July 14, 2013

Is Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ A Feminist Film… Or Not?

One of my favorite Disney films of all time has to be The Little Mermaid. The music is insanely and memorably good, the animation is classical yet visually sumptuous (admittedly, very phallic), and I love mermaids, so I totally enjoy hanging out with Ariel in her world. But I sometimes wonder if, like the overt racism of Peter Pan, years later we’ll all notice how sexist and obviously anti-feminist the story is. A girl who trades her voice to gain a man? That can’t possibly be a feminist ideal. But one could also 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. This reading of the film seems far more feminist. And this is where I get stuck. Is The Little Mermaid feminist, or not?

And, as a guy, can I determine whether or not it is? Or does my outsider status preclude me from having a valid feminist opinion? Is feminism its own “n-word” that outsiders don’t get to use the same way? Do I have to agree if a whipsmart female feminist tells me The Little Mermaid is bullshit? Should I waste time arguing that she’s wrong? Like, would it be cool at a feminist poetry reading if I argued that labeling The Little Mermaid as anti-feminist was total bullshit?

Allegory is difficult to firmly ascertain, mostly because as the French essayist and critic Roland Barthes suggests in his essay The Death of the Author, there is first the author’s view of the work, but once he or she sets to writing they turn life and meaning into symbols, and thus the author dies away and words become codes for anyone who interprets them. Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” Barthes argues neither the author nor the reader can determine the final meaning of a work. Like Schrodinger’s famous cat-in-the-box, it exists in more than one state, it’s both dead and alive at the same time.

When I think of a clear-cut feminist allegory, one based on a classical fairytale, I immediately think of the words of James Thurber and his story, “The Little Girl and the Wolf.”

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally, a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

The feminist values of his retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story are clear. They are determined by the author. And they are reaffirmed by the audience. The whole process of assigning meaning is rather indisputable. Everyone reaches the same conclusion. However, The Little Mermaid, specifically the Disney film, doesn’t lend itself to such easy analysis. It’s much longer and frustratingly nuanced. As a child or teen, I bet you saw it as a story of longing, a desire for adventure, and a cautionary tale of what one stands to lose when they stubbornly go after what they want. Perhaps, as an older teen or 20-something, you saw The Little Mermaid with different eyes. Suddenly, it’s the story of a young woman who is tricked by an older woman into giving up her voice so she might have a man, a guy who in many ways is clearly unworthy of her, and she trades her father’s world for her tenuous place in the world of her future husband. How can the same story have such vastly different interpretations? Is it feminist… or not?

Two songs from the Disney film provide quite different understandings of the story. “Kiss The Girl” seems to be an ode to the power of men, both in romance and life, as a “silent” girl waits for a guy to use his power to make her dreams come true. And we watch the conservative and sexist crab, Sebastian, use subliminal suggestion to urge the prince into action, singing about how when it comes to romance and kisses, he isn’t supposed to ask, he’s supposed to just act. I don’t suppose every kiss needs to be verbally negotiated, but this subtext wouldn’t pass the feminist sniff test. The presumption of power makes it more than just an impulsive first kiss.

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
It’s possible she wants you, too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl

On the other hand, there’s the song, “Part Of Your World.” In this song, a curious young woman with ambition and dreams and backbone, but one who doesn’t fully understand the world she longs to be a part of, bravely dreams of how she can move into a new world, and reject the limitations of her father’s world (read: patriarchy). Consider these rather feminist-sounding lyrics sung by Ariel:

Bet’cha on land they understand
That they don’t reprimand their daughters
Proper women sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand

And ready to know what the people know
Ask ‘em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word?
Burn?

Ariel wants answers. She wants to take a stand. And she sounds like a young feminist.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear and distinct way to label the film as feminist or not. The messages are as mixed as most modern retellings of older fairytales tend to be. Unlike Thurber’s rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood, this artistic text squirms away whenever one tries to definitively and objectively label it. We’re stuck with our subjective and personal opinions.

Which brings us back to the original point, if I was able to make a strong case one way or another, would or should a woman agree with me? Or must she decide for herself and ignore whatever arguments I make and any attempts to sway her to my worldview? Is my opinion on feminism valid and equivalent to a woman’s?

Being a guy who calls himself a feminist, I consider myself an active supporter of this dynamic living idea of equality, and I gotta say, most times I don’t really know where to stand in solidarity. I’m not asking for permission or a “hall pass.” I call myself a feminist because that’s the word we all use. And you may be the sort of feminist who wonders, “Why do we need a guy by our side… or speaking for us?” Or in this case, writing about feminism. For a lot of women a guy’s opinion on feminism is about as valuable and useful as asking him which is his favorite brand of tampons. I get it.

It’s inarguably true, feminism is not my personal experience. But I’d argue I can write and speak about my experiences of feminism as a social agenda. It’s the same way I can write about Australian politics or Japanese economics, or even Amish kids on Rumspringa. I don’t believe a vagina is required to have an opinion on feminism, or to support feminism, or even to attempt to offer a definition of what feminism is at this moment in time. I apologize to every feminist who wants me to leave the protest. But you’re stuck with me. The better question to ask might be: Where should I stand?

In terms of The Little Mermaid, the “feminist text” of the film, suggests both readings are accurate and defensible. Which means, borrowing Roland Barthes’ criteria, it is both. It’s whatever you want it to be. You can “read” it as feminist thought or as anti-feminist thought. If the authorship and original intent is obscured as soon as one imposes limits and attempts to interpret it, then a work of art exists for each member of its audience and thus it’s shaped and twisted, perverted and illumined by each audience member. It’s your story as soon as you use it to speak to your point. And since I’m a feminist dude, you may not agree with my “reading” of an event, or a text, or work of art, but to deny me the right to a valid opinion would be anti-feminist, since one of the core values of feminism is equality. The living, organic, dynamic definition of feminism is always being rewritten and understood. Which is a good thing. It means it’s alive. Otherwise it would be like stoicism and other “-isms” that have died intellectual deaths and are no longer necessary to understand the world.

In my opinion, The Little Mermaid is a feminist tale and Ariel is a feminist hero. Also, I’d argue that Ursula, the sea witch, is an anti-feminist archetype, and her struggle with Ariel is a generational fight between a young feminist and aging non-feminist over the course of the future. You may disagree and see the film as essentially anti-feminist, and you could easily cite the fact Prince Eric must save Ariel in the end, reducing her to the role of damsel-in-distress. But to my eyes, she already made her sacrifice, and she rescued his dumb-ass first, and he couldn’t save her if she didn’t save him first, thus, in the climax against Ursula, it’s the prince’s turn to sacrifice his safety to commit to Ariel and to become her liberated equal, and exhibit his shared passion and love for her.

The next time I catch the film I’ll still enjoy the The Little Mermaid as a positive feminist story. You won’t often find me defending Disney for their progressive values. But Ariel is a badass mermaid. And I totally get it if you disagree. As feminists, we should occasionally disagree. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I’m not a woman, but I’m no less of a feminist. Which is also a good thing. TC mark