The Little Mermaid says, “You’ve come a long way, baby”

Little Mermaid coverDisney’s Little Mermaid will celebrate her 25th birthday in a few days.

Ariel was the first Disney Princess to be touched by feminism. And she is plenty different from her predecessors — good girls who never rocked the boat, and who all needed saving by their Prince Charmings.

In Ariel we find a young woman with a strong sense of self who seeks independence and empowerment.

But she reflects the early tensions of our feminist beginnings. 

The Little Mermaid’s Story

In case you haven’t seen the film in a while, we first meet Ariel as she murmurs with dissatisfaction about life underwater. She is fascinated by human things — and one human in particular: Eric, whom she saves from a shipwreck, sings to, and runs away from before he can see her.

Ariel yearns to become human but her father, the Sea King, forbids it — whilst destroying the many human-made objects she has collected over the years.

Despondent, she seeks out the Seawitch, Ursula, who agrees to make her human for three days at the cost of her voice — the one thing Eric knew about her and loved. If Eric doesn’t kiss her after three days, she will return to the sea.

Amidst Seawitch deceptions, intrigue and battle, Eric eventually saves Ariel. And then her father makes her human, after accepting that this is his daughter’s true desire.

The Little Mermaid rebels, chooses, acts

Ariel doesn’t just go with the flow, as her pre-feminist predecessors so often did. She questions, makes choices, and acts.

Ariel and Eric

Ariel and Eric

And while Eric does save Ariel at one point, Ariel saves him, too (and first.) So it’s more of a partnership. They save each other.

Did Ariel give up her culture for a man?

Some say Ariel gave up her culture for a man. But she had yearned to be human before meeting Eric. And legs are a symbol of strength. Having legs, you can take a stand and stand up for yourself.

Some of us must move outside our culture to be strong and to be ourselves.

I can relate because that’s just what I did when I moved outside my Christian fundamentalist upbringing and headed toward a more empowered feminism.

Empowerment comes with costs

But there can be costs.

At a Christian college I once attended (having been raised with religious fervor!) a feminist group on campus called themselves VOICE — because there is power in expressing ourselves and being heard. So it’s not surprising that as Ariel makes a move toward empowerment, some seek to take her voice away.

Men join the movement

And then her father — a symbol of patriarchy? — resists her yearnings. Yet eventually he aids her, like many men who ultimately join the movement and work for women’s right to vote, get equal pay for equal work, feel safe on the streets and in their homes, and for women to have rights over their own bodies, for instance.

The Sea Witch and Ariel

The Sea Witch and Ariel

Powerful women are evil?

At the same time, a powerful female — the Seawitch — is evil. And powerful women today can still be feared and demeaned, as Hillary Clinton was when she ran for president the first time. Hopefully, the culture has evolved in the last few years.

The beauty ideal hasn’t changed much

In some ways beauty seems less important in this movie, since Eric falls in love with Ariel’s voice instead of her looks. But she is very pretty, and pretty sexy.

Which matches the odd tension we still find today. On the one hand feminists have critiqued the notion that women and their self-esteem are all about beauty. On the other hand, looks seem to be about as important as ever to women, and their self-esteem.

In fact, beauty ideals may be more strict today than midcentury. Some suspect the pressure to be tiny with big boobs serves to differentiate women from men physically, even as the sexes become more alike socially and legally.

The Little Mermaid and a culture in transition

The little mermaidOverall, The Little Mermaid reveals a culture in transition: part patriarchy, part equality.

But the tale has a sunny ending, unlike the original, published in the patriarchal 19th-century. Then, the young mermaid pays for her willfulness with death.

Disney’s happier ending comes in part as equality succeeds. But the Disney folks surely knew that little kids wouldn’t clamor to see the show over and over again if it left them in tears.

Inspired by “Construction of the Female Self” by Jill Henke

Related Posts on BroadBlogs

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 12, 2014, in body image, feminism, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. Seems that the Disney movie Maleficent has followed the path of Frozen with the “girl power” theme. I don’t want to ruin the movie if you haven’t seen maleficent, but there’s a feminist twist to it too, I believe.

