Visual Pleasure Theory: The Little Mermaid


ImageVisual Pleasure Theory- The Little Mermaid

In Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel is a young mermaid who appears to have it all: she is pretty, privileged and admired by all of those around her. Like every good fairytale character, though, Ariel has a secret wish: to trade her idyllic life under the sea for greater adventures on land. Idolized by many young girls as a role model, Ariel is actually one of Disney’s more controversial characters in regards to how much she sacrifices to be with a man whom she falls in ‘love’ with because of how good looking he is. She is presented as a fetish, is a character who many want to identify with and her story has many implications for her intended audience.

Ariel is presented as a fetish to the audience first and foremost in her attire. Everything that Ariel wears defines her as an object of desire: for the better part of the movie, Ariel is clad in nothing more than a very precariously placed seashell bra and tail. While Ariel’s tail is a physical part of her, it is not a traditional mermaid tail; it is instead a glossy, form accentuating part with fins that are as flimsy as her hair. Her tail and bra serve not as functional pieces of clothing that add to Ariel’s character, but rather make her ‘ideal’ figure (small waist, large breasts and overall thinness) more apparent. It is this perfect figure and long, flowing hair that make her the perfect fetish. She is the ideal woman in every possible way, and the fact that the movie focuses so much more on how beautiful she is rather than any of the characteristics of her personality makes Ariel that much more of an object, specifically an object to be looked at pleasurably. She is an object, too, in the sense that Ariel is actually not human; she is a creature. As creatures are often only used for their relevance to how humans can use them, Ariel again just occupies the space of object. She is only used in the movie to satisfy Eric’s yearning for a wife. Ariel also majorly alters her features in order to please Eric, which is another reason why Ariel is a desirable object. If Ariel can make changes as large as that for a man, she must be an object who can be changed to suit the needs of whoever is controlling her.

While there is not much voyeurism presented in The Little Mermaid, there is a great deal of narcissism present in the film. Ariel is presented as the ideal woman across the board: she is thin, beautiful, has a lovely voice, has a good (for the most part, although she is slightly rebellious) personality and obeys her patriarchal father. All of these good qualities of Ariel work together for her in the end, as they come together to win her the heart of Prince Eric. More specifically, it is Ariel’s beauty that wins her Eric’s affection, which is why Ariel is a princess that everyone wants to identify with. When watching The Little Mermaid, many young girls will experience the mirror stage as they will see Ariel as someone who they want to be. She is a girl who has it all; good looks, privileges because of her father’s kingship and is the ‘heroine’ in the story. The antagonist, Ursula, on the other hand, is someone who young girls will certainly not want to identify with. Ursula is overweight, unsightly, obnoxious, and just plain frightening. The identification of young girls with Ariel’s beauty with protagonism and Ursula’s ugliness with antagonism could have major implications. The simplicity of the argument presented in The Little Mermaid that very specific constructs of beauty are good and anything else is bad is present in many of Disney’s works, including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Young girls see Ariel’s beauty combined with her inner goodness contrasted with Ursula’s inner and outer ugliness and they could begin to see only Disney’s construct of beauty as being ‘good’ and anything else as bad. This all works together in making Ariel a character whom the audience identifies with to an alarming degree.

This text has many other implications on its target audience: young children. As mentioned previously, young girls may begin to identify inner goodness only with people who look the way that Ariel does. The female audience will also subconsciously look at the way that Ariel is objectified in the sense that her worth as a mate is measured by her beauty and will see beauty as the only way to make someone fall in love with you. They will also see the way that Ariel is treated by the men in her life including the dominating King Triton and the way that Ariel feels that she must change her looks in order to please Prince Eric and may begin to think that all women must obey the wishes of their dominant males. Young boys may see Prince Eric power to change Ariel’s looks as a sign that they too can force girls to alter themselves both in looks and in personality to fit their needs. The Little Mermaid is a text that has many bad implications for the audience watching it.

One thought on “Visual Pleasure Theory: The Little Mermaid

  1. I thought that the topic you picked for your blog was very interesting, and furthermore, you made some very valid points. At first glance, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, just seems to be a harmless story about a girl empowering herself and chasing after what she wants (Prince Eric) despite the odds she faces (both her father’s orders, and her being a mermaid). After reading your blog post, I wholeheartedly agree with your perspective and all the arguments that you made, and I believe you were successful in your use of the perspective to analysis this text. To me, possibly your strongest arguments was your description of Ariel’s beauty and how much significance is placed upon her physical features. The relation between Ariel’s physical appearance being presented as a fetish was very insightful as well as accurate. One thing I would have liked to see you expand on is the fact that Prince Eric fell in love with Ariel based on her physical features the same way she fell in love with him. This can be used as an example of Scopophelia, which Sellnow describes as “the love of or pleasurable looking.” (Sellnow145) He only fell in love with her because of the pleasure of her beauty. Furthermore, because Ariel is from the sea, she knows nothing of life on the land, and therefore, everything is new and fascinating to her. This puts Prince Eric in the position of a ‘man’. He shows her what everything is and how it works, and beams proudly as she enjoys the life that the land-dwellers live (for example, the horse carriage scene). This makes Ariel look almost stupid, and the way she’s portrayed, she can’t survive without Prince Eric. Although I agree that there wasn’t much voyeurism in the film, there were very few times that the intimate (not necessarily physically) moments between Prince Eric and Ariel were being watched by Ursula, unbeknownst to them. Regardless of the things mentioned above, this was an excellent analysis with sound and intuitive arguments.

    Sellnow, Deanna D. “A Visual Perspective: Visual Pleasure Theory.” The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture: Considering Mediated Texts. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2010. Print.

    -Samson Balogun

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