Misogyny in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”? A feminist critique reviewed

Recently, I finally watched Disney’s 1989 masterpiece “The Little Mermaid” and was so enthralled that I decided to research academic analyses of it in order to fathom its awesomeness more deeply. To my dismay, I soon came across sundry feminist critiques decrying it as sexist. Here, I examine one which was published soon after the film’s release, but for simplicity and entertainment value, I will adress (many of) its arguments as though I were talking directly to the author.

The original article. Source.

[…]Walt Disney’s 1989 film version of “The Little Mermaid” eliminates the values that affirm femininity in the original story. Disney’s changes result in characters, images, and conflicts that rob women of integrity, making the movie even more sexist than the original story.

This ought to be interesting. Proceed.

[In the original story,] mermaids live 300 years but have no immortal souls. […] According to the grandmother, the only way a mermaid can gain a soul is for a human to love the mermaid so much that part of his soul flows into her and creates a soul within her. […] Thus, Andersen’s mermaid quests for a soul, but Disney’s mermaid, Ariel, quests for a mate.

Bruno Bettelheim suggests in “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” that fairy tales often subtly portray a romantic relationaship as the means to overcome fear of death. Hence the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” at the end, after the wedding. Andersen may have sought to convey something similar, in which case the “immortal soul” should really just be seen as a metaphor for a normal by-product of a romantic relationship, making the original not all that different thematically, in this respect, from its adaptation.

What appears more certain is that the “quest[…] for a mate” is, in fact, an important element of the little mermaid’s motivation in the original story as well. According to Dundes and Dundes (2000), “[i]n Andersen’s original story, the little mermaid does not marry the handsome prince and this sad story of unrequited or unfulfilled heterosexual love has been linked to Andersen’s own personal life […] and what appear in retrospect to be his latent homosexual tendencies” (119).

Ariel — who already possesses a soul that she is willing to wager with Ursula, the sea-witch — wants to become human before she ever falls in love because she “just [doesn’t] see how a world that can make such wonderful things can be bad.” She sings about the “neat stuff” that to her represents mankind. Ariel’s original motivation to become human seems very materialistic.

On the contrary, it seems apparent that Ariel regards the man-made objects which she collects as evidence of humans’ advanced culture. They include, for instance, a globe, which her father is shown destroying, and a book, through which she leafs. She marvels at items like a fork and is intent on learning their uses. This shows that her fascination is not merely materialistic, but based on the significance of the objects which she has found (indeed, the quote you provide indicates as much).

Ariel is captivated by a fork.

It seems that the sea’s population values technological advancements less than humanity does. Sebastian the crab’s song “Under the Sea”, aimed at dissuading Ariel from swimming to the surface, depicts her home as a relaxed, fun country of “noble savages” who prioritise having a good time over striving for progress of some kind: “Up on the shore, they work all day/ Out in the sun they slave away/ While we devotin’/ Full time to floatin’/ Under the sea”. Our heroine has different values: she adores the miraculous objects which mankind produces. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, “neat stuff is the barometer of a society’s virtue”.

Ariel’s materialistic motivation diminishes once she falls in love-at-first sight with Prince Eric. Ariel then interprets being forbidden contact with anything human as being forbidden both love and an identity separate from her father.

You substantiate neither of these claims. However, the second one seems plausible enough to me. As for the first, it ought to be said that the last time Ariel visits the cave where she keeps her prized possessions, her father follows her and destroys them, so this seems likelier to be the key moment when she ceases to be obsessed with them. At most, I suppose it can be argued that her material interests was diminished in comparison to her love for the Prince.

When Triton decides to teach Ariel a lesson by displaying in full force the tyrannical power with which any parent can dominate a child, Ariel does not assert herself. Instead, she hides behind a statue of Eric.

In reality, Ariel’s asserting herself when her father confronts her is precisely what triggers his outburst. While she does hide behind a statue of Eric, she later lunges forward to stop her father from destroying it. Therefore, she not only symbolically shields herself with the object of her infatuation, but also vice versa.

Ariel attempts to stop her father from destroying the statue of Prince Eric.