  2. I sense something fishy about this post 😉 ❤

  3. It’s interesting that you mention Ariel’s rebellion – after watching the movie once or twice, my 8-year-old self wasn’t allowed to watch it any more because of that. She rebelled and she got what she wanted in the end.

    • Ha, ha!

      Maybe you don’t want to teach little kids to rebel. But sometimes rebelling is a very good thing. As opposed to staying in confining boxes that some folks want to keep us in. Women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, a fight for democracy…

      But I actually think the terrible twos are a good thing. A necessary step to avoid becoming robotons that do nothing but obey their whole lives. See this:

      Apple® and Eve’s Choice
      https://broadblogs.com/2011/10/14/apple®-and-eve’s-choice/

      • “But I actually think the terrible twos are a good thing.”

        Oh I agree – a very necessary stage of development. The tantrums never bothered me, once I determined that it was, in fact, a tantrum (and there’s nothing they need). I just never took it as a sign that I was failing as a parent.

      • A good thing, but a pain in the ass for parents, for sure.

  4. I use to watch mermaid cartoon when I was a kid and use to love watching her. Never thought about this way. Nice post

  5. I’ve never thought about this movie like this before, and I’ve seen it HUNDREDS of times! Looking back, I love how Ariel seeks individuality, and empowerment. She is definitely the strongest female leading role when it comes to early Disney movies. Often in Disney movies, Prince Charming has to save the day, but Ariel saved Eric first, and in return, he fell in love with her. The story is backwards from the typical Disney movies and I love that. Another strong leading female role that comes to mind is Bell from the Beauty and the Beast. Although Bell is kept at the castle against her free will, she acts defiant towards the beast at first. She then becomes friends with him and she falls in love with a beast for heaven’s sake. While this is a very strange concept, she definitely went against everyone in her town to defend him, and I appreciate this strong role, and how she didn’t care what other people thought of her odd decision.

    Of course, all of these Disney characters are gorgeous, which is not very realistic. It sets a high standards for young girls and boys watching these movies and believing that all women should grow up to look like these beautiful leading roles. This is one thing about leading women roles in movies that I hope will change a little bit, because the average woman is not as beautiful as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Ariel from Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, etc.

  6. I enjoyed and appreciated this analysis- of how The Little Mermaid shows a “culture in transition.” And lovely to see the continuing shifts with Frozen and Maleficent. So often Disney and other media machines get all the heat for their portrayals of women but you bring up a good point that they in some ways reflect where we are as a collective- so which started what- kind of like the chicken and the egg? Perhaps both have accountability and work to do.

  7. I have never thought of the Little Mermaid this way. I completely agree that this movie shows up a lot about our society today, from beauty to empowerment among men as well as women. Ariel is extremely independent she fought for what she dreamed of while going against not only a man but her father.
    The film also shows a big issue with girls/ women and their father. Girls are so afraid of disappointing their father more than their mother because we so desperately need approval. I believe that we need approval from our father more than our mothers because in our society men hold the power in the household. We are trained to need this approval without knowing it. My father just recently made the comment that instead of grounding me he would say “I am disappointed in you” ever since I was able to walk. He used this to make me feel guilty as well as making sure I know he is in power without the risk of me rebelling. I will always have the thought that I could possibly be disappointing my father if I am not doing everything either right or his way. Little girls want to make their daddy proud. Grown women want to make their husbands proud.

  8. Carol Lynn Langdon

    I agree with everyone here! I never thought of the movie this way. And this one is definitelyy favorite disney movie ever, next to Tangled and Sleeping Beauty. And I just realized: Tangled is all about girl power, as is The Little Mermaid, but Sleeping Beauty is the exavt opposite. She’s married off and guaranteed to someone right after birth, but then falls in love with a man, who the viewer knows to be the man she was supposed to be with. It’s just funny to me to see how society has changed: from 1959 Sleeping Beauty to 2013 Tangled and 1995 Little Mermaid.

