Individual Otherness in Disney's "The Little Mermaid" with Regard to Social Hierarchy and Gender

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Chapter Contents

1. Introduction

2. Representation of Social Hierarchy
2.1 Elite characters
2.2 Non-elite characters
2.2.1 People on land Grimsby Louis
2.2.2 Merpeople Sebastian Flotsam and Jetsam
2.2.3 Conclusion

3. Representation of Gender
3.1 Male elite characters
3.1.1 Prince Eric
3.1.2 Triton
3.2 Representation of female characters
3.2.1 Ariel as the ‘ideal’ woman
3.2.2 Minor female characters

4. Representation of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ women
4.1 Ariel and Ursula

5. Conclusion

6. Reference
6.1 Bibliography
6.2 Internet Resources
6.3 Filmography

1. Introduction

In my research paper “Individual otherness in The Little Mermaid with regard to social hierarchy and gender” I will shortly discuss the role of royal characters and compare them with the so called non-elite figures by analyzing four figures. The next point will be the examination of gender and thus of male and female stereotyped characters with regard to royal male figures and superior and inferior female ones. The last point will be a discussion of the’good’-‘bad’ relationship by concentrating exclusively on Ariel and Ursula.

2. Representation of social hierarchy

In Disney’s animated movies “people are ranked according to attributes such as gender, skin color, and wealth as part of a naturalized world order”[1]. One can state that it is due to values as their worth, their ability and their authority[2] that they have either a high or a low social status and that these features portray a character already at his very first appearance as ‘above’ or ‘below’. Disney’s privileged characters in The Little Mermaid are actually white, American, heterosexual,[3] with no villainy at all and “never abus[ing] their authority”[4], while the subordinate characters are mostly coloured, not attractive and accept the hierarchical class system to which they have to submit. Moreover, it is suggested that only a prince and a princess can live happily ever after while the subordinate characters are content with their own lives as servants, sailors and menials.[5]

When having a look at the people on land and the merpeople in The Little Mermaid, it catches one’s eye that these two worlds are contrasting spaces with contrasting characters living there. But, no matter if they are of a high or low social standing it is always the same features on which this standing depends, namely on their appearance, their behaviour and their way of talking. In the following there will be given a few examplary features of elite characters whereupon several non-elite characters will be analyzed a little bit more detailed in order to emphazise their difference to superior persons that are actually always presented in the same way, which is why the latter are only decribed rather shortly.

2.1 Elite characters

Many little girls dream of being a princess and/or of marrying a prince in the future[6]. Disney’s response to such desires is the creation of royal characters having idealized attributes, so that the need for marrying a prince might still be intensified for young girls[7]. Disney suggests that life with a prince is harmonious and beautiful, which is why Prince Eric is presented as an ideal person young girls might dream of. This implies that being a royal character is something good, because you are respected, wealthy and also powerful. For example, King Triton is rather rich which can be seen by his splendid castle as well as by his golden trident. Since he is wealthy, he is powerful, which is why Disney disseminates the idea that “wealth is a common way to move up in the world”[8] and that poor people have no other chance than being inferior[9]. Luckily, Ariel is his daughter and thus a princess, and so she has a high social standing that she can, nevertheless, only keep by marrying a male royal person[10]. What strikes is that her “place in society is lower than it should be“[11] stressing that being female and royal is not as advantageous as being male and royal. This is also shown by the fact that Ariel needs Triton’s blessing in order to marry Eric, because otherwise “aquatic peace”[12] cannot be guarenteed. It is thus noticeable that in The Little Mermaid there must be a ruler who keeps everything in order and balance and who is sagacious, kind and powerful, because any “other arrangement is unworkable”[13]. Even if non-elite villains attains power, this rule will only be temporary and fateful because “they are ill-equipped to rule”[14].

Another point is that elite characters never have to change socially in order to be happy, because they are already in a position that is superior to others. Ariel, for example, is still a princess before and after the marriage to Eric. Furthermore, elite characters are always searching for their own self-satisfaction[15], which is approved by everybody, and so “Disney’s fetish for supreme individualism discounts any concern for others”[16], which is why unfair or poor social circumstances are never questioned. This very value of self-contentment without any concern for others is even rewarded by preferences like marriage and power.[17]

2.2 Non-elite characters

Disney suggests that a society, or at least a kingdom, can only exist if there are “non-elites [or so-called] ’average’ characters”[18] that are almost only in the background or appear as “proxies for the protagonists [!]”[19] who hardly speak[20] and have, in general, not their own thoughts, which is why they are represented as “either acting irresponsibly as inferiors squabbling over trifles or passively waiting for mobilization orders from a superior”[21]. They are either on the side of the good or the bad characters but always bound to subordination, obedience and devotion. Additionally, they have not as much chances, freedom and choice as elite characters and do neither “freely broach the question of equality, democracy, or social justice”[22] nor do they do any action that is independant and for their own sake. Because of this, Disney creates the image that servants, sailors and other subordinate characters are irrational, passive and will never ever change, reach a higher status or other living conditions implying that Disney films do not animate a social sense of responsibility or democracy, because the heroes “never seek happiness or fulfillment through commitment to improving the human condition”[23].

Graphically, non-elite characters are always placed under the elite ones. For instance, when Ariel and Eric finally are married, they are on a ship, which primarily indicates that they are placed above and away from the rest of the people. There is only place for the married couple as well as for some other characters apparently being noble or respected[24]. Moreover, their place above stresses that they are different from society in so far that they are better and more privileged. By this it is shown, too, that ‘simple’ people have no right to join the ‘self-fulfillment’ of privileged people, represented by the reunion of the two royal characters Eric and Ariel, but that they are excluded.[25]

2.2.1 People on land

When having a look at the human characters on land it is noticeable that the “collective population appears as largely motionless, two-dimensional spectators [...] illustrating their passive role”[26]. They are not shown on their own but they are always presented in a group of other people, which shows that they have not their own individuality and that they are unimportant as individuals. Since they are no superior characters they are not presented as being attractive or having their own interests but they do only serve superior beings. In the following will only be examined male non-elite characters as Grimsby and Louis, because a whole chapter will be dedicated to female characters. Grimsby

Grimsby, Eric’s advisor, is constructed as a bureaucrat being “prim, proper [and] angular”[27]. He appears to be more royal than Eric, because he puts much importance to his outer appearance and dresses like a noble man. Also his pony tail emphazises that he intends to be seen as an aristocratic person, because this is how aristocratics are often represented. His suit is, even on the boat with the sailors, ironed and accurate, which stresses that he stands out from the ordinary people and that he wants to show his superiority, even though he is – due to Eric whom he has to accompany – in the same place where the sailors are.

What strikes one, too, is Grimsby’s extreme thinness and his expression that is always a little arrogant. Due to his skinny body, one can assume that he is maybe a bit too strict with himself (maybe he eats not much) and too disciplined (he never really laughs), much in contrast to Carlotta, and that he therefore does not enjoy life. One reason for this could be that he dedicates his whole life to Eric or to his desires respectively, and that he has practically given up to satisfy his own wishes. Another reason for his thinness could be that he practices asceticism in order to expand his spirit since he firstly has to ‘think’ for Eric and since he secondly does not want to be replaced by another adviser who might be more useful. On account of his presumptuous expression one is likely to think that Grimsby intends to stress that he is very important, which he himself also stresses by saying “silence, silence”[28] to the sailors on the ship in order to present them and, of course, Eric the statue Grimsby commissioned himself. The fact that he underlines that it is he who ordered the statue for Eric shows his desire to prove himself and for being taken important. Moreover, he puts very much emphasis on the fact that it is a “very special, very expensive [and] very large birthday present”[29] creating the image that in his eyes only a present like this is justified for a prince. And also how Eric is presented by the statue shows Grimsby’s image of Eric or at least how he intends to present him in front of the people, namely forecful and mighty, so that they can see their prince more like a brave, unapproachable knight instead of an emotional man who is a friend for his people. Perhaps, Grimsby thinks that he can increase Eric’s as well as his reputation by this.


[1] Hoisington, Deana Michelle. Chapter 4 – Analysis. 1996.

[2] Artz, Lee. Animating Hierarchy: Disney and the Globalization of Capitalism. Global Media Journal. 8th June 2004.

[3] Hoisington. Chapter 4 – Analysis.

[4] Artz.

[5] Presley, Ben. Disney reflects gender/racial issues in cartoons.

[6] This ‘Princess Syndrome’, as Tim Hunter calls it, “has historical roots in the courts and aristocracy of medieval Europe” and peak in modern fairy tales. Hunter, Tim. Every little girl wants to be a princess - or so Hollywood would have us believe . August 2004.

[7] Many little girls thinks that they will live happily ever after only with a prince, since this is suggested in many Disney movies (e.g. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast). So, it is understandable if parents criticize these films, because they evoke that happiness cannot be completely reached in a ‘normal’ life but only somewhere else. Cf. Snow, Vera. An Enlightened Princess. 2004. articles_full_text_ page.php?article_id=552

[8] Hoisington. Chapter 4 – Analysis.

[9] This implies, in a way, that Disney does not (want to) nourish the American from rags-to-riches-dream, but that he propagates a class society.

[10] Heritage or marriage, by the way, is the only way to achieve a superior social status, which is why not everyone can have it, although most, like for example Ursula, want it. Disney says that, if you are not royal, selfish and only think about your own dreams and wishes, as Ursula does when she tries to become ruler of the ocean, you will not succeed but fail. Cf. Hoisington. Chapter 4 – Analysis.

[11] Wallace, Sarah. Is Ariel a Heroine?. November 2001. ~twhitney/sarah.doc

[12] Artz.

[13] Artz.

[14] Artz.

[15] It is true that Ursula has also only selfish motives she wants to satisfy, namely that she wants to rule the ocean, but she is no privileged character, which means that she is not royal or does not marry a king, and so she has not the ‘right’ to get her own self-satisfaction without being punished.

[16] Artz.

[17] Cf. Artz.

[18] Artz.

[19] Artz.

[20] When they speak, it is actually nothing important or intelligent like, for example, the statement of a female servant in Eric’s castle: “If Eric’s looking for a girl, I know a couple of highly available ones right here.” Cf. The Little Mermaid. Chapter 17

[21] Artz.

[22] Artz.

[23] Artz.

[24] This is shown by the outer appearance of the very persons who are dressed like upper-class people. Cf. The Little Mermaid. Directors: Clements, Ron; Musker, John. Disney Studios, 1998. Chapter 26

[25] Cf. Artz.

[26] Artz.

[27] Bell, Elizabeth; Haas, Lynda; Sells, Laura (Eds.). From Mouse to Mermaid – The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 1995. 120

[28] The Little Mermaid. Chapter 1

[29] The Little Mermaid. Chapter 1

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Individual Otherness in Disney's "The Little Mermaid" with Regard to Social Hierarchy and Gender
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
The World According to Disney: Construction of Cultural Differences in American (Family-Oriented) Films
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Individual, Otherness, Disney, Little, Mermaid, Regard, Social, Hierarchy, Gender, World, According, Disney, Construction, Cultural, Differences, American, Films
Quote paper
Hanna M. Stoll (Author), 2005, Individual Otherness in Disney's "The Little Mermaid" with Regard to Social Hierarchy and Gender, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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