THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES. YOU CAN READ THE INTRODUCTION HERE.
Based loosely on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid tells the story of 16-year-old Princess Ariel, a mermaid who lives under the sea with her father – King Triton – and six sisters. Restless and adventurous, Ariel constantly collects human objects she salvages from shipwrecks until her obsession finally rests on one human in particular: Prince Eric, who she rescues from drowning when his ship capsizes in a storm. Eric awakens to the sound of Ariel singing to him, but she swims away before he can see her properly.
Furious that she made contact with a human, Triton forbids Ariel from returning to the surface, pushing her into the lair of Ursula – the ‘sea witch’. In exchange for her voice, Ursula grants Ariel legs for three days on the condition that she must make Eric give her true love’s first kiss within that time, or she will belong to Ursula forever.
There are 9 female characters with speaking parts:
- Princess Ariel
- Ariel’s six sisters: Princess Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana.
- A maid in Eric’s castle.
Yes, Ursula the ‘sea witch’.
Ursula is clearly motivated by her desire to dethrone Triton and take his power for herself, which she does through plotting to ensnare his daughter in a deal she think she can easily win. Even before hearing her deliciously maniacal voice, it’s immediately obvious in her character design that she is the villain as she’s completely oppositional to Ariel and the other merpeople. Rather than being half fish, she’s half octopus; her colour scheme is the classic Disney combo of black and purple; she’s not conventionally beautiful, and wears so much make-up she looks like a bit of a drag queen (which is probably intentional considering she was supposedly inspired by iconic drag queen actress Divine). Although brilliantly effective, it’s a design that once again falls into the trap of equating unattractiveness in women with villainy, and Ursula – although impressively powerful – overall comes across as bitter and desperate.
Considering there are nine female characters with speaking parts, and Ariel herself has a mainly female family, it’s odd that there’s hardly any real interaction between all of them. In fact, the film works hard to set them all as far apart as possible.
At the start of the film Ariel – the youngest – is meant to be making her musical debut with her sisters in a show for their father, except when her moment comes… she’s not there. Instead, she’s exploring a sunken ship with her fish friend Flounder, which shows her sisters to be obedient ‘good’ daughters, whereas Ariel comes across as more individual and rebellious preferring the company of male companions, and this is also visually represented through her unique colour scheme: red hair and green fins.
Ariel and Ursula drive the plot together, with Ariel being in control in the first half, and Ursula taking over more in the second as she realises that Ariel may come out on top from their deal. Ariel is a headstrong character that gets to make a lot of her own choices in the film, both good and bad, but unfortunately this seems to come across as one of the ‘quirks’ of her character rather than something that should be a given for any protagonist of any gender.
As previously mentioned, Ariel interacts with male characters far more than female ones with the sole exception of Ursula. Although this lack of female camaraderie is negative, the bonds she has with the central male characters – Triton and Eric – are probably the most endearing parts of the film.
It’s clear that despite their differences, Triton is a deeply loving single father to his troublesome teenage daughter. Although he comes across as overly tough at times due to the stress of his job and Ariel’s bouts of rebellion, in the end when it comes down to Ariel’s life being under threat – he chooses to sacrifice his own power and freedom for hers, and ultimately he learns to relinquish his control over her to allow her own autonomy to flourish like any good father would.
Eric – although strangely pretty happy to fall in love with a mute girl he found on the beach after three days – seems pretty well matched for Ariel. Like her, he is curious, adventurous and not interested in being part of the traditional stuffy ruling elite. This relationship ultimately provides the central emotional crux of the film: both Eric and Ariel are missing something in their lives that nothing from their own worlds can adequately fill until they find each other, and this is what makes their romance seem to have a stronger foundation than Disney’s previous Prince/Princess dynamics.
From an early point in the story Ariel is shown to be completely disinterested in her traditional Princess role, preferring to go salvaging junk from a shipwreck rather than appear in her father’s concert with her sisters. She’s curious, adventurous, and absent-minded – perhaps supposed to be on the quirky-side, as she’s completely different from her rule-abiding sisters.
