Reading the Texts
I found the Trites’ reflection to be quite intriguing and in line with most of the ideas I discussed in my initial reflection on the story and film. While Trites went more in depth in regards to the plot change, I spoke briefly about how the Disney version changed the plot to fit their brand. Trites went farther and addressed the difference in the little mermaid’s motivation in each interpretation, pointing out that in the Hans Christian Andersen story, the little mermaid is motivated by the desire to gain an immortal soul above and beyond her desire for love. This is very much the opposite of the Disney story where Ariel shallowly seeks a husband.
Trites’ view on the films portrayal of marriage was especially interesting. She points out that the film “presents marriage as a goal to be achieved rather than as a process to be experienced.” This is an interesting idea and one that is common in many Disney films, and is perhaps a reflection of society’s view on marriage as well. Our culture is obsessed with big, expensive weddings, something that I experienced several years ago when planning my own wedding. Many people were almost disgusted that my husband and I decided to have a very small modest wedding, but for us, the day was more about being husband and wife than it was about impressing people or showing off in any way. For us, the wedding day was a beginning, where the film, and modern society, views the wedding day as the ending point. This view is evidenced by shows such as Say Yes to the Dress and Bridezillas where the commercialized wedding is glamourized. This could be one of the reasons why there are so many failed marriages in our country; when so much attention is focused on a wedding, the thought about what happens next is often forgotten.
While I do feel like Trites was right about a lot of things, such as the portrayal of women as being dependent upon men and the Christian overtones of the original story, I felt like some of her observations were overstretched just to make her points. One example of this is in the comparison between Ursula’s desires for power in the form of King Triton’s trident with penis envy. While it is impossible to know what the film makers were thinking, I have a hard time believing that a company like Disney would have intentionally included this metaphor. Perhaps this metaphor was incidental based on society’s views on power in men and women, but I think to argue so fervently that Ursula had penis envy is a bit much.
I also feel like Trites’ reflection is somewhat of a contradiction of itself. She starts by taking a moral high ground, asserting the sexist nature of the film and original text, but later, she makes insensitive comments regarding female body image including her description of the conflict between Ariel and the transformed Ursula as, “a dark-haired anorexic and a fairer one.” Eating disorders are a very touchy subject and labeling someone, even an imaginary character, is a bit insensitive to readers who may have struggled with this, just as the issues of sexism raised by the film and story are sensitive to others.
Rethinking the Original and Film
While I do disagree with some of Trites’ feelings on the film and original text, her essay has helped me to see the story in a new light, and the film even more so. Even as a child, I had always been bothered by the fact that Ariel had to essentially give up everything about herself in order to be good enough for a man, but now having read Trites’ take, as well as the original story, I feel like there is a lot more about this film that should have bothered me. Growing up in an overexposed culture, I guess I did not think anything of the level of exposure, but after taking a step back and rewatching the movie, I’m not sure that I would want my own daughter watching this. Between the near-naked mer-people and the flouncy bossom of Ursula, there is far too much skin being shown for a children’s movie. That paired with the actual message of female oppression, as seen through Ariel’s dependence on men, the way she fixates on finding a mate over almost anything else, and the negative portrayal of less than ideal body types (overweight females and scrawny men), this is definitely not a movie that would be touted as teaching girls to be strong, powerful, and happy with their bodies.
Trites’ take on the story by Hans Christian Andersen actually made me appreciate the original text even more. Stories with the level of depth of The Little Mermaid are not common in literature today, especially for one so short. While there are examples of sexism, I feel that the overall moral of the story is one that can be seen as empowering to women, especially when taking into consideration the time period in which it was written. From the beginning of the story, the little mermaid has her own ideas, her own identity, and her own desires. Unlike Ariel, she maintains these defining traits throughout the story as they guide her towards her goal of an immortal soul. Also unlike Ariel, she remains virtuous until the end, as evidenced by her acknowledgement of the prince’s choice in a wife and her unwillingness to kill the prince to get what she wanted. I image that if Ariel were told she could have had the prince if she took a life, she would have done it. After reading Trites’ essay, I also feel like the original story’s message about working hard and making sacrifices for what you want are important lessons that I did not initially glean from the story, but are lessons that are more than applicable to readers today.
I appreciated her take on the Christian allegory most of all. The repeated mention of the mermaid’s desire for an immortal soul is an easy to see connection to Christianity, but taking the metaphor even further are the sacrifices made by the little mermaid. Trites mentions that the little mermaid gains her salvation “through the self-sacrifice of good works”. While she does indeed save herself (unknowingly), I feel like the little mermaid could also be considered a Christ figure. Rather than kill the prince so that she might live, she, like Christ, sacrificed her own life so that the man she loved might live. This mirrors the Christian belief that Christ sacrificed his life so that his believers, whom he loved, might live eternally in heaven. Also like Christ, she was resurrected, in a way, when she joined the daughters of the air.
Pop Culture and the Politics of Reinterpretation
Modern culture is extremely evident in the Disney reinterpretation of The Little Mermaid. From the stick thin female figures to the fixation on marriage as the ultimate goal for a girl, the film reflects many of the societal norms regarding female bodies, female power, and the place of females in a society. By latching onto and perpetuating these views, Disney was able to connect with viewers, and this, combined with the commercial aspect of selling related memorabilia, led to the making a pop culture phenomenon.
Disney’s reinterpretation, like The Wizard of Oz, placed very little stake in maintaining true to the original story, and in doing so created a “text” all its own. While it can be argued that The Wizard of Oz improved upon the original text, I think one would be hard pressed to say that Disney’s The Little Mermaid improved upon Andersen’s version in anyway. In making the choices they did, Disney ended up taking a very powerful, selfless, and virtuous character and turning her into a selfish, shallow, and deceitful character. Even so, Ariel’s character in the film could actually be considered a positive thing culturally, despite all the negatives. Ariel, unlike many of the Disney princesses before her, questioned authority, had her own ideas, and acted on those ideas. Since The Little Mermaid, strong female characters, in my opinion, are starting to be recognized as more important than ever and I think this is evident in some of Disney’s movies released after The Little Mermaid, including Pocahontas, Mulan, Brave, Tangled, and Frozen. It is almost as if The Little Mermaid was a turning point in Disney’s treatment of women.
Another positive to the film is the idea of accepting people different from one’s self. While not mentioned by Trites, I feel that the filmmakers were making a sociopolitical statement about interracial/non-traditional relationships. The conflict between Ariel and her father could be considered an analogy of black/white relationships. The mermaid/human conflict is also reminiscent of the Romeo and Juliet, another story that labels people as unworthy based on exterior traits, in that case, the family to which they belong. By showing that someone as strong and powerful as King Triton can come around, perhaps filmmakers are encouraging viewers to be more accepting as well.
While the argument can be made that the film and original text paint women in a negative light, it is also important to recognize the good in both of them as well. I think what this week’s lesson has taught me, more than anything, is how easy it is to project your own views into your interpretation. Trites’ negative views were contrary to some of the positives that I gleaned from the film and text. I went into my review with a more positive attitude overall, where Trites had a more critical view from the beginning. I also found that there is a line that can be crossed when examining a film or text. There comes a point when analysis and reflection turn to overthinking, something I think was the case in parts of Trites’ arguments. While there is a lot going on with The Little Mermaid socially, politically, and culturally, I think that there are times to just accept a film or text for what it is, in this case, a story for children, made to appeal to the social norms of the time.
Edie, I'm impressed with the way you engaged this article--both what you learned from it, and what you so thoughtfully pushed against and interrogated. Thanks for your good work.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!