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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

the little mermaid: a thought on the flight home

It might be a mistake to watch The Little Mermaid on my flight home. Probably it is because I was eating fillet of cod. Or probably because I have just attended a workshop talking about media and gender.

Okay, first thing first. I am aware that the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, the very movie I watched, was an adaptation from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. And Disney is famous for its happy ending cartoons. Given that fact, I should initially expect that there will be some alterations in the story. And they were there, indeed.

Originally, the mermaid in Andersen's story dies because she fails to meets the terms and conditions set by the sea-witch. The little mermaid supposed to win the prince's heart and marry him in order to be a human for the rest of her life. However, being mute (as her voice became the tool of trade with the witch), she did not manage to convince the prince that she was the one who saved him from a shipwreck. Instead, the prince thought that it was some other princess from some other neighbouring country, whom he ended up married to. The mermaid's sisters fell pity to her, and said that the only way for her to escape from being the sea-witch's slave is to kill her prince charming before sunrise. But she loved him too much, and the rest is history. More or less, everything is about this unfortunate little mermaid and her unrequited love, with several lines from insignificant supportive character to spice up the main dish.

In the movie, every conflict was solved. The sea-witch is dead – thanks to the help of the prince, regardless he is a human being with limited strength to survive the mighty sea. The little mermaid is later a human being, got married to the prince and lives happily ever after. The king, which never been told in the original story but described as a stern father in the movie, gave his bless to the little mermaid. There was no "other princess", but instead the disguised sea-witch who bewitched the prince to marry her. There were even songs performed by a musically skilful crab.

But then I did question several things. I remember to read somewhere about how Disney and its idea of happy ending can be somehow disturbing. When the Beast regains his formerly handsome face, for example I wonder why it is found necessary. Remember, it was the Beast with whom Belle fallen in love with, even though I am quite sure she did not mind to have such bonus: the fairy tale image "prince charming" to "live happily ever after" with. Therefore, I was glad to watch Shrek II and Fiona rejected Shrek's offer to have a physical beauty divine. Instead, she wants to stay being an ogre, "with the ogre I married".

Anyway, the disturbing alteration I found was about why should the little mermaid who morphed into human being and not vice versa. I mean, why does she need to do any more sacrifice? She saved the prince's life already, lost her voice risked her life on an agreement with a sea-witch, even her King father had his throne given to the sea-witch in order to save his daughter from being her slave. The King's advisor also risked his life being hunted by the prince's cook, who was obsessed to cook stuffed crabs. Well, the prince did some things that ended up with the death of the sea-witch, true, but why didn't it occur in his mind that, "Okay, she loves me so very much and has done so much for me as well, I think I can do her a little favour to live happily ever after by her side as a merman."?
Plus, the little mermaid herself was not an ordinary mermaid – she was a princess under the sea, so the prince would not really experience a lowering status. Well, probably he wants to keep his throne on the land, instead of marrying a Princess (with little possibility to be a Queen because she is the youngest). That consideration sounds very much like the villain in Princess Diaries 2 (another movie by Disney, fyi) said to his nephew, "Everything is planned to have you as a King, not to marry a Queen!"

I also perceived the alteration as an effort to mild the prince's lack of contribution to the mermaid's happiness. Compared to how the original story simply said that the prince treated the mermaid as nice as treating his own sister, the Disney movie showed that he did some sort of heroic act to exterminate the sea-witch. And then, oh well, the man saved the day, and what missing was only the cliché line, "Oh, my hero!".
Recalling a previous discussion about "real men" and "real women" in my workshop, I remember someone from the workshop "Life is a Role Play" (they visited us to share a guest lecturer who talked about Star Trek in gender perspective) said about "men are supposed to be the protector". Well, that simply fits the picture perfect – men are there to protect, and women to be protected. But it is not simply about who is stronger therefore (s)he is the one who should protect another, because remember, the mermaid saved the prince at the first place. If it was not because she loved him madly at the first sight, he would be there under the sea with the remains of his ship. I assume that the Disney version is trying to make a "fair trade" in terms of sacrifice done by the main characters, but yet again, the mermaid remained sacrificing more. Living on the land as a human being means no more contact with her underwater family and friends. At least that is what I can assume, because the King said to his advisor something about how he will miss his daughter very much, before he put a spell on her and made her a human.

Another thing is about the sea-witch. I always wonder why it has to be a witch: a wicked female villain with magical power and obsession to rule the world (or in this case, the sea). One thing I like about Harry Potter series is that it puts a wizard instead of a witch as the antagonist – at least to give refreshment on how it is not always women who can be evil and put a spell on the main characters. The visualisation of the sea-witch was also altered; in the original story she was a mermaid (apparently there is no such word as "merwoman"), yet in the movie she has eight tentacles instead of fin. Nevertheless, the sea-witch was described living in a dark abyss with her sea-snake assistants, showing that she is somewhat a lonely woman with no partner to share life or make love to; and being exiled, to some extent, create the evilness. Well, I have no problem on the loneliness issue, for that also happens to Lord Voldemort. But let me emphasize this: we need more evil wizards. Not all witches are evil (like Ursula); some can be very motherly (like Molly Weasley), very clumsy (like Nymphadora Tonks), or even very clever (like Hermione Granger).

That is about it. I write no conclusion – at least for such rambling.


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