I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a solid chunk of the population has a favorite Disney princess. Mine is undoubtedly The Little Mermaid’s Ariel. However, time and time again, when I bring this up, I’m told that I’m misguided. Friends, students in my women’s studies class in college, my mother, and even a random match on Tinder debate me on my choice, saying that the classic Disney movie is inherently misogynistic. In fact, I’ve heard that The Little Mermaid is one of the most sexist Disney movies to date.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the criticism. She’s a 16-year-old girl who gives up her whole life for some dude she met for like… 5 seconds. She barely hesitates to sign away her voice – without actually reading the contract, by the way – and must seduce her man using her looks, pretty face, and body language. Ariel not only puts herself in danger, but the entire underwater kingdom, as well. In the end, she chooses to forsake her people and live happily ever after with her charming husband, who’s still pretty much a stranger. Yikes, right?
So yes, I get it. However, I don’t buy that she’s such a problematic character. That’s not the Ariel I know. Ariel was independent, free-willed, and wouldn't just settle down and live the life her father planned for her. She "wanted more" than a simple domestic life—and so did I. To me, she isn’t a feminist nightmare, but an icon.
When I watch the film, I don’t see a girl who changes her life for a dude, but one who uses a dude to make the changes in her life she’s always wanted to make. Prince Eric was just a means to an end, a way to get out of a life that she clearly didn’t want. It’s not like she just saw Eric and decided, “Hey! Maybe the underwater world isn’t my jam after all.”
Don’t you remember her giant cave of human goods? She’s been at least toying with the idea of making it to the surface for years now. I mean, how long would it take to make a collection of random junk that large anyway?
Ariel made her decision long ago, but Eric was finally the excuse she needed to chase her dreams. She was only a teen, after all. How many other opportunities had she had in her 16 short years, anyway? I’m not saying that she was 100% aware of what she’s doing, but no one content with life just packs up and leaves without having some inkling beforehand. What was the point of “Part of Your World” otherwise?
I fully believe that had she not met Eric, Ariel would have found some other reason to make the journey to the land of the standing. I don’t think that Ariel is the type to just sit around and wait for a happy ending to land in her lap like Cinderella.
Sure, Ariel decided to sell her voice to the fabulous, yet notoriously devious sea witch Ursula without really giving it much thought. She made a rash and emotional decision, but what 16 year old hasn’t?
We might chastise Ariel for disobeying and then simply up and leaving her father, thus abandoning her entire kingdom. I feel that way sometimes, too. Every time I see the scene where she says, “I’m 16 years old, I’m not a child anymore,” I cringe. However, is it really better to live the rest of your life under patriarchal rule? To never challenge authority? At least this way she has a choice, and is still getting what she wanted all along – a new, exciting experience.
Let’s be real. Ariel was never going to have any say in her life if she stayed under the sea. She was never going to rule. Ariel was the youngest of seven sisters and was probably just going to be a royal figurehead for the rest of her life, forced to participate in lavish performances like the one in the beginning of the film where she had to sing inside an oversized clamshell.
Instead, she marries into royalty, which is problematic, but honestly her best option if she wants to have any political sway. I'm not saying that Ariel is a Disney-fied Frank Underwood, but she’s probably better off being a queen than just another aging princess whose only goal is to be objectified and entertain the masses.
I know there’s a sequel that disproves this theory, but ever since I was a kid, I imagined that the moment after the film ended, Eric and Ariel took an extended honeymoon together. They’d explore different cultures and try out all of the different thingamabobs and dinglehoppers from the far reaches of the world. Then when the time came, they would come back to be benevolent rulers, who still dabbled in international politics. OK, I might have an overactive imagination, but it’s a nice thought, right?
I wonder if Ariel wasn’t one of my role models, if I would have grown up to be the person that I am today. Would I have moved across the country to one of the biggest cities in the world when I was 18? Would I have wanted to travel internationally? Perhaps. But maybe I’d have been content to stay in my hometown. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, that’s just not… me.
In retrospect, I’d like to credit watching The Little Mermaid on repeat as a kid for helping me realize that I do, in fact, want more. I want to live my life with an undying sense of curiosity, trying new things, and discovering new aspects of life that I never grew up knowing. You know, like Ariel did.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this movie. It’s a silly love story about a silly teenager singing silly songs with her silly friends. But if a 5-year-old me could watch the film and see a strong-willed, kind-hearted hero to look up to, then what has stopped other kids from doing it, too? So maybe instead of chastising Ariel, we can see her for who she is – an inspiration to budding feminists everywhere.