First, a disclosure: I am not a woman, and thus not an ideal defender/detractor of female role models.
Worse, I’m not a parent. Not even an uncle. I’m responsible for raising 0.0 young girls, and my decisions on pop culture and entertainment warp no minds but my own. So take my opinions with a whole shaker of salt, if need be.
All that being said, I was surprised recently to find myself needing to come to the defense of Disney’s The Little Mermaid against parents who say it isn’t suitable for their kids.
Disney classic princesses are, of course, a collection of outdated tropes, sexist expectations, and pretty little Caucasian women rewarded for playing by the rules. Snow White? Passive as shit. Sleeping Beauty? Barely even there — more of a pawn for rivaling factions. I’m pretty sure the mice in Cinderella make more consequential decisions than Cinderella. It might be difficult to feel proud about plopping your daughter down in front of one of these 60 or 70-year-old films. In 2018, we want strong women in our children’s entertainment. We want Moana, Elsa, or at the very least Mulan.
But Ariel? Don’t come for my Ariel.
Before the early ’90s brought us Belle with her books and her wit and Jasmine with her don’t-test-my-tiger spunk, Disney’s animated women spent decades in animal form. A mouse, a fox, a cat, obviously a Dalmatian — 1989’s The Little Mermaid ended that, putting a human face back on, and one with whom viewers could actually identify.
Yes, as the haters point out, Ariel gives herself over for her man, and he has to save her, damsel-style, in the end. But years before Mulan picked up a sword (or even before Pocahontas went cliff-diving) Ariel was the first Disney princess to take control of her own story. Things — first bad and then good — simply happen to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White; they aren’t even really the protagonists of their movies. Ariel grabs her narrative by the damn ears; her motivations become The Little Mermaid’s fuel.
Snow White hangs out by a well, gazing down and singing (tinnily) “I’m wishing…” The Little Mermaid hangs out in a well and gazes up, singing (passionately, in a scene that has lost none of its dramatic power) “I want…” Far more than wishing, she craves: “Part of Your World” is as eloquently rich with desire as an opera aria, going from the playful patter of “whozits and whatzits galore” to the yearning of “when’s it my turn?” And what is it she wants, you ask? Batshit things. Dancing, strolling — things with legs, beyond impossible things.
She’s a half-fish girl who lives at the bottom of the ocean, dreaming of fucking fire. That’s insane.
More insane? She makes it all happen. She makes a blood oath with a goddamn witch and gets … (checks list) yep, everything she wants. And that’s after escaping from a shark and saving a handsome prince from a flaming shipwreck. nbd.
And not just any witch. Ursula, who like Disney villains ranging from Jafar to Prince John is explicitly coded as gay, gives our fast-swimming redhead a chewy opponent. She’s an evil lesbian who craves power, and in the movie’s climax, Ariel physically grapples with her to save Eric’s life. The contrasts between the two women (rail-thin vs. voluptuous, soprano vs. alto, wants to flee the ocean vs. wants to own it) only make it more exceptional when Ursula has to essentially disguise herself as her rival to get what she wants. Ariel has such a strong voice (and Voice), that it’s a weapon no matter who wields it.
Yes, I understand the objections to Ariel. This is a woman who literally gives up her voice in pursuit of a man. That’s no good. More than one patriarchal figure has to bail her out of a jam. She’s problematic. But she’s also brave, impetuous, naturally curious, and, lest we forget, 16. At least she isn’t considered her most desirable when she’s freakin’ unconscious — this is a mermaid with some agency, even if she makes self-destructive decisions.
Being mute allows for some great physical comedy for Disney’s animators (remember the crab dinner?), but let’s put the blame for the voicelessness where it belongs: Hans Christian Andersen. At least Ariel doesn’t melt away into sea foam at the end. And it’s important to remember that her longing for all things human predates her relationship with Eric — she isn’t “all about” her crush.
Perhaps, in the end, evaluating Ariel’s admirability is simply a matter of properly calibrated expectations. Don’t tell your daughters to model their behavior on Disney characters. Use judgment on age-appropriateness. Oh yeah: And keep a firm grip on the idea that fairy tales aren’t real life.
It’s possible Ariel cannot be salvaged as a role model, but she’s still a wonderful character. And she comes with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.