What is the ultimate purpose of a fairytale? According to Bruno Bettelheim its purpose is to show children “that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence-but that if [they do] not shy away, but steadfastly [meet] unexpected and often unjust hardships, [they master] all obstacles and at the end [emerge] victorious”(8). Disney’s The Little Mermaid fulfills this purpose; children see Ariel’s struggles and because they identify with her they feel as if they struggle and triumph with her (Bettelheim, 9).
Ariel is a very likable character, she’s witty, beautiful, and children can relate to her. Some of the obstacles and struggles Ariel faces are things children face in their own lives, for example Ariel’s desire to be independent and establish herself. Although The Little Mermaid conforms to Bruno’s formula, it also teaches children other life lessons that may not be healthy or appropriate in the long run. In this case the messages sent to children concerning romance and love provide children images and behaviors that teach them true love is spontaneous, passionate, for attractive people only, and is “happily ever after”.
What is a real life definition of love? Love is a complex and profound concept that cannot be easily defined. Robert Sternberg explains love by breaking it into three different concepts known as the Triangular Theory of Love (as cited by Miller, 246-50): intimacy, passion and commitment. The Triangular Theory of Love defines intimacy as “feelings of warmth, understanding, communication, support, and sharing that often characterize loving relationships”(as cited by Miller, 247).
Passion is “physical arousal and desire…often [taking] the form of sexual longing, but [can be] any strong emotional need that is satisfied by ones partner” (as cited by Miller, 247). And last but not least commitment is defined as “the decisions to devote oneself to a relationship and work to maintain it”(as cited by Miller, 247). When these three concepts are put together in different combinations you get different types of love, eight to be specific (Miller, 249). The type of love that is shown in The Little Mermaid is infatuation, which is passion with no commitment and no intimacy.
Ariel falls in love with Eric the very moment she lays eyes on him, she knows nothing about him but believes she loves him. This example of love at first sight teaches children if you are strongly attracted to someone the first time you see them that this simple attraction, often times physical attraction signifies love. But what is it about Eric that attracts Ariel to him? Is it his dark hair, perfect smile, his dimples, his body and the fact that he is dancing? Possibly, but what also needs to be taken into account is who he is being compared to.
The other men on the ship are either old, fat, scrawny, bald, boyish looking, have teeth missing or are dressed badly. Eric is the complete opposite of them. Another aspect to look at this from is what Miller, Perlman, and Brehm refer to as the misattribution of arousal, which is in basic form misplacing or exaggerating our attraction to others (251). They explain that we can be aroused by something positive or negative, not knowing we are aroused by it and then attribute another event or person as the reason for our arousal (251-252).
Which is what happens in the movie, just minutes before seeing Eric, Ariel has an argument with her father. The argument is about her missing the concert and swimming up to the surface. The argument seems one sided because Triton does all the talking and doesn’t let Ariel explain herself. She swims off to where she keeps her collection of human things that she finds on her adventures with Flounder, her animal sidekick. She begins to sing about wanting to be human so she can experience lying on the beach, walking on two feet and feeling the warmth from a fire.
Afterwards she sees a ship passing over and swims to the surface, partly out of rebellion and partly out of curiosity. Her emotions are already aroused before she sees Eric. Furthermore, she has already made up in her mind that she wants to be human; Eric just becomes an excuse, the reason why she should become human. Ariel experiences a misplaced attraction; Eric makes her emotions make sense. The problem now is Eric has no idea she even exists. On the other side, Eric too experiences a similar form of misattributed arousal. Eric has a conversation with Grimsby about finding a wife.
Eric is obviously under a lot of pressure to settle down but he wants to find the right girl. Not to long after this conversation the ship is struck by lightening. Everyone escapes and makes it on the life- boat, but Eric swims back to the ship to save his dog Max. The ship blows up and Eric falls in the water. Ariel then saves his life by swimming him safely to shore. This is the very first time Eric sees Ariel, they have no conversation, she’s just looking into his face singing. Ariel is startled by Max and goes back in the water.
Eric realizes that she is “the one” and instantly falls in love with her. Now that Eric knows that Ariel exists all she can do is wait for him to come save her from a life under the sea. Marcia Lieberman says that “most of the heroines…are merely passive, submissive, and helpless” (388). And she goes on to say, “many of the girls are not merely passive, however; they are frequently victims and even martyrs as well”(390). Ariel doesn’t do anything after saving Eric’s life. She swims around the castle in “lala land”, daydreaming and fantasizing of her prince.
