A Dichotomy of Mermaids

Hans Christian Anderson told this story about a young maiden in love with a hansome prince. She determines to have him at all costs, forsaking family and all that is familiar to her, propelled by infatuation into the all-too-common assumption that if she has the right physical appearance she will win him over. Conspicuously enough, she has never spoken with him, and therefore thinks nothing of bargaining away her voice for a pair of feet so she can go after him, which in the classic story, cause her terrible pain whenever she walks. That’s where the modern Disney interpretation starts to make its departure- HCA makes it a point that she suffers pain for her new look, which turns out to be a wasted sacrifice. She’s no different to lover boy than all the other girls around him, except for her hopeless inability to contribute to the conversation and he flutters off after some other girl. After his wedding, her sisters bring her a knife. They inform her that if she kills him and his new wife, she can return to the sea and become a mermaid again. Get it? Kill off the fantasy, and go back to your roots. But she can’t; she approaches him with the knife, and runs off to fall into the sea, dissipating into foam. Thus ends the little mermaid princess. She lost the man she wanted, because she never understood him and hoped that she could get by on looks. After she failed, she wouldn’t give him up and her life dissolved into nothingness.

It’s a horrific cautionary tale to young girls everywhere. Looking good isn’t enough to keep a relationship alive, living a fantasy will never allow you to be fulfilled as an individual… the morals are numerous and obvious.

Contrast that unfortunate creature with her modern counterpart:

ariel shopping

When the Disney movie hit theaters, I adored it. I filled countless notebooks and homework papers with mermaid drawings, and practiced swimming like a mermaid (hair tossing upon breaking the surface was a must). I was aware that the story glorified selfish behavior, but it was pretty enough that pretty beat out irresponsible (and it was JUST a MOVIE). As an adult, I find myself kinda sorta battling with that in my classroom. I love the toys and books and my kids like them too, but I see much nastier messages in the story that I didn’t pick up as a child. This character puts everyone around her at risk so that she can have what she wants. She decides she loves someone although she knows nothing about him. As it happens, he is a mindless hunk-o-matic who, like any good prince, exists only to be dashing and to fall in love, but after she creates the entire relationship without any effort from him, and after she sacrifices the well-being and emotional peace of her family, and after she has gotten herself into such enormous trouble that an entire kingdom is now in danger, he suddenly becomes a participant in the story and whoops up the villain before going back to mindlessly adoring her. In the end, her father sadly admits that she was right all along, and she gets an awesome fantasy wedding complete with paternal blessing and rainbow. Yaaay! Seriously, is that anything like reality?

Am I being ridiculous?

I find it ironic that the message is the polar opposite of the original story, but is it really that bad? I’m a little bit serious about that- Ariel is super bratty and she never has to pay for her outrageous treatment of everyone around her, so should we be warning our little girls against her, or can we just be okay with a person getting away with brattiness?

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4 Comments »

  1. tomnochera Said:

    Bethany,

    I enjoyed your post. I’m on the side of the original. I never think a book is just a book or a movie is just a movie. All stories are instructional to some degree. Some more than others. The masters like Hans Christian Anderson make their stories entertaining as well.

    A modern American rejoinder might protest: don’t harness stories to morals, don’t try to force your values or views on others, this is fantasy, this is “just a story,” etc. This is the relativist viewpoint.

    But as you point out, even a story that comes out happy-go-lucky fantasy, that still gives instruction. And instructions are tethered to moral viewpoints.

    Disney chocks their stories full of American trends and ideas that the kids relate to. And they are instructed by. And, in the end, are melded into their moral view of the world, whether the relativist likes it or not.

    • kirinjirafa Said:

      I totally agree- My brother says that no fiction is ever neutral, and I feel like this is case where the negative message is very blatant, but every time I get bothered by it enough to say I don’t want Disney Princess stuff in my classroom, I suddenly feel silly. I can’t decide if the wretched example they set outweighs the simple factor that they are just a charming little fantasy entertainment venue for girls.

  2. Perhaps Disney’s princesses are the pint-sized equivalent of Harlequin heroines. I think the original tales are considered to be outdated, vulgar, and frightening by most modern American moms, but they do seem to have more real-world value because they show “magical” logical consequences. There’s probably a necessary balance between the two versions of princess reality.

    • kirinjirafa Said:

      It’s the fantasy that they are effortlessly beautiful, live without bills in a castle and are eternally interesting to their mate. As rolemodels, they aren’t so terrible because of what they do or say, but because they embody the lie that this is an actual reality for someone. In that regard, I think they compare to smutty romance novellas very well. A person may not believe that a dashing wealthy vampire will come sweep her away and love her unconditionally forever, but if she feeds on that fantasy of such far-fetched perfection, reality doesn’t look nearly so satisfying. It’s not that little girls are necessarily going to be warped forever by enjoying a story about someone else’s perfect life, as long as they aren’t allowed to make that their entire literary diet…


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