Unruly merbodies (DeDisnification, Part 10)
The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, the first film in what has been called the Disney Renaissance, breathing life back into the animated musical genre, which had been languishing since the 1967 release of The Jungle Book or, according to some, even earlier.
By contrast, the gravy train Disney is currently riding has them remaking every one of even their most modestly successful animated movies. One presumes that this is due to a descending cost curve in CG allowing “lifelike” effects to be cheaply inserted into these films. To me, these remakes are first unneeded and second tend to make the films infinitely worse.
I understand their reasoning, to be sure: there are people of my acquaintance who simply will not watch an animated film and also those who are put off by any sort of visual stylization even with live actors. I suppose, along with my other media ethe, there’s a relevant one that I arrived at partially in my own medium and partly from my days as an art student—the level of visual stylization should match the level of realism being presented in the rest of an experience.
To digress briefly: the well known Magritte painting The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) depicts a pipe together with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”—“This is not a pipe.” The work caused quite a stir in its day, but it is entirely correct. Indeed other fields have developed related statements such as “the map is not the territory” and the “word is not the thing”. Each case involves a metaphorical representation of reality via a medium of communication. When someone refers to “abstract art,” they are splitting hairs: all art is abstract, it is only the degree of abstraction that varies. Even if you want to create something “realistic”, it is inherently not reality, but a level of abstraction, or stylization—just one that is relatively close to reality.
Let’s take Moby-Dick. The work is strongly based in reality and Herman Melville even served as a “green hand” on a whaling ship; the literary equivalent of method acting. The story is also based in part on the factual story of the doomed voyage of the Essex, a ship that was sunk by a whale. Still, Melville is selecting the elements to include and exclude—the specific members of the crew, the vengeance-obsessed Ahab, the white whale. In short, he has still created the world of the Pequod, one based in the reality of his time, and a specific realm of pursuit, even the supernaturally powerful titular cetacean drew on a historic albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick, all marshaled together in order to tell the story.
For contrast I give you Flatland: there is a kind of reality portrayed, but central to the work is the visualization of a two-dimensional world peopled by geometric figures. All the rules of this world, which is essentially a thought experiment, have to be developed by the author and explained to the reader—almost nothing can be taken for granted.
In the Disney-Pixar film, The Incredibles, the inconsistent level of stylization bothered me—super-realistic fire and wet hair were admirable technical achievements, but did not belong in that world. So much more so portraying a fairy-tale reality in vivid, lifelike detail. This also bothers me about the whole MCU and is also why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is such an excellent standout among these supeflicks—the visuals are perfectly matched to the themes. Whereas watching Christopher Walken’s voice emerge from a not-quite photoreal orangutan to sing “I Wan’na Be like You” is a quick trip to uncanny valley. Digression concluded.
There is, in any case, a veritable flood of these live-action remakes, so many that multiple films are currently in theatrical release, which likely says something about their quality—I can’t be bothered to watch them myself. But one that has been teased has gained particular attention: The Little Mermaid.
And suddenly, the same people who have been very accepting of these remakes are up in arms, tweeting complaints like:
Leave classic Disney movies in peace!
Sorry but I won’t watch this, it simply doesn’t make any sense.
Boycotting this disgrace.
Does this mean that they’ve finally wised up to the fact that their childhood memories are being crassly commoditized by a company expert in maximizing ROI and not so much in creating excellent entertainment experiences? Is it because they’ve figured out that the original animated movies, however flawed, are still superior or that the original works they are based on remain better?
Nope, it’s because of white fragility. You see, a black woman, Halle Bailey, was cast in the lead role of Ariel, stoking outrage and giving rise to the hashtag not my Ariel because she’s not a white-skinned redhead as she was in the animated film.
You see, Disney in the past was notorious for their racist and sexist on-screen portrayals, as well as various other regressive tropes. True, they were “of the time” and other animation studios, and indeed, film studios generally, were just as bad, sometimes even worse. But lately, Disney has attempted to erase their checkered past, launching a charm offensive of inclusion with such entries as Moana and The Princess and the Frog.