  9. So now that I know you analyse Disney princesses too, you might just be my favorite blog ever! I particularly love the insight about having a Voice and Legs. Although historically, mermaids have also symbolised rebellious feminine independance (unwilling to settle with a man). Admittedly a long shot, Hans Christian Anderson may have concocted the tale to represent the taming of said women by conforming to man. Totally loose (read: mine) speculation.

    • Well, I really do hope to be your favorite blog, ever.

      Analyzing Disney Princesses is a fun class topic, too.

      And thanks for the other perspectives you offer. Interesting stuff. 😊

  10. Jasmine Lopez Torres

    I have never really looked at ‘The Little Mermaid’ the way the author wrote in this post. I never believed Ariel to be a perfect role model for children because she fell in love with someone she didn’t even know. However, after reading this post, I can see how she seems empowering and very independent as a thinker/doer. It’s so sad to see how sometimes, women are being encouraged to stand beside their beliefs without a care, but most women continue to keep their beliefs and their own opinions guarded because of judgement and what not. I watched this film as a child and didn’t think much of it,like now. But films with an underlying moral like these, subconsciously process something bigger in the long run. Even though I still think Ariel is naive, and carefree ,her motivation for the things she likes is something every girl and women should look up to.

    • Yeah, she may not be the best role model in terms of the Love at first sight — and knowing a little else about someone — thing. But there are also some interesting symbolic aspects to the story.

  11. I honestly never thought of the little mermaid as an example of feminism. However after reading this article and remembering the movie itself. which i haven’t watch since i was a kid it makes sense. What i found the most intriguing about this post was mainly the idea of taking away the voice as a form of empowerment or oppression, mainly due to the idea that if you take away someones voice you take away form of ability to express oneself and to be heard by others. i also like the parallels made in this post, in particular the Ariel’s father being an allegory of patriarchy, as well as how ultimately even men eventually aid in feminist movements. when Ariel’s father finally accepted and allowed Ariel to live with the humans. Ultimately this post is interesting due to the transistion of patriarchy to equality.

  12. What an intriguing look at how the movie symbolizes women in culture… which is always changing slightly, by the way! I think Ariel wanted legs whether or not her man wanted that for her, as it would bring hopes of freedom and the ability to more easily investigate land 🙂

    • Yes, luckily our culture has changed a lot since the Little Mermaid came out. The film came out in 1989 and rape is down 75% since then, battering is down 65%, And incest is down 40%. And that’s largely because women and girls are more valued now, so there is more support for us + men’s attitudes have shifted so that they are less likely to harm us. You don’t rape and batter people you value.

  13. Hsuan fen Wang (Sarah)

    I agree with Christy that little mermaid want the legs symbolize the the freedom and ability. Instead of depending on a prince charming to rescue, she decide to gain her ability to walk in the world. Modern women are more likely to gain self-esteem and value through work. It makes women powerful on the psychological level and financial level. It also inspires me to be powerful rather then helpless.

  14. I agree with everything on this post from Ariel rebelling to empowerment comes with a cost. It’s interesting to analyze Disney princess character and connect it with our society today. The movie shows some issues about women fighting for what they believe in and standing up to show chase their voice. I admire Ariel as she was always independent, strong, and fought for what she wanted. She went against her family and took the risk to exchange her voice to become a human. This goes back to feminism as they tried to stand up and voice what they believe is right. They are willing to take risk, and for women’s right. Little Mermaid touch up on family and culture issues that our society face today. One of the biggest issue a lot of the youth encounters that we see is standing up for themselves. Like Ariel, a lot of us struggle with what our family want us to do and its a tough decision to make but sometimes you have to stand up and take the risk in order to pursue your dreams.

  15. Disney has a way of trying to keep up with the times and also giving people what they want. It is nice to see some of their work analysed and put into perspective of where it stands from different point of view. I think it is a very interesting way to view this film, although it is still a story about doing anything for love( I do like that she was interested in human traits before she met Eric). While Disney has made a lot of progress with having strong female roles, and using different ethnic background(more current than the Little Mermaids time), it would be nice to see even more diversity in the female leads backgrounds and physical attributes. Having larger heroines and perhaps ones with problems that can not be solved in the end(like in a wheelchair) can lead to young girls seeing that some things can not be changes but that life can still be good. Every little girl does not want to be a princess…as Ariel did not, so showing them pursue different avenues and dreams can be an empowering thing.

  16. But the tale has a sunny ending, unlike the original, published in the patriarchal 19th-century. Then, the young mermaid pays for her willfulness with death.

    Disney’s happier ending comes in part as equality succeeds. But the Disney folks surely knew that little kids wouldn’t clamor to see the show over and over again if it left them in tears.

    I first read the Andersen story last January. I remember not being sad at the end, that she didn’t actually die.

    Perhaps there’s other translations, but the last two paragraphs at http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html I personally don’t interpret as her death.

    But I still agree, the Disney ending is far more “marketable” to children and a general audience. 🙂

  17. A different perspective… 😀 like it…

  18. Recently, I have seen a documentary about ‘Disney’ shows and it made me realize how manipulative the media can be. The female characters in the cartoons are always skinny, full of make up, sensitive and vulnerable where the male characters are always powerful. Also, as the article above talks about the strong female characters also shown as witches or mean, and the main characters ‘princesses’ are always sensitive and dependent. Even though, in ‘The Little Mermaid’ movie, Ariel, questions and goes after her will, it is not the same case with the other Disney shows, such as “beauty and the beast”. In this particular movie, the prince is mean and aggressive but the princess is very nice and patient towards the prince and at the end her positive attitude brings the kindness out of him. Now what kind of a message does this movie give to the little and young girls. It is okay to be yelled at! I think, we must be very selective on what kind of shows and movies our kids are being exposed to these days.

  19. This article has definitely given me a different perspective on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I would have never have thought about Ariel with a feminist personality. However, now it makes complete sense, she was always defying the mermaids culture and way of life. I can now think of several other Disney princesses/characters that are feminists as well: Merida (Brave), Jasmine (Aladdin), Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana (Princess & the Frog), and most recently Anna and Elsa (Frozen). All of these women have showed great independence and the need to fight for something or a cause greater than themselves, and while some fell in love, they had to fight for their love. The Little Mermaid was just the spark needed for Disney to start contributing to the self dependence that young girls need in today’s world. I hope that Disney will continue down this path of influence with their future films and characters.

  20. It goes to show that there is feminism in the most unsuspected places. I’ve watch the Little Mermaid a hundred times but I’ve never looked at it in the same sense as this blog explains. It gives the girl power theme but it shows just how much the girl power theme is tested. As if girls can’t fight for what they believe in without a man’s help or opinion. The blog makes a statement about how Ariel wanted to become a human because of Eric, but why in society does a woman only want something because of a man. I really disagree with the fact of Ariel wanting to be a human with legs all because of a man she met. I feel women everyday have this same issue maybe in the workplace or in her personal life period. Some woman do have a mind of their own and don’t have to want something in life just to impress a man. Many woman have their set goals in life and won’t stop working towards them until they have successfully met those goals. As in the movie The Little Mermaid she was persistent enough to fight for what she wanted and got it, even if there was a man in the picture.

  21. Mariela Rodriguez

    I enjoy paying attention to the Disney Movies and how they portray woman. They Usually make the woman (princess) weak or dependent on the Man (prince). I really like the Little Mermaid because as mentioned in your blog she is a woman that fights and stands up for what she wants. She is not afraid to try new things as she constantly explores the oceans and the forbidden areas. Ariel is young independent woman that demonstrates that she does not need a man to get what she wants which is to be able to walk more than having Eric as a boy. Another great example of a Disney’s character that I love is Elsa from frozen. She is independent and the only princess that does accepts that u cannot marry a man after meeting him for such a short time and the one that does not need a man to be powerful and independent. Ursula was powerful but she was evil too Elsa is powerful and not evil she was looking out for her people.
    I enjoyed this topic because I don’t often hear or read about feminism in Movies especially on Children Movies. It is an interesting topic to connect it to culture, feminism, and to show that beautiful women are smart, powerful, and independent.

