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The Little Mermaid Ponyo and The Evolution of Feminism
In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson wrote a story entitled The Little Mermaid. The original Little Mermaid, though riddled with differences, mirrors Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, in that it is the same exact story being told; while also displaying cultural beliefs relating to the concept of feminism and females rights through the lens of animation, which in and of itself tells a story through the visual effects.
The original Little Mermaid and Disney’s version have many similarities, which create a sense that some things are the same. The two, however, have many striking differences, which clearly reflects the cultural settings of the time periods in which they were created. In the original version, the mermaids are the daughters of the king of the sea, just like the Disney version. An important difference is that each of the mermaids were allowed to go to the surface when they reached the age of fifteen, whereas in Disney’s version they were forbidden by King Triton to do so at any time. One of the aspects that this is clearly hinting at is the cultural differences between the time periods. When the original story was written, women were often married off around this age, and sometimes younger. The symbolism of the surfacing seems to be the coming of age and entering a whole new realm of being one’s own leader. Another thing that Hans might be saying is that marriage is empty. This prospect can be demonstrated by the fact that he never married, implying that he viewed it as being empty, while the world itself was a glorious place to explore.
One striking thing about the story, is that in the original version, the mermaid does not have a name, whereas in Disney’s version, Ariel is her name. Also, in the story version, she waits anxiously for six years to go to the surface. When she reaches the age of fifteen, she is allowed to venture off and catch glimpses of the surface world. This clearly reflects the culture of the time period as women were married off at much younger ages, usually between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. This is confirmed in the story when it refers to them as “grown up girls.” In Disney’s version, however, King Triton is very protective of his daughter’s and forbids them to go to the surface. This seems to be describing the stereotypical father type of 1989 where the father would be prepared to beat the hell out of his daughter’s boyfriend if they touched her. The defensiveness of Triton toward Ariel clearly reflects the American dad’s somewhat desire to control her by setting time limits for her to be out, whether or not she can have a boyfriend, drive a car, and other things until she reaches eighteen.
Another interesting aspect that need be touched upon is that in the original, high ranking mermaids wore six oysters on their tails, though some could have more. This sense of tribalism gives the sense that they are (inferior to Europeans) and could be hinting that Hans is comparing sea creatures to perhaps Native American’s, though that’s for an entirely different paper. It is interesting to note that the king has six daughters within the original story, while he has seven in the Disney version. The representation seems to indicate that the number of daughters coincides with the number of oysters a high ranking female mermaid is allowed to have in the original, whilst the seven daughters in the Disney version are clear representatives of the seven seas, indicating an sense that the mermaids in Disney’s version have more freedom than their counterparts in the original, despite being confined to the undersea world. Some would argue against this notion by saying that the mermaids in the original had more freedom, but when looking through the lens of societies both in 1837 and 1989, it becomes clear that the world in the Disney version was a much smaller place, thus allowing for constraints which represent societies acceptable limits on certain individuals.
One thing about Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid is that Ariel, though forbidden to go to the surface, seems to have a greater sense of freedom than the one in the original story. She also seems to be more alive, as opposed to depressed, though Ariel clearly suffers depression in the animated cartoon. An important distinction is that it was her sisters who enjoyed obtaining items from shipwrecks in the story, but the main character desired to stay at the palace and tend to her garden, the total opposite of the Disney version that we are so used to. During the course of the story, we discover that the little mermaid makes her grandma tell her about the surface world and that she desires to see what it is like. We also discover that she doesn’t really like her position as “the oysters hurt her tail.” The grandmother tells her, “pride must suffer pain,” clearly referencing the heavy Christian culture of the day, which viewed pride as a sin. At this point in the story, the little mermaid rises to the surface, beholding a whole new world that she desired to be part of. She beholds a beautiful prince, the age of sixteen and immediately falls in love with him. Disney kept this piece in their film in that it is certain that certain emotional aspects have not changed even though the culture has. Disney also keeps the storyline in that the little mermaid saves the prince’s life, at which point she falls into a depression to the point of becoming dysfunctional.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the little mermaid opens up to one of her sisters and it is revealed that someone knows where the prince lives. This contrast’s the Disney version by a wide margin in that Triton was literally pissed to the point of annihilating Arial’s collection upon finding out that she had rescued a human. The older version seems to give the women more of the right to explore a bit, perhaps because the world was still a big place as opposed to completely explored, or perhaps hinting at the notion that women were encouraged to seek out a husband. In the story, she also goes up the river a ways, hinting that women were beginning to explore more ways to become equal with men. This concept can be seen in the story as the mermaids are constantly going places, perhaps looking for new avenues to break free from constructs of the culture during this time period, whereas Disney’s version places them in an already established setting, women got their rights, be complacent with what you’ve got, and such, which is much of the American mindset; be content with what you have, yet strive to get more. It’s kind of a double standard statement as Ariel has the palace, but desires something much more than she can become in reality.