Lyrically, ‘Part of Your World’ could be more multi-layered than you might think. On the surface, it is about a teenager’s dream of running away from home, sick of her father’s stifling rule. However, closer examination could provide deeper meaning relating to gender. Ariel laments in the song that although she has a massive hoard of “neat” stuff from her treasure hunts, she still feels unfulfilled. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” A privileged princess surrounded by material wealth and a big, close-knit family should be happy, right? But the only thing that Ariel thinks will truly make her happy is “to be where the people are.” You could argue that she’s after another physical thing – legs, but really she’s after something that can’t be stolen, found, or bought – she’s wants change, to be part of a different kind of society – or in her case, species.
The 1980s – when this film was released – was an uncertain time for women as the huge momentum that the women’s liberation movement gained through the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat stunted by a joint political and media backlash. According to writer Susan Faludi, this backlash was designed to pin the blame for women’s socio-economic struggles on feminism for forcing them to feel pressured to “have it all” – an unachievable dream. In this context, “Part of Your World” could represent the disillusionment of women in this decade – sick of being told to settle with their lot and placate their dreams of true liberation with capitalist consumerism; in the same way that Ariel has been forced to satiate her true desires with meaningless trophies by her father’s patriarchal subjugation.
“Betcha on land, they’d understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters; Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.
Keep on dreaming, Ariel.
Of course, this being a Disney romance, it isn’t long until the “Your” in the song’s name becomes specific to one person – a man. You could surmise that rather than fulfil her original dream of exploring the surface world like she has the sea, Ariel instead chooses to pass from under the rule of her father’s kingdom to Eric’s. Rather than obsessing over ‘stuff’, she obsesses over Eric, both of which could be seen as distractions from real freedom. This is all highly subjective, of course, but the pieces seem to fit.
This one was tough to call. Although there is a lot to celebrate in terms of positive gender representation in this film – the high female character count; the female-driven plot; the positive treatment of female characters by male ones; and Ariel’s character being fully fleshed out beyond that of just beauty and a great singing voice – there is also a lot to criticise. Yes, Ariel is the first overtly rebellious Disney Princess, but her lust for freedom is quickly tempered into teenage romantic obsession. Ursula, though an outrageously brilliant villain and fearsomely powerful witch, is weakened by the comedic value of making her look like drag queen; and despite there being the highest female character count yet, with the exception of Ariel and Ursula, none of these female characters really interact with each other.
Conclusively, The Little Mermaid is a Disney Princess film that has all the pieces in place to make a truly gender-positive film, but doesn’t quite fit them together properly.
Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: Beauty and the Beast!
3 thoughts on “Wicked Wiles: Little Mermaid (1989)”
Fun series! One thing I think is missing from your discussion is the OTHER song — “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” In it, Ursula explicitly coaches Ariel on how to be a woman. You know, men love body language and hate a chatterbox! “On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word” — catchy, right? It’s like something out of a women’s magazine in the 1950s. And it has a curiously dual effect on the movie’s feminism rating. I mean, for one thing, Ursula is the villain, so to have the villain spouting stuff that’s clearly sexist is a good thing — it means that we should be taking this old-fashioned, women should shut the hell up and just look pretty, interpretation of femininity as something inherently bad.
On the other hand, URSULA’S RIGHT! Eric does like Ariel despite the fact that she can literally not even communicate with him, presumably because he loves the idea of having a doe-eyed, docile, silent, beautiful woman around the castle for the rest of his life. So I’ve always found that interesting, like, Disney probably didn’t CONSCIOUSLY want to support Ursula’s message, yet the entire structure of the story completely validates it. What do you think?
I was in my mid-teens when this movie came out. My toddler sister was obsessed with it so I had the “opportunity” to see it many times. I always felt conflicted over it. On the one hand, Ariel is curious and strives to be something other than what she’s told she can be, plus she’s feisty and plucky, but on the other hand there’s the whole “species denial” conclusion and the fact that the edge seems taken off her curiosity by the fact she’s gotten herself hitched, like her other ambitions have been quelled by that single relationship achievement. It’s interesting to me, therefore, that you’ve adjudicated this movie to be neutral also. I guess the film pretty conflicted within its own presentation.
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