Ariel must choose between these two men. Ariel never considers running away to a life that does not include male protection; she rejects her father’s culture to embrace Eric’s culture.

As you yourself acknowledge, Ariel is already enamoured with the human world before she sees the Prince for the first time. Furthermore, it is entirely natural that she would be under her father’s protection. After all, she is only sixteen years old, and her father is kind of all the merfolk. Besides, she still loves him. Would you rather she not love her father? I also fail to see why this is an essentially gendered issue. The story would likely have played out no differently if Ariel’s father had been replaced by her mother.

Ariel’s new obsession [with the Prince] becomes the type of worship that makes the individual seem somehow larger than life and better than the rest of humanity. This implies that the only beings worth marrying are those who are perfect and that perfection is not only somehow attainable but is actually necessary for a man to be loveable.

No, this is just how people view those with whom they are in love. Besides, Eric is not portrayed as superhuman — merely as a friendly, brave, athletic man. Such people do exist. This is no inattainable standard.

[A]fter she has landed on shore in human form, [Ariel] clings dependently to Eric while grinning and winking back at her friends in the sea to show that she is faking her weakness for the sake of the prince’s ego.

She does smile back at her animal friends, probably to share her joy that things are unfolding so well. I did not see a wink in that scene. Moreover, if she “clings dependently to Eric”, that is probably either because she obtained her legs a matter of minutes previously, or because she enjoys the contact with him (or both). She appears to move somewhat clumsily during the scene in question.

Eric falls in love with his memory of the physical beauty and the voice of the maiden who rescues him. Eric never considers this girl’s personality. Since Eric’s infatuation is so shallowly based on beauty rather than on personality, he is easily deceived by Ursula’s disguising herself as the raven-headed ingenue who possesses the little mermaid’s voice. […] Eric’s motivation for love is as superficial as Ariel’s reason for wanting to become human.

You appear to have missed the part when Ursula casts a mind-control spell on Eric.

Prince Eric falls under Ursula’s spell.

Because Ariel perceives herself as being somehow incomplete without a man’s love, Ariel thinks Eric is the panacea that will make her life perfect.

This is nowhere stated nor, as far as I can tell, implied in the film. Still, it is plain to see that, as you claim, she feels incomplete without Eric’s love (not “a man’s” in general, as you suggest). This, however, is a sentiment always entailed by the fact of being in love with someone.

Ariel will be rewarded if the prince kisses her within [a certain] time, which reduces love to no more than physical sexuality.

I find it odd that, in a review so replete with interpretations of symbolism, you would deny a kiss any romantically symbolic value and assert that it is a purely physical act. Then again, by linking it to “sexuality”, you do acknowledge that it has symbolic meaning, so your analysis of it seems all the more bizarre.

Miserable carnal sinners.

Whereas the palaces of Triton and Eric are built of many juxtaposed long, cylindrical towers, Ursula’s place of power is cavernous. Ursula’s palace is entered through the mouth opening of a skeletal animal, and [its] long neck […] before penetrating the womb-like inner chamber […]. [There] is a conch shell, its lips spread open […]. This gynophobic image is a grotesque parody of the female anatomy.

Caves and skeletons are sinister, and Triton and Eric live in castles with towers because they are royalty. Is that not a simpler, better and more plausible explanation for these characters’ different living arrangements? If one wants more profound analysis, one can speculate that Urasula’s abode is “cavernous” because that makes it low and dark, whereas towers are high and filled with light. Besides, Ariel stores her objects from the human world in a cave. Is that, too, gynophobic imagery? Finally, would Ariel be depicted as she is had the film’s creators harboured contempt for the female anatomy?

Disney’s witch has far greater involvement in the story than in the original because Disney always relies on women to create the conflict between good and evil in feature-length fairytales. The conflict in The Little Mermaid — as in Disney’s other feature length fairytales Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty — pits one woman against another.

Your review was published in 1991, so the examples you list really were the only other “Disney princess” films in existence at the time. In this context, “always” seems an overly categorical adverb to use. Disney’s subsequent fairy-tale films, such as “Aladdin” and “The Princess and the Frog”, do not follow the pattern you describe. Also, given that all the films you list have female main characters, does it not make sense to pit them against female villains who can act as foils for them? “Aladdin” features a male main character and, lo and behold, his nemesis is also male.

