Was the Little Mermaid Male Dominated?


Men rule the world, or so they think. For centuries there has been a dominating culture asserting that males are superior to females. One way these cultural views are induced into society is through Fairy tales. They are some of the first literature children are introduced to and often shape a child’s beliefs and views of the world and society they live in. Analyzing fairy tales and how they change over time can show what ways society has changed and what ways it remains constant. One great example of this is the old fairy tale of the little mermaid. Originally a Danish fairy tale, it has enthralled readers and listeners for hundreds of years. In recent years it has been reproduced into a number of motion pictures as well as stage shows, even making a guest show appearance at the FG Xpress corporate party over Christmas break.

The changes to The Little Mermaid over time show dominating social opinions that women are reliant upon men for safety, happiness, worth, and purpose in life. The first version I will compare is from a book published in 1837 by Hans Christian Andersen. The second version is the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid. In particular I will compare and contrast the character of the little mermaid herself whom I shall refer to as Ariel.

One major comparison is Ariel’s physical appearance. These versions show that beauty for women is viewed much the same in society now as it was in 1837. Both versions acclaim her to be a great beauty. But the way that beauty is obtained, and what makes them beautiful is slightly different. In both versions Ariel’s beauty comes half naturally and the other half through change. In the 1837 version these changes involve much pain. For example, to mark that she had become a woman the grandmother attaches clams to Ariel’s tail. When Ariel complains that they hurt, the grandmother simply replies, “You must put up with a good deal to keep up appearances” (Andersen). This shows that in 1837 women were not considered beautiful unless adorned with trinkets and jewelry even though it was uncomfortable and encumber-some. These changes to appearance were often painful as well. When discussing if Ariel could ever attract the prince, the grandmother remarks, “The very thing that is your greatest beauty here in the sea – your fish tail – would be considered ugly on land” (Andersen). So in order to be beautiful to the prince, she underwent excruciating pain that “[felt] as if a sharp sword slashed through her” (Andersen). It was so painful that she actually passed out during the process.  Later to charm the prince “She danced time and again, though every time she touched the floor she felt as if she were treading on sharp-edged steel” (Andersen). Her greatest “beauty,” with which she charmed the prince, came only at the cost of great pain. This displays that women were expected to go through extraordinary and sometimes excruciating measures in 1837 to satisfy men.

Not only was the female character in the 1837 version expected to endure pain, she is expected to find it a pleasure to do so: “She climbed up high mountains with the Prince, and though her tender feet bled so that all could see it, she only laughed and followed him” (Andersen). This displays how the female protagonist never complained but happily suffered to please the prince. Therefore women in society were expected to also be willing to suffer happily in order to please men, never complaining or being dissatisfied.

Alternatively, the 1989 film version depicts almost no sign of the pain involved with changing appearance. Rather it attempts to portray that changing one’s appearance is normal and painless. It does display Ariel brushing her hair, putting on a dress and of course changing her tail to legs in order to attract the prince, but all this is done without any major display of discomfort. The absence of pain seems to show that people now want to believe that changing appearance should be easy and painless. A notion highly promoted today but in stark contrast to reality. Changing appearance is neither natural nor easy, but mainstream culture wants it to look that way.

Interestingly there are no references directed toward the male characters that they must undergo change to be found attractive. Society seems to have very little demands on males in regards to physical appearance. Because this is present in both versions it shows that women and men are still held to different standards of appearance. Women are expected to change themselves to fit a certain “mold” whereas men are generally accepted for what they are.

Another major difference between the two versions is the motivation for which Ariel becomes a human. In the 1989 film version, Ariel has two main objectives in becoming human: to marry the man of her dreams and to rebel against her father’s rule. In the 1837 version Ariel yearns to marry the prince, yet rather than rebelling against her father, the second motivation seems to be a spiritual or religious one. In Anderson’s version Ariel sums up her motivations by saying, “I dare do anything to win [the prince] and to gain an immortal soul” (Andersen). Ariel wants the prince and she wants a soul.

In the 1837 version there is no hint of rebellion. In fact, the father-daughter relationship seems quite healthy. Ariel was permitted to go to the surface and broke no rules. And the father never reacts angrily, only with understanding, kindness, and sorrow at his daughter’s pain. Where as in the 1989 version the mermaid and her father frequently fight and argue. This may imply that our culture relates to families with dominating parents or rebellious children. At the very least the 1837 version taught that children should always obey their parents. When her grandmother was “beautifying” her and causing her pain, Ariel wanted to stop her “but she didn’t dare to” (Andersen). That is the only reference to Ariel even thinking about disobeying a parent figure. This shows how unquestioningly obedient children were taught to be in 1837.

In the 1989 Disney version Ariel often quarrels with her father. These arguments are a result of Ariel’s desire to follow her own heart and interests. Ariel does what she wants regardless of rules and displays that society encourages females to follow their own desires. This may show a more favorable disposition to women. “One could… argue Ariel’s story is the tale of an adventurous young woman who challenges the patriarchy to explore an unknown world that she wants to experience “more” of and is willing to go to extreme lengths for an opportunity” (Burnett). But the arguments with her father show that society thinks that doing so will have negative consequences. In the end Ariel is punished for her disobedience and therefore society still thinks that women should be obedient to the male characters in their lives. The fact that all these arguments were a result of Ariel’s actions also implies that society generally views females as the source of contention in a female-man relationship.

The other motivation Ariel had in the 1837 version to become human is that she wanted an immortal soul. Mermaids do not have souls but there is a way to obtain one. “A mermaid has no immortal soul, and can never get one unless she wins the love of a human being. Her eternal life must depend upon a power outside herself” (Andersen). In essence, the female characters entire self-being and worth depend upon winning the love of a man. Not only that, they must win a mans hand in marriage:

If his every thought and his whole heart cleaved to you so that he would let a priest join his right hand to yours and would promise to be faithful here and throughout all eternity, then his soul would dwell in your body, and you would share in the happiness of mankind. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own. (Andersen)

This shows that in 1837 women only gained value and stature in society by marrying a man. The 1989 version makes no indication that the eternal salvation of a woman depends upon a man. This shows that society has started to see value in a woman regardless of marital status. But the 1989 version does inculcate that should Ariel be unsuccessful in wooing the prince, she would be doomed to eternal slavery to the sea witch. However this is because of Ariel’s bargain with the sea witch and not a natural state of the cosmos. Indeed the fact that Ariel could make such a bargain implies that she has an eternal soul to bargain with. This shows that society now thinks that women now have a soul and some sort of value regardless of marriage.

The one motive that both versions of the story maintain is to woo the prince. This shows that marriage is still considered the answer to a female’s greatest hopes and fears. Mainstream society still views marriage as the natural and climatic goal of women.

Another difference between the two versions is the altruistic or selfish nature and actions of the female protagonist. In the Disney version the female character mostly acts in her own interest and for her desires. However, in the 1837 version the female is almost always portrayed as being selfless often sacrificing her happiness in order to please the male character. Ariel sacrificed her physical comfort several times to please the prince. In the end of the 1837 version, Ariel sacrifices her own life for the prince and is selfless and happy to the end.

The deal Ariel made was that the morning after the prince married another woman Ariel would die forever with no eternal soul. When the prince does marry someone else, Ariel’s sisters tell her of a way out: “strike [a knife] into the Prince’s heart, and when his warm blood bathes your feet they will grow together and become a fish tail. Then you will be a mermaid again, able to come back to us in the sea” (Andersen). Though Ariel knew that death meant that “A never-ending night, without thought and without dreams, awaited her who had no soul and could not get one,” (Andersen) she throws the knife into the sea and accepts death rather than slay the prince. Indeed there is no indication that she is vindictive or jealous, instead “she kissed the bride’s forehead [and] smiled upon the Prince” (Andersen) thus showing that she had no enmity for the woman who stole her love and caused her death. To the end she happily sacrificed her joy and happiness, even her life, for a man that never showed such devotion back. This is perhaps the greatest example of the unequal expectations women and men had in 1837. Women were expected to be perfectly loyal to their husbands and selfless in their relationship, whereas the prince is gallivanting with another woman which sanctions males in being unfaithful and selfish.

One sacrifice that is similar in both versions of the tale is the separation from home and family. In order to gain her prince, the mermaid is required to sacrifice her current social connections in return for his. Steven Swan Jones argues that in many fairy tales “the heroine is encouraged to give up her family and… become “part” of the husband’s clan. She must revise her notions of what constitutes her “family”. Continuing to identify with her parents and siblings as her family is shown to be dangerous and dysfunctional” (Jones, 85). The fact that this has remained intact in both versions implies that this is still a prevalent philosophy of marriage in our day. Jones admits however that “realizing that one’s closest ties are now to the person one lives with” may hold some “emotional truth” (Jones, 86).

All in all these two versions illustrate predominant cultural opinions over the last two centuries. First, popular society believes that women should undergo painful or difficult changes in order to be beautiful for men, although modern society tries to hide the fact that these changes are painful and difficult. Second, the rebellious actions of the female result in a poor relationship with the male figure. In 1837 this relationship was peaceful and loving. Now females are depicted as self centered and rebellious, which brings contention into the female-male relationship. Third, although it is implied that the female character has a soul in the 1989 version, as opposed to the 1837 version, in both versions the female protagonist’s happiness is based upon marriage to the prince. The fourth predominant opinion over the last two centuries is that women should be selfless and sacrificing while men are encouraged to be self-centered and unfaithful. These are just a few examples of how the 1837 and 1989 versions of The Little Mermaid portray that a female’s life should be centered around males.

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