Friday, October 29, 2010

Mermaid Meanderings

All right. Once again, I, your eminent blogger, have fallen somewhat behind in regular postings. To make amends, I’m going to embark on a daily blog, until… well, until I get distracted by a pretty ribbon or an interesting smell and lapse once again. But we should have enough fodder to keep things going for a while. I’ve got games I want to write about, some TV shows I want to review, various theoretical meanderings, and a new segment-type to try out. For now, though, I’d like to start “the return” with a three-parter on a gender near and dear to my own heart, the female.

Specifically, I’d like to open with a comparison between two different stories featuring a female protagonist: the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, and Hans Christian Andersen’s original. We’re comparing the two in a graduate course on aesthetics that I’m auditing, but before we discuss them there, I wanted to jot some ideas down here. (And if you to brush up on the original Anderson, it can be found here.) One of the more obvious differences between the original and the movie is that the movie adds a lot of musical numbers. However, the addition works really well with the themes of the original, in which the mermaid’s voice was treated as a commodity—just as in the movie version, she traded “her most valuable possession” to be human. And, at the end of the original story, she is left completely formless, so that all she has left is a disembodied voice. (I’d say “spoiler,” but I already included the link. You had your chance.) The same commodification is in the movie: one of the film’s first scenes is a symphony held in Triton’s honor, where Ariel’s voice is literally presented as a gift for her father. (Her absence from the symphony is symbolically an early break from her patriarchal repression.)

But there are big, big differences, and there are three I’d like to flag:
1) Soul Ownership. In the Andersen original, the nameless little mermaid is actually told she has no soul. In fact, no merperson does. They live three hundred years, and then dissolve into sea foam. The only way a merwoman can get a soul is to marry a human male, and then her husband’s soul sloshes around to fit her as well—in other words, a human male has a big enough soul for two people. And all of this information is very disturbing to a modern audience. What gets washed over, however, is that the movie version has its own disturbing equivalent. Where in the short story, the nameless mermaid discusses eternal salvation with her mother, Ariel is discussing the meaning of a fork with a seagull. The little mermaid’s desire for a soul has been replaced with Ariel’s obsession with collecting human artifacts. Disney has, in effect, replaced spirituality with accumulating a bunch of crappy junk with no real purpose.

A little too on the nose, yes?
2) And They All Lived Happily… Oh Wait, They Didn’t. The other obvious big difference is that the nameless mermaid DOES NOT get Prince Eric. Or any other named Prince. Rather, her time on earth ends, and she dissolves into sea foam. There’s a deus ex machina ending where she’s rescued from oblivion by being turned into a “Sister of the Air,” but the last-second salvation doesn’t alter the fact that “true love’s kiss” might swap some saliva, but it doesn’t turn a mute girl from nowhere into a suitable spouse for a prince. And she doesn’t even lose to the sea witch; she loses to a complete stranger that the prince assumes is the person who saved him from drowning. It’s a reminder how things have changed in our Euro-descended society; in Andersen’s time, you could still make the argument that spiritual salvation was more valuable than physical love, but now, Hollywood’s created a situation where the happy ending means the romantic ending.
The real salt in the wound for the nameless mermaid, I imagine, is when the prince declares “I want you to meet my fiancée! And I know you will love her, because I love her, and you love me!”. That’s cold, man. Even for a prince, that’s cold.

3) Female Shift. Disney’s made a lot of female leads over the years. I bet that, if pressed, you could name a few yourselves: Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan… etcetra, so on, ad infinum. Now: name one female friend of any of them. …They don’t exactly roll off the tongue, do they? And Disney’s The Little Mermaid is hardly an exception. As much as it’s a story about a young woman finding her true love, it’s also a father’s story about accepting that his little girl is a young woman—and apparently, in order to tell that story, Disney decided not to tell a large part of the original. In Andersen’s version, the Little Mermaid still had her mother die a long time ago, and still has a father figure, but the father’s role is greatly, greatly reduced. Instead, what we get is a heavy supporting role from her sisters and lots of good advice from her grandmother (who is written out of the movie entirely). Even the seawitch gets a better rap. In the original, she isn’t scheming to cheat the mermaid out of her fair chance, or steal back a kingdom; she takes Ariel’s voice because that’s the way magic works—it always costs the thing most precious to you. Ariel’s sisters comfort her with their presence and song while she’s human, and sacrifice their own dearest possession—their hair—to give her a chance to return to them. And it’s not like their replacements are wonderful role-models for little boys, either: Flounder is a coward, Scuttles is scatterbrained, and Sebastian is fastidious to a fault. Admittedly, each will pitch in when the chips are down, but the message that’s left seems to be is that you can’t count on sisterhood, you can’t count on the boys, it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. I’ll admit, it’s still a better message than “the only options open to a young woman are self-sacrifice and marriage” and “you need a husband to get a soul,” but… it’s still an awfully bleak message to give little girls. (Not to mention it still comes down to “you need a husband.”) In separating itself from the original female bonds, it feels as if Disney really altered a part of the original story for the worse.

And that’s where we’re at. The whole issue got me thinking about another topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: female role models.

Later Days

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