  22. This article let me rethink about this movie. I used to only focus on their love but after I read this analyses, I think there are lots of values and implications hide behind those movies. For instance, for the recent Disney animation Frozen, It implies that a powerful woman is not evil at all. Although sometimes, her power may hurt someone she loves, she doesn’t mean to. She desires for love of family, and wants to use her power to make the life happy. In addition, this character is very popular, which means she has been accepted by the public. I think that’s a good trend for feminists and women.

  23. I think that Ariel plays a great effect against stereotype. She fought for her desire. She was not a typical girl waiting for Prince Charming. She does not have a blonde hair. I believe that media is the most effective tool to change the society and this is one of the best work from it.
    Speaking of Ariel giving up her culture for a man, I disagree on the idea because I strongly feel her as am international student from Japan to the United States. Leaving home for a new environment does not mean giving up own culture. Even if you try so hard to fit in a new culture, there is always something you had accustomed for years in your old experiences. I am still hard time for writing an essay because of the language. We tend to use abstract topics and sentences to explain our opinion, and we use a lot of adjective to modify a word in Japanese. Also, even I understand the meaning of “Huh?” I cannot stop being a little afraid of replying after the word because we only use this to ask someone not to talk with hatred or sometimes for bullying. This habit cannot go away so easily. What I meant through these examples is that we still keep our culture in our mind even if we are away from home and getting into a new place. Ariel left the sea for her dream and a man Eric, however, she combs her hair with a folk, talks with a seagull, and care for her father in the sea.
    This article made me realized how much philosophical thoughts we raise from media and how fruitful the Disney movies are.

  24. I don’t watch Disney movies often, but I can honestly say that Little Mermaid is one of my favorites. Like most people, I’ve only seen the recent one, not the original film that was published in the patriarchal 19th-century, but it is apparent how so many things can change over time. In the original film, the character was left dead but in the more recent movie, she thrives in her own way, promoting empowerment and equality. Indeed, it is astonishing to see how we moved from the cultural transition of patriarchal thinking into a more modern, feministic view.

  25. This movie is very unique and I loved watching this movie when I was younger. But as of now thinking about it there are a lot of things going on. Ariel didn’t give up her culture for a man. It seems like she did but that was her choose, in the movie at the beginning it showed how she has a huge collection of items she found from ship wrecks and she talks about how she would like to be human; to have legs instead of a fin. Along with powerful women are evil such as the sea witch, it all depends on how they use their powers. If it’s for her own benefits or to help others in the community; But in the little mermaid her evil powers are used for herself. There is a lot of perspective on the movie but its leads to becoming feminists

  26. Recently I have been on a Disney movie hype, meaning on my free time (when I have it) I watch disney movies with my little sister and inside my head I am analyzing the whole thing. Recently I watched movies such as “ Frozen” and “Brave”. Which are all great movies on the empowerment of women and how they (the princess’s) do not need a mans love to be happy. But to be honest its been awhile since I seen “The Little Mermaid” and before reading this post, I have never analyzed it in such matter. I have always thought that these new princess’s have been doing an excellent job in showing little girls that they do not need to be “saved” by a man or loved by a man to be happy. But it is so true that “The Little Mermaid” was probably one of the first after “Mulan” to save her loved one first. This is a shocker because Disney normally has the male saving the distressed female. Also I like how you made the connection between “Ariel” going against her culture, but it was her culture that was incarcerating her, and her only way to freedom was to have legs. She did do what she wanted to, she stood up for herself and even though her obstacles with her father she got what she was working hard for. I feel as “The Little Mermaid” was Disney’s way in transitioning into a new era where women are have and been independent, but now showing the youth that they can also be independent and its ok to go against your culture beliefs in order for your happiness.

  27. I’ve always love watching Disney movies, ever since I was little up until now. To me, you can never be too old to watch Disney movies. And The Little Mermaid had got to be one of my all time favorite movie. Ariel is a strong independent women who’s pretty and also have unique sense of characteristics in which I’ve never seen in any of the Disney’s princesses before that. I believe that during the making of this movie, our society had transition into a new era where women started to take a stand for themselves. The wave of feminists had started because they want to show other people that women are also capable of doing stuff that men do. Which is why in the movie, Disney made Ariel to be a rebel and go against her father wills in order to follow her dreams. She was the first princess who went up against a male authority and go after what she wants, no matter what. And I found that to be very empowering for women during that time. Instead of getting save by the prince, she actually did saved him in the first place. This show that women are no longer being the one that need to get help or save all the time by her prince charming. It can go both way for male and female. Disney movies move along with the way our culture are today, Disney princesses are no longer sit around and wait for their prince charming to come to their rescue. They are no longer dependent on the male figure to make themselves happy. Disney movies back then tend to have one similar story line which is, the female live an unhappy life but then at the end get rescue and live happily ever with their prince. It shows that their life only got better and happier because of their prince. Now, Disney princesses no longer have to rely on their prince to keep them happy. Princesses nowadays are very independent and always follow their happiness.

  28. I’m a Disney fanatic and this post didn’t necessarily ‘reveal’ facts to me, it made me appreciate the fact that I’m not the only one to notice Disney’s strong ability in producing subliminal messages, especially one’s that only adults catch on to. Frozen broke barriers when it came out, feminist post and rants went through the roof, parents admired the movie. At the end of Frozen when Anna punches Hans at the end instead of Kristoff, prefect cherry on top of the feminist sundae, it showed a woman can defend for herself without a man.
    I love Disney, it’s been a huge inspiration in my life, my baby falls asleep every night to a Disney movie and sometimes I join her. Disney was an innovative genius and as times went on and society grew, Disney followed.
    The Little Mermaid and the 16-year-old rebellious Ariel was actually NOT written or directed by Walt Disney, he had passed already. When Disney started to write The Little Mermaid they were turned down numerous times: A sea witch was to inappropriate and the fact that the main character (the princess Ariel) had no script in the middle of the movie made people think it just simply wouldn’t work. Until Disney grew and realized that actions speak louder then words, they called the creator of the idea back and said ‘Let’s do it!’ obviously they changed a lot about the story compared to the original written by Hans Christian Anderson but they knew it had potential.

    http://media-cache ec0.pinimg.com/236x/7e/77/c4/7e77c40c0c8f3044b437782035b960f4.jpg

    I’m sure everyone has seen the meme I shared on social networks but to me it’s hilarious! It’s true but like I said Walt Disney and Disney today are pure genius, kids don’t realize these things (like the meme states) but adults do and will still find it enjoyable. No matter how much we like to believe Disney has a knack of making everything magical and happily ever after they’re still very realistic (in a subliminal way)
    When it comes to the feminist aspect of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel did what all teenagers do; she found her dream and broke a lot of barriers to achieve it. My only argument is, if you notice, Ariel was only 16 years old and that is not the age to think it’s okay to run off with a man and expect your parents to be okay with it. Then again, girls are more sheltered then young boys by their parents. For example when a teenage boy loses his virginity it’s a sit down conversation talk with his parents and slightly an appraisal but when a teenage girl looses her virginity (let’s say at the same age as the boy next her) it’s forbidden and she gets criticized. Point is, boys are allowed to get away with more when it comes to exploring adulthood.

  29. I never really watched this movies but the few time that I did watch The Little Mermaid I never thought of it in this way. For me it was just a movie, it was until later that I started to see and hear about how she fell in love and left everything. I only saw that she had left her family, changed her life and self to be with Eric but after reading this I saw the other side of the story. I like what you said about “there is power in expressing ourselves and being heard. So it’s not surprising that as Ariel makes a move toward empowerment, some seek to take her voice away.” She wasn’t giving up her voice to be with a boy, she was rising up and as you said there will always be someone who will want to bring you down. That metaphor applies to what has been happening not just to women but everyone. All those who want to be heard are ignored and silence, it often takes hundreds of people to make a point.
    That part in which it was said that women in power are not evil they are just feared is true. The have accomplished a lot and gone thru a lot, they have to be strong and hard because that is how they got there. In a world of men they defended themselves and i feel like they would feel that if they lose control or let go everything that they have accomplished will be taken away

Thoughts? (Comments will appear after moderation)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: