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(Un)dressing The Little Mermaid: Disney Adapts Andersen

2013 April 29
  • Ed’s Note: This post is partly in honour of Poems Underwater, a new project on the symbolism of the mermaid our Hodge is involved with, which you are hereby urged to check out (and perhaps contribute to, as it has a zine and everything!).

Released in 1989, Disney’s The Little Mermaid heralded the start of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ – a period of critical and commercial success that followed a rocky patch where the studio’s prime focus had been on Disneyland attractions rather than feature films.

It was soundtracked by Broadway golden boy Howard Ashman, who changed the planned English butler crab into a Jamaican crustacean named Sebastian, and reworked the film’s structure to more closely align with that of a Broadway musical. He also decided to base Ursula the Sea Witch on drag artist and disco star Divine (who died whilst the film was still in production).

Ashman died of AIDS two years later, in March 1991, but his musical influence, first on Mermaid, and subsequently on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, was a major factor in the regeneration of the studio in the early nineties. Mermaid won Oscar gongs for Best Song and Best Score, the first Oscar nod for Disney since the Seventies.

Mermaids of the Eighties

Splash! poster

Splash!, 1984

The Disney studio had been considering Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for adaptation as early as the Snow White years, but it was not until the late Eighties that the time finally seemed right. Even then, there was concern it might too closely duplicate Splash, which Disney had produced in 1984.

Splash itself had been rushed through production because there were rumours of another mermaid film in the pipeline elsewhere – a Warren Beatty vehicle that eventually fell through. Why exactly mermaids were suddenly in the ascendant during this particular period of the late twentieth century is open to speculation; at any rate, the nudity and adult content in Splash led directly to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s ‘older audiences’ label. Mermaids (particularly Darryl Hannah’s mermaid) were too sexual for the family studio in 1984.

Ironically, of course, mermaid – “maiden of the sea” – suggests that these aquatic women are rather more virginal than ‘Touchstone Pictures’ thought. Traditional (cisnormative) misogynistic popular wisdom holds women in general to be ‘leaky vessels’, because of the amount of ‘moisture’ they produce, but though mermaids live in the water, they have no apparent human genitalia, making them, by contrast, vessels that are rather neatly sealed.

In this, they link with the Virgin Mary, who appears in Catholic symbolism as a ‘fountain forever sealed’ in the middle of an enclosed garden, representing the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s homonymic (and virginal) association with mermaids, and the link between the sea (mer) and the mother (mere) introduces an additional layer to this.

Alongside this, there is also a parallel virgin/whore tradition of the mermaid as prostitute and even embodied vagina (since, famously, vaginas are often described as smelling like fish).

Starbucks logo pre-1987 - the double-tailed mermaid

The Starbucks logo, not abandoned until 1987.

This opposing strand presumably comes from sailors’ fear of the Siren-figure and the unknowns out in the sea, but it’s also connected with a different type of mermaid altogether – the melusine. A double-tailed half-woman, half-fish, her intrinsic, though hidden, fishiness only emerges when she takes a bath. Even then, the double tail leaves her human genitalia open to the world in what some have claimed is an appropriation of older symbols of female fertility, such as the Sheela na gig or even the goddess Venus (an alternative ‘mother’ connection).

Incidentally the melusine, not the mermaid, is the figure in the (now closely cropped) logo for Starbucks coffee, the first branch of which opened – logo blazing proud, bare-breasted and double-tailed – in 1971, a decade before Splash went into production.

The coffee-shop melusine was maintained in her full glory until 1987 (although she was ‘sealed’ at the point where the tails meet, as her original had not been); the first of several censoring crops came into effect around the time Disney bosses turned their attention to Andersen.

For a modern contrast to the ‘sealed off’ melusine, have a look at one of the mermaids commissioned by men’s deodorant brand Lynx for an early Noughties advertising campaign, whose posterior is beginning to resurface through her scales, soft porn-like.