Both stories touch on the impossible. In both Disney’s version, and the original, the little mermaid desires to have something that cannot possibly be obtained. This is a clear representation of the society in which it was written in. In 1837, it was clearly impossible for women to be treated equally to men in society, largely because of the religious and political establishments of the time period. In the stories themselves, the mermaid becoming a human is clearly an impossible feat, unless of course magic is used. At this point in both stories, the little mermaid goes to see the sea witch, a powerful, yet wicked sorceress who has the powers to make their dreams come true. In both instances, the witch gives the mermaid a warning of what will happen if she goes through with it. The desire and passion that the little mermaid has causes her to take the risk and go forward with the plan. In Han’s version, the sister’s unite with her and help her to the surface and point her to where the prince lives. It is interesting to note in both stories, the prince is looking for the girl who saved him as he desires to be with her. At this point, the stories become totally different, and make a clear distinction between the cultures in which they serve.
In the original version, Hans touches up on the religious aspects of the society. He makes it clear in the story that mermaids do not have eternal souls like humans have and thus cannot live forever. When the little mermaid asks, “why don’t we have immortal souls?” the grandmother replies by telling her,” we feel ourselves to be much happier and much better off than human beings,” showing the submission that she has to this terrible fact that she is doomed to die and never exist again. This goes hand in hand with the notion that animals don’t have souls, (according to some Christian beliefs) and that mermaids are nothing more than just animals. The fact that they are females says much more though. The complacency of the grandmother reflects the acceptance that many women of the time period had about their social status. Being submissive to the fact of being soulless was a mirror to being submissive to the male ordered path of society. In other words, the grandmother telling the princess not to concern herself with this issue demonstrates a belief that a woman should not concern herself with her own freedom, thus encouraging her to submit to the norms of society. The religious aspects of this also clearly indicate that this system is God ordained and thus is the way things are meant to be and nothing can be changed. Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid is much more liberal in that it does not expound on the religious or spiritual aspects of the story, (though Triton can be seen as a reference to the Greek Triton, son of Poseidon.) The neglecting of religious aspects in Disney’s version reflects the character of the culture that is being represented as America during the late eighties, though religious, was much less so that when Han’s Anderson was around.
Another thing that is referred to is the little mermaid’s tail which the grandmother refers to as being very beautiful. She makes it clear, however, that the people on the surface would view her as ugly because having two legs is what is required for handsomeness. This piece of the story is a clear representation of the racism that was prevalent during this time period, but seems to be noting at the hint of class systems, and male domination. The fact that she is a princess and would be considered ugly by men on land shows the concept that no matter how beautiful she is, she will never be equal with him. This is further demonstrated when the little mermaid asks, “is there any way I can get a soul?” in which the grandmother replies, “only if you are married by a priest, than the man will give you part of his soul while keeping his,” clearly referencing the Christian understanding of the time that the man is the head of the household, and the woman is to be submissive. It also shows that the woman has no control over her own soul, but must rely on the male counterpart in order to find fulfillment. In like manner, in Disney’s version, all of the females, though slightly more liberated than in the preceding story, are subject to King Triton, and bow down to his will, most of the time.
