RE-BLOG: “Guppy Love: The Further Sins of Disney” by Susan R.
The following article first appeared on Riparian Church, a now-defunct blog owned by my good friend Otter, whom I first met on the Sonlight Curriculum forum boards.
A couple of nights ago, at a homeschool meeting, I got talking with a friend and somehow the conversation got onto children’s literature. I was reminded of a couple of blogposts made by Otter and a guest blogger known as Susan R. Knowing that his blog is no longer active, I emailed him and he very kindly forwarded me both his and Susan R’s posts and gave me permission to put them on my blog.
Guppy Love: The Further Sins of Disney
A few days ago, Otter served forth his (mighty low) opinion of Disney and its crimes against the imagination. I weighed in with a comment, mainly for the purpose of airing my long-held grunge regarding the unforgiveable hack-job Disney did on one of my all-time favorite fairy tales, The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen.
Otter’s original post opened with his definition of “good Christian books” as “books that don’t simplify human experience or the complexity of human choices.” I was in such a fit of pique when I wrote my indignant comments about TLM (The Little Mermaid) that I kinda missed that the first time around . . . but he has a fine point, there. Disney’s movie is dreadful, dreadful schlock in large part because it is utterly devoid of complex choices, and the little bit of recognizable human experience it contains is offensively callow, even for a children’s movie. One could say, especially for a children’s movie.
As a love story, Disney’s TLM is conventional and shallow and, more to the point, it doesn’t actually have much of love in it. Ariel triumphs when she kills off her romantic rival—who is, rather conveniently, a vicious sea-witch hell-bent on destroying her and everyone in the show—and wins herself a man. The killing of the sea-witch is the climax of the Disney drama. In addition to being “the other woman”, she is the evil force threatening the universe, and it is the battle scene that offers the only real tension of the show (well, that, and wondering if Prince Eric is going to make a move on Ariel in “Kiss the Girl”). If you stretch the point a bit, you could call the killing an act of justice—she had been, after all, a really bad dude—but it is most emphatically not an act of love. Basically, we are looking at a revenge fantasy masquerading as an act of self-preservation. (UGH! Can I just point out how sick that is?)
By contrast, the sea-witch in the Andersen’s tale is kind of a minor player—not a nice lady, but after she takes the mermaid’s voice as payment for the magic potion, the sea-witch drifts into the background for the remainder of the story, leaving the stage clear for A Real, Actual, Painful, Human Dilemma.
Casting about for a good plotline, Disney lands the little mermaid. It only took $40 million dollars to scale her, gut her, and prepare her for consumption by the masses.
But just as there is no real love depicted in Disney’s TLM, there is not a lot of drama, either. Disney’s Ariel never, at any point, has to question herself or her course of action, never has any tough decisions to make. All the circumstances of her life align themselves in such a way that the desired course of action is also the right course of action. In essence, Disney’s TLM is an adolescent fantasy and TLM herself never grows up. She is a “tween” at the beginning, a “tween” in the middle, and a “tween” at the end, albeit a tween with preternaturally large . . . um, eyes.
Andersen’s mermaid also begins as a young adolescent, fantasizing dreamily about young men in her underwater garden. But significantly—and please don’t miss this—she also begins the story in pursuit of a soul. As the young mermaid learns from her grandmother, “We sometimes live to three hundred years, but when we cease to exist here we only become the foam on the surface of the water, and we have not even a grave down here of those we love. We have not immortal souls, we shall never live again; but like the green sea-weed, when once it has been cut off, we can never flourish more.” Hearing this, the little mermaid asks mournfully, “Why have we not an immortal soul? I would give gladly all the hundreds of years I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars.”
By the time the little mermaid comes of age at fifteen and is set loose into the wider world, she has cultivated for years an intense desire to win for herself not only romantic love, but also an immortal soul.
Just like Hannah Montana!!! Right?
No, I’m sorry: Disney does not “do” souls. Perhaps they don’t believe children posses them. (This is where I begin to think Otter’s claim that “Disney hates children” is not far off the mark. Though to be fair, I’m pretty sure Disney hates grown-ups too.) Because to my knowledge, Disney has never once in the last 30 years conceived of an adolescent child as hoping and striving for anything bigger, grander, or more important than the possibility of navigating her teenage years with a clear complexion and a really hot boyfriend. This is why Disney’s attempts to “update” and “empower” girls in their movies of recent decades fall so abominably flat. “Today’s heroines,” as they are touted, are smart! and powerful! and self-sufficient! Disney movies strive toward that image, they really do, but the really tragic thing is that all the intelligence, power, and independence of the young girls they portray are bent toward one end: catching a man. Excuse me while I scream again.
There is not a thing wrong with Disney putting forward the idea that romance is a good thing, because it is. Finding a mate is a good thing. Sex is a good thing. Those are all very good, natural, powerful desires, and they are often what propel us forward into adulthood.
But they are not enough to build a life on. Not nearly enough. Not by a long shot.
Unlike Disney’s Ariel, when the real little mermaid moves forward into her adult desires, she is thwarted. Not by a wily, evil, older woman with the power to enthrall the beloved prince against his will, but simply by . . . life, and the way things are in a fallen world.
The first test comes when the mermaid visits the sea-witch and asks to become human in order to win her prince (whom she has already rescued from drowning). Ariel loses her voice when it floats from her pretty lips into the sea-witch’s jewelry, and she when she is granted legs, she learns to walk on the beach with joy and delight. The real little mermaid loses her voice when the witch slices her tongue out with a knife. When she walks, pain cuts into her like a sword at every step and she leaves bloody footprints. Her shot at love has already cost her dearly.
Ariel’s adolescent love affair proceeds smoothly until her lover is enthralled against his will by a—pardon my language—by a real bitch. Note that Ariel never suffers actual rejection. We are given to understand that, absent the witch’s interference, things would have progressed directly to its sappy consummation with nary a hitch. The real little mermaid, on the other hand, lives in a world you and I might recognize. Having thrown herself completely, passionately, painfully, recklessly into love with the prince, she discovers to her horror that he, far from returning her passion, thinks of her “like a sister.” Ouch. Furthermore, the object of her desire is sending mixed messages, kissing her and stroking her hair while he explains that he wants to be “just friends.” He gives her to believe that he will never marry . . . only to turn around and get engaged to the gorgeous daughter of a neighboring king shortly thereafter. Double ouch.
Do you get it? This is real. This is what real people are likely to encounter in real life, and Andersen asks real questions about what happens to love when it falls, hard, and cracks its skull on the granite of unflinching reality and has to wake up the next morning and figure out how to go on.
Ariel the Anti-mermaid, bless her soul (IF SHE HAD ONE), has no tough decisions to make, no conflicting desires, and ultimately, no opportunity to make her love transcendent. She lives in a celluloid world where love is always requited and you are morally justified in slaying your enemies. In short, she remains a child with childish fantasies about what it means to truly love.
The Disney desecration ends with our perky, bubble-headed friend sailing into the sunset with her toothy lover and his fabulous hair. She has carried the day. She has slaughtered her rival, she has a date for the for the prom, and even her damaged relationship with her father was repaired when Daddy did his mea culpa.
Do you know how the story ends for Andersen’s little mermaid? When her sisters learn of her impending death (she is fated to turn to sea foam the evening the prince marries another), they sell their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a knife. If the mermaid will stab the prince on his wedding night, the blood from his wound will fall on her feet, her legs will become a fish’s tail again, and she can return to the sea to live out her remaining centuries of life as a mermaid. And the little mermaid is tempted. Her grand gamble at love has failed and she is condemned to die, but she has a chance to cheat death and live again. All she has to do is off the prince—and this is the weenie, mind you, that never really appreciated her—the guy who led her on, dropped her, and then got hitched to a hot chick from out-of-town. (A hot chick the mermaid can’t even hate because she’s A Really Nice Girl to boot.)
Listen here, at the moment of decision:
“The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow, then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince and then threw herself from the ship into the sea….”
Tell me, tell me, tell me: which tale shall I tell my children? The one that assumes my children have, and should have, no dreams beyond being pert and pretty and catching a suitably pretty mate? The one that suggests that reality will always bend to their desires, and that success is not only fairly painless, but virtually guaranteed? In other words, should I lie to them because they are children and cannot know how profound my lies are?
Or will I offer up the stories that acknowledge what my children already suspect, even at the tender ages of four, and six, and nine: Life is good, yes, but also bloody, dangerous, and heartbreaking. Stories that suggest that their destiny is to grow up not only into mature human love, but ultimately through it into a profound, sacrificial, divine love. Stories that assume that, sooner or later, push will come to shove and you have to choose between saving your life and saving your soul.
Well, while I tot up the pros and cons on this one, let’s circle back and wrap things up. The stories of Hans Christian Andersen belie a strong Christian worldview, and TLM is no exception. Just as the little mermaid hits the waves and begins to turn to foam, she is surrounded by a host of ethereal “daughters of air” and lifted skyward.
She does not progress directly to the gates of glory, though. Salvation was not the end game, and the little mermaid now begins the journey of sanctification. She joins the children of air as they roam the earth for a hundred years, give or take, spreading mercy and healing and generally doing anonymous good deeds amongst the human population. Here Andersen’s art falters a bit, I believe, because his language and description grows particularly precious here (not to mention the unwelcome appearance of a good old-fashioned Victorian guilt trip for the kiddies). But if we remove the soft-focus lens, the principle is sound: the process of sanctification is not accomplished in a moment by a single noble deed. No, a soul is developed one small step at a time, choosing well day in and day out for a long, long time.
And if Ariel and Prince Eric and all the millions of little children who have watched them drift aimlessly offstage ever figure that out for themselves—well, they’re gonna have to row against the mighty, rushing current of Disney crap pretty hard to do so.