Tuesday, April 30, 2013

King Triton is an Oppressive Dictator and an Abusive Father

I want to say, with no irony whatsoever, that I like King Triton. He’s a rare grayish character in Disney’s black and white moral landscape. He goes through an actual, definable character arc during the Little Mermaid (I choose to ignore all supplemental material and sequels, and everything else that didn’t exist in 1989 and wouldn’t exist now if the film hadn’t been so financially successful). Kenneth Mars did an awesome voice performance with him. And Triton kinda looks like God on the Sistine Chapel, except a merman. He’s awesome.

Clearly Triton was actually drawn by Zombie Michelangelo.
And it’s nice to see fairly well rounded, active senior citizens as characters.

Disney’s fixation on monarchy is fascinating. I guess kings and queens are less threatening than other types of autocrats. Imagine a delightful family film with Emperor Triton. Or Chancellor Triton. Or President (for life) Triton. Frightening.

Ah, but I cast my suspicions on the notion of benevolent dictatorship, of which there are preciously few examples throughout history. Let’s look at what we see from Triton in the film:

Triton's Dictator CV

1. Triton rules by the threat of force.

Think of all the terror monarchs of history accomplished without godlike magical powers. Really – imagine Henry VIII as Poseidon. But I think the fact that he’s a magic king kinda makes the situation worse.

We see no actual limits to the triton and its mighty omnipotent power. We do see Triton using the triton to terrorize his citizens, especially his own goddamn daughter. After finding out she’s an anthropologist and saved a human from drowning, he destroys her life’s work with the triton in all of a few seconds.

He also used it to turn her into a human at the end, after the Character Development happened. Ursula takes the triton and uses it to alter the frigging tides and weather. The triton is like several X-Men rolled into one. That thing is a frigging weapon of mass destruction. And the king named himself after it. Well at least he’s self-aware. King Warhead.

2. Triton imposes strict limits on his people’s behavior.

No merfolk are allowed to go to the surface. Or the land. Think about that: imagine if going to the seaside was illegal. Or for that matter, moving to Europe. Most of the frigging biomes on Earth are illegal for merfolk, as is the frigging air. That’s some Soviet shit, right there.

And Disney thought Scar was their fascist dictator.

Also, apparently taking an interest in human culture is forbidden for the merfolk. I mean, Triton destroys Ariel’s museum after being mildly provoked – and this was his daughter. Ariel’s also suspiciously the only citizen who seems to have done this. Imagine what he’d do to someone who wasn’t Royal Blood.

3. He spreads noxious invective against foreigners out of proportion to all utility.

Classic dictator technique right there – what better to promote the insularity of your people than having a common enemy? Wag the dog and make him bark. And look at the way Triton does it – he goes on rants about humans who are all evil, harpoon-wielding face-eaters. In other words, it’s not ‘I hate humans,’ so much as ‘humans hate us.’ It’s spreading the meme that merfolk are the persecuted ones. And it reinforces the need for Triton to act as their noble defender, and makes it all the easier to frame his actions as noble defense.

That’s great – citizens are that much less likely to venture outward if they’re in fear. They might reach out to someone their group despises who seems harmless, but someone their group despises because of how harmful they are?

Triton seems to believe all of this himself, since he goes off on these rants even when it’s extremely inappropriate and undermines his credibility (and it’s in front of his own daughter). But the results would be the same either way.

Humans in this case encompass absolutely everyone outside his kingdom – there’s nowhere for merfolk to go where they won’t find the evil humans. They’re stuck there. And damned if Triton doesn’t want to keep it that way, out of hate completely disproportionate to the actual risk posed by humans.

And again, the event that prompted Ariel to resort to Ursula’s shadiness in the first place: Triton angrily threatened her before destroying her life’s work. He did it because she saved a human’s life.

