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The Transformation of The Little Mermaid

© Copyright 2011, Emilia Turano and Larissa Fitzsimons

Andersen, Christian Hans. “The Little Mermaid.” Fourteen Classic Tales. Ed. Stephan Corrin, Illus. Edward Ardizzone. London: Andre Deutsch, 1978. Pages 23-53. Print.

The story of “The Little Mermaid” was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. This story was written in 1836 and remains a common fairy tale heard today. The mermaid is mainly a feminine character made of both fish and human. Mermaids have fish bodies below the waist and human bodies above, forcing them to live under the sea. The introduction Andersen gave to mermaids in 1836 is extremely different then how we view them to be now. Through pictures and content the reader learns that Andersen’s ideology about mermaids is very grave. The main mermaid is represented poorly and has to endure great pain for love. In current pop culture however the mermaid is depicted as a beautiful, seductive figure that always gets what she wants. The differences from Andersen’s views of the mermaid versus popular culture will be explored in greater detail.

In the story of “The Little Mermaid”, Hans Andersen uses an antifeminist approach when depicting the little mermaid. He does this by making her seem like a weak, unfortunate and pathetic character. After saving a prince the little mermaid falls in love with him. Andersen uses the mermaid’s vulnerable love for the prince to humiliate her throughout the story. Before the little mermaid can be reunited with the prince she has to go through a series of events in hopes of achieving an immortal soul. First, the sorcerer tells the mermaid that pure rejection will break her heart and she will die. This suggests that women are weak on there own and require a man’s love to survive. The little mermaid accepts the risk of having her heart broken and therefore puts herself in a vulnerable position for a man. The witch continues by cutting out the mermaids tongue, thus muting the little mermaid for the rest of her life. This suggests that women do not have the right to free speech and shouldn’t be heard. The little mermaid was also subjected to endure great physical pain with her new human legs. Andersen notes that the feeling of sharp knives cutting through her is something she will experience with every step she takes. During all the pain and hardship the mermaid remains hopeful that she will win the prince’s heart. This makes it seem normal for women to grave these circumstances in means of finding love. This suggests that women in this time period were viewed with the same antifeminist approach.

Rejection is a common theme in the story and the little mermaid is faced with it multiple times.  After her transformation into a human she is finally put in the prince’s presence. Unfortunately the little mermaid finds herself unable to express how she is feeling because she has lost her tongue. The reader empathizes with the frustration of the little mermaid falling within a hands reach of the prince’s love only to have lost it to another girl who becomes his mistress. The mermaid however never turns her back on the prince even when he makes plans to wed to someone thus leaving the little mermaid for dead. In the end the little mermaid’s sisters sacrifice their hair to the witch in hopes of saving their sisters life which will end on the king’s wedding night. The only way for the mermaid to live is by killing the prince. Although the little mermaid takes the knife she does not have the courage to kill him when she finds the new couple happily asleep in each other’s arms. This action makes her seem pathetic and stupid. The little mermaid saved the prince from drowning and endured great physical and emotional pain to be with him. Even after this he still does not decide to be with her. This could cause the mermaid to be angry and upset yet she does not seek revenge on the prince. When presented with a second chance to be a mermaid she lacks the strength to follow through. However the little mermaid’s selfless decision grants her a chance at life in another world otherwise known as heaven. Andersen’s mention of this Godly world suggests that he as well as the mermaid maintains religious views and outlooks. Not only does it reflect Andersen’s values but it poses the idea that religion, mainly Christianity, was popular in the early eighteen hundreds.

In the photo presented below the mermaid is admiring the prince. When doing an analysis it appears evident that the mermaid is held to a lower standard then the prince simply because of her placement below him in the photo. The little mermaid is looking up to the prince as if to put him on a pedestal. The mermaid is also painted in the buff and lacks clothing. Perhaps Ardizzone did this to depict the mermaid as maintaining a lower class or peasant status. When viewing this illustration from a feminist approach one could argue that the nudity of the mermaid is a major form of disrespect. The nude illustrations also devalue the worth of the mermaid and force her to be vulnerable to men.

The little mermaid admiring the prince.

The story of “The Little Mermaid” has a very antifeminist approach to women in the early eighteen hundreds. The way the mermaid is depicted in Andersen’s story is far from how a mermaid is depicted in the modern world. Through the acts of Disney and other pop culture, the mermaid has taken an extremely valued position in modern day society.

Pop Culture’s Contemporary Mermaid

For thousands of years the mermaid has been a permanent symbol in mythologies and in many different cultures.  They continue to play an evident role in pop culture and contemporary society though advertisements, movies, music videos and the mass media in general.  The fascination with mermaid’s dates back to Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.  What is this attraction to mermaids that is so compelling and lingers from the past to present pop culture?  The mermaid is seen as a supernatural creature that is half human and half fish and coexists in the same body.  There was always something beautiful, mysterious and intriguing about them dating back to Andersen’s little mermaid.  How have they evolved and how has their representation varied from the original classic tale to existing pop culture?

