Andersen's The Little Mermaid as originally envisioned makes the Disney version seem positively innocuous. My mother certainly did not object to Ariel and Flounder in the way she did to Andersen's original; at the very least, it did not drive her to household censorship. As Zipes notes:
"Ariel is a spunky heroine, who speaks and acts like a good, white middle–class heroine of the 1980s. It is true that she sacrifices her voice and fins for the love of a man, but it should be noted that this gesture can be read as an acceptance of the 'other,' an overcoming of xenophobia, a celebration of her curiosity. Though she marries a prince who has a similar background to hers, Eric is not a member of the merfolk, and Ariel goes against her father's wishes when she pursues him. In other words, we have a mixed marriage in the end, an acceptance of the 'other.'"
However, he tweaks this view a few pages later: "Ariel's temporary nonconformist behavior was basically a selling point in the Disney film; her rebellion was never to be taken seriously because she was destined from the beginning to wed the perfect partner and form a charming couple."
In fact, despite the movie's initial "girl power" image, with Ariel not being afraid to defy her father and pursue her dream, the message underneath is anything but feminist. An alternate way of viewing the story, Zipes argues, is:
A coming of age story about a feisty 'American' mermaid, who pouts and pushes until she gets her way: she is the charming, adorable, spoiled and talented princess, Daddy's pet, who demonstrates that she deserves to move up into the real world by dint of her perseverance and silence. Ariel must learn to channel her sexual desires and suffer for a man before she can win him as a prize. . . .Ariel's curiosity and desire to be part of another world almost causes her death as well as her father's; the prince saves Ariel by piercing the witch with the phallic bow of his ship; thanks to him Ariel is retransformed from mermaid into a beautiful bride.
In this way, the Disney movie puts Ariel into a restrictive compartment just as much as Andersen does; except, while Andersen's is one of chastity, the Disney movie box is one of encouraged premature sexuality.
That, at least, is what Chris Richards argues in "Room to Dance: Girls' Play and the Little Mermaid" in In Front of the Children: Screen Entertainment and Young Audiences:
"Ariel. . .can be understood as a fantasy sexual self for young girls, a figure through which the relation between the self as experienced in the present, with the body of a small child, to the self as imagined and projected into the future, with the sexual body of a woman, can be played at, perhaps rehearsed, perhaps learned."
This reminds me uncomfortably of my own butcher–paper mermaid tail, which I used to enlist several other girls in my kindergarten class for our talent show. They each made their own tails (along with, I am ashamed to say, faux seashell bikini tops) and we danced to the movie's music together, in front of our class and the rest of the grade.
It's exactly that uncomfortable feeling, the one brought on by the thought of five–year–olds in paper seashell bras, at which Richards takes aim:
The presentation of narratives. . .which dramatize growth into sexual maturity engages children's uncertainty about their own futures: what are they to become and how are they to live through the transformation from child into adult? Such future–oriented fantasies are fraught with tensions between dependence and autonomy, engaging the gulf between childhood subordination and the apparent power of adults.
Ursula, a character exciting ambivalent fascination, takes Ariel into the dilemma:
Ariel: If I become human I'll never be with my father or sisters again. . . .
Ursula: That's right — but you'll have your man — life's full of tough choices, isn't it?
Should a five–year–old be thinking about these choices?
Maria Tatar agrees with Richards' somewhat unsettling assessment of the Disney movie:
"Ariel may regain her voice when she is assimilated to the human world in the end, but Disney conveniently leaves us in the dark about the cost, allowing the couple's final embrace to erase Ariel's rebelliousness, her troubled relationship with the feminine, and the painful self–mutilation involved in her transformation."
At least Andersen's envisioning of the story is honest; he openly values the mermaid's soul above what she has to offer sexually. The Disney version can be seen as more insidious, in that its pitfalls towards its young female audience are guised in bright colors and Caribbean beats.
The Little Mermaid is perhaps most dangerous, whether in the Disney version or Andersen's original, because it so neatly describes what so many young girls want. As the little mermaid's grandmother tells her when she asks how she can receive a soul:
Only if a human being loved you so much that you meant more to him than his father or mother — and only if all his thoughts and feelings were devoted to you and he let the pastor put his right hand in yours with the promise of faithfulness now and for all eternity. Then his soul would flow into your body, and you too could share human happiness. He would give you a soul and still keep his own.
I am not ashamed to admit that this is still what I want today, politically correct or no. Perhaps the greatest risk is that a million little girls, a million mermaids with butcher–paper tails, may think they have to give up their voices, literally or symbolically, to obtain that state.
The Annotated Little Mermaid on the Surlalune Fairy Tales website
Modern Interpretations of The Little Mermaid listed on the Surlalune Fairy Tales website
Mermaid, an article on mermaid folklore by Heinz Insu Fenkl