Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” and Disney’s 1989 film adaptation differ in a multitude of notable ways, from key elements of plot to those of character. Perhaps the most distinct difference, aside from the highly contrasting endings, is the characterization of the protagonists, the little mermaids themselves. Disney’s version presents to its viewers a wild, adventurous, 16-year-old girl named Ariel, while Andersen’s original story features a pensive and quiet 15-year-old who remains nameless throughout the entirety of the tale.
Due to her rebellious, outspoken nature, Ariel’s character may initially appear to viewers as a more positive, feminist role model for girls and young women. After all, the Disney film was released about 150 years after the first publication of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” during which the women’s rights movement made countless advancements in the western world and beyond–perhaps most notably, women in the United States gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. However, despite this vastly different cultural climate, Disney’s Ariel still ultimately proves to be under patriarchal reign, in some ways even more so than Andersen’s original little mermaid.
It is essential to note that each mermaid exists in an entirely different cultural landscape. Andersen’s well-known fairy tales were published during the Romantic period, during which a multitude of writers and other artists rejected the rational ideals of the Enlightenment in favor of the key principles of individualism, reverence for nature, and emotionality. Andersen’s little mermaid exemplifies these new ideals. She is repeatedly described as a “quiet and thoughtful” child who appreciates art and nature (150). Her personal garden, unlike those of her sisters, pays homage to natural elements rather than material ones; their gardens are “filled with all sorts of things that they had collected from shipwrecks” while hers contains only one non-natural object: “a marble statue” (150, emphasis added). This statue is not just a “thing” but a work of art, which the mermaid practically worships, even “embracing” it after noticing its resemblance to her beloved prince (157). Additionally, when she is finally allowed to ascend to the water’s surface, the first thing the little mermaid sees and admires is the sunset–a natural element rather than a man-made one, like the ship, which she notices only after viewing the sun.
So, Andersen’s little mermaid seems to be a true Romantic heroine, endowed with all the qualities that would have been considered ideal during Andersen’s time. Disney’s Ariel, on the other hand, represents an entirely new and different kind of woman. Like the older sisters of Andersen’s little mermaid, she has a vast collection of “things,” all of which are incredibly important to her. In this way, she is a true modern woman. Her dearest desire is to live within a capitalistic society where one’s ultimate goal is not to appreciate art and nature but only to acquire more and more things. Thus, Ariel and Andersen’s little mermaid contrast starkly due to the values of their respective societies.
Another key difference between the societies in which Ariel and Andersen’s little mermaid exist is their patriarchal and matriarchal natures, respectively. In both narratives, the little mermaid has several sisters and no brothers. But in Andersen’s tale, the little mermaid and her sisters are raised primarily by their paternal grandmother, who is portrayed as a distinctly feminine character, with her jewelry and stories for the mermaids. Interestingly, the girls’ father plays almost no role in the story. So, the little mermaid is raised surrounded by women, in a decidedly matriarchal society.
The Disney version, however, entirely eliminates the grandmother character, choosing instead to give Ariel’s father, King Triton, a substantial role in the plot. Indeed, it is his harsh and destructive actions, combined with her love for Prince Eric, that ultimately cause Ariel to visit Ursula the sea-witch, not her own desire for a soul, as in the original story. Therefore, female autonomy is diminished in this newer version; despite Ariel’s apparent spunkiness, her actions are largely reactive to those of men and thus less reflective of her own desires and inclinations.
Disney’s film also includes the addition of several other key male characters: Flounder, Ariel’s sidekick, Sebastian, her paternally-appointed babysitter, and Scuttle, the kooky seagull with supposed knowledge of the human world. Aside from Flounder, who can be assumed to be younger than Ariel due to his babyish voice, each of these characters is tasked with guiding Ariel in some way or another. Sebastian must provide the “constant supervision” that a girl her age supposedly must receive, and Scuttle gives his comical analysis of human objects and rituals. It is notable that Ariel’s first step when encountering these foreign objects is not to attempt to discern their uses for herself, but immediately seek the guidance of a male. She also does not in any way question Scuttle’s statements, no matter how strange they sound. In this way, Scuttle serves as the masculine replacement for the grandmother in the original tale in that he provides information about the human world, like the grandmother did, but filtered through a male perspective.
As for Flounder, the fact that Ariel actively chooses the company of a male than her sisters clearly illustrates her entrenchment in patriarchal society. Though Flounder is shown as cowardly and meek, often holding her back on her daring adventures, his company is still preferable to that of another woman. Also, although he is a rather two-dimensional character, he is still given much more of a personality than Ariel’s sisters, between which there are no distinctions other than their names. In Andersen’s story, each mermaid is shown to be different through their first interactions with the human world; for example, one is too meek to venture close to human life, while another is so bold that she swims right up a river into a highly populated area. The addition of each of these male characters and deletion or neglect of the female ones causes Disney’s Ariel to exist in an utterly patriarchal world.
Overall, though Ariel may at first seem like a more progressive representation of femininity than some other fairy-tale women, including Andersen’s original little mermaid, closer analysis reveals her true lack of any meaningful sense of autonomy. In the end, she is simply and clearly transferred from her father’s authority to that of Eric, her husband. Alternatively, Andersen’s tale, shows that women, too, can be active participants in the intellectual discourse of the time by featuring a female character who truly embodies the ideals of Romanticism.
Andersen, H. C. “The Little Mermaid.” Hans Andersen: His Classic Fairy Tales. Trans. Erik Christian. Haugaard. London: Victor Gollancz, 1985. Print.
The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Perf. Jodi Benson and Christopher Barnes. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989. DVD.