Monday, April 16, 2018

A Gayer Little Mermaid

The potentially surprising history behind one of Disney's most beloved children's classics.♦ 
The Little Mermaid is a story many of us grew up with. There’s a Disney movie, a tv show, a sequel, several books, and countless other retellings of a classic tale. But in the wake of fourth wave feminism we have to ask ourselves, can we really justify a story in which a woman gives up her voice—a vital method of communication— for a man? If we’re talking about Disney’s interpretation of the original story, then the answer is no. Disney’s Ariel isn’t exactly a great feminist role model, but she achieves what the original story didn’t, she gets a happily ever after. The female protagonist in the original Hans Christian Anderson version doesn’t get the same treatment. However, even though Anderson’s protagonist still loses her voice, the text is still meant to be progressive. When Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid it was with the intent to express his feelings of being a gay man in love with a straight man.

Logistically, the original story and the Disney version follow the same plot; the youngest daughter of the sea king is enamored with the human world, she falls in love with a human prince, sells her voice for legs, and then attempts to make the prince fall in love with her. The two stories differ at several key points. Disney’s Ariel collects human trinkets and is captivated with the human world. The unnamed mermaid in Anderson’s version, is in love with more than just humans. Her sisters and grandmother tell her about the beauty of nature and the vastness of the sky, and as a result that is what Anderson’s mermaid wants—to see the beauty of the dry, natural world. The littlest mermaid, as Anderson refers to her, is quiet and contemplative, she wants to experience the beauty of a world she doesn’t know. The original tale shows a change in the littlest mermaid after she saves the prince. Ariel wants to be “part of your world” from the get go, but her fixation on the statue of Eric makes him an incentive to join the human world.

In the Disney movie we’re shown no difference (besides tails) between mermaids and humans. In the Hans Christian Anderson tale it becomes clear that the story is about something more than love the moment the littlest mermaid falls for the prince. In the original tale the littlest mermaid is told by her grandmother that mermaids don’t have “immortal souls,” making it impossible for a mermaid to go to Heaven; the fundamental difference between mermaids and men. We can see how Anderson being gay would have been impacted by his Christian beliefs and beliefs of the time. The mermaids, an allegory for LGBTQ+ individuals, are separated from the human world. This separation is first shown in Anderson’s description of their world, a perfect underwater mirror to the human world and is finalized by the grandmother’s explanation; “We have not even a grave down here of those we love” the grandmother tells the littlest mermaid. A common problem for non-heterosexual individuals in Anderson’s time was disallowing lovers to be buried next to one another, not wanting to support illicit relationships. In the original tale the only way for a mermaid to gain a soul is if someone loves her “more than his father or mother” and marries her. A reminder that at the time such an illicit relationship could be considered a betrayal to the family. When the littlest mermaid goes to see the sea witch she is told she must gain a soul in order to stay human.

The point at which each mermaid goes to the sea witch varies; Ariel goes after she’s scorned by her father, and the littlest mermaid appears to go after months of unhappiness. The littlest mermaid falls for a man who cannot love her back— a clear cut representation of a gay man falling in love with someone who cannot love him back. Anderson makes it clear in his story that humans find mermaids ugly and frightening, but it is only their difference (a tale) that inspires this fear. When both mermaids make their deal it is Ariel only loses her ability to speak. The original has the littlest mermaid walking with the feeling of knives and needles in every step, an allusion to Anderson’s own experiences trying to fit into heteronormative culture as well as the pain of forced repression. Both mermaids successfully make it into the prince’s good graces but while Ariel battles the sea witch, the littlest mermaid is faced with an unnamed human princess who looks like her and has come to marry the prince. This human princess is an almost exact mirror to the littlest mermaid the only difference being that she’s more beautiful and more human.

The two battles are the beginning of the major revisions Disney makes to the story. Ariel fights the sea witch, reconciles with her father, and eventually she wins her voice back and she gets her dream human wedding. The original story shows the mermaid resign herself to death when the prince marries the human princess who looked like her, though her sisters end up giving her an out. The littlest mermaid is offered the ability to go back to the sea (read: the closet) if she is able to murder the prince with a sea witch’s knife. The littlest mermaid decides to cast the knife into the sea and accepts her punishment, then she is instead taken by the “daughters of the air” and allowed to wander the Earth for 300 years in search of a soul. This conclusion is an expression of Anderson’s own desire to find a way to heaven despite his status as a gay man. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a hopeful one.

The beloved Disney’s The Little Mermaid isn’t the inclusive, intersectional story it could be, the original holds a more important allegory. Disney didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s important to look at the origins of the story and analyze the larger social contexts that worked to help create the story. Working to make fairy tales more inclusive is important, Disney’s interpretation of The Princess and the Frog gave black children a princess to look up to, but occasionally it pays to look back at the original work. It might be surprising to learn what the stories were really meant to portray.

  • About the Author
    Minna Onken is a gender queer writer who draws inspiration from their own experiences with navigating sexuality in the world today. They study Literature and Creative Writing at Miami University and have been published in Crab Fat Magazine. Their work focuses on their experiences growing up as a trans person as well as a focus on LGBT+ issues in modern society.

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