She saved Eric’s life, and in such a way that it did not in any way affect the Masquerade or lead to merfolk being discovered. Actually, Triton didn’t even ask about that; he just got angry she saved a guy’s life. This isn’t maintaining the Masquerade; this is blind hatred.

Here’s the thing about Masquerades: continually killing people to keep them going is not only evil; it’s useless. If the Masquerade is so fragile that one witness can destroy it, it’s going to fail anyway. Fuck, if it depends on all citizens maintaining perfect behavior (not going to the surface) forever and you can’t control their behavior on every level, as Triton cannot – it’ll definitely fail.

You’re prolonging the inevitable instead of preparing for it, like you should. This isn’t a political conspiracy where a tiny number of people just need to keep a few military secrets behind bars while going about their days legally until their dealings end and they’re cloaked by history (and those often fail, too); this is people hiding their entire existence from a world that just keeps getting more and more tech-savvy – with no end in sight. Imagine the merfolk trying to hide today, now that we have footage of giant squids in the deep sea.
Triton: you're next!

Now, unlike vampires, the merfolk actually have the option of living excluded from humans, so maybe it’s more complicated here. But humans are a seafaring race even in your time, Triton, and it’s only the mid-nineteenth century. It won’t last forever.

You’ll have to face them sooner or later, and killing them is just going to set them up to be your enemy down the line, faster than you can say ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’

My people figured this out around this same year - we started openly reaching out to humans in the mid to late nineteenth century, and forming the vampire community. Our elders were more or less under the impression that the Masquerade was in imminent danger of ending, and we may as well try to find some allies as a start (and increase our own population). Their timing was off (our Masquerade is kinda still going on, depending on your definition), but I'd say they succeeded, since we're in a much better situation now than we were even when I was first sired. But it was easier for our elders, since they were just frightened survivalists and not angry human-hating bigots.

 Triton & Sebatian - king-triton Photo

4. Triton prioritizes family problems over running his kingdom.

Ariel goes missing, and he has literally his entire kingdom looking for her, at the expense of whatever the hell else everyone was supposed to be doing – not that we have any idea what they were supposed to be doing. Most of what we see Triton doing is focusing on Ariel. I guess Atlantica mostly runs itself.

That’s monarchy for you. It should be noted that this usually doesn’t equate to devoted, nurturing parents deeply invested in their children’s future so much as obsessive parents trying to protect what they consider ‘theirs.’ Triton sending out his manservant Sebastian to stalk Ariel was the least of their problems.

As for Triton's other daughters - even the film frames them as possessions. They're nothing but a long list of names beginning with 'A.' I think the blonde one Andrina had two lines, and the others had even less. They had little to no bearing on the plot. You could edit out all of them, and not only would it not change a thing, the film would make more sense.

All I could do was stare at the screen wondering how the hell merfolk reproduce, since Triton appears to have six daughters of about the same age, and one who's only slightly younger. Are they actually close in age and the unmentioned Queen Triton just had one after the other and timed their conceptions? Was Triton polyamorous? Are merfolk prone to multiple simultaneous births? Are any of them adopted?

(That's what I was wondering in 1989, anyway. The prequels are good for something: at least they confirmed that the sisters are merely close in age. We even learn about the Queen. She looked exactly like Ariel, for one.)

It's great that Triton's other daughters are adults, since he spends all of his time focusing on his youngest.

This was bad enough in the beginning of the story. Ursula knew well enough that this was the flaw to go for, Triton’s Achilles heel. And it worked.

I know we’re supposed to be touched when Triton lets himself get turned into a sea polyp in Ariel’s stead. Even if it meant letting the triton fall into Ursula’s diabolical hands, we’re still supposed to be touched. So I guess if some world leaders gave a rogue nation the nuclear codes because they were threatening their families – they’d be doing the right thing and it would represent a serious, complicated moral dilemma?

5. Triton has slave labor.

King Triton - little-mermaid-ariels-beginning Photo
Dolphins are not horses!