The Disney-constructed conflict in The Little Mermaid is between an overweight, ugly woman and a doe-eyed heroine with a figure less realistic than a Barbie doll’s. Once Ursula transforms herself into a rival love-interest for the prince, the conflict is between a dark-haired anorexic and a fairer one. […] The movie’s portrayal of good as fairer and thinner than evil presents a bigoted distortion of the human body.

Firstly, the use of beauty as shorthand for virtuous character traits goes back as far as mediaeval lays, if not further, and makes especial sense in a visual medium such as film, and even more so in animated film, where good characters are often given smoother and simpler designs than evil ones, since they are less straining to the eye than more jagged, complex designs. Secondly, as you mention, Ursula transforms herself into a beautiful woman, thereby showing that attractive people can be evil, too. Thirdly, you yourself draw parallels in this review between Ursula and the devil in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, so is it not perfectly logical to depict a character who embodies temptation as overweight? Finally, I would hardly consider the baby-cheeked Ariel “anorexic”.

Hardly an anorexic.

The snakelike appendages also make Ursula a perversion of femininity; her tentacles could be interpreted as eight phalluses. That Disney considers the myth of Medusa to be a story about power robbing, “unsexed” woman is clear[…].

Let me get this straight. You state earlier that “Ursula is devious, cruel, and manipulative”, and yet you interpret her tentacles as phallic? As Freud (may have) once said, “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar”. By the way, Ursula has only six tentacles, because eight would have been more expensive to animate.

The final confrontation between good and evil in the movie version defines male power as positive and female power as negative. Evil comes in — the form of a woman who covets the of the male phallus. Ursula lovingly caresses Triton’s trident while is holding it. Her penis envy is stereotypical. Once Ursula gains possession of the trident, the phallic symbol of Triton’s power, she grows to monstrous proportions.

Show me a three-pronged phallus, and this interpretation may gain in credibility. As it stands, it seems much more logical to me to suppose that Triton is depicted as using a trident in the film because the Greeks and Romans depicted him as using one (see Ashton 1890: 210). Granted, Disney could have made the god’s trademark conch the symbol of his power instead — but would that have looked as impressive?

Her potency is represented as if she herself has become a mighty phallus, emerging erect from the water.

Would you expect her to emerge from the water in a stooping position? Also, Ursula, with her tentacles, arms, and stocky build, quite possibly looks even less like a phallus than a trident does.

Her voice becomes heavy and masculine as she sadistically toys with the trapped Ariel, zapping the mermaid with ejaculatory bolts […].

Her voice has deepened — and not even by all that much — because she is now huge. Anyway, if this were meant to represent masculinity, would it not contradict your interpretation that “the movie version defines male power as positive and female power as negative”? As for “ejaculatory bolts” — seriously?

The prince then kills Ursula by aiming for the sea-witch’s groin with a long, jagged beam that protrudes from a sailing ship. The beam is aimed first for the area of traditional male vulnerability, but because Ursula is not male, at the moment just prior to penetration, the thrust of the prince’s phallic symbol is diverted to the area just beneath Ursula’s gargantuan breast. Despite its G-rating, the movie is very sexual in its sexism.

Re-watch the scene, in slow motion if necessary. The beam is never aimed at anything but Ursula’s belly. Just before impact, there is indeed a shot showing the prince redirecting the ship with a turn of the steering wheel, but he redirects it horizontally, not vertically, because the beam was pointing slightly to Ursula’s left a moment before.

The last glimpse of the beam before Prince Eric is shown giving the steering wheel a turn and Ursula is impaled.

Even though the Disney mermaid has suffered much more at the hands of the sea-witch than the prince has, it is the prince who kills the witch. This is Disney’s most annoying reworking of Andersen’s plot. If Disney must insert a good versus evil conflict into every feature-length fairytale, why — since the studio rewrites the whole story anyway — can’t the maid kill the witch herself? The answer: because nice girls are not supposed to have that much power.

