What is it with Disney?

This weekend I watched The Little Mermaid, and, just like Tangled, there are parallels here, too. Nothing as blatant, maybe, but it’s there.

Ariel’s father forbids her from contact with humans. But Ariel is not content with life under the sea – instead, she is fascinated by humans. Then Ariel makes contact and finds they’re not so bad. In fact, she falls in love with one. How does her father respond? He freaks out completely. He lectures Ariel, telling her that humans are all the same, that they have no feelings, that they will only hurt her. Ariel tries to protest but her father refuses to listen.

Ariel is then willing to do anything she has to to be a human. Since she can’t turn to her family, she turns to a con artist, the sea witch, for help. She ends up in a heap of a lot of trouble for this, but at the time Ariel didn’t see anyone else she could turn to for help. Her father had shut her out, and her sisters couldn’t understand.

And then there’s this line:

“If I become human. I’ll never be with my father and sisters.”

Ariel realizes that she has to choose. Does she want to be a human, or a mermaid? This choice is no less stark than choosing between remaining in the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy lifestyle and leaving it to live a “worldly” life. The choice is the same.

Watching Ariel try to adjust to the human world is similarly interesting. She’s totally clueless – doesn’t know how to act, what to do, or anything. That she originally thought a fork was for brushing her hair says something. When I first left for college, I felt similarly clueless, like I’d been thrust into a society I’d watched vaguely from the outside but didn’t truly understand.

But of course, the whole business with the sea witch blows up and Ariel ends up in grave danger. It is at this point that Ariel’s father must admit that he didn’t handle the situation well at all, and that her current danger is partly his fault. And it is at this point that he has to look Ariel’s beau in the face and come to terms with him – and work with him to save Ariel from enslavement to the sea witch.

Ariel’s father may have treated her horribly in the beginning of the movie, but by the end he lets go of her and allows her to make her own choices and live her own life. You can see that in this conversation he has with his loyal sidekick, Sebastian:

She really does love him, doesn’t she Sebastian?

It’s like I always say. Children got to be free to lead their own lives.

Then I guess there’s just one problem left.

What’s that, Your Majesty?

How much I’m going to miss her.

I have to say, coming from my own personal experience, this ending seems too contrived, too easy. Ariel’s father starts out ignoring her desires and suffocating her, and then he does a 180 and lets her go, let’s her make her own choices and lead her own lives. The whole drama of the movie could have been avoided if he had just followed this philosophy in the first place! In some sense, then, it’s Ariel’s father’s response to his daughter growing up that provides the backdrop of the movie.

There are some movies today that work like therapy (Tangled) and others I can’t watch (Fiddler on the Roof). This one falls somewhere in the middle – triggering without being fully cathartic.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Hmmmm…interesting commentary. “The Little Mermaid” actually gets a fair amount of feminist hate and some of the criticism I agree with and some of it I disagree with. (Either way, I can’t help kinda loving it–it was actually the first movie I ever saw in a theater, when I was just a wee tot, and my cousins and I spent our childhoods “playing mermaids” and getting yelled at by our grandmother for combing our hair with the forks. Also, the songs are legit awesome.)

    Personally, I think it is a mixed bag, gender-wise. “Part of your World” is pure genius, as far as I’m concerned and I still find it an incredibly moving, metaphoric portrayal of adolescent curiosity and longing. Then of course it all gets hijacked by a man (although, to be fair, for a cartoon he’s pretty hot. Guy who jumps onto a burning ship to save his beloved dog? I’ll take that. lol) and there are some questionable messages about romance, imo.

    But actually, what bothers me the most about it is the specific scene you mentioned. Yes, it’s a good thing that King Triton realizes that he has to let his daughter make her own choices, but I find it problematic that he’s the one who is ultimately 100% responsible for Ariel’s happy ending by magically giving her her legs. I would have liked it better if Ariel had some how gotten them through her own merits and heroism, as opposed to basically having her freedom magnanimously bestowed upon her by the guy who’s been controlling her all along. In the end, what makes her happiness possible is her father’s power. She’s still dependent on it, it’s just that shifts in her favor. Lucky her, but what if it hadn’t? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, since you’ve a hell of a lot more experience with patriarchal fathers than I do!

    Once again, I still can’t help but love it. :-) But MY favorite feminist Disney heroine is Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” I could relate to being from a family that’s considered a little suspect by most people because it’s different (my parents were hippie intellectuals in a very non-hippie, non-intellectual town), and I could DEFINITELY relate to being considered odd as a result of being bookish and smart and refusing to dumb myself down to attract boys, like a Good Girl. That’s the film that spoke to MY experience the most.

  • Kevin Alexander

    The feminist criticism is legit. Ariel is leaving her world to be with some guy. A much better motivation would have been that her world was too confining to her potential but I’m guessing that that is too complex for Disney.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      But that part wasn’t the point. I didn’t say EVERYTHING was a parallel or EVERYTHING was perfect. Besides, Ariel was fascinated by humans and human culture LONG before she laid eyes on Eric! I agree, I wish she’d had more spine, but again, that wasn’t what I was saying was a parallel. Or even good.

