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Peace in Disney’s fairy tales: The Little Mermaid (1989)

    One way in which Disney portrays the narrative of individual, or inner, peace is through Ariel’s internal struggles. She sings conflicted, in her opening song, about her dissatisfaction with her life under the sea: “What would I give/ If I could live/ Outta these waters?/ What would I pay/ To spend a day Warm on the sand?” She also comments on how her life does not fit in with who she truly is, a “bright young [woman]/Sick o’ swimmin’/ Ready to stand”. Here, we find out two possible aspects of Ariel’s idea of inner peace: she finds peace is a place that allows her to be bright and unchecked, and this peace is desirable to her at any cost. The film presents a dual nature to Ariel’s yearning for peace. One is a form of negative peace, where Ariel’s peace is defined against what she is unhappy about in her current life. The other, depicted through other lines in her opening song where she expresses fascination with the unknown “whozits and whatzits” from the human world, suggests a more positive idea of Ariel’s peace stemming from satisfying a genuine curiosity.

    Ariel’s ‘pocket of peace’ under the sea is a cave filled with painstakingly salvaged human wares which King Triton, the main authority figure in the sea world, destroys in an attempt to reinforce his power. So how does Disney resolve this conflict? At first, Ariel, of her own agency, seeks out the sea witch Ursula with whom she strikes a deal to become human in exchange for giving up her mermaid life, true to her desire for inner peace at any cost. However, this backfires on Ariel and ultimately her inner struggle for peace is resolved when King Triton, moved by Ariel’s love, changes his mind and transforms Ariel into a human through the power of his trident. The way inner peace is obtained, in contrast to her initial strategy with Ursula, is strikingly passive. However, there is an element of subversion of the authority framework through inspiring empathy and compassion through Ariel’s actions.

    This is similar to how Disney approaches the narrative of how collective peace is made, between two groups. The Little Mermaid is built on the premise of there being two worlds: the mer-world and the human world. King Triton is negative about the world he does not belong to. He wishes that there could have been “One less human to worry about!”, and describes humans as “barbarians”, and as “…all the same. Spineless, savage, harpooning, fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling.” The film posits this as morally wrong, having Ariel, the morally good princess, counteract this.

    Ariel’s voice plays a prominent role throughout the film

    Ariel shows how merpeople can connect with the human world, through empathy and compassion and her love for Prince Eric. She refutes her father, arguing “Daddy, they’re not barbarians!”, and points out that Triton does not “even know him” (Eric). As King Triton sees Ariel’s love for Eric, his mind is changed and he accepts his mermaid daughter becoming a human, a group he had previously long othered and animalised. Ariel’s persuasive words and behavior as a model of compassion act as the powerful mechanism in which her peace is achieved. Here we can see Disney portraying a peace narrative in which conflict across divides gets resolved through intersectional integration, understanding and love. Disney also draws a connection between Ariel’s inner peace and the outer, collective peace.

    However, there is one glaring contradiction to this otherwise smooth narrative: Ursula. The sea witch Ursula is painted with the same brush of othering as the humans are at the beginning of the musical. She is described as “a demon” and “a monster”. Ursula demonstrates a break in the social peace which the merpeople tend to enjoy. Even Ariel, who professes love and understanding for the excluded human world, submits to dehumanising Ursula, uttering that stock phrase “You – you monster!” Although she critically questions the processes that had led to humans and human behavior being labelled as monstrous, she does not extend this same perspective to Ursula’s behavior, readily adopting the same language she had previously questioned. In The Little Mermaid, social peace is forced, not through love and empathy, but through a violent annihilation of the ‘disrupting’ force; Ursula is killed by Prince Eric who pierces her body with the bow of his ship. So although Disney portrays a narrative in which conflict can be resolved through compassion, love, and empathy, these qualities are conditional. If a character is pronounced as ‘evil’, these mechanisms for peace are thrown out of the window. This raises the importance of examining the kind of behaviors and qualities that Disney classifies as ‘evil’, and the effect of these understandings of ‘evil’ by their young audiences.

    In short, while this film goes some way towards exploring conditions and behaviours that can help build positive peace, even between polarised groups, it excludes some characters from that journey and leaves watchers with the impression that peace may only be enjoyed by ‘good’ people(s), not by outcasts who have been deemed ‘evil’. This is a problematic message, a visualisation of peace that leaves room for ongoing othering, demonisation and conflict and that does not commit fully to reconciliation and rehabilitation for all.

    What do you think?

    • What narratives of peace are told in popular stories today? And what habits of thought and behaviour might they encourage in their audiences?
    • How would you rewrite the classic Disney tales to tell even more nuanced, forward-looking stories about conflict-resolution, transformation and peacebuilding?
    • How constructive is the binary structure of good and evil in fairy tales?
    • What storytelling techniques inspire empathy in you?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

     Tao Yazaki, November 2023

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