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