    • Lirel

      But Ariel wanted to be up on land way before Eric. He was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. In Stargate, he left his world to be with some girl. Fairly common resolution, really, for either gender, in a certain type of movie.

  • Merbie

    The line I most related to was said by Sebastian the crab when Ariel first gave up her voice for legs. “And *don’t* you shake your head at me, young lady! Maybe there’s still time. If we could get that witch to give you back your voice, you could go home with all the normal fish and just be…just be… just be miserable for the rest of your life.”

    When I first breathed the fresh air of leaving the fundamentalist circle of my childhood, my family and others fought like Sebastian to drag me back with all the “normal” (to them) people. But I had tasted the freedom and knew I’d be miserable if I turned around.

  • Marie

    The original Little Mermaid fairy tale is really dark. Basically the mermaid becomes human to be with the prince, then the prince decides he doesn’t love her, and she’s left to choose between killing the prince to become a mermaid again or committing suicide. She winds up having to suffer for 300 years as a spirit before she can go to heaven.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Yeah, but she gains an immortal soul which, in the world of the story, mermaids do not have. So, if you’re a devout Christian, as Anderson was, it’s a more satisfying ending. Sort of.

      I wasn’t, so to me it was just depressing. Did not like that book at all…

    • Pam

      the original tale didnt strike me as “dark” so much as very sad, and yet at the same time hopeful. The original little mermaid did save the prince, but as he was waking from his half drowned state a human princess came running up the beach just as the mermaid jumped back into the water, and he mistakenly thought it was she who saved his life, then falls in love with the human as she nurses him back to health. The prince didnt just suddenly up and decide he didnt love her, in fact, he cares for the little mermaid very deeply when she turns up, but in the painful, like a little sister or a friend kind of way, cause he’s already in love with the human woman. Also in original the witch even advises her against trying to go for the prince, and later shows up to give her an out, or else she will die when the sun rises on the day after the prince’s wedding. When she just cant kill him she runs away blinded by her tears, and then ironically falls into the sea and drowns in her own home. The point of the original is not “she leaves her home for the guy and dies,” but really more of a “Love conquers all” theme than the more tradintional “happy endings” in its own way even more beautiful and poignant than the disney. The non-disney mermaid is neither opressed by her father, or manipulated by the witch, theres no power struggle or real “villain” driving the plot, she just does this cause its what she wants, and the only way to even find out if she has a shot with the man she loves. In the end, because of her complete and total selflessness and sacrifice, she not only gains an immortal soul, but becomes a guardian angel to watch over the prince and his bride in thier true love, so in that way she really does get to be with him for the rest of his life, even though hers is over.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    According to my dad, it’s because Disney is trying to undermine parental authority.

    • Katalina

      OMG that’s exactly what my dad said! It glorifies a teenager who openly defies her father. Ha, that was like 20 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

  • Noelle

    I always figured that by the time the last 3 daughters in Fiddler grew up, one would marry an atheist, the next her lesbian life partner, and the last would strike off as single to carve out her own life

    Ariel’s just a kid. Maybe she’d like to see more of her new world before settling down. She might like to start off with a real conversation with the hot and sensitive Prince Eric, now that she’s got her voice back and all. Disney seems to just be feeling the waters with some girl power on this one. They don’t quite get it right, but it’s a start. And it is a big difference from Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

  • ArachneS

    I like what you wrote here. I can see that aspect of the story.

    My parents didn’t let us watch The Little Mermaid when I was little. The clothes were too immodest, Disney supported Planned Parenthood(I have no idea if this is true, this was stuff circulated by conservative literature my parents read) and the people who made fairy tales were trying to “put in bad morals to corrupt children from a young age”.

    So when I did watch it, I was already grown, out of my parents house and married. I loved the music, but the movie bothered me. In order to get what she wants(the guy up on land), Ariel gives up her voice. It just felt too much like relationships I had actually seen, where girls I knew to be funny, smart, interesting people, became somebody different in order to be with the guy they liked. They stopped talking about/doing stuff the guy didn’t like/wasn’t interested in, and only spoke as an echo of what the guy said. It was like they were silencing themselves.

    And yeah, the original story wasn’t really a happy story either.

    • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

      The issue of giving up her voice always bothered me, too. For one, because it’s symbolically sacrificing her ability to communicate. Secondly, it seems to be a highly contrived plot point designed to lengthen the story and have Ariel suffer for a while to prove her worth.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I’ve often heard this criticism but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. For one thing, Ursula, the villain, explicitly references the attitude that women shouldn’t talk, which seems to me like the movie is criticizing it:

      The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
      They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
      Yet on land it’s much prefered for ladies not to say a word
      And after all dear, what is idle prattle for?
      Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
      True gentlemen avoid it when they can
      But they dote and swoon and fawn
      On a lady who’s withdrawn
      It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man

      Of course, it’s Howard Ashman who’s responsible for those lyrics, imo, one of the greatest show lyricists of all time (who died way too soon). And there’s actually critique of gender roles in a LOT of his work with Disney, which makes sense since he was a gay man in the world of New York theater. It may not be sustained throughout the rest of the movie, but it is there.