During the concert scene, we see Triton’s chariot pulled by dolphins. He can’t just swim there himself? I know that’s just the film’s ‘water is air’ problem, but that’s fourth wall knowledge, right there. If you look for an explanation within the context of the film, it looks like conspicuous exploitation to me. What does he pay them with? How does he pay or otherwise compensate Sebastian? He squeezes Sebastian into his fist at one point, after being mildly provoked – not exactly the mark of a benign boss.

6. Merfolk scientific and social progress is in the gutter, and there’s a strong sentiment of enforced ignorance.

Ariel asks during her fantastic ‘Part of Your World’ number – ‘what’s a fire and why does it burn.’ Merfolk society has less scientific knowledge than hunter-gatherers (even if fire is an exception because it’s a land-based phenomenon, that only proves that being ocean-dwellers has stifled scientific progress. Humans know about volcanoes despite never having truly visited them). Merfolk appear to have no industry and no technology. And it seems they also have no written language.

Yeah, we see Ariel sign her name, when Ursula whips out that magic contract during their amazing ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ number. But plenty of otherwise illiterate people can sign their names. Illiteracy used to be a lot more common, and I’ve run into quite a few people who can write their names and nothing else.

Ursula’s contract may have been English, but it wasn’t anything that required much of a reading level. Yeah, it’s English – a human language, and not a merfolk one. Assuming Ariel actually read it – it’s not like she needed to in order to make her decision. She also has plenty of books in her museum, but doesn’t appear to have read any of them. She’s ‘ready to know what the people know,’ she says, as she flips through books there’s no evidence that she can read.

We can interpret all of that as convenience on the part of the animators, but I like it better when I can find an in-universe explanation for things. It’s more fun than just laughing at the plot holes and the limitations of the film medium.

I never understood why Eric didn’t offer Ariel some writing utensils up on the surface. Or for that matter, why Ariel didn’t try to get her hands on them. She briefly tries to communicate using sign language, but after that, they communicate through inference. It would have been nice if they had thrown us a few scenes of Ariel trying to write and failing. But as it stands, the plot makes a hell of a lot more sense if we just assume Ariel is illiterate. Along with the rest of merfolk society – if your royals are uneducated, what hope is there for the rest of you?

7. Merfolk culture mainly consists of propaganda promoting the royal family.

The concert that opens the underwater portion of the film that Ariel misses? It’s Triton’s daughters introducing themselves and singing about how great Triton is. Ariel misses her cue to perform, and Triton looks like he’s going to explode. Hey man – the Show Must Go On. His reaction makes more sense of the concert is a reflection of his ego, which it clearly is. There doesn’t seem to be much more to merfolk culture.

8. Ursula seems to be kind of a magical version of a black marketeer.

That’s what happens in most dictatorships; you get a black market. The dictatorial government won’t provide for your needs, so you go to the criminals. Naturally, the criminals are unregulated and screw you over, but really, the dictator was screwing you the fuck over by not providing for you in the first place. Indeed, black markets under authoritarian regimes can actually be liberalizing forces for economic and even political freedom - look at the Soviet Union.

Hey, Ursula almost looks like a libertarian hero, here. And like many libertarian heroes, she's a frustrated despot. Rock on, Ursula. The mighty Triton is always all right as long as you're the one wielding it, right?

Like many dictators, Triton undermines his own power in the process – Ursula seems to get a lot of her magic goods in her deals with merfolk, so Triton is just sitting there letting her consolidate her power. Which she could only do if he left his people no other alternative but to go to her, and since the merfolk economy appears to be mainly magical, with magic the province of only a few elites capable of understanding it, you can appreciate their plight.

Geez – Triton can turn merfolk into humans. We find out that Ursula helped her clients by making them, among other things, more conventionally attractive – they couldn’t have gone to Triton? We don’t actually see any limits to the power of the triton. Any reason they didn’t go to him, and preferred to risk their lives by making a shady deal with an unscrupulous sorceress instead of doing what should have been legally and logistically better and gone to their king? Methinks Triton is a mite stingy with what magic he’ll give the masses. Let ‘em eat cake, right Triton?

