Sadly, I still haven’t gone to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast yet, but since it seemed timely, I decided to go back and revisit the 1991 animated film first. Ever since it came out, Belle has been lauded as one of the more feminist Disney princesses, especially in comparison to other older Disney protagonists such as Cinderella or Ariel. Belle is book-smart, curious, and outgoing, and she defies societal conventions by being completely unapologetic about who she is. So of course we see her as feminist, and it’s through the use of magic that Disney attempts to capture a feminist message in her narrative. However, despite all of Belle’s potential feminist characteristics, Disney still creates a world in which the only possible option for Belle and the other princesses is to fall in love with and marry a man. The magic in these movies exist to subvert some patriarchal values, but in the end, they adhere to others by continuously rewarding its protagonists with unwanted love interests.
The Little Mermaid isn’t exactly one of my favorite movies. It has great music, but the story and characters are really lacking in a lot of places. It was only during a recent rewatch of the movie that I realized that the magic in the movie is really unclear and ultimately ends up making the whole movie confusing.
I love fairy tales, both old ones and new versions. It’s fascinating how you can tell the same story twice and get two totally different meanings. You can see this with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Both the original and the beloved Disney version are very much influenced by Christian moral frameworks, but in two totally different ways.
Hello, and welcome back after the short break, readers! For our American audience, I hope you all had an enjoyable Fourth filled with family, friends, food, and maybe a good book. As I sat in one of the fields where we set off fireworks in my town, I hoped to pass the time with a book that the cover was eager to hail as a “sexy fairy tale” and “a bittersweet story about the tides that tug at the human heart”. By this point it’s no secret that I’m a fan of fairy tales, and especially re-tellings of the tried and true fables we’ve come to know over the centuries. So picking up Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon seemed like a no-brainer to me—plus, she’s a local author, and I wanted to support her. However, instead of a “sexy” twist to the story of The Little Mermaid, all I ended up getting was the same exact damned story with a couple more named characters, and I wanted to stop reading after the first twenty pages of the book. Spoilers to follow.
Although the idea of a contract in real life is ostensibly meant to protect both parties’ interests and hold both parties accountable, this is almost never the case in fiction. When a contract shows up, you know it’s bad news, and if it’s a magical contract, just, like, don’t even read it. Instead of reading it, run.
In day to day life, dealing with the fine print of agreements ranges from irrelevant to frustrating—maybe the paid membership you signed up for auto-renews and you didn’t realize it, or you agreed to an EULA that said you promised not to use that software to create nuclear weapons. Generally a bummer, but nothing life-altering. This mild sort of badness isn’t always the worst case, and plenty of historical examples of people passing off misleading or unfair contract terms exist. History is full of corporations and other people (#zing) who use their power to manipulate. That’s why we have laws about things like monopolies, and Native Americans are still fighting to make the U.S. honor its agreements regarding tribal lands.
Stories based on contract-signings or otherwise magically binding agreements are often reflective of power differences and discrimination in real life. In fiction, people who write contracts are evil, and want you to sign off on that shitty contract they wrote without ever reading the fine print. Then later, when you protest that you didn’t sign up for this, they can pull it out and say yes, you literally signed up for exactly this. The contract’s author is usually a wealthy villain—whether that wealth is financial or some other sort (magical ability, political power) is irrelevant. The point is, they have ultimate control over an ability or commodity, and they can dictate the terms by which that commodity is distributed. And since these contracts have magic behind them, breaking them isn’t as easy as just going back on your word.
For those readers who follow In Brightest Day regularly, you know I’ve been on a Disney kick of late. I have so far looked at Belle’s Stockholm Syndrome and Simba’s mental breakdown after the death of Mufasa. Both posts reviewed strong, if not obvious, concepts surrounding the characters.
However, I’m going to admit something for the first time. Normally, I can figure out all the problems with a specific character, but this one character is so messed up that she seems to have a laundry list of problems. I don’t think I scratched the surface with her.
In short, The Little Mermaid’s Ariel is one messed-up mermaid.
MadameAce has talked about a Disney animated feature-turned-musical (Beauty and the Beast) before in this segment, but I want to look at them more as a whole. Now, as both a performer and a tech person, I have enormous respect for the amount of work it takes to put on a musical like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. Disney has used any number of methods to make theoretically impossible things (a cast of animals, talking furniture, setting the show underwater) happen on stage. And it’s always technically astounding.
But I have a possibly unpopular opinion: I think the amazing technicality of these productions lessens the impact of the story. Disney movies immerse you in their world conversely, when I see a Disney musical, I’m less moved by the story because I’m too busy being awed by the girl wearing a giraffe puppet on her head and wow that must be hard and it’s really impressive but it takes away from the story. (This, of course, was turned on its head for me when I saw The Little Mermaid musical, since Ariel and her story are annoying and it was more fun to just gawk at the beautiful costumes and scenery and technical magic than pay attention to the whiny sixteen-year-old who needs a sassy gay friend.)
Disney is certainly not the only producer of musicals to fall into this problem, (here’s looking at you, Seussical, Shrek, Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, et al…) but I think his failure on their part is the most tragic. Disney movies, for all that they are often problematic from a feminist perspective, are still known for telling classic stories in a way that resonates with people of all ages. The musicals don’t do it for me in the same way at all.
And this problem looks to be continuing into the future of Disney’s productions: They apparently are in talks to do a Dumbo musical (so flying AND an animal cast), an Aladdin musical (flying, talking animals, and magic), a Jungle Book musical (more talking animals), and a Hunchback of Notre Dame musical, which… might be okay, actually, except for the talking gargoyles. I’m not saying I won’t see these musicals—especially Aladdin and Hunchback are favorites of mine—but something like Dumbo? The touching and, yes, depressing as nut story behind this movie is going to be completely overshadowed by making a person who is in some magical way an elephant fly around the stage.
What are your thoughts about Disney’s musicals, readers dear?