      The other thing to remember is that, the win-Eric-without-a-voice plan doesn’t actually work. There’s chemistry, but it’s not until he hears her voice–which is what he initially fell in love with–that he realizes she’s The One.

      So whatever else may be wrong with it, I don’t think that’s it. Again, my main problem is that it offers kind of an incomplete questioning of the idea of paternal authority, by having her father’s authority and power be what ultimately gives her her freedom. It kind of makes the message “Fathers should really allow their adult daughters to do stuff” as opposed to what it should be, “Adult daughters should be able to do stuff without having to think about whether their fathers ‘allow’ them to or not.”

  • http://rejiquar.com rejiquar

    Your version is different from the one I read, in which the prince loved her, but because he was required to marry a princess, and she had no way of informing him that she qualified, he was forced (by *his* parents?) to choose another.

    I love the dizzy version, because my atheist self loathed, loathed, *loathed* the ending of the original: she dies of a broken heart, but because she’s transformed from mer to human, she’s gained a soul, so instead of living 300 (or 600) years and becoming `foam upon the sea’ at her death, she gets to go to heaven. Wait, humans deserve souls but mers don’t? Besides which, they don’t exist, so what a lousy exchange *that* was!

    I should note also, her sisters cut off their hair and sell it to the sea witch in exchange for a charm to turn her legs back into a tail after she loses the prince, but since her tongue, rather than just her voice, has been torn out, she would have been silenced when returning, and she turns her sisters down, dying instead.

    As a feminist, I rather liked the way that Ariel and Eric work together to defeat the sea witch. Note also that he uses his brains (turning the wreck of a ship into a giant spear) to ultimately defeat her, but he would never have managed if she hadn’t been working hard to buy him some time. It’s also a nice inverted replay of the beginning of the story, in which she rescues him.

    As for the father giving her the legs at the end, that worked for me, because I—and, I suspect Ariel as well—never really considered that he could/would do that—me because of knowing the original (his powers don’t really come up), Ariel because it hadn’t really occurred to her: note that she never even considers asking for this, and indeed keeps her obsession secret.

    But after Tridon is himself turned into a sea worm, (and is rescued, in effect by Ariel and particularly Eric) I think he undergoes a serious change of heart, and starts to consider his daughter an adult. This is not a fashionable stance nowadays, but some kids do successfully make the transition into responsible adulthood at that age. And that he has to let go.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Ugh, I forgot all about the cutting out her tongue thing!

      And now I’m remembering that, whenever she walks, it feels like she’s walking on knives. And there’s a scene where she captivates everybody with her beautiful dancing, which is, of course, excruciatingly painful but she bears the pain, because anything for feminine beauty, right? That disturbed me so much as a kid. I must have blocked it!

      Yikes, what a horrible story that was, wasn’t it! Color me middle-brow but I’ll take the Disney!

      • Conuly

        Oh, it’s all about gaining a soul and becoming wonderful. Suffering leads to salvation and all that, and the beauty of having a soul is more real than a little gift like your voice. Striving and loyalty is a good thing, and the more it hurts, the better.

        Andersen was possibly autistic and probably depressed. Suffering and truth is a big theme in all his stories.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Also, probably gay, so, yeah, suffering…

  • H

    Completely unrelated:
    A while back, you posted about missing out on secular music growing up… Have you found any that you like?
    I recently went to see “The Saw Doctors”, an Irish band that plays fairly goofy music a lot of the time, and it caused me to think of your desire for fun, uplifting music. (Specifically “Danny K.”, which celebrates a notorious DJ)

  • ee

    I always saw it as a story for parents, rather than for children. That it is simply not fair to arbitrarily set boundaries and to not support children for *who they are*, and the resultant dangers of pushing kids to young to find other means to break out.

    When I grew up, reexamined my own beliefs about the rights of LGBT people, and became an ardent supporter of LGBT rights, my heart broke when I heard stories of parents refusing their own children. Those parents need to watch more Disney!

    Interest is different than sexual orientation, but why shouldn’t parents support a child interested in music? Or girls in sports? Or even a healthy questioning of religion?

    My own dad ‘gave me legs’, and I am grateful for that. My mum…

  • Caravelle

    The Little Mermaid is an interesting movie from a feminist analysis (or simple analysis) point of view, whichever point of the love/hate spectrum you fall on.

    One point I saw made, I think by the Nostalgia Chick, which is similar to something you said; she saw it as a bad thing, you might have a different idea… is that this is a movie where the purported main character Ariel undergoes no character development or arc at all. Instead it’s her father who learns and changes.

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