The stories become similar again as the little mermaid goes and sees the witch. Witches during this time were often viewed of as Satan’s helpers and such, so visiting and consulting them was forbidden. When comparing the two stories however, we find distinct details that make Disney’s version more liberal than the original. In the original, the mermaid does not have a name, in Disney, its Ariel, (which interestingly means lion of God in Hebrew and is more often associated with a man’s name). In the original story, the witch cuts off the mermaids tongue, whereas in Disney’s version, she sucks her voice out. In both instances, the mermaid gives in willingly, however the original version shows a much more forceful way to taking the voice as the mermaid must suffer great pain to do so. Also, Disney’s version shows us a more willing submission to Ursula, (not named in the book) by Ariel, indicating that she at least has some broader say in what happens in the animated version.
The great twist comes toward the end though. In both cases, the little mermaid makes the choice to go get her man. In the original story, she is threatened by the prospect that if she fails at her task, she will turn into seafoam. In the Disney version, she will belong to Ursula. The story by Anderson states that a woman going for her dream is ultimately doomed to fail. The poor mermaid, when transformed into a human is a great dancer, but suffers great pain in her legs. Despite her beauty and dancing, she fails to win the prince’s love. Her sisters sacrifice their hair to the witch in return for a spell that can save her, but she must kill the prince before sunset. She does what is right, and lets the prince live, resulting in her death. Though she gets a chance to enter Heaven after doing so many years of good works, her quest ultimately fails. This contrasts Disney’s version where she eventually gets her dream and marries Prince Eric. In both cases though, the woman suffers greatly to obtain her dream. In 1837 it was considered impossible and foolish for a woman to be what she wanted. In 1989, a similar view was held, but the woman could achieve her dream, but only after much hard work and determination. It is also clear in Disney’s version that though Ariel lived her dream, she couldn’t have done it without her father’s help, thus showing that the woman was still reliant on the man. Though Disney portrays the woman as achieving her goal, it is only after much hardship and determination that she does so.
Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is the same exact story as The little Mermaid. A goldfish desires to become a human and escapes her dwelling place. This story has an ironic twist, however. Ponyo in this story is at more liberty than Ariel, or the original Little Mermaid. Unlike its counterparts in the west, Ponyo was created by a Japanese animator who incorporated some of his cultures views on the matter in a more modern tone. In the overall sense it was the same exact story. The beginning started with Ariel wandering off when she was supposed to be in a giant clam for a concert, while Ponyo is seen lying on a jellyfish headed for the shore. In both cases, the undersea creature falls in love with a land dweller and must overcome the odds. Ponyo is also very helpless and relies on Soskey to protect her. In this story, however, the father of the boy is absent and the mother is taking care of the son, hinting at the notion that a woman can fend for herself. Also, in this film, the father of Ponyo is a scientist who turned himself into a marine creature. He comes looking for Ponyo, but fails in most of his endeavor’s to do so, thus indicating that man can be clumsy and worthless. His build and actions are much more feminine than Ariel’s father, Triton, who has large muscles and a sternness that reflects kingly behavior.
Though being inspired by the original Little Mermaid, Ponyo is almost the exact opposite. In both stories the main protagonist is female, however, the tides are turned as the female wields more power at the end. It also goes into much more sexual tone as we see a bunch of mini copies of Ponyo circling a bubble in which Ponyo is trapped in and popping it. This scene is clearly a representation of fertilization and is an exact replica of a bunch of sperm coming to the egg and breaking in. The next scene, seconds later, we see Ponyo sprout arms and legs, further demonstrating the sprouting of life as coming from the female source, a more common interpretation of eastern philosophy than in western ones. It is important to note that in many eastern philosophies the Ying and Yong concept can be synonymous with the male/female balance as the female often represents black as the male represents white. This concept can be seen at the end of the story when the balance of nature is restored, coupled by Ponyo’s choice to become human and the fathers willingness to accept that.
One very striking difference is that Ponyo becomes a human, not at the will of her father Fujimoto, but at the will of her mother, the sea goddess. Her mother gives her the choice of where she wants to be, demonstrating the concept that women can indeed map out and choose their own destiny. In Ponyo, the mother gives the power to transform into a human, whereas in Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, her father is the one to do so. This demonstrates a cultural belief in which women can hold positions of power just as a man can, and in some cases even more so. In Ponyo, the little fish does have a price to pay, and that is to give up the use of magic.
It is important to note that in Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid and Ponyo, that the females retain their feminine stature while attaining their goals. Ariel is clearly a very feminine figure as she plays with a fish named flounder, giggles and laughs at nearly everything, and moves her body and hands in a way that is traditionally seen as a female way of acting. In Ponyo, she acts like a female when Sosuke is forced to carry her because she is very faint and passes out. This seems to symbolize the belief that a female will tire out faster than a male when forced to do male activities. In this sense, Ariel seems to be a bit ahead of Ponyo in that she goes exploring everywhere she can think of and never seems to get tired, indicating that a female can have just as much endurance as a male if she so desires.
Each story is an evolution of feminism and females rights. With the original Little Mermaid clearly saying that women cannot chart their own destiny, and Ponyo saying that they absolutely can, and Disney’s version of the Little Mermaid sitting somewhere in between, shows both a gradual shift in cultural trends as well as the differences in the cultures themselves. In the original Little Mermaid the mermaid dies, showing that she could not live her dreams; Disney’s version, she attains her dreams through the help of her father, signifying a step in the right direction, but still not fully there. The original Little Mermaid’s death, from what we read, hints at something that will ultimately only cause her family grief, even though she gets a chance to enter Heaven. The Disney version displays the notion that a female is at least able to not only unite two people, but also two kingdoms as Princess Ariel’s marriage to Prince Eric unites two totally different cultures, races, and kingdoms on terms of a friendly relationship as opposed to just keeping the peace between two kingdoms which was a common practice in old Europe. This is seen in later episodes where the merpeople and the land dwellers unite to fight Morgana, Ursula’s maniac sister. Again, we see the female taking down the barriers as Melody uses triton’s triton to make the wall disappear, which seems to indicate a further evolution of female’s rights within the culture to tear down barriers that have existed for years.
Despite the differences between them, the above stories are the same stories being told in a different form, from different cultures. Each of these stories reflects the psychology of the culture in which they were created in that the storylines themselves reflect a large amount of what that particular society believes. While it is clear that all of them believe in good morals, the differences are more subtle and reflect the positions that women are supposed to have within the framework of their respective societies. Each story brings its own representation of a love story, one of which complete fails, the other two succeeding in their own ways, with reverse rolls to the female. It would appear that Ponyo would not only be showing the belief that Japanese culture has about the role of women, but may also be pushing its own feminist agenda by making the female have the larger say in the story. This is not saying that the story is by any means wrong, it is just pushing for an audience to have a different revelation than what the original Little Mermaid provided because the culture is a totally different one with different perspectives; thus the story had to be told differently in order to appeal to the audience that would be viewing it.
The original Little Mermaid written in 1837 was a tragic love story that ended semi happy. Despite its differences, Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, are reflections of Han’s Christian Anderson’s masterpiece; with each story being the same as its predecessor all while reflecting the cultural beliefs of females rights through the lens of animation, which in and of itself tells us a story.
Very nice analysis of the original Hans Christian Anderson story. Having read the story before I did recall that there were some drastic differences to the Disney Movie. I never really thought of the tribal aspects of the original story or the sexual symbolism in Ponyo. One thing I do not know about is the idea that the mermaid died because she went for her desires. I feel that the idea was she would rather die than commit an atrocious act.
I feel like your presentation just kind of jumps back and forth. I feel like it would have benefited to give a summary of the original story than the Disney film then Ponyo than discuss where they are similar and where they contrast. One other thing I noticed in the video was that in the middle of it you are talking and it fades to you discussing another part of the story. Was that just an edit? Besides that you do a very great analysis of all the films. Good Job.