This is a case of starting from a fact and arriving at an interpretation which is unsupported by any additional facts — i.e., we readers are supposed to believe that your reason is the correct one just because you said so. Considering that at this point in the film, Ariel has already saved the Prince’s life twice — once from drowning and again by diverting one of Ursula’s “ejaculatory bolts” — should this creative decision really be interpreted as a sign of sexism?

Even if it was motivated by a gender role, what is so bad about that? Men are, on average, stronger and more assertive than women. In real life, the vast majority of killings are committed by men. If Disney’s aim was to inspire in its audience the courage to kill, if need be, to defeat evil and protect their loved ones, does it not make sense to address that message chiefly to the boys in its audience?

Also, near the film’s beginning, Ariel defeats a shark which was chasing her, and looks perfectly calm the next moment. Later, she drives a carriage with such speed and imperturbability bordering on recklessness that even the Prince, who is in it with her, looks frightened and, subsequently, impressed. So much for disempowerment.

How Ariel drives.

Ariel has reverted to her mermaid form because Eric did not kiss her within the allotted time. […] Ariel sits on a rock in the pose of the little mermaid statue in the Copenhagen harbor. […] Because she looks so defeated, Triton finally takes pity on his daughter. […] His counsellor agrees with him: “Children got to be free to live their own lives.”

[U]nfortunately, in this context, [this statement] is hypocritical [because] Triton does not grant Ariel human form simply because Ariel is interested in humans and wants to explore their culture; the king only “frees” Ariel to “live her own life” so that she may live under Eric’s power.

On what basis do you infer that Ariel’s reationship with the Prince is marked by a power imbalance? The film implies nothing of the sort. I defy you to prove me wrong.

The final scene, as Triton kisses his daughter goodbye and she turns with subservient awe to Eric, carries overt approval of female dependency.

It seems that you have once again seen what you wanted to see. In this case, it was “subservient awe”.

Ariel on the day of her enslavement.

Since Eric kiss [sic] the witch for Ariel and since Triton makes her marriage possible, Ariel does not solve her own problems.

As noted above, Ariel is saved once by the Prince, having saved him twice before. She shows her father that she ought to be free to marry the Prince by defying his commands, ventures into an alien world, and there wins a man’s affection. She is a fiercely independent, self-reliant character, and I do not find that these qualities of hers are lessened even a little by the fact that she receives parental assistance near the end of the film, especially since her father stands in her way throughout most of the story and is only won over by her steely determination.

[I]n the original tale the grandmother serves as a source of information and as a positive role model for the little mermaid. In the Disney version, this role model is replaced by a male bird who misinforms the maid.

With your standards of intellectual rigour, I suppose this can be taken as an example of anti-male sexism. You, of course, do not draw this conclusion.

Enough of this. I proceed to bring my post to a close.

The article to which I have replied in this post is nearly thirty years old, so one may be forgiven for assuming that, though (hopefully) interesting and (perhaps) illustrative, this whole argument is of no relevance to-day. Not so fast: according to Wikipedia, the article’s author now works for Illinois State University as a Distinguished Professor of English Literature and has received awards for her work. She focusses on children’s literature. Her books tend to concern topics to which her article on “The Little Mermaid” is relevant, such as the 1997 “Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels” and the 1998 “Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature”. Not only that, but “[s]he joined the Illinois State faculty as an assistant professor in 1991”, that is, the year of this article’s publication. Let me restate this: a person barely capable of watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is shaping the public discourse about gender and adolescence in fiction. I shudder to imagine with what poisonous claptrap she may be infecting younger generations’ minds. On this depressing note, thank you for reading. Come again.

Sources

The article:

Trites, Roberta. 1991. “Disney’s sub/version of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 18 (4): 145–152.

Other:

Ashton, John. 1890. Curious Creatures in Zoology. With 130 Illustrations Throughout the Text. London: John C. Nimmo.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment : The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. London: Thames and Hudson.

Dundes, Lauren, and Alan Dundes. 2000. “The Trident and the Fork: Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a male construction of an Electral fantasy.” Psychoanalytic Studies 2 (2): 117–130.

“Roberta Seelinger Trites.” Wikipedia. Accessed 05 May 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberta_Seelinger_Trites.

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