Unquestionably the most popular mermaid in contemporary pop culture is Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Ariel plays the lead mermaid in Walt Disney’s movie inspired by Andersen’s story and possess’ similar qualities as the protagonist in the original tale.  Andersen’s mermaid in comparison to Disney’s endures more painful and real life drama but both are depicted as beautiful, independent young ladies filled with curiosity and drive.  In today’s pop culture most media images of mermaids ascribe a sexual motive or activity (Mortensen 439).  Disney adapted the story of The Little Mermaid and submerged it with its popular children’s brand.  Although Ariel posses the same strong feminine, alluring features as Andersen’s mermaid her character differs in a major way. As we see in the original story love slips away from the hands of the mermaid, her true love is no longer attainable and her story ends more tragically then Disney’s character.  Ariel’s fascination with the outside world leads her to make many trips to the sea shore where she admires the human world from a distance.  One night while watching a party that was happening on a ship, Ariel instantly fell in love with the Prince who she gazed at from afar.  Upon the drowning of the ship Ariel rescues the prince and brings him but vanishes before he has a chance to see who she is.  In the end, love prevails over all obstacles and evil in true Disney fashion and Ariel has her happy ending with the Prince.  The way women are represented through Ariel’s character can be viewed positively and negatively.  It is arguable that her adolescent curiosity as well as her attitude towards her father’s beliefs can be represented in a rebellious way, but this can be interpreted as her way of showing independence and drive.  The mermaid in this movie shows that women who are beautiful, driven and independent will capture the attention of the handsome man who will then ask for her hand in marriage.  This may send out a message that women can only be complete through marriage and need to conform to certain norms within society to achieve it.  We can see that Ariel transforms herself to be with the prince, this is demonstrated by her transition of fins to legs, in hopes of adapting to the human norms.

The transformation of the little mermaid into Disney’s Ariel.

In the 1984 film Splash, actress Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who comes in contact with humans on land.   Her character also rescues a man but when he meets her she is naked with human legs that only transforms to fins when she comes in contact with water.  She is curious, beautiful and has a seductive mysterious demeanour.  This film is another example that the beautiful and alluring mermaid conquers true love and in the end we see both characters swim in the sea but we don’t know exactly what becomes of their relationship. It is far fair for the reader to conclude that the mermaid finds her mate.  Within the music industry the image of the mermaid has also been used as a form of art. British singer Sade plays a mermaid in her 90’s music video No Ordinary Love that depicts a love story between a women and a man. Again we can see that the mermaid devoted through pop culture is tied to the image of sexualized beautiful women who find love.  The CEO of the largest coffee house in the world, Starbucks also shares a fascination with mermaids.  Howard Schultz chose the image of a two tailed mermaid to be the face of one of the most famous logos in the western world.  Starbucks connects the mermaid to strength and power, they believe they have the power to seduce and enchant, and felt that this was a message they wanted to convey to their consumers (Phillips and Ann 489).  Starbucks original logo has a topless mermaid holding two fins, but, since then has been changed to showing less of her body and her breast’s have been covered with her hair.  Howard believed that the mermaid encompassed a female who seduced and pulled people one away from their normal duties in life. He wanted his coffee house to be just as seductive and therefore encouraging people to escape from their everyday lives when entering a Starbucks (Phillips and Ann 485).  What is different about the Starbucks mermaid is that she has successfully used her power to seduce coffee lovers around the world where as Andersen’s mermaid fell short and couldn’t win over the Prince.

Ariel finds true love and marries the prince.

We have come a long way since the first story of The Little Mermaid by Christian Andersen. The mermaid has been immortalized in many forms of pop culture.  From Disney’s movie The Little Mermaid to other Hollywood blockbusters, music videos and magazine advertisement, the mermaid continues to capture the attention of contemporary society.  Her seductive body language, mystery and beauty have become a masculine idealization of women in our society.  Unlike Andersen’s mermaid, the contemporary mermaid without question can grasp any man within her reach.  The representation of women through the image of a mermaid can be both positive and negative.  Some may argue that the mermaid represents powerful women, where as others can view this representation as demeaning and sexist. Whether one associate’s mermaids with either of these views, it is undeniable that they have connected with audiences throughout history.  From Andersen’s classic fairy tale to pop cultures most lovable mermaid Ariel, mermaids are here to stay.

Select Bibliography

Andersen, Christian Hans. “The Little Mermaid.” Fourteen Classic Tales. Ed. Stephan Corrin, Illus. Edward Ardizzone. London: Andre Deutsch, 1978. Pages 23-53. Print.

Dahlerup, Pil. “Splash! Six Views of Little Mermaid.” Scandinavian Studies 62.4 (1990): 403-429. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

Jilly Paver. “Ardizzone, Edward.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. OxfordUniversity Press 2006: 1-3. RyersonUniversity. 8 November 2011

Maria Nikolajeva. “Andersen, Hans Christian.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006: 4-6. RyersonUniversity. Web. 8 November 2011

Mortensen, Finn Hauberg.  “The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication.” Scandinavian Studies 80.4 (2008): 437-454. Web. 13 Oct. 2011

Philips, Mary, and Ann Rippin.  “Howard and the mermaid: abjection and the Starbucks’ Foundation memoir.” Organization 17 (2010): 481-499. Web. 15 Oct. 2011. 

Splash.  Dir. Ron Howard. Touchstone Pictures, 1984. Film.

The Little Mermaid.  Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989. Film.

Harrison, Juliette.  “Pop Classics.”  The Little Mermaid.  June 2011.  Web. 11 November 2011.

Miller, Donald. “Pirate Pup.”  The Little Mermaid.  January 2010.  Web.  11 November 2011.