9. Ursula manages to enslave dozens of Triton’s citizens and he doesn’t interfere.

Ursula frigging lines the entrance to her evil lair with polyps of the people she’s permanently enslaved with her (which I actually always found a bit irresponsible. Why aren’t they in an evil storage closet, Ursula? Don’t you think lining your lair with monuments to your own shadiness might put off new clients? Let’s not get overconfident, dear.) This has been presumably going on for years. And the one time Triton interferes is when she threatens to do it to his daughter. His is a Daddy State, run by a deadbeat Dad.

Wacky Paranoid Speculations

1. Triton actually is an emperor who ousted the other sea kings:
How much of the ocean does Triton control, anyway? He gets called the ‘sea king’ sometimes, but then Ursula takes his place and claims to be ruling the whole ocean. You mean the Atlantic Ocean? Oh. So what about all the others? Triton says to Ariel ‘as long as you live under my ocean, you obey my rules.’

2. King Triton created merfolk:
Triton turns Ariel into a human at the end of the film. So – he can turn merfolk into humans? I’ll bet he can do the opposite. Merfolk are pretty strange, biologically. They appear to have most of the organ systems of fish and humans, and yet almost none of the weaknesses that their human half should have underwater (they can breathe, see, and not have their bones and organs crushed by heavy pressure – incredible). That’s not evolution; right there – that’s magic. Magic which exists in the story, and which King Triton appears to control.

Merfolk are also excellent singers with a musical culture – I’m trying to think of something that seems less appropriate for an underwater society, and I can’t. Now, vampire culture is musical, too – we’re voice mimics, and with a shit ton of training, you can get a good vocal range. But, you know, we’re terrestrial. And the voice mimicry is related to our batty echolocation. Merfolk don’t do echolocation like dolphins – they appear to talk and sing like humans and they can somehow do it underwater. Could it be because they were originally human, at least as a species?

We’ve established that Triton is paranoid and horribly racist against humans, yet well-intentioned and with the capacity for altruism. That can actually be a frigging scary combination, even in the real world without all the magic. Imagine giving someone like that nigh-omnipotent power.

Could he have turned a bunch of people into merfolk, taken them to the ocean as a protective measure, at least in his own mind (and erased their memories, we assume)? Triton does seem much older than almost all the merfolk we see. It certainly would explain his rise to power.


So this is more or less why I liked The Little Mermaid, beyond the great songs, animation, and voice performances. I see it as the story of a liberal adventurous young girl who escaped her abusive family and by extension her backward, racist, xenophobic, oppressive police state in favor of a liberalizing European monarchy and freedom, and by extension brought both cultures together.

I get the distinct impression that this isn’t what the writers intended.

Yeah, I think Triton and her sisters were supposed to represent a loving family and a genuine sacrifice for her. But hey, Eric: irresistible.

Well, that’s the way Ursula framed it anyway – always listen to the villain. Even when the villain doesn’t believe what she says, and is transparently using it to manipulate the protagonist, as with Ursula’s rant in her Poor Unfortunate Souls number.

Well, as much as the prospect of a girl marrying some guy she barely knows frigging bothers me, it doesn’t sink the movie for me. The protagonist is still in a better place than she was before, shit got done, and even if she and Eric had an amiable breakup she’d be better off in his kingdom than her father’s.

And they brought both cultures together. Just think of the economic possibilities of being a seafaring nation and knowing a bunch of merfolk.

Plus, this way, maybe her father won’t suddenly realize the implications of the power he wields with the triton and take over the world, or something.

And now maybe her father’s learned a lesson and will go on to be a less alternately deadly and negligent monarch and father. Really though, I’d be more comfortable if Ariel and Prince Eric stole the triton.

Image links in order of appearance: