Distorted Images: “The Little Mermaid” In Our Time

Throughout the ages, stories have traced the development of history, culture and imagination. They have created myths and immortalised legends, become means of moral teaching, cathartic release, and a window into hitherto unfamiliar territories. Stories have revolutionised the world from their inception, but they too, have been changed by us. On reading Hans Andersen’s original version of “The Little Mermaid,” I was surprised to find out just how radical the alterations made by Walt Disney were. The theme of self-sacrifice and all the tale’s gruesome nuances, intrinsic to Andersen’s narration, were significantly reworked. How is it that violence can be so easily effaced? When only a romantic, hetero-normative narrative remains, one is bound to ask how this modern regeneration has implicated Andersen’s heroine.

She flees from her first figure of power, her father, to fulfil what is regarded as a ‘proper’ life with a similar authoritarian male figure, the prince

In the digital era, the consumption of texts has radically changed to the extent that children grow up surrounded by the vivid colours of animations rather than books. Fairy-tale characters are sensationalised to suit their new medium. Their heteronormative typecasts both create and conform to an ideal image of perfection promoted by the media, and directed at kids. Such is the case with Disney’s Ariel, who bears scant resemblance to Andersen’s Little Mermaid – save for her infamous tail. Andersen’s fairy-tale evades the promotion of a specific ideological hegemony, however, the Disney reproduction does so overtly. The animated mermaid (who is no longer nameless) can be seen as the embodiment of contemporary, restrictive ideals for the perfect female prototype. Her passivity is heavily accentuated by her desire for the freedom that is granted only with the acquisition of a man’s love. Ultimately, she flees from her first figure of power, her father, to fulfil what is regarded as a ‘proper’ life with a similar authoritarian male figure, the prince. By reworking Ariel to fit in with an ideal of our own time, the original character has been made into a phantasmagorical shadow of the past.

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Disney’s Ariel delights herself with the collection of materialistic possessions. Her hoard of man-made objects has a bewitching power over her, captivating  her to the extent that she wishes to renounce her home for a place in the world above the waves. Conversely, Andersen’s Little Mermaid has an imagination stimulated by stories of the human world told by her grandmother. Her curiosity towards the human world is exclusively imaginative in comparison to Ariel’s notably consumerist desires. Without being enticed by snake-like eels (Disney’s adaptation), Andersen’s mermaid independently decides to visit the sea-witch in order to obtain an everlasting soul (which only belongs to humans). The narrative focusses around her search for her spiritual identity. It culminates in her embrace of death under the promise of ensuing immortality. Although both renditions depict the same search for an identity of a female adult, Disney’s Ariel is premised on acts of submission, whereas Andersen’s raw, explicit reality appears to have far more depth and, arguably, leads to greater freedom.

Physical pain figures within Andersen’s fairy-tale as essentially beneficial

The brutality apparent in Andersen’s rather ritualistic depiction of violence unnervingly aligns more closely with our experience of life in the real world. Differing from the suffocating layers of cultural despotism, his stark narrative discourages us from viewing the world in monochromatic fashion. Although it may come as a shock to readers, physical pain figures within Andersen’s fairy tales as essentially beneficial; the means through which transition from one stage in life to another occurs. The slicing apart of the Little Mermaid’s tail, “as if a sword were passing through” her, and the pain she endures whilst walking (as if she “were treading upon sharp knives” where “blood must flow”) may be interpreted as her entrance into womanhood. Most importantly, however, Andersen presents physical pain as a lighter burden than emotional sorrow: “mermaids have no tears, and therefore they suffer more.” Self-mutilation then becomes a release from pain which would be otherwise unbearable.

