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"Otherness" in Disney
by Erika Murdoch
In American culture we often take for granted the role of entertainment such as Disney movies as staples of childhood. Many of us look back on these movies fondly as lighthearted, harmless parts of growing up. Young children need entertainment – they gain knowledge about life and the world as well as improved language through their books, toys, movies, and TV shows. But taking into consideration this important role that early childhood entertainment holds in teaching our youth about the world, we must look closely into what exactly is being taught – what perceptions, view points, biases, and even paradigms are being transmitted to us at our young and most impressionable ages. Here I take up the case of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Some could argue that this is a harmless tale, a simple pleasure of childhood. A New York Times review of the movie states that “Small children will be enchanted by the film’s sunniness and by its perfect simplicity” (Janet Maslin). But I think that this overlooks important messages submitted through the film’s representations of culture and gender. In fact, it is this perceived “simplicity” that makes a film like The Little Mermaid dangerous, in that it allows its reinforcement of Western discourses and representations slip under the radar. Thus, we happily feed these discourses and representations to our society’s youth. I contend that even a children’s film as seemingly “harmless” as The Little Mermaid has serious implications for the development of young children’s views of the world. The film’s messages reinforce alterity and “otherness” as theorized by Edward Said, both in the typically thought of sense, regarding culture and race, as well as an alternate sense of “othering” in gender. The sea world represents the Orient, and the child-friendly songs and images make this discourse palatable to young children. Ariel represents Fatimah Tobing Rony’s “White Woman”, as a symbol of both idealized femininity subordinated to males, and also of a source of danger and disorder.
The Little Mermaid is the story of a mermaid girl who yearns to be one of the humans whose culture and bodies which she so adores. On a stormy night, Ariel breaks her father’s orders to never venture to the surface of the ocean as she goes to watch some sailors on a ship that she sees from below. Upon seeing Prince Eric for the first time on this ship, she falls hopelessly in love and her girlish infatuation only grows as she continues to daydream and ponder how to unite with him as a part of his human life. Her infatuation and vulnerability lead to her being duped by Ursula, the sea witch, into giving up her voice in exchange for a three day trial period in which she must win Eric’s kiss of “true love”, without which she will be Ursula’s property for the rest of time.
When Ariel and Prince Eric happen upon each other on the beach on her first day as a human, Ariel is literally speechless in his presence, as Ursula has taken her voice. Ariel’s following encounters with human culture include several mishaps in which, for example, she uses a fork (to her knowledge, a “dingle-hopper”) to brush her hair enthusiastically at a formal dinner with the Prince and his advisor. This misunderstanding is one of many awkward but comical clashes of cultures.
Othering in Culture - There is a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the concepts of culture and “otherness” and Said’s Orientalism are transmitted. The following examples illustrate how concepts of cultural rules and distinctions in defining the “other” against “us” are instilled in the young audience’s minds. In every instance, the superiority of white western culture is maintained. The separation between humans and merpeople is firmly established when King Triton reprimands Ariel for swimming to the surface to watch the people on the ship, saying that “contact with the human world is strictly forbidden!” The contrast in cultures is emphasized by scenes such as the one at the dinner table in which Ariel brushes her hair with her fork. The looks of bewilderment and disapproval from Eric and his advisor cue her in immediately that this is not a cultural norm of humans. It doesn’t fit into the “unwritten rules” and “thick description” of culture that Clifford Geertz discusses, as Ariel finds herself doing something socially unacceptable because of her lack of understanding of the governing rules of human culture. In these ways, young viewers are informed about the cultural fact that there are unspoken guidelines of how to behave and live in society that can either place you safely within a culture or identify you as an outsider or as an inferior “other.”
The Sea World: A Child’s “Orient” - Many parts of the movie reveal that the sea world is not only distinct from the human world, but it parallels the Western-constructed Orient in that it reflects the curiosities, fears, and fascinations of the West. A scene in which Sebastian the crab is attempting to persuade Ariel to stay content with her own people in the ocean is a perfect example of this. The song he sings, “Under the Sea” features an array of exotic-looking creatures and illustrations of the sea as they enumerate the many wonders of sea-life. They say that the human world is “a mess” where they work hard all day, but that under the sea they can relax and enjoy the pleasures of life. However, this implies also that the sea people (or, in translation to the real world, the Other) have a weaker worth ethic and less ambition than their “superior” Whites. The “scary” scenes with the shark and with Ursula, the sea witch, and her mignon eels, as harmlessly childish as they appear in the movie, are also reflections of the fear that we have of the Other. For the child viewer, the under-sea world and all its creatures, as represented in the film, is the perfect representation of the exoticism, mystery, and fear associated with constructions of the Orient and the Other.
A Tale of White Dominance over the Orient - The analytical viewer is repeatedly cued in to the fact that the merpeople of The Little Mermaid represent the “Orient” that Said identifies in the real world. This is reflected first in the fact that they are literally “sub-human.” As Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes in “Decolonizing Methodologies”, this representation of “sub-human” is one that the West has historically projected on “others” in justification of colonization and subjugation of them (26). The domination of the Other by Whites is present in the film as well. Triton fears that Ariel’s ventures to the border between the sea world and the human world will end in her being on one of the human’s “fish hooks”, implying a power relationship between the two groups in which the humans violently subjugate the mermaids. The ending, in which the mermaids succumb and peacefully allow Prince Eric to “have” Ariel, sends a subliminal message that Whites will ultimately dominate, with relatively “little resistance from the Other” (Said 7). The marriage of Ariel and Eric is shown as a happy ending in the movie, but in my analysis it is symbolic of an all-too-familiar story of White subjugation of the Other.
Reinforcing Western Superiority in Child-Friendly Terms - The superiority of white Western Culture is also shown in other more overt ways throughout the film. A central tenet of Said’s theorization of Orientalism is that it implies an authority of the West over the Western-constructed Orient in all aspects – cultural, intellectual, economic, etc… The simple fact that Ariel so fervently yearns to be one of the humans implies that the White Westerners (which the humans in the movie signify) are inherently better. Again, a song in the movie is illustrative of this. Ariel sings “I wish I could be a part of your world… I want to know what the people know…” This wish to “know” parallels what Said says about the “intellectual authority” central to Orientalist discourse and representation. The idea that White Westerners are superior is partially justified by the representation that they have greater knowledge and understanding of scholarly and worldly things of importance. In the case of The Little Mermaid, Ariel has internalized the idea that humans are superior, hence her intense desire to be one. And in the end, as Said proposes, “Western culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (3). In the context of the humans in this film representing the West in the real world, Ariel’s wish to be human and the implicit message that humans are better reinforces this – the identity and strength of Western culture is enhanced as young viewers see Ariel’s yearning to be part of it.
“Othering” in Gender - The “Othering” in culture that is so pervasive throughout The Little Mermaid is not the only form of Othering in the film. It is also present in the gender roles and relations depicted. Whereas I drew on Said’s work for the previous section, here I will utilize Fatimah Tobing Rony’s analysis of gender in King Kong. Rony posits that the White Woman is Other to the White Man. The “Other” in this case parallels the “Other” in Orientalism. A main principle of this female Other is that she is subordinate. She is also, like the Orient to the West, a subject of male fear, intrigue, and allure. Rony sees the representation of women in film as another version of the Other that Said sees in the “Oriental.” The roles assigned to women in popular cinematography are othered in the sense that they are not really the agents of action or decision, but instead the recipients, spectacles, and objects of consumption. In this sense, the Little Mermaid follows a second form of “otherness” construction, in gender. An important note is that while I argue that Ariel and her fellow-mermaids reflect the Orient in the previous section of my critical analysis, for the gender portion I see her as more reflective of the White Woman which Rony discusses.
The White Woman as Man’s Subordinate Spectacle - Several instances in The Little Mermaid, when read closely, can be revealed as illuminating of the subordination to males of the female Other. For example, Ariel is the one that must impress Eric, instead of the other way around. She needs to impress him and win him over; she needs to win his approval. From the first second she laid eyes on Prince Eric, she was infatuated with him and in a girlish daze afterward, picking petals from a flower, where each petal was a “he loves me, he loves me not…” Furthermore, she will sacrifice everything to “be with her man” as Ursula says while she convinces Ariel to sign the deal that will give her three days as a human. She is so madly in love with this man that she is willing to risk giving up her soul. As harmless and purely humor-based as it may seem at first look, a scene in which Sebastian explains to Ariel as she falls asleep how she must get Eric’s approval reinforces the stereotypes of the alluring white female, as he says she needs to “bat your eyes like this, and pucker your lips like this” as his eyelashes grow longer and his lips swell up to reflect the idealized image of an attractive female. Even the fact that she is literally speechless in front of him, robbing her of her agency, signifies a subordination of female to male. This representation of female as sweet, innocent, and vulnerable falls nicely under the high hierarchical rank of the strong male in film, but there is also a more “dangerous” aspect of this construction of the White Woman.
The White Woman as a Source of Disorder - All of the “trouble” in the film’s plot results from Ariel’s mischief and dabbling in things that she shouldn’t. This parallels Rony’s analysis that while the White Woman signifies “beauty, glamour, [and] the feminine”, she also signifies “the unknown” (178). In many cinematic cases, she is a dangerous threat to order that must be tamed and reeled in by the dominant White male. In The Little Mermaid, the major trouble that Ariel causes is always solved by Eric, in the end. When, in the beginning of the film, Triton creates a storm because of his anger at Ariel for breaking his rules and swimming to the ocean surface, Eric is the only one that can steer the ship. In the final minutes of the movie, when Ursula is trying to capture Ariel as her own because Ariel started the trouble by making the deal with her, Eric is again the one that saves the day as he pierces Ursula’s heart and kills her. As a source of disorder, the White Woman Other is associated with savagery, as is the Oriental Other. The film looks less “simplistic” if you look to the underlying message that it is Ariel (representing the White Woman) who is the source of disorder and trouble, and Eric (the White Man) who is heroically resolving it all.
Contrary to the New York Times review of The Little Mermaid, I assert that although the storyline and representations in the movie may appear simplistic and harmless in their childishness, we can glean deeper meaning which holds significant importance from a deeper analysis of the film. It is necessary to understand the messages being sent to our society’s youth at their most impressionable age, and what I have tried to show is that a petty kids’ Disney movie can transmit dangerous ideas by perpetuating, in child-friendly manners, certain entrenched Western discourses and representations. In the case of The Little Mermaid, a strong theme of “othering” pervades every part of the movie. The Orient that Said theorizes about is symbolically present in the undersea world of The Little Mermaid, and along with it are lessons about cultural distinction and White Western superiority. The Othering of females is also overtly present, in the representation of females as both incapable of agency and thus subordinate to males, as well as the representation of females as a source of savagery parallel to that of the Orient, which is the source of trouble and disorder that the White Male must “make right”. As Said says in his work on Orientalism, it is important to understand “the strength of Western cultural discourse, a strength too often mistaken as merely decorative or superstructural.” While I do not claim that The Little Mermaid stands alone in reinforcing an evil discourse which subordinates and “Others” vast amounts of people in the world, what I do argue is that it can slip under the radar as harmless, but that it too is firmly entrenched in the discourse.
The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Disney, 1989. Videocassette.
Maslin, Janet. "The Little Mermaid(1989); Review/Fim; Andersen's 'Mermaid', by Way of Disney." New York Times. 15 Nov. 1989. Web. 23 May 2011. <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=950DE2DE1331F936A25752C1A96F948260>.
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 3-30
Rony, Fatimah Tobing, “King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema,” The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 157-191
Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. 1-28. Print.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. "Chapter 1." Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed, 1999.