Planning The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid tale was serviceable, but – much like Starbucks’ logo – it had to be sanitised before Disney could take it to a Disney audience. Tellingly, the changes proposed during this period of pre-production were substantially same as the ones suggested during the preliminary work in the Thirties.

Hans Christian Anderson, photographed by Thora Hallager

Hans Christian Andersen, photographed by Thora Hallager

The first thing to do was give it a happy ending, since in Andersen’s version the Prince’s indifference to the mermaid results in her annihilation and transformation to ‘a daughter of the air’.

This was typical Andersen: he wrote that ‘most of what I have written is a reflection of myself’, and he was not a terribly happy man. Unreciprocated love was an ongoing feature of his life, and throughout it he nursed passions for various inappropriate people.

These included celebrity soprano Jenny Lind (who is said to have inspired his story The Nightingale after she put him firmly in the friendzone in 1844) and various straight men, but he also wrote of avoiding actual sexual encounters – his diary records him visiting prostitutes, talking to them, and then returning home to masturbate alone.

Many of his ‘fairy tales’ are characterised by violence, speechlessness and unreciprocated love, often across two different ‘species’, as with the tin soldier’s love for a paper ballerina in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, or indeed the Little Mermaid’s love for the human Prince – a feature that tends to make them, like their author, rather sexless in approach.

Although the sad stuff was scrapped, the symbolically significant speechlessness of the Mermaid was maintained in the Disney screenplay. A mermaid’s voice is her primary power, since her singing can lure sailors to their deaths, so its loss is a significant one – aphonia in a milder form had also been a feature of Splash, where Darryl Hannah’s character cannot initially speak English.

Disney’s Ariel was voiced by Broadway star (and Ashman associate) Jodi Benson, and her voice remains her defining beauty in the film. But the manner of its loss changes: while both Little Mermaids give their voices up to the Sea Witch, in Andersen’s story the unnamed mermaid has her tongue cut out to bring this about. Disney cleaned this up, and, in the process, rendered it reversible: Ariel’s voice is depicted as a glowing, ghostly ball that can pass through bodily barriers without drawing blood – as in traditional artistic representations of the soul.

Ironically, this is exactly what Andersen’s mermaid is seeking: her love for the prince is the means through which she hopes to win ‘immortality’ and the chance to share in the joys of paradise. (This rather Romantic notion, albeit gender-inverted, links Andersen’s tale thematically with Friedrich de la Motte’s mermaid Undine – and also Tchaikovsky’s watery Swan Lake, composed in 1875, the year Andersen died). Disney refocused the mermaid’s longing for a soul to a more secular – and sexualised – teenage quest for the love of a handsome prince.

She sells sea shells

But Disney hit a problem when it came to the artwork. Mermaids, of course, are typically bare-breasted, but so too were traditional depictions of Andersen’s ‘little’ mermaid, including the statue in Copenhagen’s harbour.

The Little Mermaid loud and proud in Copenhagen's harbour

The Little Mermaid loud and proud in Copenhagen’s harbour

There is not a single illustration to the fairy tale pre-Disney that shows her wearing anything at all over her chest – in the case of Heath Robinson, this emphasises the ‘Little’ part, as the mermaid is clearly a child in his illustrations.

Disney's ArielThe mermaid is fifteen in Andersen’s tale, so her littleness could be argued either way, but in 1989 Disney producers obviously decided they wanted her to be legal (in most states anyway). To make it completely clear, in the course of the film Ariel declares to her father (a familiar refrain) ‘I’m sixteen years old. I’m not a child.’

But however innocently naked (and animated) the Little Mermaid might be, Disney certainly could not show a sixteen year old’s breasts on screen. Their solution to this problem was the creation of a purple bra made out of shells – a new mermaid first.

When coupled with the waistband-like arrangement at the top of her tail (another innovation, since traditionally the mermaid’s scales segue gradually from the skin at her waist), this decision had the effect of creating a kind of mermaid bikini that implies she might just be wearing an elaborate two-piece – one very similar, in fact, to the ensemble worn by Princess Jasmine in Disney’s next film, Aladdin. And, of course, it also has the effect of emphasising breasts and hips either side of a tiny waist.