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Unlike the original tale, the Disney reinterpretation panders to that which is deemed suitable to the prevailing culture. Deviant and perverse impulses, such as self-mutilation, are thus heavily repressed on the basis of indecency and immorality. Ariel has no physical pain to bear as payment for her human transformation. She is also denied the wisdom of acceptance and forgiveness that the Little Mermaid acquires by the end of Andersen’s story. The assertion of Ariel’s identity is defined by an act of self-effacement in order to win mortal love. Andersen’s Little Mermaid, on the other hand, is forced to choose between killing the Prince and saving her own life or killing herself and saving her lover. In selflessly choosing the latter, she comes to define her identity. Her wilful sacrifice is what allows her to become a spirit of the air in search for an everlasting soul; it prevents her from dissolving into sea foam like every other mermaid at their time of death.

Andersen’s Little Mermaid, when put together with the Disney’s version, brings countless insights to a modern reader. In the modern world, where notions of self-sacrifice, faith and redemption frequently get lost amid our obsession with personal profit and artificial ideas about beauty, I find myself in agreement with Gwyneth Cravens who praises Andersen’s story for being “so full of sadness and loveliness and redemption, so subdued in its splendour,” that, “like the glimmer of the sun in the ocean depths, will survive, at least for those children – and adults – who want to experience substance.” Andersen’s narrative gives insight into a world of kaleidoscopic shifts; a world of brilliance and grace; a world that he himself could only imagine (scuba diving still wasn’t an option in the late 1800s). Ultimately, it reminds us of lost values which we should endeavour to rediscover. By immersing ourselves in such an alien, thought-provoking world, we might perhaps find something valuable, something that our time far too often neglects. That is, however, for the reader, the listener and the storyteller to decide:

How much can we truly learn from the distorted images of a digital screen?

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Unknown Magazine would like to give special thanks to Camille Hermann Illustration for agreeing to feature her “Petite Sirène”  with this article. More of her artworks could be found on her website.

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2 thoughts on “Distorted Images: “The Little Mermaid” In Our Time

  1. I found your article interesting and inspiring. I like how you
    emphasized the differences between the tale’s two versions, the original
    and Disney’s. I appreciated reading the comparison of the underlying
    moral of each tale. On the one hand, reaching a kind of love which
    relates to stereotypes, and on the other hand sacrificing herself for
    her beliefs and ideals (and then becoming much more then her self).

    And then I asked myself:
    why? How could such differences have appeared?
    Chronologically, Disney’s came after, it’s therefore the reverse of an improvement. Are Disney’s writers that dumb?

    I’d like to believe that they’re not. But the
    targeted audience have changed. In Andersen’s time, the writer was not
    aiming directly at the masses. To be accepted as an “honorable writer”, he had to target first those who have some
    power: the patrons, the salons, his “educated” fellows. For the
    sake of looking clever, they were all seeking high standards. Socially
    speaking.

    Disney comes a century later and by then, culture
    started going directly from the producers to the people. What can I say?
    Seems that Disney has a really poor opinion of the intellectual effort
    people are ready to make.

    And eventually, believing in what I just wrote depresses me much more than thinking that Disney’s writers are just dumbs.

    As many, I’ve seen the film. Now I wish to read the tale as well. Thanks.

    — Nick.

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    1. Dear
      Nick,

      Sorry for the late reply!

      I really appreciated your comment for that is exactly the same question I’d been
      asking myself. Are we spiraling into a society that, rather than improving its
      values, loses them completely? I must admit it’s almost too easy to look back
      at the past with nostalgic sentimentality, always judging it better than the
      immediate present for it appears so far from our reality – so I’m sure that is
      a strong component in my article. But I also strongly believe that Disney’s
      version, as you said, was aimed at the masses and, sadly, this was done for
      greater economic profit.

      I assume Disney doesn’t think us dumb but relies on the idea that hegemonic
      discourses are accepted by everyone wholesomely without any questioning –
      excluding perhaps a small minority (including intellectuals) that are brought
      to put into question these ideas of value and idealism. Even then, I remain
      skeptic of this minority, for although highly qualified and well-educated they
      are still products of a system which operates within the same parameters of
      value. If you are interested in this topic I suggest you read Bourdieu and
      Herrnstein-Smith on the idea of value in our society.

      I really hope you got a chance to read the original! If you have let me know what
      you thought of it.

      Alice

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