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Queer Subtext in The Little Mermaid, From Hans Christian Andersen’s Original to Disney’s Adaptation

The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic short story, “The Little Mermaid,” seems to be a metaphorical reflection of a doomed romance that unfolded in the author’s own life. The short story, which was published in 1836, lines up with a series of love letters that Andersen wrote in the mid-1830s to a young Duke named Edvard Collin. Many historians have concluded that the two men were engaged in a romance, rather than just a platonic friendship; their adoring correspondence in letters lends credence to this interpretation.

Much like the Prince with whom the Little Mermaid falls in love, Edvard Collin also faced pressure from his family to marry a princess. Anyone who has read Andersen’s original short story remembers the heart-wrenching conclusion, in which the Prince chooses to marry a princess rather than the mermaid.

The fact that “The Little Mermaid” revolves around the silence of its heroine speaks to the political situation of the era. In some ways, the 1830s in Europe marked an “enlightenment” period for gay activism; although it was still not publicly acceptable (or legal) to pursue a same-sex romance, private romances were another matter. Ariel’s silence serves as a parallel for Andersen’s own situation; he had to keep his mouth shut about his own feelings, even though every moment must have felt like walking on knives.

Unlike the heroine of the short story, Andersen does not turn into sea foam after Collin got married to someone else. Instead, Andersen and Collin remained friends (or perhaps more) for decades afterwards … and, presumably, Andersen (like Ariel) had to remain silent in public about his feelings throughout that entire time.

When Disney chose to adapt Andersen’s short story into an animated film in 1989, did they know about this historical context? Did anyone working on this film know that they were, essentially, adapting a classic queer fairy tale? It’s entirely possible that Disney selected Andersen’s love story with no knowledge of its context, but it’s possible that some of the people on the creative team had a different interpretation of “The Little Mermaid.” In a piece for the Atlantic titled “It’s Not Just Frozen: Most Disney Movies Are Pro-Gay,” Akash Nikolas writes,

One of the most poignant examples of the company’s tolerant atmosphere is the case of lyricist Howard Ashman, who was openly gay and died of AIDS in 1991. Not only did Ashman write songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, he was also closely involved in those films’ productions, casting actors and holding story meetings with animators. At the end of Beauty and the Beast, Disney acknowledged his contributions with this tribute: “To our friend Howard Ashman who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”

But Ashman’s story also offers an example of how the substance of Disney’s films reflect an interest in LGBT peoples’ struggles. Ashman worked on Beauty and the Beast while suffering through the worst (and final) phases of his illness, and composer Alan Menken called the film Ashman’s “personal story.” The result is a movie that can be viewed as an allegory: Shunned from society, his body hideously transformed, and his life wilting away like the enchanted rose, the Beast is a figure of degenerative disease. Belle’s love and the ultimate breaking of the curse is the fantasy cure that Ashman was denied.

In addition to providing the Beast with a happy ending, Ashman also “gave a mermaid her voice” (and an equally happy ending), as the quote from Disney states. It seems fair to assume that Ashman might have aided in the creation of The Little Mermaid in much the same way that he did in Beauty and the Beast, by giving its heroes the happy ending that they deserve – a happy ending that would never have been possible for Hans Christian Andersen in 1836, but which might have been worth dreaming about in 1989.

On its face, the Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid does not seem to make any political statement. If you interpret the story in its most literal presentation, it actually seems somewhat boring. Although The Little Mermaid is my personal all-time favorite Disney movie, simply because of its beautiful animation and excellent music, I never would have argued in my youth that it’s a good example of a “progressive” movie. The movie’s heroine, Ariel, seems to trade one form of patriarchy for another. Her only “progression” in the movie, it seems, is to transition from the watchful eye of her overbearing father directly into a marriage with a Princeso, yet another institutional patriarchal power. Plus, she barely even knows Prince Eric! She only seems to love what he represents, which is freedom from her father.

But the entire lesson of the movie changes completely if you look at it through the lens of the probable subtext of Andersen’s story. If we look at Ariel’s journey as a queer coming-of-age story, the movie makes significantly more sense, and it also becomes an impressive feat of metaphorical storytelling. Specifically, I think Ariel’s story works best when interpreted as a pansexual coming-of-age story. (Andersen himself had romances with both women and men, so even this interpretation might also have been an intentional one in the original fairy tale.)

In Disney’s version of the story, Ariel’s fascination with the human world is at first represented as something that she can hide from her family. She is able to pretend to share their values and be “normal” (sigh) for their sake, but in private, she still harbors feelings of being different. She wants to be part of the human world, and she watches it from afar, but beyond an innocent curiosity, she doesn’t have any real reason to leave her family. She also doesn’t ever see any need to “come out” to her family, not yet anyway. She expects, perhaps, that when she grows up she will be able to pursue a traditional mermaid life, just like her father wants. Like many pansexual people, Ariel might hope that she will be able to just give the appearance of being straight, and that no one will ever discover that she had any other feelings.

This all changes when Ariel sees Eric for the first time. To make the metaphor literal, imagine that Eric is the first girl with whom Ariel falls in love. Until now, she could hide the fact that she is queer and perhaps even imagine that she might end up in a straight relationship. As soon as she falls in love, however, everything changes for her. Now, she can no longer hide or deny this part of herself.

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Prince Eric has almost no characterization at all. He seems more like a representation of the idea of freedom, rather than a fully-realized character. All we know about him is that he, too, eschews the idea of institutional power (he doesn’t care for the statue of himself as a Prince). He likes to go sailing with his friends and play a pipe and dance and be carefree. He’s looking for love, maybe, but he isn’t too pressed about it. When Ariel appears in his life, it’s clear that she’s “The One,” and their relationship doesn’t have any internal strife. It only suffers from external roadblocks: the two of them can’t be together because it’s just wrong for a human and a mermaid to get married. It’s clear to the audience that the two of them share values, personalities, and even have the same taste in music.

