In a lot of romances, the women are the mortals and the men immortals: vampires, werewolves, angels, demons. Yes, there are some really cool books where the women are magical and fall in love with mortal men, but these aren’t as common. The mainstream idea is that women fall in love with magical men. Or maybe that women gain the love of magical men.
Erik the Romance Seeker
In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel – for the case of this blog post – will be positioned as the magical/immortal woman. She’s an Other to Erik’s human. Erik is the one in this romance concerned with finding a wife: he’s pressured by his adviser and presumably his parents to get married – not necessarily be happy or fall in love. And Erik, feeling the pressure, obsesses over Ariel’s unearthly voice, and vows to marry the girl it belongs to. He’s pressured to find a wife because he is royalty and needs to produce an heir – he’s not chasing a romance because it will make him complete, but because it is his duty.
In one way of looking at it, this could be Erik’s way of resisting marriage. Sure, he wants to marry the girl the voice belongs to, much like Cinderella’s Prince wants to marry the girl the glass slipper belongs to, but he may never find her. If he vows to only marry that girl, and he can’t find her, then he doesn’t have to get married. But maybe that’s the cynic in me .
Ariel’s Sacrifice To Otherness
In contrast to Eric, Ariel is shown as having outside interests other than her romance. She’s obsessed with everything human because it’s so exotic to her. She’s not an Other in her own world, but she’s an Other to the human world. She wants to be a part of the exotic world so much that she is willing to trade her voice and ultimately put her life at risk to get what she wants. Ariel shows a distinct interest in the human world before she discovers Eric, and her voice is the defining aspect of her identity: so much so that Ursula can use her voice to hypnotise Prince Erik.
When comparing this other romance women who are offered a chance at getting everything, I find the other women lacking. Often they don’t have to sacrifice anything. Or it’s something paltry – like sacrificing being with their family in exchange for getting their spouse’s family and life, wealth and prosperity. Even Bella Swan, of Twilight fame, thinks she is giving up something monumental to be with rich, handsome Edward. Whether it is her family (which she doesn’t end up abandoning at all) or her soul (it is never finalised whether vampires have souls or not), Bella does not sacrifice as much as Ariel does to get what she wants. She kind of falls into her role as Edward’s wife, whereas Ariel actually fights for her destiny. Bella certainly never gives up any aspect of her identity, for she never really has enough of a personality or ability to sacrifice in the first place.
Yes, I am bashing Twilight again – so what? YOU LOVE IT.
Another monumental difference I want to point out is that Ariel wants nothing more than to be a human. Sure, being human is hugely different an exotic to her, but Bella wants so much more: Bella wants to be an immortal vampire with magical powers; Ariel simply wants to be human and all the problems and flaws that come along with that. Bella gives up her normalness to become an Other, while Ariel gives up her Otherness to become normal.
Ursula’s Power And Otherness
Ursula is an Other even within the underwater world. We don’t know what she did to be called a ‘demon’ and untrusted. We do know however that she openly rebels against the Sea King, Triton, and that it might be because she is both a powerful woman and an othertype of human-fish hybrid: an octopus. She rebels against Triton’s patriarchal hierarchy by using her power, in a sneaky way, to give others what they want. But her payments – and she has the right to be paid, for not only is she a businesswoman but apparently knows something about contract law – often allow her to take possession of the victim. What her ultimate goal in collecting them is, I can’t figure out. I do know, however, that her ultimate goal is taking Triton’s power – in a way, castrating him – and ruling the sea.
The thing about Ursula is that she’s obviously grotesque – mostly because she is grossly overweight and also an octopus – yet for some reason the film makers show us her vanity – she is seen adjusting her hair and applying lipstick. She’s camp and knowledgeable about sexuality, and also kinda dirty when talking to Ariel about getting her man and singing a song with obvious sexual undertones. Ursula is also the most provocative of all the characters we meet. She often slips into sexy poses and uses her breasts and hips to make a point. Her octopus body is reminiscent of a black evening gown, and she wears make-up (although I can’t figure out what she’s using).
This is in direct contrast to Ariel’s innocence and purity – although Ariel was deliberately drawn to enhance her cleavage, she doesn’t wear make-up or take much pride in her natural appearance, nor does she seem aware of any kind of sexuality beyond kissing – which, according to Ursula, is ‘true love’. Now, Ursula’s clearly older and more worldly than Ariel, and obviously taking advantage of teenage hormones – but it’s her contrast to beautiful, sweet-voiced and good-natured Ariel that gets me. Even her skin is purple! What’s up with that?
In the end, it’s Eric who has to destroy Ursula with a rather phallic-like symbol, therefore regaining the patriarchal ideal. In my opinion, this is because Ariel has already saved Eric’s life several times, so it’s his damn turn. Triton hands Ariel over to her new husband, and all is well in the world.
- Why ‘The Little Mermaid’ Is The Greatest Movie of Our Time (theawl.com)
- Is happily ever after just a fairytale? (guardian.co.uk)