First Theatrical Release: November 17, 1989
First Home Viewing Release: May 18, 1990 (oh, wonderful day)
My Rating: 5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My family’s VHS collection (the original, penis-on-the-cover edition!)
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Ariel, Ursula, Carlotta, and Ariel’s seven sisters (Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana). Whether any of them converse about something other than a man is borderline, but I erred on the side of generosity because, it’s The Little Mermaid. Specifically, there is one point in the movie where Ariel’s sisters discuss Ariel being “in love.” While a man is implied in this conversation, he is not specifically mentioned. For all her sisters knew, Ariel could have been a lesbian.
Ah, The Little Mermaid, the movie that launched my obsession with Disney that continued throughout the Renaissance years. I cannot articulate exactly why the movie so completely captured my heart when I was a child, but it easily encompassed at least a year of my imaginative play — the soundtrack was the background music to my life, the kitchen floor constantly littered with homemade Little Mermaid Paper dolls modeled after illustrations in a much-read storybook, debates with my mother about whether King Triton was “mean” (me) or “trying to be a good dad,” (my mom, who was also raising my rebellious teenage sister), the theme park rides and furniture created from Tinker Toys for the Ariel and Eric figures from McDonald’s, and the way those same toys lost all their paint from being played with in the bathtub way too many times, the giant drawing of Ariel in her grotto that my older sister did on the wall of our upstairs hallway.
When I mentioned watching TLM for this project on Facebook Sunday night, I somewhat jokingly said that I could not express my love for this movie without using expletives. The same was true when I was 8 years old (I can’t believe I was that young — I always think of myself as 9, but the movie release date and the math don’t lie …), and was scolded by my mother when I lamented that, “I would die if I didn’t get to see The Little Mermaid again.”
I did get to see it in the theater twice, and could hardly believe my good fortune when Disney broke with tradition and released it 6 months after its theatrical debut. I thought I would have to wait 7 years for a theatrical re-release. I watched it every day the summer after its release. It is hard to know where to begin with a movie that has meant so much to me, and even harder to know where to end. But I guess I’ll have to try!
The Feminist Reading
The most common feminist criticism of The Little Mermaid is that Ariel “gives everything up” for a man — including her voice. This is especially fraught with symbolism, as awareness grew in the nineties of the many ways girls and women are “silenced” in our culture.
Still, I always wonder if people who make this criticism ever watched the first 30 minutes of the movie. The very first thing we learn about Ariel is that she is fascinated by the human world. Her curiosity drives her to explore sunken ships and to make forbidden trips to the surface in an attempt to understand a world different than her own. A world that she desperately wants to be a part of — she sings her iconic anthem, “Part of Your World” before she meets Eric. And that collection in her grotto did not materialize overnight. It seems to be a culmination of a lifetime of dreaming and yearning and exploring. A lifetime of feeling as if she were born in the wrong place, possibly in the wrong body. Ariel knows what she wants long before she meets Eric; she knows she is not like her complacent sisters and her domineering father; she knows, much in the way queer or transgender youth do, that she is different, and she is looking for a world in which she belongs better than she does in the one to which she was born.
Don’t we tell girls to dream big, and to go after what they want? Ariel does both, and we do the movie a disservice if we reduce her life’s search for meaning to just another man hunt.
King Triton, Sebastian, & Ursula
We know that King Triton has the power to help his daughter meet this need because he ultimately returns Ariel’s humanity at the end. (Even in the final scenes, he reduces her need to love of Eric, when really it goes deeper than that and is about her very identity.) For the first part of the movie, he is unable to accept her otherness — he interrupts her when she tries to express herself (when she begs him to “just listen,” he bellows, “Not another word!”), and he destroys her grotto, the outward manifestation of who she feels she is inside. His fears of losing his daughter to another world are certainly valid, but it is his inability to see her as she is that ultimately drives her away from him and into Ursula’s sordid layer.
It’s easy to set up King Triton as representative of the patriarchy: he is concerned with preserving the “status quo,” his character design is hyper-masculinized, and he expects unquestioning obedience (which his older daughters must have at least given lip service, because he seems utterly at a loss confronting his youngest daughter’s rebellion, as if he’s never raised a teenage girl before.) Yet Ariel rejects everything he stands for, driven on by her insatiable curiosity and her need to experience life on a broader plane than her home can provide. She wants to learn about life on her own terms, not on her father’s — and she refuses to believe his assertions that humans are “barbarians.”
We could read this as a cautionary tale against subverting the accepted routes of obtaining your wish — after all, when Ariel goes behind her father’s back and instead turns to Ursula to grant her heart’s desire, it ends up costing her her voice, her family, and her soul before her father barters away himself and his kingdom instead. Even so, Ursula is the only one willing to offer Ariel even a chance to get what she wants, even if she does so for her own selfish reasons.
After realizing his intolerance has literally driven his daughter away, King Triton is heartbroken and ready to finally take responsibility for his actions. Although he gets far less screentime than Ariel does, Triton’s character arc is the most dramatic. While Ariel simply pursues what she knows she has wanted all along, Triton humbles himself until he’s willing to sacrifice everything to save the daughter he almost lost. And of course, he learns that the only way to really love his daughter is to let her go. The story then becomes a cautionary tale not for Ariel, but for the patriarch. He is the one who must change in the end, and he is the one who must surrender — not his rebellious, wayward daughter. (And now, just like my mother before me, I tear up in the movie’s last moments when Ariel acknowledges this change in their relationship with her whispered, “I love you, Daddy.”)
