My Dissertation | The Little Mermaid

Sunday, 14 August 2016

As The Little Mermaid is my favourite film and Ariel's my favourite princess, I found it the easiest to write about her. For the next five princesses I wrote about them all in one chapter called "The Princesses of the Disney Renaissance" and each of them has their own section, which is about 900 words.

How has the representation of the female gender in the Disney Princess movies progressed during the Disney Renaissance in relation to Snow White?

The Disney Renaissance refers to the era between 1989 and 1999; it is “a time during which the Walt Disney Company returned to the classic fairy tale story, resulting in some of the most highly successful Disney films of all time.” (Messina, 2012, p.154) This period saw the release of five new Disney Princess movies from the company. Five new female protagonists were introduced and “significant changes are to be found in the way such themes as love, independence, duty, goodness...were portrayed in the Disney Studio’s animated films between 1989 and 2005.” (Davis, 2006, p.171) It could be argued that the Disney Renaissance saw a change in Disney’s critical sources; they were no longer making their films solely for the satisfaction of young children. As the “female heroines were given a more independent persona to adhere to the 1990s third-wave feminist movement.” (Warner, 2014, p.5) Therefore, this could account for the change in why Disney began portraying their princesses in a more practical manner. Walt Disney once stated that “you’re dead if you only aim for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.” (Corrine, 2012, p.133) This begins to support the notion that these particular Disney films were being created with an older target audience in mind. As “animated...films very often feature women in leading roles” (Hugel, 2013) and this could potentially be the reason for the change in how Disney represented their female characters during the Disney Renaissance. It could also be argued that Disney wanted to provide their audience with characters that they could possibly relate to or even look up to, as they may no longer be interested in a female character whose only interest is cleaning and falling in love. This chapter will discuss and analyse the portrayal of the princesses from the following films The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998).

The Little Mermaid saw the beginning of the Disney Renaissance, “which announced the beginning of a new string of successful animated films” (Booker, 2009, p.37) and the film introduced audiences to the fourth Disney Princess, Ariel. The character of Ariel saw the beginning of a new form of representation towards Disney’s female characters. When Ariel first appears in frame the princess can be seen exploring a bleak and murky shipwreck. A medium shot has been used to reinforce the delight in her facial expression as she discovers the ship and to illustrate that there is no one else around but her and Flounder. Flounder is Ariel’s most loyal friend and despite the fact he scares easily, he can always be seen exploring by the mermaid’s side. This reflects the proposal that Ariel is longing for excitement and adventure, as she is willing to do so alone without proper supervision. It is believed that “with The Little Mermaid, heroines often appear to possess greater agency than had previously been the case and are frequently depicted as adventurous.” (Kosut, 2012, p.36) As the princess explores the sunken ship the use of non-diegetic sound reinforces her desire and yearning for adventure. The music begins slow-paced but soon speeds up and proceeds to be more upbeat once she discovers a human artefact, Ariel’s voice also subsequently becomes more buoyant and cheerful, indicating the portrayal of the princess’s adolescent curiosity to explore along with her rebellious nature. The portrayal of Ariel throughout this scene reinforces that she has been shown to be independent and inquisitive and does not conform to the traditional stereotypes of femininity, as she yearns to learn more about the world in which she longs to live. These particular traits were not present in the character of Snow White, as “Ariel’s inquisitive nature, desire for adventure, and bravery represent Disney’s progression of the independent women gender role.” (Garabedian, 2014, p.23) 

Ariel’s true pursuit is to discover a place in which she feels she will belong. A long shot has been used to display the mermaid surrounded by all of her human treasures that she has collected while exploring, as she then “sings of wanting more than a life filled with possessions, dreaming instead of living in a world where she is not just accepted, but valued.” (Davis, 2006, p.178) Ariel is portrayed as a young, intelligent women who is largely defined by her dream to venture out of the sea and “her dreams differ from those of the Princesses before her.” (Rustad, 2015, p.45) Her passion for adventure and need to explore is reinforced by the visual imagery that is present throughout the scene, as Ariel is in an exceptionally confined space. The only way out is through a small hole positioned in the ceiling of the cavern, illustrating her isolation and need to escape from a world in which she fears she does not belong. Ariel is represented as an intelligent woman, which is a trait that was not present in the portrayal of Snow White – Ariel “promoted the idea of wanting to explore.” (England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek, 2011, p.564) The princess sings throughout Part of Your World (Ashman, 1989) that she is “ready to know what the people know, ask ‘em my questions and get some answers...bright young women, sick of swimmin’.” (Ashman, 1989) The diegetic sound that is present represents the ideal that Ariel is represented as an ambitious woman, which subverts the stereotype that has been placed on women, as there was “no getting around the fact that ambition is not a feminine trait.” (Brownmiller, 1984, p.221) 

However, “while many aspects of Ariel’s portrayal are ultimately positive, there are nonetheless a number of troubling elements. “(Davis, 2006, p.180) Ariel gives up her voice, her form of intelligence, in an attempt to be with the man with whom she has fallen in love, despite the fact she has never met him. She is sacrificing her independent qualities and inquisitiveness. This could contradict the celebration that women were finally being given freedom of speech in a society that had an extremely patriarchal voice. A close-up has been used to portray Ariel’s longing and excitement to become human but her expression soon changes when it is announced she will have to give up her means of communication. The use of dark colours represents Ariel’s sadness and confusion in giving up her voice. Ursula makes it clear that she will “have your looks, your pretty face,” (Ashman, 1989) as “women do not need to speak to men to engage in building human-to-human relationships.” (Murphy, 1995, p.133) This is emphasised with the use of diegetic music. Ursula is the main antagonist of Disney’s The Little Mermaid; she is a sea witch who pretends to help unfortunate merfolk in order to achieve her own goals. Like Snow White, Ariel is representing the female gender in a way that makes it evident that physical appearance is still considered to be of importance as “Eric falls in love with his memory of the physical beauty.” (Trites, 1991, p.147) This refers back to the Feminist Film Theory, as the portrayal of Ariel throughout this particular scene could have a negative impact on female spectators as she conforms to the stereotype of being an object of desire for the male character. Although, Ariel’s beauty is being perceived as an imperative trait for her to adhere to, it could still be argued that she is determined to make her own choices and achieve her goals. Even though her ultimate wish is to marry and “on the surface very traditional” (Davis, 2006, p.181) attributes of the female gender have progressed in the way Disney portrays them. As Ariel still seeks adventure and exploration and then achieves the goals in which she has set out for herself. This was not seen in the earlier princesses such as Snow White, as Ariel did not wait around for a man to come and rescue her, she made the endeavour to seek out her true love by her own means. 

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  1. This is really fascinating and I'm not sure I've ever read anything so well though out and complex about Disney Princesses! Plus it gets extra points because The Little Mermaid was my favourite Disney film as a child.

    1. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it! xx

  2. This was so well written and interesting! What an amazing topic to write your dissertation on!

    Ella xx

    1. Thank you so much, I loved researching this topic! xx

  3. So very very cool! I loved this and was really well written! You should be proud! :)

  4. Nice to see your content. You are sharing such a great info.
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