I like the analysis of the original story, but I feel like you gloss over the Disney movie a little bit. Why don’t you compare the supporting roles of Flounder and Sebastian to Ariel’s sisters (which are in both works)? The analysis of Ponyo is sound, and actually enlightening, as I never thought of the sexual symbolism. I also think it could’ve used some analysis on the role of the prince in all three (Sasuke in Ponyo). It’s very well done otherwise, and enlightening in a lot of regards.
Your cultural analysis is very interesting and seems to have a lot of intellectual substance to back it. The presentation itself is well put together. I appreciate the overlay of images and clips that correspond to the subject matter that you are discussing which makes the information easier to digest because it keeps the audience engaged. The sexual symbolism is very enlightening when in comparison to Ponyo, I found this to be very interesting. I feel like a better break down of your plot summery points would serve to make the presentation a little bit more linear instead of appearing to bounce around from topic to topic a little bit.
A good a comparison of the two story lines, I admit I have not read the book so there was some new information gathered from your writing.
Why is feminism important to you specifically regarding these matters?this seems to be a regurgitation of facts and easily constructed connections.
To go back to the origins of a mythological story is a feat I can relate as I enjoy mythology in general. Interpretations of stories by the teller then and the audience who is reached outside of time.
I think Spongebob, as we agree from season 1 to 3 is comical gold and is at times looked over because of the medium of the jokes are spoken by a sponge, but I’m glad you appreciate the show this much, and you did a good job relaying it into your presentation.
I felt I have heard of this analysis many times before, however it’s interesting to get someone else’s point of view. Immediately after I saw Ponyo I related it to a “childish little mermaid.” So it’s an interesting choice for you to relate this to feminism. Yet, Miyazaki has proven this many times where he states that all of his films have strong female leads, and how they need a friend or supporter but not a savior.
I think it also would have been interesting to explore the contrast in the female protagonist’s desires in all three as well. You talk a lot about the goals of the mermaid, but not necessarily the implications when it comes to what her goal is in the story and the two films. I could be incorrect because I only know the basics of the story myself (I really appreciated you going to the source material first before analyzing these two films) but in the story and Disney’s adaptation there seems to be an emphasis of romantic love and desire for a man is superior to anything else (even though Disney makes a few weak attempts to stray from this by suggesting that Ariel doesn’t feel she belongs under the sea and is enchanted with humanity). Yet with Ponyo, given Miyazaki’s choice to keep her very young, the romantic desire is immediately gone and her focus is able so stray elsewhere. I just think exploring that within your otherwise organized and well laid-out presentation would have been cool.
I like the connections you made about feminism. I was actually one who never really went through the whole “Disney childhood” thing that most of us have, I maybe saw one or two as a kid but was always interested in other things. But still, it’s fascinating to examine it as an adult, especially since I don’t have any nostalgia glasses or anything that might hinder my ability to look at Disney objectively.
I really like the ideas you’re sending across, however you feel a bit enthused giving the presentation. Not really a negative point, just bugged me a bit. Although I do believe I’ve heard this before, the way you present it felt original and well thought out.
I really like what you’re doing here, and I’ve never seen Ponyo so this was very interesting to watch. I appreciate your attention to the original story.
I liked how you broke down Disney stories. Me personally never seen the little mermaid but after looking at your presentation I might take a look.
It is always interesting to me when someone analyzes a kids movie that I enjoyed watching as a kid because I see things that were once way over my head and it adds a whole new dimension to it. Especially with Disney, I am also interested in the true stories that the movies are derived from. You chose a very interesting topic and I’m glad you shared your thoughts on it.
This was a good topic to chose. I can tell you thought a lot about this. As a child, you don’t think of these important serious aspects until you get a lot older and I always enjoy hearing about these types of things in Disney movies. Good work!
Kenneth, your presentation stood out to me as being less biased than it could have been, which is a good thing! Your use of language such as “it seems” highlights objective fact within the story instead of stating an opinion as fact. The presentation seemed very watchable, and I would enjoy seeing how it translates to paper.
I have never read the book so this was very interesting to me. It was original and I always like learning new things.
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