The scene in which King Triton destroys Ariel’s statue of Eric becomes all the more heart-wrenching with the additional queer subtext … and it’s already the saddest scene in the movie, so that’s really saying something. That scene, and Triton’s entire arc in the movie, makes significantly more sense when re-interpreted as a parent’s struggle with accepting their child’s sexuality. At first, Triton believes that impulsively destroying the statue of Eric will “cure” his daughter of this attraction. He soon realizes that by doing this, he has only driven her to run away, and that he could completely destroy his relationship with his daughter if he doesn’t accept her for who she is.

Sebastian, meanwhile, plays the role of the straight relative who doesn’t understand that being pansexual doesn’t mean that you just need to try harder to be straight. In “Under the Sea,” he explains to Ariel that being straight is, like, way easier. Ariel doesn’t necessarily disagree, but she’s already fallen in love. It’s a done deal for her.

There’s also a sense, throughout the movie, that the human world (a.k.a. coming out of the closet) would introduce a new set of external dangers for Ariel. This is illustrated at the very beginning when Ariel has to evade a massive shark while she’s on the hunt for human treasures. Later, in “Under the Sea,” Sebastian reminds her that humans ordinarily eat sea creatures. From a metaphorical perspective, it seems like Sebastian is trying to explain to Ariel that her romance will never be truly accepted. There will always be bigoted people in the world, some of whom may try to hurt her or kill her. Again, wouldn’t it be “easier” if she would just keep living a mermaid life? Can’t she just be “normal”?

But we all know that she can’t. She shows us that she’s willing to go to dangerous lengths in order to be with Eric, and indeed she has to, because she has no other choice. Ursula introduces one pathway to the human world for Ariel, but it’s a dangerous and depressing one. Not to get too real here, but about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Think of Ariel as a broke young teenage girl who needs to buy a ticket out of town, away from her repressive father. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to escape.

It’s worth noting that the Sea Witch in Andersen’s original story isn’t a villain. The Sea Witch merely explains to Ariel how things are, and how many compromises she’ll have to make in order to be accepted in the human world. In Disney’s version, Ursula serves the same purpose, but rather than playing the role of a neutral ally, Ursula actively undermines Ariel. The fact that Ursula’s design took inspiration from the real-life drag queen Divine adds another layer to it all.

Ordinarily, in Disney movies, the villains are queer-coded, and Ursula is no exception. Villains like Maleficent, Jafar, Hades, Governor Ratcliffe, and even Ursula are set apart as magenta-clad obstructions to the heterosexual romantic pairing around which the film revolves. Once these villains are defeated, true (heterosexual) love prevails once more, and the credits roll.

However, this interpretation doesn’t quite pan out within the larger context of The Little Mermaid, since the real “villain” of the piece is the rift growing between Ariel and her father. Ursula serves to represent, perhaps, a more depressing path that their relationship could have taken. In an earlier draft of the movie, Ursula was Triton’s sister. Cast out by mermaid society, Ursula lets her resentment towards Triton overpower any sympathy she might have had for Ariel’s plight. If Ursula can’t be happy, then no one gets to be happy.

In the movie’s final climactic battle, Ursula is about to kill Ariel, using Triton’s staff, but Eric manages to deliver the killing blow before Ursula can do the deed. Before Ursula tries to kill Ariel, she screams: “So much for true love!” But why would Ursula even want to kill Ariel, in this moment? Why would she be so angry at Ariel’s happiness? Again, this scene just doesn’t make any sense unless we assume the movie has a queer subtext: Ursula resents Ariel for even trying to get a happy ending.

Perhaps Ursula is meant to represent a bitter, lonely path that Ariel manages to avoid. More specifically, that’s a path that Triton manages to avoid, since he chooses to bless his daughter’s new relationship, rather than disown her. The film places the blame on Triton’s shoulders, where it belongs: it’s the patriarchy that’s the problem. Triton has the power to change things for the better, and he’s the one who has to come to his senses and use that power for good, in the film’s final tear-jerker of a scene:

On Ariel’s wedding day, Triton even uses his staff to paint a rainbow across the sky. The rainbow has long been a symbol of peace and of the bridging of two worlds (sunlight and rain), but it’s also been a gay pride symbol since the 70s, long before Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out. Just a coincidence? Perhaps. But it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume that at least some of the movie’s creative team had the original story’s intent in mind when they created this version.

But it’s also not enough to just have that subtext. Although it’s possible to find examples of possible analogies for queerness across Disney’s canon, from The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast to Frozen, it seems strange that Disney would continue to leave these romances within the realm of metaphor. The recent #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag posited that perhaps Frozen should literalize the queer subtext present in Elsa’s story. It would be nice to see Disney give us a story that doesn’t require us to read reams of historical documents in order to finally understand that maybe its heroine wasn’t supposed to be read as straight.

For me, knowing the history behind the original story changes the meaning of The Little Mermaid into a more compelling one, and that new meaning truly elevates the emotional resonance of the story. That isn’t the way that most people see The Little Mermaid, though, and that’s exactly why Andersen wrote the story the way that he did. He didn’t want to be discovered, and so he found a way to tell his story while still remaining silent, like Ariel had to be. But it doesn’t seem like Ariel should have to keep her mouth shut anymore.

(Featured image via YouTube)

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