The news that Sofia Coppola will direct a live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid probably, rightfully will be lauded as an encouraging development for women in Hollywood. There are a number of successful female directors in the film industry (although not nearly enough), but it’s still shockingly rare that one gets assigned such a high-profile studio project.
Yet the producers of the film deserve props not (only) for choosing a woman director, but for choosing the perfect director for the story they’re going to tell.
Coppola’s films are known for their aesthetic beauty and moody, dream-like atmosphere. But her works all share something else, too. She’s not a political filmmaker per se, but the world that she depicts is one in which women are oppressed—not necessarily by men, but by cultural myths. Whether portraying a strictly traditional monarchy (Marie Antoinette), a fame- and image-obsessed society (The Bling Ring), or the all-American horny teenager (The Virgin Suicides), Coppola’s films rebel against a world that dictates the rules for women and then punishes them for playing by them.
The Little Mermaid follows the exact same template, but takes the punishment even further. I’m not talking about the 1990 Disney version of the story, though that film’s feminist implications have in fact been hotly debated—the mermaid Ariel is a spunky, rebellious sort (that’s good!), but she ends up a classic damsel-in-distress and relies on the prince to save her life (that’s bad!). I’m talking about the original, dark fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836. It’s a cruel cautionary fable for young women who forsake their physical and emotional identities for the fantasy of “true love.”
You could almost read Andersen’s story as a demented romantic comedy. While a typical rom-com puts its heroine through a gauntlet of public embarrassments before finally giving them their reward—true love—The Little Mermaid replaces embarrassment with actual pain. In Andersen’s version, the mermaid is a girl of 15 (most of Coppola’s heroines are adolescent girls) who willingly suffers many painful rites of passage for the chance to be with the prince she has fallen for. A sea witch cuts out “her little tongue” as payment for the potion that will turn her human. After she gets her wish, she remains in constant pain, with each step on her new legs feeling like “treading upon sharp knives.”
None of these pains, however, compare though to the one that accompanies her transformation. As the witch closes the deal for which the mermaid gives up her voice, she explains to her what will happen after she drinks the potion:
Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.
The language Andersen is using here seems vaguely sexual. To accompany the mermaid’s transformation, the phallic “sword” must pass through her and cause her pain, so that “the blood must flow.” Andersen is depicting a girl’s transformation into a woman, but it involves a horrible ordeal and lasting pain. The mermaid will be beautiful by man’s standards, but she will have no voice and be in constant discomfort. For every woman who has worn a corset or six-inch heels, or had plastic surgery, this trade-off may sound achingly familiar, and it applies in particular to some of Coppola’s heroines. Marie Antoinette and Charlotte from Lost in Translation suffered not pain but ennui (the upper-class version of pain) from being objectified—and they also essentially had their voices muted.
Why do women suffer in this way? In the mermaid’s case, it’s not just for the prince; he is really just a front for her deeper fears and desires. It’s only when the mermaid learns that humans have eternal souls (while mermaids have no afterlife) that she decides to transform. An old woman tells her that her death will be permanent unless “a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother, and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter.” In this world, romantic love is a virtue powerful enough to stave off one’s own mortality.
That belief doesn’t empower the mermaid, though. It controls her. Immortality is only achieved if “his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.” It takes a man’s love to save her, and the consequences of failure are steep. The deal made with the sea witch stipulates that if the prince marries another, the mermaid will die. The underlying ultimatum: find true love or perish. The heroines of Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, choose the latter.
Of course, reading Andersen’s story today raises the perennial artistic debate of whether Andersen is endorsing the mermaid’s sacrifice or condemning it. Most signs point to a tragic reading of the ending, in which the she sacrifices her own life to save the prince. But Andersen added an odd coda in which mystical creatures (previously unmentioned in the story) save her just moments before her death. He originally left this finale off, a fact that has led many scholars to dismiss it, even as he later stated that he intended it all along. Regardless, Andersen paints a dim picture of his society’s values towards women. And the universality of his portrait speaks to how, in some ways, little has changed.
Despite this subtext, we shouldn’t expect Coppola to make this story into an overtly feminist work; that’s not her style. But indeed, the very metaphor inherent in the mermaid’s form—and her choice at the story’s end—marks a close connection to Coppola’s work. The notion of a mermaid becoming human —of that fish tail turning into legs—is metaphor for a girl’s transition to adulthood. She can’t lose her virginity until she has legs; Andersen, remember, describes the process of becoming a human woman as “if a sword were passing through you” and stating that “the blood must flow.” But the mermaid ultimately chooses death without ever consummating her relationship with the prince or even becoming a woman at all. In other words, she is a typical Coppola protagonist: another virgin suicide.