Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Little Adolescent: Truth Alongside Fantasy

One of the most common criticisms of Disney films I hear is that of The Little Mermaid.  This beloved musical tale, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, is argued by many to be the film that returned Disney animation to its glory.  Others look upon the film unfavorably under the argument that it sends a superficial and unrealistic message to its audience.  They say the heroine changes herself to impress a man she’s never met and somehow lives happily ever after, and this is a terrible moral to send to young women.

Although both valid arguments, I’m most fascinated by the realistic situations it presents.  Yes, I said realistic.  The depiction of an average adolescent’s struggle through common situations, among fantastically exaggerated ones, always strikes me as utterly relatable to anyone who’s ever suffered through the rough teen years. 

Just like many Disney fans, I’ve connected to a few characters more than others, and Ariel was definitely one of them.  Adolescence isn’t kind to many people, and I could speak from experience.  I was quite awkward, angsty, and lost in life, and it wasn’t until later in college when I took a whole class on the teenage years that I realized, “Oh my gosh, I was normal!”  It was a great feeling and from then on, I was interested in helping other teens through their rough patches.  Since then I’ve mentored and volunteered with teens and loved every second of it.  Now when I get the chance to help a teen improve their relationship with their family it’s yet another great accomplishment.  So I totally “get” Ariel and, although she makes some crappy choices in her journey, it seems normal to me and actually well done by the Disney storytellers.

Let’s take a look at some of the little things that make Ariel’s character so true, and some of the common adolescent traits she portrays.  The first is Ariel’s obvious discourse with her father, King Triton.  Most of their interactions in the film involve conflict between the two of them, and it’s pretty believable how frustrated each is with the other.  Ariel has a passion and is restless with the life she’s always known.  This passion happens to be the human world; something she’s exploring but not too familiar with yet.  I look at this as a metaphor for adulthood.

Teens get stuck when they start to get tastes of the world that is waiting for them as grown-ups, but can’t embrace it full on quite yet.  It’s such a frustrating place to be, and Ariel’s song “Part of That World” really paints a picture of the range of emotions she feels: curiosity, excitement, depression, dissatisfaction.  She’s gathered all these bits and pieces of something she can kind of relate to but it’s not yet actually attainable. 

This frustration and longing for something impossible leads to some other well-known teen behavior, including truancy.  Sebastian complains that she fails to show up to her music rehearsal, and we see what happens during the musical concert with her sisters.  Something else is occupying her mind and so things involving the underwater world, or childhood in our metaphor, are uninteresting and unimportant.  The pleasure of the here and now outweigh the implications of skipping class.

Another prominent teen trait is Ariel’s inability to foresee possible dangers and consequences of all her actions.  This is evident in her introductory scene, as she fearlessly explores shipwrecks, ignoring her friend Flounder’s nervous protests.  “Nothing is going to happen!” she teases him, which turns out to be false as they end up escaping from a shark attack.  Same goes for Ariel’s curious trip to the surface to learn about Eric’s ship, as this too, ends in near-perilous circumstances.  Teens, especially the younger ones, don’t have the ability to think realistically about what their actions may cause in the future, which is why so many end up in “what were you thinking?!” situations… because they simply weren’t.

Additionally, those who try to hold her back and set limits look more and more like villains.  One significant change in teen thinking is the realization that their parents are not, in fact, perfect.  Children are cognitively wired to idealize their parents, but as teens develop abstract and logical thought, they realize otherwise.  This comes out in the heated discussions between Ariel and her father.  The yelling and lecturing he turns to as a tactic only makes her angrier and feel less understood.  When Ariel begins to argue, “I’m sixteen, I’m not a child anymore!” he loses control and starts speaking in absolutes with a “my house, my rules” mentality, “you will never go to the surface again.”  This back-and-forth results in a flurry of emotions that end with both parties hurt and nothing solved.

Other mistakes Triton makes in the process are his general non-acceptance of his daughter’s identity exploration.  This is a common problem with parents of teens, but they rarely know that experimentation and fascination with new things is absolutely what they’re supposed to be doing.  Sure, sometimes those new things aren’t the most healthy or productive to society, but they are learning experiences all the same.  A better route would have been placing reasonable guidelines on Ariel’s exploration, and supervising her visits to the surface while educating her to the dangers.  Then, setting rules regarding the boundaries Triton decides on and following through on those specific agreed rules.  Large, vague, and umbrella-style rules don’t do anything but dare teens to rebel. 

This is illustrated perfectly by the turning point in the film.  Triton had used an outside source to spy on his daughter and pose as a friend.  When it became clear Sebastian had betrayed her to her short-tempered father, it was a twist of the knife.  To a teen, finding you have one less person on your side is a really terrible feeling.  At these moments they honestly believe no one else in the world has ever, or can ever understand what they’re feeling at that moment.  So she runs, err, swims right into the arms of the first person promised to understand her.  Teens do this all the time, when faced with similar situations of parents who fail to adjust to teenage parenting.  Take gangs, as an extreme example.  Consequently, Ariel ends up making a foolish choice based purely on emotion, and again the pleasure of the possibilities outweighs the misery of her current state, despite the chance it can get better.

Once getting a taste of the human world, as a teen does of adulthood, it’s fun and carefree at first, but inevitably falls apart.  She can’t quite stand on her own two legs (a convenient metaphor) and stumbles along with what little knowledge of this vast new world she has.  She doesn’t even have her own voice yet, but mimes her way thought what she thinks she is supposed to do as a human/adult.  Ariel falls fast into the infatuation of first love and when it doesn’t play out she is crushed.  Although ever the fighter, the end result is that her father comes to her rescue and Ariel is sorry for her reckless decision.  She learns her lesson when her love and her father are endangered and they barely escape from and defeat the dangers of temptation, Ursula. 

At the end Ariel’s father has a seemingly convenient breakthrough, as he grants Ariel her wish of staying in the human world.  But I don’t agree that it’s a convenient ending, and instead argue that its a portrayal of a strict father realizing he has to let his daughter start growing into an adult.  He ceremoniously grants her legs, or metaphorically freedom and understanding.  Although no good parent would let their teen instantly become a complete adult, it’s a symbol of a shift in perspective and letting old obsolete rules go.  And in the end they still remain a part of each other’s world.

I hope this extensive analysis sheds a new light on how the film and its heroine is viewed.  It’s true that if taken literally, the story seems extreme and preposterous.  But it’s the little details of authentic adolescent behavior and the underlying themes that make this film stand out to me as a former teen and current therapist.

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