But not only does this show her passiveness, she is also portrayed as a victim. Her father doesn’t understand her; he wants her to live a life under the sea but refuses to see how unhappy she is with that life. After Triton finds out about Eric he destroys Ariel’s collection along with the statue of Eric. Ariel is then left with no other choice but to go behind her fathers back and see Ursula, the sea witch. Ursula offers Ariel the chance of a lifetime, to be with Eric, but it doesn’t come without paying a price. Ariel has to give Ursula her voice, leaving her to seduce Eric with her beauty.
This message tells children that love is based on beauty. Ursula tells Ariel that she “has [her] looks, [her] pretty face, [and not to underestimate] the importance of body language”. Basically telling her that her “beauty [is her] most valuable asset, perhaps her only valuable asset”(Lieberman, 385). Thus, indiscreetly telling her to disregard the importance of character, integrity and individuality and to focus on being beautiful. Ariel is young, has big blue eyes, red full lips. Long flowing red hair, a perfect body, she is half naked and has fair skin.
Compared to all the other characters Ariel has the most sex appeal, and being that children relate to her over all the other characters, children want to be like her. But not only does Ariel have sex appeal she has a pleasant and friendly personality. She is caring, adventurous, independent, good-tempered, and outgoing. The problem with this image is children, mainly girls “may be predisposed to imagine that there is a link between the loveable face and the lovable character, and to fear, if plain themselves, that they will also prove to be unpleasant, thus using the patterns to set up self-fulfilling prophecies”(Lieberman, 385).
Ursula for example is ugly, fat, old and has a mean personality. Children may begin to think that ugly people have “ugly” personalities and cant have true love, and pretty people have “pretty” personalities and are the only people who can experience true love. Jillian Cantor and Leta McGaffey Sharp explain it in this way, “women are won by sensitive men with chocolates and flowers, men are dazzled with beauty and wit, and life is not complete without a happy marriage and children.
This single, narrowly defined perspective leaves many people in the dust with, so it seems, little chance for romance and love. If you don’t fit into this story line, you seem to be destined to die alone-and miserable about it. “(327). Obviously this is not true to real life, but it is the message being sent to children. In real life relationships, true love is based not only on attraction, but a healthy, stable balance of commitment, trust, care, intimacy, and passion. Beauty and romance fade and if that is the only thing sustaining your love, love fades as well.
Ariel’s goal is to get Eric to kiss her. Notice Eric doesn’t have to tell her “I love you”; he has to kiss her, which is in itself very sexual. Kissing can lead to many other things, but at the same kissing can just be kissing and nothing more. But this hints that there is some sexual attraction, and sexual need associated with love, and that without a magical kiss love doesn’t exist. Eric doesn’t know Ariel’s name until they are in the boat. He is confused over if he loves her or not, if she is the girl who saved him, but he doesn’t know the girls name, he knows nothing about her.
This portrays men as shallow because he is acting strictly on beauty and not character, at least Ariel knows his name and a little about him, making women seem as if they care more about character than looks. Anyone who has grown up hearing or watching fairytales can predict the ending of The Little Mermaid. It has the ideal perfect ending for a love story and fairytale. The girl is saved by her prince charming, the villain is defeated, there is a celebration (usually a wedding) and there is a magical kiss.
Eric saves Ariel from Ursula and is in turn rewarded with Ariel’s hand in marriage. Marriage is “the fulcrum and major event”(Lieberman, 386) in this story. It is at the end, but nonetheless the major event. It is when everyone gets what they want. This is where the story ends; it shows nothing of the married life. Marcia Lieberman observes that fairytales focus more on the courtship in relationships and not married life, which she says can cause children to “develop a deep-seated desire to be courted, since marriage is literally the end of the story”(394).
Children will begin to think relationships end in happily ever after, when in real life no relationship is perfect, at some point there will be some kind of stress or strain in the relationship, weather an argument, financial difficulties or infidelity, it will happen. So if these are the messages being sent to children through The Little Mermaid, isn’t it setting them up for disappointment and failure? If children believe this is the way things should be, they will seek out those things and when they are faced with true love in real life they wont recognize it.
Or if children feel unattractive or unworthy they may not accept love when given to them because they have been conditioned to believe love is only for pretty people, not average or ugly people. This outlook on love isn’t healthy for children, or anyone for that matter. Bettelheim would argue that ” a more complex plot would confuse [children]”, but I believe this oversimplification confuses children even more. Yes love is hard to explain to children because love doesn’t happen the same for everyone, but should children be focusing on love at such a young age?
If the ultimate purpose of a fairytale is to show children they can overcome life’s obstacles, why not present them with obstacles they are facing at the moment? Like the struggle of establishing themselves as individuals by defining who they are. Those lessons are the lessons that should be taught through any fairytale, not lessons telling children that love is spontaneous, passionate, for attractive people and “happily ever after”. Works Cited Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment.