A family goes to a restaurant weekly. The parents enjoy dinner while their little girl watches DVD’s on a portable player through headphones. Parents get to converse and she catches her favorite flick—again. She cycles through a small library of modern Disney classics, but invariably settles on The Little Mermaid.
Now, based on the little girl’s general behavior, I venture to say that the DVD player is a babysitter (rather than an appeal to the inborn film genius that she could grow up to be)—she’s obnoxious. I would bet that the DVD is the opiate that keeps the little monster at bay.
The weekly visit to this particular restaurant is surely not the only place she watches DVD’s. I estimate that she watches 3-4 hours of DVD a day and sees The Little Mermaid start to finish 4-5 times a week. I don’t know about you, but that is a lot of life “under the sea”.
For those of you who are dead, the story is a Disney incarnation of a Hans-Christian Anderson tale about a young mermaid willing to give up everything for the chance to love a human prince. Ariel—the little mermaid—exchanges her fins and her enchanting voice to become human.
Arial wants nothing more than to love Prince Eric. But muted by her transformation into human form, she makes little headway. Worse, Prince Eric is to marry Vanessa, the feminine incarnation of Ursula, the evil sea lady. With the help of her friends and her father, Tritan, Arial and Eric thwart the efforts of Ursula and marry with the blessing of humans and merfolk alike.
I began thinking. If this little girl watches this movie 4-5 times a week for a couple of years, how will that affect her as a 23 year old woman seeking a romantic partner? I thought I would search the Internet for an answer. Wow! What a cross-marketing, psychoanalytic, social barrage I walked into! Turns out that I’m not the only one interested in what little girls learn from watching Disney “Princess” movies.
The big concern is the films impact on gender roles, or how one thinks men and women should behave. In a forum for feminist mothers, one mother worries that the film will “teach” her daughter that she must give up her special gifts and passions to become worthy of attracting attention from boys. Still another mother worries that film promotes the submissive role of wife as the source point of “happy ever after”.
One mother refused to buy her daughter girl’s toys. Instead, she gave her daughter art supplies, legos, and sporting equipment. With time, Grandma and Auntie gave the girl dresses and dolls etc. Mother argues that her daughter now worries about body image, criticizes other girls, and is less vocal about her opinions—especially around males.
That is a common occurrence according to one psychologist, whose name will be protected for memory reasons—I forgot. He characterizes The Little Mermaid as symbolic of the transition most girls make from being just girls to girls who want attention from boys. Ariel lived a free life with friends and family. She pursued her passion for singing and thrived. This is life as a girl, free from having to appeal to and satisfy boys.
Becoming curious about life above water, however, Ariel ventures to the surface and experiences for the first time attraction to a boy. Upon returning to the sea, Ariel trades her tail for legs—at the cost of her voice—so that she may go to Prince Eric. She gives up the very thing that makes her a mermaid, her tail, and she gives up her singing voice, the symbol of her passions, dreams, and aspirations. This is life as girl who wants attention from boys. Social stripped of her identity to meet the sexual interests of men. Strange that the one mother’s daughter became less vocal around men and Arial is literally mute around Prince Eric.
Heavy stuff here. I’m not very well educated in gender rolls. I do believe that we can change the way we think men and women should be, but I do not think that we can ever eliminate differences in gender roles. For every shift there is an equal shift for balance. Maybe it is the very difference in our physical makeup. One of the mothers explains that even by age 3, her daughter knew that “boys play with fire trucks, and girls play with doll”. As usual, awareness and understanding may be the only solace.
I notice even in my own generation that as women become more socially assertive and aggressive, the irrational urge toward the romantic flame spurs them ever farther. Despite their powerful intellects and strident financial success, they find themselves ever crushed by the weight of unrealistic expectations in romance and partnership. Is this the torn disjoint between the Disney Princess and the real world?
The film The Little Mermaid is no doubt a landmark for Disney. It was the first Disney film to use computers to help animate and color scenes. It spawned the Renaissance of Disney musicals (Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast…). However, maybe it is still so beloved/controversial nearly 20 years later because it pits our optimism against our pessimism. How much like a boy can you be and still be a girl? How much like a girl can you be and still be a boy? “Happy Ever After” and “Never Ever”: finally, together at last.