Sebastian’s character arc mirrors Triton’s, except that his happens at an accelerated rate. Why? Because he listens to Ariel more. In the first moments of Ariel’s humanity, Sebastian tries to urge her to go home “like all the normal fish” and then realizes that by doing so, she will lose far more than her voice — she will lose that spark that makes her happy to be alive.
Even though we’ve already established that Ariel’s drive to be part of the human world predated her first encounter with Eric, their relationship is still worth examining.
A good friend of mine pointed out to me that, although Eric spends the whole movie searching for love, no one criticizes him for it the way they criticize Ariel. And although Eric ultimately defeats Ursula, he is only alive for that final battle because Ariel has already rescued him, undermining the generic criticism that she is another damsel who needs to be “rescued.”
Is it problematic that Eric falls in love with Ariel even though she can’t speak? I don’t think so — I would argue that it’s the loss of her voice, the singular aspect about her that obsesses Eric, that allows Eric to see her for who she truly is rather than as a fulfillment of his post-trauma fantasy. Without her voice, Eric learns to read her body language and facial expressions — a skill that will serve him well in wedded bliss even when she can speak again. He also allows her energy to drive the relationship, as she drags him through his village (even though he is supposed to be giving her a “tour”), and he literally “hands her the reins” in the following carriage ride. In the moments before Ursula returns to claim him with her spell, he decides that the reality of Ariel is better than the dream he cherished of his “mystery maiden.” He is ready to accept her for who she is rather than who he might have wanted her to be, correcting the emotional violence she suffered at the hands of her father — where, although she had a literal voice, she was far more “voiceless” than she is with Eric.
Also, those who know a little bit of mermaid lore also know that mermaids’ voices are known for being so beautiful that they drive sailors to their deaths. By handing over her voice, Ariel also makes an implicit agreement not to manipulate Eric and to set aside what seems to be a contentious relationship between the Mer and human worlds.
The Problematic Bits
Even though I think The Little Mermaid carries far more positive messages than problematic ones, there are still a few aspects of it that I struggle with. When I was a child, Ariel was not the character I wanted to be like. I loved Ursula.
Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, as an adult I think I idolized her because she was the most powerful woman in the film. Even today, I cannot see her as completely evil, as she is the only one who takes Ariel’s dreams seriously enough to give her even a chance of experiencing them. I also loved how incredibly substantial she was, how, even before she becomes Giant Ursula at the end, she is given permission to transgress the bounds of acceptable femininity and take up space. Although she ultimately doesn’t play fair, she does not lie to Ariel, either: Ariel knows exactly what the consequences will be when she strikes her bargain with Ursula, and both of them should be commended for entering into it with their eyes open (even though Ariel’s eyes are literally closed as she signs her name.) [warning on the video below for language: not safe for work or children.]
But ultimately, this powerful, beautiful, transgressive woman cannot be allowed to live — she must be killed so that male power, transformed though it might be, has the final word. And not only must Ursula die, but she dies impaled on the broken mast of a ship driven into her by Eric, a man who, up until this point, has been nothing but gentle. A friend of mine told me that renowned fairy tale scholar Maria Tartar likens this action to rape, although I was unable to find this specific essay (please link in the comments if you know where I could track it down.) (Maybe Triton will think twice before criticizing humans as “barbaric” after this act of barbarism saves his kingdom.)
Is the implication here that female power is ultimately too dangerous to continue unchecked? And is Ursula’s weight, despite being one of the things I loved about her, just another cultural message that fat = bad? (We have certainly had plenty of thin female villains up to this point — Maleficent comes to mind — and perhaps figures such as Carlotta and Mrs. Potts can offset the fat/bad association?)
Of course, Ariel is the thinnest of all Disney’s princesses — I remember watching this movie at a friend’s birthday party when it was first released on video, and she was complaining about Ariel being too skinny. TLM was far too sacred for me back then to say anything against it, but 25 years later, I agree with her. At the height of my Disney obsession I forgave Ariel’s waif-ish appearance because she was not human — and indeed, she does seem more substantial when she has legs, perhaps just because her tiny body is more covered up? But this is one distinction I don’t think little girls will make the way I did as a teenager: I think they will see just one more message that impossibly thin = good and beautiful, and I wish that were not so.
Also, Ariel’s confession of love for Eric before she has really met him hearkens back to Disney’s older princess films of love-at-first-sight minus much real interaction. Fortunately, their relationship receives more attention in the second half of the film than previous Disney couples have, so I can feel a little less alarmed by the hasty wedding. Still, this movie marks the last time Disney will allow a profession of love to pass a character’s lips BEFORE, and not after, the relationship develops. (With the exception of Frozen, and we all know how that turns out.)
Despite these being very real issues, they are not strong enough to quell the upswell of devotion I feel when I watch this movie. And perhaps they are a price I am willing to pay for a movie that also teaches the values of tolerance, bridging the gap between cultures, following your dreams, and finding — not losing — your voice.
For Further Reading
- Why King Triton is an Oppressive Dictator
- Disney’s Dumbest Prince: An Ode to Prince Eric (discovered via a friend’s post on Facebook)
- Do Ariel’s sisters represent the Seven Seas?
- An academic examination of The Little Mermaid through a transgender lens, which is my favored reading of the story. The stuff about Disney’s rendition starts on p. 119.