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.”