This paper was originally written for an Interpersonal Communication class at Rowan University. The goal was to analyze a movie from an interpersonal communication perspective, including things like nonverbal communication, listening, and how communication affects self-concept. I decided to write my paper based on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Crustacean Nation Communication
The 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid” is an excellent example of the challenges of interpersonal communication. In the film, a young mermaid princess named Ariel falls in love with a human prince named Eric. There is a major cultural clash when Ariel’s father, King Triton, refuses to allow her to become involved with a human. King Triton disapproves of human society, and most of the undersea kingdom views the humans with fear and disgust. As a result, it seems at first that Ariel will never be able to be with the man she desires.
Since she cannot gain her father’s approval, Ariel decides to visit the sea witch, Ursula, in order to find a magical means to attain what she desires. The witch manipulates Ariel’s emotions in order to persuade her to take a dangerous and unfair deal: Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, but as the price she will take away Ariel’s voice. To make the deal especially dangerous, Ariel has to agree that she has only three days to receive “the kiss of true love” from Prince Eric. If she fails, her life will become forfeit and she will become a slave to the sea witch forever.
Ariel takes the deal and for three days she attempts to use nonverbal communication (since she has literally lost her voice and cannot speak) to win Eric’s heart. Ursula, of course, decides to cheat when it seems like Ariel is close to succeeding. She disguises herself as a human and uses Ariel’s “borrowed” voice as her own, then casts a spell to force Eric to fall in love with her. Ariel and her friends fight back, but they are unable to stop the witch in time before Ariel’s deadline arrives and she is forced into slavery. Then, in order to save his daughter, King Triton agrees to take her place. He allows himself to become enslaved in order to set Ariel free. The climax of the film then involves Ursula claiming the King’s magic scepter and trying to conquer the sea, until Ariel and Eric manage to defeat her.
In the end, King Triton has a change of heart, turns Ariel into a human once more, and allows her to marry Eric.
Communication plays a big role in the outcome of all of the major events in the movie, particularly with regards to the main character, Ariel. One of the key communication ideas that affects Ariel’s early decisions is that of self-concept. In the book Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication, Adler, et al define self concept as “the relatively stable set of perceptions you hold of yourself” (p. 66). This includes a person’s perception of their own emotions, tastes, values, morals, place in society, and a variety of other facets that make up who a person is. A person’s self-concept continually changes over the course of their life, largely because of the communication that takes place with their significant others. Adler, et al describe the self-concept as a “reflected appraisal” (p. 69), meaning that a person’s self-concept reflects either the positive or negative traits that been communicated to them by others around them.
Ariel’s relationship with her father in the film shows in a powerful way how the king’s treatment of Ariel has affected her self-concept. Early in the movie Triton berates his daughter for her fascination with the human world, even going so far as to destroy her collection of human treasures. Since Ariel’s father is such a significant figure in her life, his negative reactions have an especially potent impact on her sense of self-worth. She is crushed emotionally, and seems to no longer feel she has any value as a person.
Ariel’s crisis of self-concept was in large part responsible for why she chose to flee to the human world. There is a massive cultural difference between the human world and the undersea kingdom, one which is similar to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern cultures in real life. In a study titled “Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries,” Campbell, et al describe how Western and Eastern cultures have vastly different constructions of self-concept. They say that Western cultures (such as the United States) “view the self as an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity” (p. 143). By contrast, Eastern cultures (such as Japan) “view the self as an interconnected entity that is most meaningful when cast within an interpersonal context.” Essentially this means that a member of an Eastern culture is more likely to view their self-concept as it relates to a group, such as their family or their job, while a Westerner is more likely to view their self-concept as a self-contained, individual entity. Their research suggests that this difference leads to “apparent inconsistency and instability in Japanese self-concepts [which] probably appear as a consequence of their interdependent and contextual nature” (p. 153). They even suggest that an Easterner might find it odd to be asked to evaluate their self-concept purely as an individual, since their culture defines the self largely through their interactions with others.
The undersea kingdom in the film has many similarities to an Eastern culture. The merfolk and other sea creatures are highly interdependent, as is evidenced when Sebastian the crab tries to convince Ariel, in a song, that her home is “Under the Sea.” The lyrics to the song repeatedly use the words “we” and “us,” such as in the lines “Nobody beat us, Fry us and eat us, In fricassee, We what the land folks loves to cook, Under the sea we off the hook.” The song also suggests a need for group survival, implying that someone who ventures off alone away from the safety of the group is likely to get eaten. This demonstrates that the sea creatures are bound in an interdependent society, and implies that their sense of self-concept is likely defined by their role in that society.
The human kingdom in the film, however, is more similar to a Western society, where individuals define their self-concept based on their own individual traits. It is there that Ariel flees when she feels lost and lacking in self-worth. More than just seeking to connect with her romantic interest, she is seeking independence from her father and her society, so that she can learn to define herself as an independent individual.
Another communication factor that plays a big role in Ariel’s decisions throughout the movie is perception. Adler, et al explain that a failure to understand our significant others’ views of the world can lead to feelings of despair and isolation (p. 108). Ariel clearly felt isolated after her father destroyed her treasures, and this directly led to her decision to visit the sea witch Ursula. There is a deeper complexity, however, to Ariel’s perception of the world around her and of the human world, and this is a large part of what leads to her desire to visit the human world.
Ariel views the world under the sea as bland and dull, and early in the film she becomes fascinated with human culture. Her perception of that culture, however, is flawed. A person’s perception of reality is divided into two levels: “First Order Reality,” which is the tangible, observable properties of an object or situation, and “Second Order Reality,” which is the meaning or significance that an individual attaches to an object or situation (Adler, p. 109). It is Ariel’s personal second-order reality that influences her strong fascination with the human world. She collects a variety of “whozits, whatsits, and thingamabobs,” which are the names given to various human creations like corkscrews, silverware, and other common household goods. Scuttle the seagull explains (inaccurately) the purposes of the objects Ariel collects, such as describing a fork as a “dinglehopper” and describing its use as if it were a hairbrush. The first-order reality of the fork, such as its shape and the length of its tines, are unmistakable since they can be seen and felt. The second-order reality of it, however, is perceived in a vastly different way than it is by humans that use it as an eating utensil. All of Ariel’s differences in perception are the result of Scuttle’s communication about each object’s supposed purpose.
The meaning Ariel attaches to these objects as part of her second-order reality goes beyond just Scuttle’s inaccurate descriptions of the items. She also views them as treasures, since they are rare and exotic items that aren’t normally found in her world (despite the fact that they are commonplace and worthless in the human world). Because she attaches a deeper meaning and value to the objects, she begins to view them as something much more significant than a human would, and the result is an obsessive fascination.
In his article, “Dialectic of Deception,” Ackbar Abbas goes beyond the standard dictionary definition to describe fascination as “any experience that captures our attention without at the same time submitting entirely to our understanding” (p. 347). This definition accurately describes how Ariel’s attention is consumed by the human objects that she never fully understands. Abbas further describes the concept of fascination by recalling the classic story of Ulysses and his encounter with the Sirens, maidens whose magical songs were said to lure sailors to their inevitable deaths. Ulysses conquers the Sirens by having his sailors clog their ears with wax, which Abbas says “makes them deaf to fascination and inured to distraction in order to make them good, practical workers” (p. 351). This is similar to Triton’s attempts to “cure” Ariel of her fascination; he destroys her treasures in an attempt to make her blind to their fascination so she will be a good, practical girl. Both of these examples are rather extreme cases of what Adler, et al describe as the process of “negotiation,” which is the way in which people try to influence each other’s perceptions (p. 114). Adler, et al say that most people use personal narratives to attempt to influence each other, such as by telling someone “your side” of an argument in the hopes that they will agree with you and vilify the person you were arguing with. Triton attempts this when he first tries to explain the “evils” of the human world to Ariel, but when that fails he destroys her treasures in an attempt to force her perception into conforming with his views. This doesn’t break Ariel’s fascination with the human world, however, despite Triton’s wishes.
Since Ariel’s fascination remains strong, Ursula the sea witch is then able to manipulate her more effectively. During the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Ursula uses that fascination to trick Ariel into taking the deal to trade her voice for legs. Ursula also uses a twisted version of what is called “empathetic listening” to trick Ariel into thinking that the sea witch is on her side. Empathetic listening is a method people use “when they want to show that they identify with a speaker” (Adler, p. 229). Normally this type of listening is meant to show genuine concern and understanding, but Ursula twists it and hides her intentions with lines like, “My dear, sweet child. That’s what I do. It’s what I live for. To help unfortunate merfolk like yourself.” Once she has tricked Ariel into believing in her (false) empathy, Ursula then engages in a type of listening called “stage hogging” (Adler, p. 218). She doesn’t truly listen to Ariel’s concerns, and repeatedly interrupts her in order to continue pushing Ursula’s own agenda. She also asks questions that aren’t truly meant to be answered and instead merely continue to trap Ariel into agreeing. Such “counterfeit questions” (Adler, p. 225) aren’t used as a type of listening to receive information, but instead are used to push the asker’s own agenda. For example, when Ursula asks “after all dear, what is idle prattle for?” she is not truly expecting Ariel to answer, but is instead trying to persuade Ariel to accept Ursula’s view that a voice is not, in fact, worth all that much.
To further push this agenda, Ursula engages in sexist language use intended to diminish Ariel’s sense of self-worth, at least so far as her speaking ability is concerned. Adler, et al describe sexist language as that which “includes words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between females and males or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either sex” (p. 152). They further say that sexist language can negatively affect a woman’s self-concept. Ursula claims that men aren’t interested in a woman who can talk, and instead “they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.” This is blatant sexism, which Donna Lillian describes in her article “A thorn by any other name: sexist discourse as hate speech” as “relegating women to a lower rung on the social hierarchy than men simply by virtue of their femaleness” (p. 720). Ursula’s song reflects Lillian’s argument that sexism is produced through language.
Lillian further argues that language of this sort can be used to inflame emotions, discredit feminist principles, and force women to become powerless against men (p. 735-6). Ariel remains unaware of these dangers as Ursula’s aggressive language affects her emotions, pushes aside her feminist independence, and leads to her submitting to the loss of her voice, which in turn makes her powerless when she reaches the male-dominated human world. This powerless state plays right into Ursula’s plan, since it makes it impossible for Ariel to achieve what she wants. When this is combined with Ariel’s confusion about the strange new world she finds herself in, the result is the loss of her strength of character. While on land, she becomes much more docile and submissive, no longer demonstrating the independence and willpower she had when defying her father under the sea.
Because she lacks not only her voice, but much of her earlier strength, Ariel ends up being limited in what she can do to win Prince Eric’s heart. The result is an attempted seduction using only nonverbal communication. Adler, et al describe nonverbal communication as not simply communicating without words, but as “messages expressed by nonlinguistic means” (p. 177). Normally this includes things like vocal tone, pitch, and volume, though in Ariel’s case her missing voice limits her to body movements. Adler, et al explain that body language can be a mixture of facial expressions, eye movements, posture, and gestures (p. 189-92). While on a boat ride, and with Sebastian the crab singing the song “Kiss the Girl,” Ariel uses all of these methods to try to get Eric to kiss her: she adopts a submissive posture, smiles seductively at Eric, uses her eyes to express a welcoming expression, and raises her lips towards him in invitation to a kiss. Eric responds with similar nonverbal communication, showing that the couple doesn’t need words to establish a connection. In the article “The Courtship Dance: Patterns of Nonverbal Synchronization in Opposite-Sex Encounters,” Grammar, et al describe this synchronized pattern of communication as “the precise timing and coordination of movements to coincide the timing
or rhythm with the movements of another” (p. 3). They also say that this type of synchronized movement can “reflect an active and involved type of positive rapport associated with feelings of high positive affect, motivation, interest, and talkativeness” (p. 4). Thus Ariel and Eric’s synched movements demonstrate their mutual attraction to each other, building up to the moment when they almost kiss, only to be interrupted by Ursula’s evil minions.
In the end, Ariel regains her voice and wins Eric’s love. However, there are several important lessons that can be learned from analyzing her communication with the other characters throughout the movie. Her poor self-concept clearly opened the door to the dangerous and potentially destructive behavior that followed. It also left her vulnerable to Ursula’s manipulations, which used that poor self-concept and added to it with sexist language that made Ariel even more vulnerable. Better self-awareness could have helped Ariel realize this vulnerability and given her the tools she needed to resist the manipulation. Also, had she maintained a stronger sense of self, Ariel might have expressed her doubts and fears more fully, instead of allowing Ursula to control the conversation and badger her into submitting to the bad deal. Despite these problems, however, it was clear that Ariel and Eric were able to effectively communicate their feelings for each other without the need for words. Ariel also reclaimed her strength at the end of the film when she defied Ursula and refused to submit to the witch’s fear tactics any longer.
Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., Katz, I. M., Lavallee, L. F., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 70(1), 141-156. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor, R. F. (2010). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
Abbas, M. (1999). Dialectic of Deception. Public Culture.11(2), 347-363.
Lillian, D. (2007). A thorn by any other name: sexist discourse as hate speech. Discourse & Society. 18(6), 719-740.
Grammer, K., Kruck, K. B., & Magnusson, M. S. (1998). The Courtship Dance: Patterns of Nonverbal Synchronization in Opposite-Sex Encounters. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, 22(1), 3-29.