereotype further but I just kind of don’t think he had a major anti-Haitian agenda.

  38. vanillafire.livejournal.com
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    The Little Mermaid is still one of my favourite films, and I see it in a completely different way. To me, it’s a story about a vibrant young woman wanting to make her own choices and embrace the things she’s really interested in. She gets led astray by someone pretending to have her best interests at heart, and she suffers for it, but with the help of her friends she perseveres and learns from it. Ursula’s song about being quiet and pretty is shown to be terrible advice, and Ariel learns that sacrificing an important part of who she is (her ability to speak and sing) is not how one should be in a relationship.
    There are issues with the film, it’s true, but at its heart I think the Little Mermaid is a story about the adolescent struggle to discover who you are and what you want, while learning who has your best interests at heart. I think that that’s a positive feminist message for little girls, and I don’t think the film is a feminist disaster.

  39. Murray
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Disney has long been a sore spot for me- while I can give them “Mulan” to some extent (despite the innacuracies and the husband-father dynamic, at least they’ve a whole song about gender performance), the rest are, as you say, sooo problematic. And I’m always torn because I love musicals, and Disney really kept the musical alive in the popular consciousness for a long time. But… blarg.
    I liked some of the movies as a kid, but similar to the OP, at some point realized how horrible they are. The orientalism and sexism in Aladdin, for instance. And nowadays, my beef with Disney movies actually proves a relatively major sticking point with women my own age (college) who grew up in the 90s like me. We were all so exposed to Disney, and the princess-figure was so adored, and even really progressive women I’ve known sometimes have a soft spot for Disney, Disneyland etc, as if it’s a staple of Childhood and completely beyond examination. Odd as it sounds, I can’t help but credit Disney with helping to perpetuate gender norms during the key years at the end of the second wave. :-/

  40. ladybeethoven
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    As sick as the original story is, I think the fact that Ariel doesn’t get her guy in the end makes it more feminist than the Disney version in some ways – because the lesson is that sacrificing your uniqueness and talents for “love” as women are continually expected to do, isn’t that fair of a trade after all and will likely lead to pain and misery. I’m not happy that Disney diluted the message by having Ariel be rewarded for giving up her voice for the Prince.
    It’s used very interestingly in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus; he has a bit in the end where Adrian Leverkuehn, the Faust character, describes his delusion that he’s had sex with the Little Mermaid and impregnated her. Faust and the Little Mermaid basically made the opposite bargain; Faust gave up love for talent, the Mermaid gave up talent for “love.” And to me, it’s very telling that Faust is male and the Little Mermaid is female, since those bargains are particularly extreme versions of what society expects out of men and women (that men are expected to put their careers ahead of family and romance, whereas women are supposed to sacrifice our unique talents should they interfere with our wifely/maternal duties.)

  41. Mollie
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I watched the Mickey Mouse Monopoly on youtube and became interested in the racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonial, etc aspects of the Disney franchise. Ariel’s story is troubling… One that’s possibly even worse: Beauty and the Beast. Complete domestic violence apologist attitude going on there.
    And as someone mentioned above, the French/Haitan chef/Sebastian parallel is really really interesting! Wow. I don’t know if it was intentional or subconscious but.. wow.

  42. Anony-mouse
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I was going to write a similar long post making similar points. Thank you for saving me a rant. ^_^ This is why I hate Disney movies. They take a good story and pervert it beyond all recognition. They load the story down with sexism an racism and gender conformity for no good reason.

  43. LindseyLou
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t know. I kind of feel like if so many of us loved The Little Mermaid as kids and yet still grew up to be feminists, then we’re overthinking this. That harmful sexist message apparently didn’t seep in too much with us. Personally, I agree with those who said they always thought of independence and an adventurous spirit when they thought of The Little Mermaid.
    Also, I know I saw somewhere, I think on the DVD special features to The Little Mermaid, that Disney planned on doing this movie waaaaay back in the day but sidelined the project for decades. I think the idea started in the 50s or early 60s. So, in some ways, this was not entirely a post-feminism movie.

  44. Kessei
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I can’t watch the “make a man out of you” or “girl worth fighting for” segments without wanting to drown myself in syrup of ipecac.

  45. Vail
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I don’t like Mulan for one big reason. In the original fairytale Mulan is so good that until she reveals it herself no one thinks she’s female. She also didn’t need any wacky sidekicks to kick ass and fool the men.

  46. Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    If you’re at all interested in women and fairy tales, I can’t recommend Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves enough. She takes many stories and fables from different cultures and applies them not only to the historical women that they were aimed at, but at modern women and what they might mean to us. Well worth a read if the subject interests you.

  47. j7sue2
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “As a mermaid she can’t have sex, because her legs are literally locked together. The moment she gets legs (and the ability to open them), she loses her voice and is placed in jeopardy. That’s quite the message!”
    I’ve never seen the film…… but I spent my entire life being as near a mermaid as I could get to be, I remember spending a whole summer one year doing nothing but snorkelling every day.
    As a transsexual woman, I couldn’t have sex as really me…. and now, just like Ariel, in many contexts I’m silenced and placed in jeopardy. It’s a truth, and it’s strange that I needed to be a mermaid – that’s how I experienced myself in the water.

  48. Rachel
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve struggled with my peers when I mention things like this regarding Disney and other forms of pop culture.
    I think a lot of people see me as a Debbie Downer, because this whole “feminism” thing gets in the way with their Disney nostalgia.
    But I think it’s really important to be able to look back at things like this and say, “Yeah, I was totally obsessed with this!” but now look at it through this feminist lens and get so much more out of it.
    Thank you!

  49. bbrutlag
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I agree with the original post, and my I direct everyone’s attention to the much more feminist version of “The Little Mermaid” called “Ponyo” by Hayao Miyazaki. Unfortunately, Disney has US distribution rights to Studio Gibli films as well as control over the voices for the American dub…I wonder if they also control the translation? it wouldn’t suprise me

  50. e11e47
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    But there is a reason.. a truly disgusting one.. to protect the status quo. If we teach children subconciously about the roles different individuals play in society and that “this is how they are,” they’re less likely to challenge them and will just assume their normality. After all, we’re all saying that until we were taught to use a different lens through various courses or other training, we all (myself included) had no idea that these movies were bad. Imagine if we hadnt’ had our feminist training.. we’d be right there saying that there was nothing wrong with this movie. Media, not just Disney movies, are partly a pacifying weapon: designed to enforce the status quo and existing power hierarchy.
    That being said, we will never know whether Disney execs did this intentionally or whether they were a product of their own socializations. It could be either or both, but the important thing is to essentially look at any media product from up above with our wide, feminist lenses and attempt to understand what it can tell us about the social world.

Feministing In Your Inbox

Sign up for our Newsletter to stay in touch with Feministing
and receive regular updates and exclusive content.

264 queries. 0.720 seconds