The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Denmark is the statue of the little mermaid. The tale was originally written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1879, based on old oral traditions. Andersen’s story shows the little mermaid as a buildungsroman (a story about moral growth), which ends with her committing the ultimate sacrifice. Conversely, Disney’s Ariel (1989), embodies today’s consumerism.
The tale follows the basic form of Disney’s tale save a violent ending reminiscent of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. While the little mermaid gives her voice to the sea witch in order to be with the prince, the prince ends up marrying a princess from a neighboring kingdom (5). Because of the little mermaid’s broken heart, her sisters sell their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a dagger, whereupon killing the prince the little mermaid will be able to return to the sea (5). However, in an act to save the man she loves the little mermaid plunges the dagger into her own heart, saving the prince (5).
* Andersen: Andersen created the sea to be a place devoid of sexuality, save the sea witch, who represented all evil under the ocean (5).
* Disney: Ariel is overcome by her lust for the prince. She is always seen perched on rocks looking out for him and collecting objects that give her a sense of life on land.
Embodiment of Sexuality in the Sea
The only similarity between Andersen and Disney’s telling of the tale is the portrayal of the sea witch as the embodiment of sexuality. This clip from Disney’s The Little Mermaid shows Ursula as a voluptuous woman who uses excessive beauty products and even has a beauty mole, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe, a prominent sex icon. See
Andersen’s version includes the importance of self-sacrifice for others. This can been seen in the sacrifice of the little mermaid’s sisters to secure the youngest sister’s return to the sea, and in the little mermaid committing suicide in order to save the prince (5). Susan Mortensen describes the meaning of sacrifice in her summary of the last part of the tale; “After the little mermaid’s sisters, in a gesture of self-castration offer the sea witch their glorious hair in exchange for a knife with which their little sister can re-enter the fold, she turns the water red, not by plunging the knife into the heart of the newly-wed prince, but by directing the weapon at herself so that the drops of blood trickle back into the sea. Liberation lies in this self-sacrifice.” (5). The action little mermaid provides a mild allegory to the action Christ, sacrificing herself for the prince who left her, just as Jesus sacrificed himself to save all sinners who rejected him (5). This part of the story shows The Little Mermaid as a Christian tale, showing the mermaid to be a virtuous, a role model for Christian youth (5).
In the Disney version, Ariel, instead of being virtuous is depicted as a defiant, strong-willed girl. She obtains legs and marries a human without ever apologizing to her father, King Triton, or Sebastian for the worry she caused them. The ends seem to justify the means because she gets to marry Prince Eric and live happily ever after. While a virtuous girl was treasured in the days of Andersen a fiercely independent one is treasured today, resulting in a more selfish society. Ariel became a self-centered creature, molded for the purpose of consumerism (5). Before the movie even came out Disney spent money on billboards and sold trinkets embellished with the image of the little mermaid (5). The story became a moneymaker instead of one focused on conveying moral values. Disney’s The Little Mermaid lacks the depth and lessons learned in Andersen’s cherished tale.
The iconic statue of the little mermaid built in 1913 by Edvard Eriksen stands in the Copenhagen Harbor, attracting million of tourists each year. But I wonder if the statue reminds them of Ariel taking control of her own fate or the little mermaid sacrificing herself for her lost love. Unfortunately, the statue has come to be a symbol of sexuality for Denmark. Susan Mortensen states; “a steady stream of postcards and merchandise generally manages to portray her as little more than a reference to the first country to lift the criminal ban on pornographic pictures in 1969 or to the world-famous blonds in Wonderful Copenhagen” (5). The little mermaid has lost all of her self redeeming qualities, but after all sex sells.
• Mortensen, Finn Hauberg. “The Little Mermaid: icon and disneyfication.” Scandinavian Studies 80.4 (2008): 437+. World History in Context.