I just got back from the Cedar City Shakespeare Festival, where I saw Henry V. I also got feedback on my second Jeremy Wilderson book, so I've been revising hard. School is also back in session, so I'm teaching again. That, on top of how my life as a writer and everything that goes with it (the social media, the networking, the online presence, the preparation for publication) is accelerating, means I have a lot on my mind.
So let's have a post about a Disney movie.
If you've been keeping up with my posts, you know I love Disney. Always have. As a kid I loved watching all the Disney movies my family had. I dressed up as the princesses at Halloween. Disney was wonderful!
And then I grew up, and people started telling me everything wrong with the Disney movies I knew and loved. The princesses teach girls to be weak and passive, they hurt body image, they teach unrealistic life plans (people don't really get what they wish for). Etcetera, etcetera.
One significant moment of this was in my senior year of high school. As one project for a sociology unit, we watching The Little Mermaid and discussed all the problematic sexist ideas. Body image, gender roles, all that. We tore the movie apart.
I don't think it was very fair of us.
Yes, Disney movies can be problematic. I like this about them - if you have a movie with all perfect characters always doing what every viewer would want them to do, you have no story. Characters need to be imperfect for the story to move forward. But I want to defend The Little Mermaid against some of the critiques leveled against it, because I think there's more to this movie than a simple "girl loves boy, boy saves girl, they get married" story.
First off, I remember this movie getting critiqued for telling girls they need to look a certain way, be a certain way, to get a man. Yes, that advice is given, but remember who said it?
This certainly trustworthy character.
It's Ursula who tells Ariel to change herself. Ariel goes to her for general help, and Ursula is the one who tells Ariel:
- That she has to become human,
- That she has to give up her voice,
- And that the men on land don't like girls who speak.
Let's just remember what game Ursula is playing. She wants to destroy Ariel, and through her King Triton. She's not Ariel's friend. Never has been. Ariel is young and knows very little about the world above (she calls a fork a dinglehopper; how can we expect her to know complex gender dynamics?). Ursula can do whatever she likes with her.
So, Ursula, being clever and evil, sets up a situation that Ariel can't win. She offers her a chance to have everything she wants. The prince, yes, but also a chance to be "part of that world." Let's not forget what Ariel is singing about in her "I Want" song:
Ariel is offered a chance to go to land, but the catch? She only has a few days to make it stick, and she can't use the one thing that will help and distinguish her. Ursula knows this, and she'll do anything to make sure Ariel accepts this deal.
As a kid, I always knew (even if I didn't have the words for it) that anything a Disney villain said was suspect. Scar says Mufasa's death was all Simba'a fault? Lies. Radcliffe saying the Native Americans are hiding gold? False. Pretty much anything Jafar says to the Sultan or even Jasmine? Pants on fire.
This is no different; the villain is manipulating the hero, and even kids can see it. Ursula calls for Ariel giving up what she already has, who she already is, for a man.
But what about the other characters? What about King Triton and Eric? Don't they like the quiet, "improved" Ariel?
Eric is looking for the girl with the voice. He wants Ariel the way she was when she saved his life. He starts to fall for her despite the loss of her voice, not because of it. When she has her voice returned to her, he doesn't wish she was still silent, and even when he learns she's a mermaid, he doesn't push her away. He follows her to sea and stays with her, through it all. Eric accepts Ariel entirely.
And her father?
This is where I get excited, because I think this story isn't the story of a girl who marries a prince. I think it's the story of a girl who finally figures out a more mature relationship with her father. It can't just be coincidence that the last words spoken in the movie are, "I love you, Daddy."
King Triton is a father trying to do his best. He's very involved in his daughters' lives (think about how he muses over who Ariel is in love with). He wants to keep Ariel safe and happy, and so he forbids her from doing the things he sees as dangerous. He sends Sebastian to look after her. She, loving the world above, fights this, and so the tension is created between them. This tension propels the story. It's what drives Ariel to get help from the ever-honest Ursula instead of her dad.
But what happens next? Ariel disappears, and Triton agonizes over this. He blames himself for her vanishing, and as soon as he knows where she is, he swims to the rescue. He does everything to keep Ariel safe, including taking her deal with Ursula.
And at the end, when Triton sees how much Ariel loves Eric and how being on land is what will make her happy, he gives her the legs she wants. No trades, no bargains. He accepts her love of the land, even though he'll miss her. He helps her be the person she wants to be.
In the end, Ariel gets what she wanted: she gets to live as "part of that world" on land, just as she dreamed about. She also gets (and I think this is poignant) people who "understand, who don't reprimand their daughters." Her relationship with her father has evolved to something more mature. The villain who told her to be something else is defeated.
Thought of that way, Eric is kind of a McGuffin, isn't he? He's the prize, the symbol of Ariel's victory.
There's more that you can critique about this movie, but I think this argument deserves some consideration. One of the great things about Disney is that the movies tend to be layered with meaning. The great ones have depth to them that adults can appreciate, and I think The Little Mermaid is one of them.
I'll probably do posts like this again for other movies. They're a lot of fun!