Yesterday we had a great time at my nephew's 6th birthday party. Pizza, chocolate cake, chocolate ice-cream, and a Disney video viewing. The birthday boy was adorable and charming, and his guests were cooperative and seemed to have a lot of fun! My sister made it possible for a wide variety of allergies to be accommodated, and everyone was well fed. The movie was Aladdin, which is irritating to a modern feminist but not horrific. (Side essay question: relate Aladdin to the Purim story, particularly the portrayal of old-timey middle-eastern monarchy.)
Among the adults not watching the movie, discussion soon turned to other Disney creations over the years. I think it has been said so much as to be cliche, that Disney movies often demonize or kill mother figures. That's obviously offensive to mothers, and to women in general. (Though some don't really pay attention to how this insults women - I vividly remember making a joke at Ezra's daycare years ago, about being his Evil Stepmother, and the puzzled response of his teacher was, "but you're his real mother, not his stepmother". Oy, to unpack that would be a whole 'nother post.)
So, Disney is problematic in almost every incarnation, but one of the worst is The Little Mermaid, which I like to call "The Rape of Ursula". Hey, you know who I am if you're reading this blog, and that's what I think.
First, the original Hans Christian Andersen story is not a great example of feminist literature:
(a) Is it even worth mentioning that all these stories feature young innocent teenage girls whose chief appeal is physical beauty and untested sexuality?
(b) The little mermaid, raised to believe that suffering is a prerequisite for necessary beauty, is also told that to gain an immortal soul (thanks to my niece for highlighting this to me!) she must capture the love of a human man, and share his soul - she is largely educated and raised, with her sisters, by her grandmother. Interestingly, there is a view into mermaid culture and customs in the tale, which seem to dovetail into a Christian worldview that is open to other forms of life with their own hopes for salvation.
(c) As in the movie version, the mermaid rescues a drowning prince and sneaks away, realizing that she loves him. Unlike in the movie, she knows that she can gain a soul by marrying him.
(d) The sorceress makes the mermaid choose legs (which will be as painful as walking on knives) over her voice - and unlike in the movie, the mermaid's tongue is cut out on the spot.
(e) The mermaid's sisters and grandmother, while not traditionally powerful, do conspire to help her, including the sisters' trading their beautiful hair to the sorceress - in exchange for the power to rescue the mermaid from her certain death and lack of soul when the prince chooses a different bride (who is a perfectly nice person in her own right, described as very religious and educated).
(f) Although the mermaid refuses to kill the prince to save herself, she ends up becoming a sort of spirit, who will be helping humankind (and getting credit in heaven for good children's behavior) - note that she does not get to regain her voice, or marry the prince, in the original.
In the Disney version, there is no mermaid grandmother at all - one powerful woman, Disneyfied onto the cutting room floor. The sorceress Ursula is portrayed not only as evil (true to the original), but as enormously obese. Ah, the tried and true way to indicate that a character is either foolish or not to be trusted, Disney-style. Maybe American-style, too, for that matter. Prince Eric, who doesn't seem particularly lovable to me, is so tempting to Ariel that she is willing to trade her voice for a pair of legs. Interesting that she has to choose between her own "voice" i.e. expression and will, and her "legs" i.e. sexual availability and attractiveness to human men.
Let's take a minute to thank Disney for the genuinely awesome and original "Sebastian the Crab" and "Knife-Wielding Cook" characters and their various songs and animation. Ok, back to ranting.
As my niece pointed out to me yesterday, the movie version completely omits not just positive female strength, but the religious moralizing (desire for soul; choice of good religious bride; help to good children) of the original story. Rather, Ariel is portrayed as choosing selfish romantic love instead of her own family or cultural loyalty. And furthermore, this decision is considered laudable by the narrator. I'll leave it to my sociology/anthropology blogging friends to dissect this aspect of Disney - i.e. that a young person using romantic love as a ladder to join the dominant cultural hegemony, is another constant theme of their movies.
There's a fair bit of ageism in the Disney story to complement all the sexism: after editing the grandmother out of the story altogether, even the father is a bit too elderly to have real power or wisdom - yes, he is somewhat undermined when Ariel sneaks around, but the climax of the movie is when King Triton fails to rescue his own daughter despite his best efforts and self-sacrifice. Prince Eric has to take over - so he aims the phallic prow of his ship and jams it into Ursula's abdomen, a rape metaphor if ever there was one. Having thus used his youthful masculinity to establish cultural dominance over the merfolk, and to complete the excision of female power in the story, Eric establishes order. The hysterical sympathetic weather calms down, and everyone can live happily ever after. In the patriarchy.
And if you liked that rant, you'll love how I view Tangled - in which the ecologically-sound, sustainable-use-farming, indigenous woman is victimized by a brutal totalitarian regime, and don't worry - if you have beautiful hair, that's all that matters.