Lest we imagine there’s some type of woke social consciousness behind this effort, Screen Rant contributor Kayleigh Donaldson reminds us the move is “just good business”:¹
[Bailey] has the perfect youthful warmth that Ariel needs, as well as that spark of inquisitiveness. As evidenced by her work under Chloe x Halle, she certainly has the vocal range required to sing those Alan Menken songs […]. Bailey has an enthusiastic and young fanbase, and such things are most certainly taken into consideration in casting projects of this size. In many ways, she’s the full package.
Nonetheless, those complaining on social media have consulted the source, as one can only imagine they never previously had, declaring that as the work is by Hans Christian Andersen, a Dane, Ariel should similarly be Danish, ergo white. Which is actually wildly off the mark: While our term, mermaid means a “young woman of the sea”, the Danish term is havfrue, which means “half-woman”. And indeed these creatures are portrayed as less-than human in the tale, as they lack immortal souls. So quibbling about the color of her skin, eyes, and hair is absurd; she is racially nonhuman. As Lori Yamato, professor of comparative literature notes:²
[T]he mermaid as a being complete in herself is not an option […]; as a mermaid, she is primarily seen as half-human rather than full-mermaid.
The idea of this supernatural creature came early and was widespread, appearing essentially on every human-inhabited continent, together with an ancient intuition that human life originated in the sea. The first clearly focused version is the Sumerian Kulianna (“fish-woman”), one of the seven hero-monsters slain by Ninurta in his pursuit of Imdugud, and appearing in the art of the area as early as the Old Babylonian period (c. 1830–1531 BCE). From there it was borrowed, as things often were, by the Greeks and the West generally, along the way acquiring some properties of the birdlike but shore-dwelling Siren (Σειρήν) along the way, including enchanting vocal stylings.
The operative ur-water sprite for Andersen’s version seems to have been Melusine, a legendary figure prevalent in northwestern France and the Low Countries who seems to actually spring from yet a different Graeco-Roman tradition, that of nymphs (νύμφἡ), specifically Naiads (Ναϊάδες). Melusine was linked to the House of Luxembourg, the Counts of Anjou, and so also the House of Plantagenet, and the French House of Lusignan as a kind of fertility and prosperity deity, though, as I’ve previously noted of these creatures:³
They both exemplify the native innocence of the healthy (and often local) countryside and yet uneasily recall the dangers of its ungovernable wildness; they represent nature as the true expression of divine beauty accompanied by unknowable depths.
Moving on to the Andersen story, in addition to its sentimentalism and Christian moralizing, many see it as antifeminist, with the female protagonist giving up her voice, symbolic of her free will and agency, in order to become attractive to a man. Additionally the cruelty, always present in folktales, is unnecessarily amped up; there’s no magic in how the sea witch takes the mermaid’s voice for example—she cuts out her tongue. Financial Times arts critic and Andersen biographer, Jackie Wullschlager notes that the story,⁴
[…] shows Andersen enjoying the Mermaid’s suffering and offering an oppressive mix of self-sacrifice, silence, and expiation as ideals of female behavior.
Quoting Andersen’s work directly, the sea witch’s deal in particular embodies this sadism:
I will mix you a potion. Drink it tomorrow morning before the sun rises, while you are sitting on the beach. Your tail will divide and shrink, until it becomes what human beings call ‘‘pretty legs.’’ It will hurt; it will feel as if a sword were going through your body. All who see you will say that you are the most beautiful child they have ever seen. You will walk more gracefully than any dancer; but every time your foot touches the ground, it will feel as though you were walking on knives so sharp that your blood must flow. If you are willing to suffer all this, then I can help you.
The Disney film is often seen as turning the tale into a postfeminist text. The elements cited are its focus on the individual, and in particular, the body as the locus of power, as well as the presence of consumerist and heteronormative value systems. The evidence they present for this is not uncompelling; in brief, the world is run by patriarchies, women are either good (Ariel and her sisters), and therefore resemble Barbie, or evil (Ursula the sea witch), and therefore old, fat, and ugly. Finally, the tale centers on a makeover that renders the heroine acceptable to the man she desires. Of the sea witch’s place in this matrix, communications and women studies professor Laura Sells says:⁵
Ursula is the female symbolic encoded in patriarchal language as grotesque and monstrous; she represents the monstrosity of feminine power.