The Barbie-style Ariel doll I had as a child had (as modern-day packaging still asserts) ‘removable clothes for costume change‘, so it was clear she was a two-legged being with an optional tail.

This has the effect of making the transition from mermaid to human much easier: in Andersen’s story, creating two legs out of one fish tail is exactly as vicious as you would expect it to be, and the draught the mermaid drinks to effect this causes the sensation of ‘a two-edged sword [passing] through her delicate body’ – so severe she passes out. Throughout her subsequent time on land, each foot she puts to the ground feels like ‘treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives’.

Bodily mutilation – indeed, mortification – is everywhere in Andersen’s story. After everyone is asleep, the mermaid goes to ‘sit on the broad marble steps [of the palace] for it eased her burning feet to bathe them in the cold sea-water’. Significantly – and somewhat bizarrely – such mutilation has been an ongoing problem for the Copenhagen representation of Andersen’s mermaid: the statue in the harbour has been blown up, decapitated (twice) and had its arm sawn off, in addition to many petty acts of vandalism since its erection in 1913.

Some liberation?

By contrast with Andersen’s difficult transition, Ariel’s easy-on, easy-off fish tail and bikini bra combo not only ‘re-opens’ the traditional closed mermaid vessel, it also sexualises the teenage mermaid in a manner markedly different from anything in Andersen’s original (where the mermaid’s love is increased by knowledge of the prince’s good deeds, and her longing for a soul).

The Little Mermaid - Disney's artwork

The Little Mermaid – Disney’s artwork

By censoring Ariel, Disney draws attention to her body and breasts, so she resembles a California surfer girl. The nakedness, which in earlier illustrations was straightforward and childlike, takes on an explicitly sexual edge (for more on this, have a look at this piece by Virginia Borges).

The result is that Disney’s Little Mermaid becomes the straightforward tale of a sixteen-year-old struggling with her father for the right to explore her burgeoning sexuality and go out with a boy. And because she ultimately uses this right to make a good marriage (wearing something strikingly similar to the dress worn by the equally speechless Princess Diana at her 1981 marriage), Ariel makes good in the end and everyone is happy.

Like most of the Disney Renaissance heroines, hers is the story of a successful transition from the rule of the father to the rule of the husband.

Other mermaids

But it’s interesting that at the same time the producers were working on a heteronormative middle-class fantasy idea, their musical wunderkind Howard Ashman (despite dying of what, at the time, was popularly cast as a very non-family-friendly disease) was injecting some Broadway pizzazz into the soundtrack. This included the introduction of a deviantly-styled figure like Divine via the character of Ursula, the Sea Witch (though of course she is defeated, as does not happen in Andersen).

In fact, as the Disney Renaissance got going, the calibre of stars from distinctly non-Disney backgrounds increased: The Lion King, the Renaissance nadir, had major Broadway stars alongside A-list Hollywood stars, and the cast included black and Latino actors – something that had not even been considered back in the Forties (when Uncle Walt wanted some racial-caricature ‘Jim Crow’ figures in Dumbo, the crows were voiced by white men doing their best ‘black man’ impression instead). The staff list at the Disney studios was full of Jewish and homosexual figures like Ashman. Yet The Little Mermaid ushered in some of the most socially conservative films Disney produced. A strange duality.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah Jackson permalink*
    April 29, 2013

    Really interesting. The poor old statue!

    I have another 80s mermaid for the mix: Marina in Local Hero, who is an object of desire but also a marine biologist :-) http://youtu.be/98nllsnasek

    • Hodge permalink
      May 6, 2013

      Ooh thank you! I think my Poems Underwater other half has watched this, but i have not. I will!

      There’s also this rather amazing example of Cher being a metaphorical mermaid in the 90s: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100140/

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