Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 9: The Little Mermaid

But who cares? No big deal. I want more.

The trope of silenced women in folklore and fairytales is one with a very long history. Women's speech in general has long been denigrated, talkative women reduced to gossips, demanding women to nags, even the term "old wives' tales" that goes hand-in-hand with folklore and fairytales is often used to dismiss fantastical or unbelievable stories as simply the talk of women, unimportant and unworthy of regard. In the 16th century play, "The Old Wives' Tale" by George Peele, a woman who says "A woman without a tongue is as a soldier without his weapon," ends by being struck mute, much to the delight of her husband. Women's words are feared, loathed, and generally found annoying and/or unnecessary.

Arguably the most talked-about aspect of The Little Mermaid is the loss of the mermaid's voice. In the Disney film she loses it by magic, but in the Hans Christian Andersen original story her tongue is actually cut out, removing the possibility of regaining her voice altogether. Were this a much earlier story, say, a contemporary of "The Old Wives' Tale" or things of that ilk, this sort of thing would be played for laughs, but Andersen's tone suggests deep sympathy and tragedy. Andersen isn't laughing at the little mermaid, nor do we laugh at Ariel.

The Disney film has garnered criticism (possibly more so than the fairytale, but that's debatable) for suggesting that women should be silent if they want men to like them, but I don't think that's really something the filmmakers were trying to say. What The Little Mermaid is "really" about has been the subject of some debate, and theories have included an exploration of Andersen's depression (I haven't studied Andersen himself yet nearly as much as I'd like to, but my understanding is that Andersen definitely suffered from some form of mental illness, probably depression, possibly depression in conjunction with other things - any Andersen scholars out there feel free to correct me!), an illustration of Andersen's struggle with unrequited love, and expanding on that last one, an illustration of Andersen's struggle with his sexual orientation. I find this last one the most compelling argument and the best explanation of the muted mermaid; his letters reveal several infatuations with men that don't appear to have gone anywhere, and it's likely Andersen felt unable to speak of his deep sadness in these rejections. Andersen writing the mermaid as himself would seem to make sense: the pain in every step, the inability to make his thoughts and feelings known, the consistent love of people who never love him back. If Andersen indeed wrote the mermaid as a self-image, it's not likely he meant to use the silenced woman trope to make any comments about women (though, again, I'm not as much of an Andersen scholar as I want to be, and if Andersen had any strong feelings on the status of women in the patriarchy, they are as yet unknown to me, so please feel free to enlighten me). The fact remains that it is a trope, and, whether or not he intended to, he did contribute to a certain depiction of women. I do think it's worth noting, though, that it's unlikely Andersen was either trying to say women should be silent if they want men's attentions or that it's a tragedy that women have to be silent if they want men's attentions. The crux of the debate over the Disney film seems to be over that matter, and I think that's something that doesn't have a basis in the original fairytale for us to fall back on.

Moving onward, Ariel herself is an interesting characterization of Andersen's mermaid. In the fairytale, the unnamed mermaid is the youngest of six sisters, each of whom are allowed to go to the surface on their 15th birthday. The youngest loves everything about the world up there far more than her sisters and demands details and stories from them every time they return from the surface. When it's finally her turn, she goes to the surface, sees the prince, and immediately falls in love. Like this mermaid, Ariel is also established as a lover of all things outside the sea before even meeting the prince, although it is the prince that provides the impetus for becoming human. Ariel is often criticized for giving up her life with her family just for the prince, and while that is a mostly valid criticism, we do see that Ariel wants more than what she has in her life under the sea even before meeting Eric. There's also some blame to be laid at Triton's fins (I'm funny), as Ariel might not have been stirred enough to visit Ursula had Triton not yelled at her and destroyed all her belongings. The king in the story has no fear nor hatred of the upper world, so this is solely a Disney invention. Triton's treatment of Ariel is absolutely terrifying, and not just to the audience; after Ariel gets her voice back and Ursula drags her back underwater, Triton confronts Ursula and Ariel is visibly terrified, her voice shaking as she says, "I'm sorry, Daddy, I didn't mean to." Had Triton been gentler with his daughter, talked to her instead of yelling at her and destroying everything she had, or, better yet, been open with her from the beginning negating the necessity for her to hide all her things, would Ariel have made a different choice? It's hard to say and barely worth debating. But it is worth noting that Ariel is a 16 year-old whose father's treatment of her actually terrified her so to put all the blame squarely on her shoulders is to miss a large influence on her decision-making.

One character missing from Disney's adaptation is the mermaid's grandmother, to whom the mermaid seems closer than she is to her father. Andersen's mermaid's mother is dead, as is Ariel's, but Andersen's mermaid still has a maternal figure in her life whereas Ariel does not. The mermaid talks to her grandmother about the differences between merfolk and mortals, and her grandmother says it is much better to be a merperson and advises her granddaughter not to pursue change. But, of course, we know she doesn't heed her grandmother's advice. That maternal presence doesn't seem to make a difference to the mermaid's choice, and thus it's hard to say what Ariel's mother's presence might have done for Ariel, if anything. She might have been able to temper Triton, but that's speculative.

Ursula is more of a departure from Andersen's sea witch than Ariel is from the mermaid. Andersen's sea witch has no agenda, no beef with the sea king, she doesn't pursue the mermaid nor try to convince her to become human. In fact, Andersen's sea witch does more to try to discourage the mermaid than goad her into it. She tells the mermaid what a terrible idea it is, that it will bring her nothing but misery, but the mermaid is determined so the sea witch does what is asked of her. When the mermaid's sisters beg the sea witch for some way to save their sister, she again complies. She's more of a neutral character than a villain. Ursula, on the other hand, has been banished from Triton's court for some unknown reason and seeks vengeance on Triton by using Ariel. Ursula speeds along Ariel's failure by putting herself in the place of the prince's love in the fairytale - quite different from the sea witch making one last attempt to save the mermaid through her sisters. Though Ursula's very different from her fairytale counterpart, she's fascinating in her own right. I recognize my bias in that women with revenge narratives are across the board my favourites, but the desire for a Ursula's backstory seems to be pretty widespread.

The Little Mermaid marks the beginning of Disney's return to heavy reliance on fairytales and the revival of the Whole Princess Deal. In many ways it's one of the most interesting fairytale adaptations Disney's done, even glossing over the tragic ending as they did. Ariel is also a leading lady in a way that previous fairytale princesses in Disney movies really weren't; Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora really didn't do a whole lot when you look at them in comparison to Ariel. Ariel is strong-willed, determined, curious, and brave, if hot-tempered and not very thoughtful. But Ariel is definitely a different breed of Disney princess than her predecessors, and the princesses after her are more in her vein. The success of The Little Mermaid gave rise to a new kind of Disney heroine, one we continue to see to this day.

Note: Wow, it's been just under two months since I last updated. Sorry! I work in retail so November got pretty hellish. But there were 30 years between Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid so it's...thematic...in a way...? Anyway, Beauty and the Beast is up next, it's my very favourite and I'm very excited to write about it. Hopefully it won't take quite so long!


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