I wrote this paper for an exco I took last term and I just found it when Mtthw inexplicably asked for me to repost the notes I took for the class. It is too long for tumblr, so have fun.
DISABILITY AND NORMALCY IN SLEEPING BEAUTY AND THE LITTLE MERMAID
There is often conflict between the disabled community and mainstream society about what is best for disabled people. Often, disabled people think that success involves putting someone in a situation where they can be as happy and functional as possible; while mainstream society thinks that success means altering someone until they appear “normal.” While actual disabled characters don’t usually appear in Disney movies (except for villains like Captain Hook), these kind of values can be read in the treatment of non-human characters who are different from humans or lack abilities that humans have.
An example of a non-human character who sends a positive message about disability is Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. She can’t talk, but this is never a problem, because everyone in Tinkerbell’s life has learned to understand the way she communicates. Even though she wasn’t created to make this point, Tinkerbell can nonetheless make the point to viewers that she doesn’t need to be altered to fit in with the other characters.
Some non-human characters who do alter themselves and attempt to be human are the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty and Ariel in The Little Mermaid; and each character shows the problems inherent in attempting to be “normal” rather than aiming to be successful as yourself. Each of these characters is competent when she’s in her natural form and environment, but when expected to perform as humans, they are all lacking.
In their non-human form, the fairies are not as powerful as Maleficent, but they are the most powerful characters in the movie aside from her and it is almost solely through their actions that Aurora is saved from the curse. When they are human, they make one of the big mistakes of the narrative that allows Maleficent to find out where Aurora is. The mistake they make is not just because they are human, but precisely because they are fairies trying to be human who have realized they can’t pretend to be human any longer.
As humans, the fairies are portrayed as lacking either the cognitive abilities or the experience (if not both) to perform tasks like cooking, cleaning, and making clothes. In real life, a person who couldn’t cook or clean for herself wouldn’t be able to live without help, and adults who can’t live without help are often treated rather harshly; but in the case of the fairies, their inability to do these things doesn’t mean they’re seen as defective, but simply that they’re trying to be something they aren’t. Their lapse into using magic again, while it happens at an inconvenient time, is the natural result of putting themselves in an unnatural situation.
Therefore, Sleeping Beauty has a positive portrayal of its “disabled” characters. Their inability to perform normal tasks is humorous, and ultimately not a problem for them, because it is acceptable for them to live differently and rely on other skills to take care of themselves. Humanity is not a goal, but simply something they tried and failed, and then abandoned without seeing their failure as reflecting badly on them.
In The Little Mermaid, however, Ariel’s desire to be a human is a goal that, from the perspective of the movie, she has to achieve at all costs. It wouldn’t really be accurate to say that she desires Eric above all, because she is interested in humans from the beginning and seems to fall in love with him because he’s the first human she sees. While the fairies’ disguise as peasants doesn’t seem like something most viewers could relate to, Ariel’s longing for humanity is more comparable to the way real disabled people are expected to long for normalcy; it’s not just another way of being, it’s an inherently better life.
Objectively, Ariel’s life isn’t bad, but she sees it as inferior: “Flipping your fins you don’t get too far/Legs are required for jumping, dancing,” she sings, ignoring the speed and grace of her own movement. There’s nothing strange about a sheltered teenager being interested in people from another place, but it does become disturbing how Ariel dismisses her own body as nothing but an obstacle to human life, and that this is portrayed as not mere teenage restlessness, but a sensible outlook.
Ariel’s initial life as a human is also comparable to the life of a disabled person trying to be as normal as possible. In real life, a disabled person trying to function as a non-disabled person has to make sacrifices non-disabled people don’t have to make. As a human Ariel can no longer do what she did best as a mermaid (singing), and, most importantly, cannot communicate. (It’s interesting that her inability to communicate keeps Ariel from even being able to tell people that she used to be a mermaid. As is often expected to happen when disabled people are “cured,” she completely drops the identity she had before.)
The Little Mermaid had the potential to be a more unique story about a nonstandard character trying to be normal. In addition to losing her voice, the mermaid in the original story finds it incredibly painful to walk and dance, but does so anyway in order to be attractive to the prince; and she ultimately isn’t able to land the prince, partly because she has given up her ability to communicate so he doesn’t know that she’s the person who saved him. In the fairy tale, the mermaid’s attempt to be human is tragic.
Obviously, the Disney version of the story could not be tragic because that’s not how Disney movies are. But the story could have been given a happy ending in which Ariel went back to being a mermaid without losing her relationship or her zest for life. Instead, the Disney movie glosses over Ariel’s sacrifice, by making her only lose her voice instead of also being in pain; and in the end, she is magically cured of both her lack of humanity and the difficulties that a magical creature trying to be human would have (her voicelessness).
The Little Mermaid has often been identified as a problematic movie in terms of gender, because Ariel changes her body for a man. But it’s also problematic in terms of disability, because Ariel must change herself to a more normal form to realize her dreams. While in Sleeping Beauty, the fairies’ attempt to be human is an impetuous bad idea, it’s presented as the only way Ariel can be happy. Viewers are told not only a)having a normal body is worth the sacrifices, but b)don’t worry about that, because actually, switching from abnormal to normal will become easy and eventually have no drawbacks attached at all.