The Disney version of Little Mermaid is smart and in charge of her choices. The movie makes this clear many times. The fact people seem to not notice this says more about them than her.
This is an old post about a You Tube video mocking Ariel and The Little Mermaid. I’ve moved it over here because it is on theme and what it says is of vital importance to us all. To. Us. All.
Okay, so, this:
This has been embeddened all over the shop. And, yes, it’s a joke – I guess – but it’s extremely annoying because it plays into all sorts of stupid knee-jerk ideas about what Disney’s The Little Mermaid is about, which are actually based on prejudices about young women, their choices and their culture. I’m actually a fan of the Disney Princess line in general. It’s far from perfect but it gets a really disproportionate amount of crap considering it’s probably the most progressive film series in Hollywood in terms of featuring female protagonists and racial diversity. But, for now, The Little Mermaid.
Firstly, you really need to get this, Ariel is obsessed – OB-SESS-ED – with the human world. This is shown very clearly in the film. She has an insanely huge collection of human world objects which she has collected over time. She is a massive human-world freaking fangirl. This could not really be made clearer in the film, but critiques of the film like the one above consistently ignore it. Except for the snide remark about her collection junk, which shows how much they have misunderstood the point here. The OTT junk collection is our big, neon-lit clue that something is not right in undersea-magic-fantasy-land.
Why, Ariel, what has made you so obsessive-compulsive about somewhere other than where you are destined to live?
After Ariel encounters Prince Eric she sings a song about how she wants to be part of his world. Promblematic? Nah – not so much. It is clear from what we have seen of Ariel so far that she does not mean she wants to become human just so she can be with Eric, she means that she is really only fascinated by Eric because he represents this amazing exotic world that has thrilled her all her life. Eric is pretty dull even for a Disney prince, but for Ariel, Eric is not really the point so much as what he represents. Freedom. Escape.
Escape from what? Well Jeez, where to start? Ariel’s undersea life sucks like a barnacle. Ariel lives with her father, King Triton, who is shown to be aggressive and strongly prejudiced against humans. Ariel is the youngest of his 7 daughters – if Ariel has a mother, and the logistics of that are quite mind boggling – we are not told who or where she is. For all I know, Triton bred his daughters in some secret lab. And that’s as plausible as anything, considering, you know, fish below the waist. At the start of the film Ariel gets in trouble for not allowing her father to show her off along with her sisters as some kind of singing bauble of pretty delight. He’s also called all his “daughters” names beginning with A (*ring ring* it’s the cluephone: caller says Triton, he NUTS). Okay, I’m not saying Triton is up to anything untoward with his daughters. It’s a Disney film. Plus remember the whole FISH FROM THE WAIST DOWN thing so, thank god, we don’t have to concern himself with that horrorshow. (No one say spawning please, thanks.) Anyway, whatever, Triton’s not nice. He’s an absolute monarch who rules with a lot of chest-thumpy shouting and trident-powered zapping. For Ariel, life as mermaid – yes, even as a princess – is not a lot of fun.
At one point Sebastian the crab sings Ariel a song about how great under sea life is, remember Sebastian is working for Triton. He’s essentially Triton’s everything-is-great-down-here propaganda MACHINE. And Ariel doesn’t even stay to hear the end of the song. Also, life out of water is pretty grim for Sebastian. But maybe Sebastian should think about people who aren’t him for a change. Not everyone is a crab, Sebastian. Big picture.
The Little Mermaid is a story about growing up – the coming of age aspects, the girl becoming a woman themes, are very, ahem, literal. You don’t have to think about this too hard to realise Ariel gets more than legs in becoming human. It’s a story about escaping the life you were born to, especially if you feel you don’t fit in. The Little Mermaid is a strong narrative for young people growing up queer (especially trans with it’s body mod themes). But also for anyone who feels like they want something different from the life everyone expects them to have. Sorry, how is this a bad message for young girls?
To escape Ariel visits Ursula, the sea witch. Ursuala is based on drag artists Divine, a fact that adds to the queer readings of the film, that Ariel the queer little mermaid finds help from a friendly drag act.
Ariel has to give up her voice. And of course that is what she is giving up by moving into a strange world – albeit one she’s always wanted to be a part of. She is going somewhere which is unfamiliar and foreign. She is going somewhere where she doesn’t speak the language. In search of a better life.
For Ariel this is a choice. A choice she makes at a clear crisis moment after her father smashes up her collection of land objects in a rage that she might have fallen for a human man. Ariel is a young woman who makes a choice about what she wants in life. To dismiss her choice is to dismiss her right to be autonomous (sure, cartoon mermaids have rights.) And snarky youtube vid above, in fact, by choosing Eric, she keeps her status as a princess – for what it’s worth.
It’s not that The Little Mermaid rejects all patriarchy – but she does explicitly reject her father’s rule and control – she doesn’t run away to a lesbian separatist commune and make vegan shoes for her new found feet. But it’s pretty impossible to imagine that a text that exists within patriarchy – which is where we all live – could explicitly and entirely reject patriachy without being only about that. Which is my way of saying, sure, in the end it’s Eric who save the day by plunging a big phallic ship into Ursula. Although, at this point in the story Ariel has saved Eric’s life twice.
Taking a dim view of the message in A Little Mermaid, and making jokes like the one in the clip above, require taking a dim view of Ariel. Of seeing her as stupid and her desires and choices as dumb, when in fact she is a young woman making a courageous choice. Maybe the view of A Little Mermaid as a film about a man obsessed, unhinged, self-mutilator says more about the interpreters view of young women and their choices than what the film is really about.
To Ariel being a mermaid isn’t a joy, it’s being trapped underwater, away from the sun. She escapes because she is brave and clever.