However, it’s significant in both cases that the human world is really the goal and not the prince at all. In fact, there is a clear subtext in the Andersen work, and arguably the Disney one as well that has given it enduring appeal for social outsiders and specifically LGBTQ+ audiences. Nor is this accidental, as Wullschlager informs us:⁶
As the drama of the suffering of a social outsider and an unrequited lover who cannot express his or her passion, [this story] is still poignant. This is certainly how Andersen identified with the tale, allying himself in his bisexuality to the mermaid’s sense of being a different species from humankind.
Andersen’s sexual orientation is well documented, as LGBTQ+ historian Sacha Coward notes:⁷
Hans was a bi-romantic man; he fell in love with both men and women, and we can see this from his diaries. [H]e wrote [“The Little Mermaid”] after being rejected by […] a man called Edvard Collin. Therefore the writing […] starts to gain a clear queer symbolism even in its origins.
In addition to his many crushes on both women and men, all of them unrequited, Andersen had a poor physical self-image, and it seems that “The Little Mermaid” in particular expressed his curiosities and anxieties about sexuality. If you look back on the passage I’ve already quoted about the mermaid being transformed it reflects the lengths to which someone who feels they are occupying the wrong body is willing to go to remedy the situation.
It’s also important to note that the mermaid does not get the man and when she does not, cries so hard that she melts into foam. Afterwards she enters a purgatorial state as a daughter of the air, an invisible and ethereal being who might finally earn a soul after suffering, enduring and doing good deeds for 300 years. Andersen too, devoted himself to godly works, deepening these parallels, writing:
Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee!
Over in the Disney version, the subtext also appears, many say because of the work of the excellent excellent contributions of songwriter Harold Ashman, a gay man who tragically died of AIDS not long after the Disney film’s release. The studio dedicated their next film, which Ashman also was a key part of, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast [link to belle], thus:
To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.
Many see “Part of Your World” as expressing the longings of a closeted homosexual. “Under the Sea” also fits into this interpretation as Leland Spencer, professor of communication studies relates:⁸
Sebastian believes that Ariel’s identity is essentially connected to the body in which she was born. Sebastian’s musical admonition is a normalizing discourse that officially sanctions particular performances as appropriate or acceptable. His comparison frames the ocean as superior to the land, but also a more fitting place for Ariel. As a mermaid, she should be happy in the ocean. The song asks what more Ariel could be looking for, but Sebastian is not interested in an answer. The implication of the rhetorical question is that she need not look elsewhere because she belongs in the sea and could never be satisfied anywhere else.
It’s also worth noting that Ursula’s appearance was inspired by the drag queen Divine.
Finally, The Shape of Water did an admirable job of turning subtext into text and subverting many of the unfortunate tropes of the mermaid story. Its art direction was fantastic as well, and yes, live action was the best choice for the film.
If, in similar fashion, Disney’s casting of Bailey as Ariel signals that their live-action remake of The Little Mermaid will come directly at some of the deeper themes embedded in the original film, or even some of the still more difficult ones in Andersen’s work, then I salute them. But not so much if, as I predict, it’s just tokenism in an otherwise complete rehash.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Kayleigh Donaldson, “The Little Mermaid’s Ridiculous Casting Backlash Explained”, Screen Rant, July, 2019.
- Lori Yamato, “Surgical Humanization in H. C. Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’’, Marvels & Tales, 2017.
- Jackie Wullschlager, Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, 2000.
- Laura Sells, “Where Do the Mermaids Stand? Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid”, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, 1995.
- Wullschlager, 2000.
- Sacha Coward, “Mermaids“, Queer as Folklore, Museum of London, March, 2021.
- Leland G. Spencer, “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney”, Communication Studies, 2013.