I love The Little Mermaid. And as much as I admire and adore the princesses who came before her and after her, Ariel will always be my princess.
The Little Mermaid debuted in November, 1989. I was thirteen years old and I’d just started ninth grade. I don’t remember my first impressions of the film but over the next five years I started dyeing my strawberry blond hair redder and redder, I purchased multiple copies of the Part of Your World sheet music and used it for all my auditions, and the great majority of my money from after school jobs went to Little Mermaid merchandise. Dolls, books, cute shirts and mini-backpacks…if they put Ariel on it, I wanted it. Ariel collected human stuff and I collected Ariel stuff.
I was obsessed with recreating this outfit.
I wanted this to be my wedding.
I wanted this to be me.
Then in college I was an undeclared Women’s Studies minor and my final project was on female characters in animation. I learned that Princess Ariel and The Little Mermaid are considered controversial in the world of women’s studies. I was told they are anti-feminist because:
- While she appears to be strong-willed and self-assertive, she requires her father and her boyfriend to rescue her.
- She gives up her family and way of life for a boy.
- She gives up her voice on the off-chance that boy will kiss her within 72 hours.
- She is encouraged to use her beauty and sexuality to trick that boy into kissing her.
- She is then called a little tramp and a little brat (by another woman) for doing so. There is also cattiness on the part of the women doing laundry.
But, said college-me, I love Ariel.
Ariel saves Eric’s life during the lightning storm. This is a fact. Ariel rescues Eric. Later, when she finds out that the Prince’s sudden marriage is a plot of the evil sea witch’s, she jumps into the ocean to go save him again. And she doesn’t get out or give up when she realizes she doesn’t know how to swim with legs. She also doesn’t object to Sebastian going to get her father to help even though the last time he found out she’d disobeyed him he’d destroyed all her possessions.
Ariel is brave.
Yes, her father gives up his life to save hers. He’d spent the last three days thinking he would never see her again, and knowing it was all his fault. He’d spent her whole life protecting her, and her sisters, and his entire kingdom, from Ursula and every other danger under the sea and above the water. He’s her father. It doesn’t make Ariel weak that Triton makes that choice.
And yes, Eric drives a ship into Giant Ursula. It’s the most random and least satisfying part of the film. But it doesn’t negate the whole rest of it. It makes Ariel and Eric equal in terms of heroism.
I know this movie frame by frame and I get excited for these two moments every time I watch. They are both so ridiculous and so wonderful. And they illustrate again that Eric and Ariel are equals. Eric proclaims he’s going to marry his mysterious singing savior even as his guardian doubts her existence and Ariel smiles seductively as her animal friends coo kiss me kiss me kiss me into his ear.
They are both naive. They are both silly in love. They are both moved to extremes by a fantasy. And if Ursula is manipulating Ariel and calling her names…isn’t that part of her job as the villain? I wish it wasn’t gendered abuse, too. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the whole picture. Because something is imperfect doesn’t mean it is entirely bad.
Ariel gives up her family and her way of life for a boy her dream. She wanted to be part of the human world for many years before she caught sight of Eric.
Ariel gives up moves away from her family and her way of life for a boy her dream. There is nothing in the first film to indicate that Ariel has to give up all contact with her merfamily and merfriends. And while the sequel does cut them off, the point of the story is that it’s the wrong choice.
Criticisms of Ariel and The Little Mermaid and the Disney Princesses are absolutely valid. But Ariel and The Little Mermaid and the Disney Princesses have given me a lot over the years. Ariel appears to be strong-willed and self-assertive because she is strong-willed and self-assertive. And now so am I.
Ariel is not afraid to want. That’s a very strong place to begin.
I still want this to be me.
All screencaps from My Little Mermaid.