On how it turns out to be entirely possible to enjoy Disney's The Little Mermaid as a feminist..
Clearly I have a bit of a thing about mermaids. As a follow-up to my feminist breakdown of The Mermaid Summer which was one of my favourite books as a child, and my own Sea Queen from Silver Moon; now I'm going to set about deconstructing Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid - who I'm not afraid to admit I have found problematic from a feminist point of view for some time. I mean, giving up your voice to catch a dude?? Come on girl...
^^ Actual footage of Ariel realising what a terrible idea *that* was
But wait now - are the messages in this movie really as grim as all that? I'm not so sure any more...
Let's step back for a moment and have a look at the context - see if we can't figure out what's *really* going on.
Ariel is 16 at the beginning of the movie; motherless, with a loving but extremely strict father, and shitloads of apparently ditzy sisters. She is the youngest of seven, and absolutely fascinated with the world of humans - much to her father's disapproval. She's an explorer, a dreamer, a collector - she's unreliable, missing her own birthday party (in fact a concert where she literally has to perform for Triton's enjoyment; her birthday's all about him, obvs) because she's out doing the stuff that she loves - again, to the fury of her father.
So here we have the seeds of the problem - Ariel's dad has missed the memo about a parent's job being to notice who the child is, what they like, and reflect that back to them, accepting and loving them as they are; he's decided who *he* thinks Ariel should be, and he's punishing her for not conforming to that.
Somewhat toxic, no?
Now I don't want to get too down on Triton here, his controlling behaviours are rooted in fear for his daughter's safety (he reckons the world of humans is dangerous), and there can be no doubt that he does love her. But again, he's got it all upside-down - it's not Ariel's job to submit to his control and give up on her dreams so that he doesn't have to worry about her - it's Triton's job to deal with his shit and understand that she needs to experience the world for herself. That's going to be hard, possibly painful work for him, but ultimately it will set them both free - him from fear, her from him.
But does he deal with his shit?? *Laughs heartily* Of course not! Instead, like any self-respecting controlling male, he chooses to literally blast his daughter's dreams to smithereens "for her own good".
^^Ariel: So happy and in love!!
Triton: NO I WILL NOT ALLOW THIS. BCOS MEN ARE TRASH.
Yes they are.
So, here we have Ariel, broken-hearted at the loss of her treasured collection of human stuff, feeling utterly abandoned and rejected by her father. Does she come obediently back into the ditzy sister fold and give up her authentic self to keep her toxic father happy?
No, she does not. And here she earns her first massive feminist stripe - she looks for another way to make her dreams come true. He told her no; nevertheless, she persisted. Chapeau, Ariel!
Unfortunately for Ariel, toxic parental figure #2, aka Ursula the Sea Witch, enters here to stir some shit up...
Motherless Ariel has no positive female role model to guide, advise and love her. She has a bevy of sisters who are apparently happy to submit to Triton's will, and zero recognition or acknowledgement of her authentic self from her father. She's been so "well-protected" that she hasn't had the chance to make many mistakes and learn from them (although she managed that shark pretty well at the beginning of the movie, and she rescued Eric from drowning - so she's far from incompetent); she has poor boundaries because Triton has been violating them for years with his controlling behaviour.
Therefore it's not terribly surprising that when she sets out to make her dreams come true by herself, she doesn't have the experience to fully realise that Ursula's giving her some frankly terrible, manipulative advice.
And it's Ursula who tells her that she needs to give up her voice to get the man. It's a bad decision, yes, but it's one made out of equal parts naivety and desperation. She accepts Ursula's chat about a woman's looks being the most important part of attracting men, and acts accordingly - paying for her human body with the most direct expression of her authentic self, her voice.
On some level she knows it's a terrible idea, but she's ignoring those feelings and instincts because she simply can't see any other way to realise her dreams in the face of her father's opposition. I give you Exhibit A - the sacrifices women will make to create a life they want in the face of patriarchy. That'll be another feminist stripe for Ariel, for learning how to make tough decisions and choose the lesser of two evils.
But the worst of it? It doesn't work. She has given up a part of herself to catch a man, and It. Doesn't. Work.
Eric's in love with her already (he heard her singing on the beach and that was enough, apparently) but he doesn't recognise her now that she's not her whole self. Her looks, her pretty face, and let's not under-estimate the importance of body language... are *almost* enough to hook him, but ultimately without knowing her fully, he's disappointingly easily fooled by a disguised Ursula using Ariel's voice.
^^ Eric. Not too bright.
So Eric sets out to marry the Sea Witch who now looks a bit like Ariel (looks are everything, remember?); one can only assume that Ursula is pleased with her new piece of princely arm candy, and poor Ariel resigns herself to giving up her humanity to be a mermaid again - still without her voice.
Things do not look good for our heroine...
But does she give up?
No she does not!
Ariel has had the good sense to surround herself with loyal friends who've got her back. Flounder the guppy, who supports and loves her unconditionally. Sebastian the crab, who could teach King Triton a thing or two about learning and growing (despite his own fears) alongside a strong and determined daughter figure, and Scully the seagull who has not a particle of common sense about practical stuff in the world of humans, but knows a disguised Sea Witch when he sees one.
Each of these friends teaches Ariel vital lessons that she missed out on from her father (she is acceptable and lovable just as she is, her dreams are worth pursuing, she can count on the support of people who love her, even if they don't necessarily agree with her), and they help her to discover the truth about the woman that Eric is going to marry. She realises that her true love is in grave danger of accidentally marrying a narcissistic sociopath and immediately sets out to rescue him.
^^ Ariel healing her mother wound with some necessary anger work.
And she does. Between Ariel and her friends, the Sea Witch is unmasked and Ariel gets her voice back. Eric recognises her for his true love as soon as she becomes her whole self, and Ursula becomes so consumed with trying to destroy Ariel out of rage and jealousy, that she neglects to notice Eric coming at her with a pointy shipwreck. He's no rocket scientist, but he'll fight like a pointy shipwreck-wielding gladiator for the woman he loves.
The rest is squid-ink-soaked, impaled Sea Witch history.
So there we have it. Turns out this isn't actually a story about a pretty princess who gives up her voice to get a man - it's a coming of age story about a strong and determined woman who overcomes a controlling father and a toxic mother figure to follow her dreams and ultimately save the man she loves from marriage to a monster. The message we are left with is that giving up your voice to catch a dude doesn't actually work; it's your whole, authentic self that he loves.
Sounds pretty fucking feminist to me!
Oh - and finally, we find that King Triton has had some time to reflect on Ariel's unprecedented rebellion, and has made the terrible mistake of handing his crown to Ursula in an attempt to save his daughter (making Ursula all-powerful in the process and everything 100x more shit). Ariel and Eric rescue him as well, which finally enables him to overcome his own controlling nature and hint of fatherly narcissism to recognise his daughter's humanity and competence, and he reunites the lovers. Nice work Triton. *applauds personal growth* Maybe men ain't so much trash after all...
Folks, I give you Ariel, the little mermaid - explorer, dreamer, lover of humans, nemesis of toxic relationship patterns, and badass guardian of her authentic self. Applause please.
If you enjoyed this feminist breakdown of Disney's The Little Mermaid, please consider buying my own book of feminist fairy tales The Silver Moon Storybook. This means I can dedicate more of my time to feminist re-readings of popular culture, and worry less about having to get a proper job. Many thanks! :-)