Friday, August 3, 2012

Defending the Indefensible: The Little Mermaid Introduction
The Little Mermaid is the first Disney Animated Canon film I liked (except Fantasia) and nearly every group I’m in has a list of justifiable problems with it. It’s anti-feminist, body-biased, classist, monarchist, and racist against mermaids – and by extension, all non-humans generally regarded as fictional.

This puts me in an awkward position because I can usually see both sides, and find myself drifting towards the excluded middle. There are patterns in most of my opinions on media:

Rule number indeterminate: I can like something no matter how offensive it is.
And that’s good too. Pop culture skews conservative, and I saw the whole 20th century. If I hated anything that offended me, I’d pretty much hate anything made before twenty years from now at least. The number of people who share my exact politics could probably share an apartment together and still have room for orgies. I support political movements that haven’t happened yet. Given the state of past and present political movements, I'm lucky I can be flexible.

And honestly, if a good message won’t save a bad film, a bad message won’t condemn a good film. Unless it’s really fucking bad. You know, Birth of a Nation bad (that film looked really impressive back in 1915, but I hated it anyway. And now it looks like drama club crap – all’s wells that ends well).
At least all sides of the Little Mermaid debate can agree on one thing: it’s not as offensive as Birth of a Nation (the animation has held up better, too – but then it’s only been 23 years). High praise indeed, but at least that means a Little Mermaid debate is less than completely unthinkable, which it would be for Birth of a Nation. The objections to the Little Mermaid are reasonable, so my defenses range from Devil’s Advocate to Rejecting Confirmation Bias to Wacky Extrapolations.

Rule number indeterminate the second: I can make fun of a work that I like.

Picking apart movies is one way that I enjoy them. Not the only way, but it is important. If I stopped, they’d be less fun. Plus, this way you can enjoy more movies. If good movies are fun to pick apart, bad movies are even more fun.

And really – how many films are perfect from start to finish according to everyone who views them, irrespective of time, place, and culture? I don’t even know how you’d produce a film like that – you’d need indoctrination plus the cessation of social and technological progress to even come close. So – there’s always a basis to mock something, even if it’s good or used to be.

Part of my job involves getting some idea of how people will react to us when the Masquerade ends, with whatever limited evidence available. Picking apart non-human fiction itself is great, but picking apart critical and fan reactions is way more revealing. Fan reactions and discussions are usually undiluted opinion, and there’s so much there.

It all depends on the topic. The Little Mermaid touches on enough sticky issues - on touches on them in a sticky way - that it's hard not to get stuck in any place. Including the center.
Part One

One interpretation: Ariel drastically alters her physical appearance to please a man and to become sexually mature.
My interpretation: Ariel transcends the physical limitations she would have suffered in her chosen environment and is able to live the life she wants using Magic Indistinguishable from Advanced Technology.

People tend to interpret Ariel’s desire for legs as a desire to have sex. Last time I checked, though, legs were for, um, walking. Yes, there’s a cliché in mermaid fiction that mermaids don’t have human sexual organs, so how do you fuck them (you writers have no imagination, do you?) but there’s no evidence for that in the film. As it stands, it seems more like a raunchy joke than an argument, and the day jokes start substituting for critical thinking is the day I eat the sun.

It’s a trope being projected onto the film. And naturally, it’s about sex. Stop following us, Freud.

It’s all there in the Part of Your World number (probably my favorite animated musical scene of all time). Ariel wants legs to properly function as a human, and especially jump, dance…walk down a street…and she wanted them before she even meets Eric or pines for any man. Ariel doesn’t see Eric until several scenes later.

And no, ‘dancing’ does not equal ‘sex,’ (I wish) unless that’s your kink.

There are definitely legitimate criticisms of ‘Eric and Ariel,’ not the least of which is the fact that they barely know each other. I frigging hate the One Week Courtship trope. As far as I’m concerned, if I’ve known you for less than a month, you’re an acquaintance, no matter how much I like you. I’ve known some of my friends for over a century, and my people won’t sire anyone we haven’t known for at least five years. A marital commitment for life, after less than a year – that’s completely alien.

But given the evidence from the film, if things didn’t work out with Eric, Ariel still probably wouldn’t ask her father to turn her back (although she might ask him for money. Or pearls – Triton should have some liquid assets).

She wanted to be human anyway.


But people still make it all about Eric. Okay, Ariel always wants to go to Land, that elusive foreign country whose borders are policed (badly) by her dictator father. Just like I’ve always wanted to move to Norway and can’t (international immigration is considered an unacceptable risk for vampires with illegal identities. Sadly, I agree with that policy.). Say that changed, and I met this great Norwegian, and now I want to move there with him or her (or them). I’d still want to see Norway, damn it.

Ariel goes the whole song without even talking about men, except about how human men probably don’t reprimand their daughters, and ‘they understand.’ Well, given her father’s behavior, I see where she’s coming from. Wait until later in the movie: I don’t think any human father has ever destroyed all his daughter’s archeological findings using an omni-powerful weapon of mass destruction.

That still has nothing to do with romance or sex, and everything to do with wanting personal freedom.

She wanted to be part of human society, for reasons intellectual and aesthetic. I mean: look at all the awesome stuff we have. Ariel has that enormous museum of human artifacts. We see her add a few things to it in the early part of the film. At that rate, it probably took her years to assemble all that stuff, meaning she was interested in human culture for years. She got it from a shipwreck, too – how many shipwrecks can there possibly be, even before the days of steamers?

Forget Milo from Atlantis: the Lost Empire – Ariel is Disney’s Adventure Archeologist. Ariel got all that stuff under extreme risk from predators like sharks and her father, and even does what research she can. Which is itself a grim reminder of the days when checking your sources was so much harder, and you’d have almost no way of knowing if you were consulting an expert or a know-nothing seagull like Scuttle.

(Although I have to give Scuttle some credit – forks being combs almost seems credible if you don’t have hair and have never used a comb before, and you eat with your beak. It might even sound more plausible than the truth. And the idea that prehistoric humans stared at each other all day long until they spontaneously invented music is only slightly sillier than how many pop historians characterize pre-history.) 

Ariel’s ready to do things she’s never done before, which might include sex but need not be limited to it. And hey, she’s “ready to know what the people know/ ask them my questions and get some answers.” Don’t worry, Ariel – it’s the mid-19th century, you’re living in a time of educational reform, and you’re marrying into the upper class anyway. Everything’s fine.

And Ariel’s questions include, ‘Fucking fire, how does that work?’ Yes. It’s the mid-19th century, and Ariel doesn’t know where fire comes from, putting her knowledge of science at pre-caveman levels. Well, that’s what happens when you’re raised in a totalitarian dictatorship that forbids access to the outside world and all its knowledge, lest you be corrupted by tolerance. She sure won’t want for intellectual stimulation when she escapes the hydrosphere.

Yeah, you could take that as a joke about how of course a mermaid wouldn’t know about fire. They’re underwater! Well, humans live on land, and know plenty about the sea, not to mention outer space and the inside of volcanoes and other places that are much harder to visit than the beach as an air-breathing mammalian mermaid. But hey, half the time people assume that I don’t know what a kitchen is, because why would a vampire need that? So I guess Ariel’s pretty much screwed.

People are also using a cosmetic surgery metaphor here: Ariel is altering her physical appearance to please a man. All right – ‘surgery’ I can understand. That’s the closest real-world analogue I can think of, given our current lack of transformative omni-powerful magic. But cosmetic surgery?

Okay, if this film really was about a girl who needs (or thinks she needs) plastic surgery to get a guy, and the Little Mermaid was in fact the Hottie and the Nottie with fins: yeah, I’d hate it. No amount of cool animation, entertaining voice performances, or awesome songs can save you from that message. But I don’t think it is.

According to some definitions, plastic surgery involves the restoration of form and function – cosmetic surgery is only a subset of a set that includes reconstructive surgery and the treatment of burns. It’s never said how long pre-op merfolk can stay on land, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that they can at least exist on land efficiently for long periods of time.

Do people who raise this argument object to Ariel living on land at all, or just living on land with Eric? Would they be fine with the story if it were just one mermaid’s valiant struggle to be terrestrial? If so, Ariel would still probably want legs, and it still would have nothing to do with sex or appearance.

Cosmetic surgery is literally all about appearances. Your abdomen doesn’t do anything different after a tummy tuck. If it did, it would change how we feel about tummy tucks. We’d call them something different, at least.

Even if Ariel doesn’t have to keep her fish tail moistened, she still can’t walk. Eric has a whole fleet of merchant clipper ships – from the looks of it, anyway – so this is around 1840s-1860s.
Those godawful uncomfortable Bath Chairs were still probably on the market then. Hey, Eric’s royalty, maybe he can hook Ariel up with one of those newfangled wheelchairs with the reclining backs and footrests. Proto-self-propelled wheelchairs didn’t happen until about 1869, and even then they weren’t all that great. New technology does have a tendency to work like shit and cost you an arm and a leg when it’s first introduced. Also, wheelchairs are suspiciously always designed for humans.

Now I’m imagining a wheelchair specifically designed for a mermaid. I hope everyone else in this fictional European society is just as liberal as Eric, anyway, and can accept a mermaid queen consort, especially his family.
Although, they did agree to marry Eric and Vanessa, a woman with no papers, no known family relations, who seemed to have appeared by magic, and then they more or less did the same thing all over again with a post-op Ariel, so who’s to say how they’d feel about her pre-op?

Well, Ariel does still technically come from royalty, so maybe that trumps all other concern with frigging monarchists (I fully support anyone who criticizes Disney Princess films for their glorification of monarchy. Why is there so much damn monarchism in fantasy, anyway? Must fantasy always glorify the censored past?).

“She’s a mermaid? Well, is she a royal mermaid? All right then, just make sure she doesn’t change back again like that Vanessa girl you almost married, you have no idea the angry letters we’ve been getting.”
Maybe Ariel wouldn’t have social problems so much as physical ones.

Handicap accessibility is unfortunately modern. Ability is all relative to where you are and what you’re doing. Ariel’s body is just fine under water (for reasons that defy biology and physics, but whatever. The audience will accept the impossible but not the improbable and all that), but she would be handicapped on land. Obviously Ariel isn’t inherently handicapped, but there’s no such thing – what she wanted was to be on land, and she lacked the ability to do that in the way she wanted.

Obviously, handicapped people can make whatever decisions they want about augmentation, but I certainly wouldn’t fault any handicapped person for wanting it. Wheelchairs are augmentation, too. Even Bath Chairs.

As for cosmetic surgery – Ariel never complains once about the appearance of her tail. The only time she refers derisively to her fins is: “flipping your fins, you don’t get too far.” In other words, function.

Yes, the transformation had the side effect of altering her physical appearance. Indeed, people given prosthetic limbs do look different afterwards, but I doubt that’s what they were after.

Yes, Ariel loved the look of her new feet afterward. And after people get sired, they always make fang faces at the mirror a few times (fuck, I still do that), but I’m pretty sure that’s just a perk.

Hah – Ariel, if anything’s slowing you down, it’s your hair. Even stubble creates drag – swimmers shave, or wear bathing caps. So Ariel, if you’re doing anything cosmetic, get a shave. Or wear a bathing cap all the time. See: function.

C’mon, 1980s – even a mermaid has to have big hair? Well, Eric does too, so why not?

Just like all 1800s princes. 

Prince Albert
Saying Ariel got cosmetic surgery to look hot for a man implies the guy wanted her to, and wasn’t attracted to her before, or was more attracted after. Ariel certainly wasn’t self-conscious about her tail so much as physically limited by it, so what about Eric?

Is there any evidence that Eric didn’t find Ariel attractive as a mermaid? He saw her phase into mer-form again, and when Ursula captures her, he immediately follows them: ‘Grim I lost her once; I’m not going to lose her again,’ and risks his own life to help Ariel defeat Ursula. That implies that he does think Ariel is the same woman he fell in love with, even now that he knows she’s a mermaid. His feelings for her seemed unchanged by the revelation.

He takes the whole ‘undersea world of merfolk’ revelation pretty well, too. I wish half the people in our community reacted half that well. There’s a reason we have so many therapists on staff.

Contrast that with the way Alan Bauer reacted in Splash: he finds out his long-term girlfriend Madison is a mermaid, and broods about having fallen in love with something like that.

It’s a romantic comedy trope to complain about your love interest’s character – just before the redeeming third act to make way for the happy ending. In this case, Madison’s flaw is that she’s a member of a species other than human. A quote from Alan Bauer: “I don’t expect love to be perfect, but it should at least be human.”
Geez – this is how much he freaks out over someone as benign as a mermaid. I guess if it were one of my people, he’d be breaking out the garlic and stakes.

Oh, and Alan actually refers to her as a fish. Awesome. It’s okay to be shocked, Alan. But blatant racism is another thing, especially when it’s the 1980s. Where’s your historical apologist excuse?

I’d say Eric was just the guy the film needed to get Triton to re-consider his racist rage-ahol (all the more impressive for an 1850s aristocrat). When Triton overcame his racism, it felt organic. With Alan, it seems to have happened because the plot said so and John Candy agreed. Redemption is great, but I still prefer the guy who wasn’t a racist in the first place, especially in the context of choosing a frigging life-altering political and marital partnership. And did Alan overcome his racism, anyway? Or did he just decide to make Madison an exception?

(Racist or species-ist, whichever term fits; they’re morally equivalent, and I don’t label different groups of people different species without proof that they’re incapable of producing viable offspring. I’ve spent the last few decades explaining to people that vampires and humans are the same species – vampires can’t breed with anyone, let alone each other. ‘Species’ doesn’t mean ‘so different you’re not one of us.’)

Is there any evidence that Ariel turned human for Eric, and not for herself? Even if being with him was motivating her, wasn’t she still ultimately doing it for herself? And again, what the hell does it have to do with sex, instead of, say, the travails of long-distance relationships?

Eric and Ariel don’t live in different cities so much as different habitats. Forget sex, Ariel and Eric can’t do anything together! He can come visit her on board ship in between running his kingdom and hanging out with his sailor buddies, but she can’t see him. It would make her a pretty passive player in this relationship, anyway.
Eric can’t visit her underwater and see Atlantica, despite being a skilled mariner who would probably want to see a cool undersea world. Sure, he successfully swam to the bottom of the ocean in that scene where he harpooned Ursula, and managed not to have his organs crushed by the pressure. He’d still need to come up for air repeatedly, though, and how long could he keep that up (the one rule most writers seem to remember about the physical consequences of humans and water is that humans can’t breathe underwater)? And I know Ariel and her people have awesome ‘talk underwater’ superpowers (I want those), but does Eric?

Ariel certainly couldn’t function as a queen consort from the sea, and Eric would be expected to find another, despite being in love with Ariel. Yeah, I hate monarchy too, but that’s what we’re stuck with here. It’d be hard to have even an unconsummated relationship with her being all sea-bound. So even of you ignore the overwhelming evidence that Ariel wanted to be human anyway, and make it all about her relationship with Eric – it’s still about a relationship, not just about sex.

And yes, I’ve heard people say that being a mermaid as a metaphor for sexual immaturity. Yes, just like werewolves are a metaphor for menstruation – hey, they have a ‘time of the month’ too. And phasing into a ravening monster is kinda like PMS, right? With my people, geez – vampires have been used as a metaphor for so many things I just exude symbolism.

So let me get this straight: Ariel is nonsexual because of her lack of an obvious vagina. Well, we don’t know her that well. Maybe merfolk have internal genitals like dolphins with urogenital openings way down the backs of their tails (merfolk tails look like dolphin tails with scales, anyway) but come on! That’s not where they’re supposed to be – they only count if they’re at the crotch. And dolphins definitely don’t get pleasure from sex; only humans get sexual pleasure.

Triton initially thinks that she’s crushing on a merman – merfolk sexual behaviors seem to be similar to human ones. Triton doesn’t freak out about Ariel dating a merman; in fact, he was giggly about it, and wondering whom the lucky merman was. Ariel was already sexually mature for merfolk. Saying that she needed a human vagina for sex – what, merfolk sex doesn’t count?

Hell, I actually thought it was funny thinking that Triton immediately assumes Ariel’s crushing on a merman instead of a human – c’mon, Triton, she doesn’t swing that way, but thanks for assuming she does.

Hey, it’s not that much of a stretch, intentional or otherwise. In 1980s film, alternative sexuality wasn’t discussed so much as mocked derisively, even though the gay rights movement was well underway, and the Civil Rights Movement was winning. In 1989, Loving v. Virginia was more than two decades old, and by 1990, there were 964,000 interracial couples compared to 310,000 in 1970.

I wish it didn’t have to take so long every time. Critics today give stories about interspecies love a lot of flak, and it isn’t even a political issue yet.

When and if we achieve sapient AI, virtual reality people, animal uplift, make first contact with aliens, the Masquerade finally ends, the bioengineering of humanity to the point of speciation, or all of the above – I expect I’ll have to listen to the same arguments about same-sex marriage and relationships with a new name and a cheap tuxedo (it’s unnatural, your love isn’t as good as ours, you’re so icky, I’m actually secretly attracted to or sympathetic to ‘x’ but won’t dare reveal it for fear of my reactionary social group so I’ll cover it with unwarranted hostility, etc.)

Vampire society is ahead of the curve: human/vampire sexual relationships are the norm (friends-with-benefits counts).

Really, Xenophobes of the Future should be happy about Ariel/Eric – they’re the same species by the end of the movie.

1 comment:

  1. I think maybe the reason that people assume that Ariel got legs for the sake of Eric is because the movie becomes chiefly about that motivation, over her fascination with humans. Okay, she doesn't go to Ursula for legs before meeting Eric, probably because she's heard that Ursula is bad news, and definitely because she didn't know that such a thing was possible. And Ursula seems to know only about Ariel's "feelings" (I also hate the Love At First Sight and One Week Courtship tropes) for Eric, not her human artifact collecting, so she and the eels would use only that to lure Ariel in - although, the eels came to her in her grotto, after Triton destroyed everything, so maybe that's not quite true. Either way, the discussion about Ariel getting legs only includes Eric as the motivation, not living on land. Ursula rigs the spell to depend upon Eric kissing Ariel, but "not just any kiss. The kiss of true love,", and limits Ariel to achieving this in three days. This forces Ariel, and by extension the film, to focus on the Ariel/Eric relationship, gets the audience invested since it has Ariel's very life riding on its success. Triton's transformation of Ariel at the end is stated to be so that she can be happy with Eric, not happy by being human.

    If Ariel had rescued Eric and not developed feelings for him, gotten legs, and started falling for him while he helped her like he does in the movie, maybe then people wouldn't claim Ariel gave up her tail for a man. But, that wouldn't allow for Ursula's plan, the story's main conflict, or a clear villain.

    So yeah, those are my two cents. And I must say too that I really do like this post, I'd never put that much thought into good or practical reasons for it to be okay for Ariel's transformation to include Eric as a factor.