Today marks the birthday of a classic: The Little Mermaid. Twenty-five years after the movie was released, Ariel is still one of the key figures in the Disney Princess lineup, and the movie holds a place in the heart of many millennials, myself included. But does it hold up to the test of time? Debatable.
Let’s just be up front about this: There’s a lot wrong with this movie. Sebastian is a Jamaican caricature, for one. For another, “Kiss the Girl” is pretty anti-consent:
Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
It’s possible she wants you, too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl
That’s right, the one way to ask a girl if she’s sexually interested in you is to just go ahead and be sexual at her. Don’t bother with silly things like, you know, asking her if you can kiss her. These is Consent 101 here, folks. (Yes, I know that Ariel can’t answer out loud, but she’s fully capable of nodding.)
There’s also the very premise of the movie: A 16-year-old girl sees a handsome man, falls in love with him without having actually met him, and trades her voice—risking her very soul in the process—for a shot at love with him. That’s not an acceptable narrative to glorify for young girls.
Then there’s Ursula. Ursula is the epitome of the confident modern woman. She’s fat and sexual and queer—the character was based on Divine, a famous drag queen—and she doesn’t care who knows it. She owns every bit of her personality, one hundred percent. She knows how the world works, too. Consider “Poor Unfortunate Souls”:
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yes on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle prattle for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man
It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t really believe these things. Ursula’s analysis of gender roles is spot-on, but she doesn’t apply these arbitrary rules to her own life. Instead, she uses them for her own purposes. In this case, her goal is the throne, and she very nearly gets it. It’s not all that hard to imagine a version of the movie, told Maleficent-style, where Ursula is the hero. She’s been cast out of the glitterati of the palace, so she uses society’s own rules to get back at those who rejected her—what better comeback story could there be? She’s a clear feminist in a movie that’s otherwise questionable on that front.
She’s also, of course, the villain. The message, then, is that the things Ursula stands for—female empowerment, body-positivity, unabashed selfness—are not things that little girls should aspire to. Samantha Allen at The Daily Dot has a good explanation of what this means in the context of Ursula’s queerness (along with that of many other Disney villains), and it’s not unreasonable to apply the same argument to the rest of her identity.
Feministing published a piece about several years ago that sums up this argument: “It’s about the triumph of “good” women—young, slender, silent and lovesick—over “bad” women—old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual.” Ariel is performing an acceptable version of femininity and womanhood, so she can triumph; Ursula is not, so she has to perish.
This isn’t to say that the movie is all bad. Some have people have argued that even Ariel isn’t all that anti-feminist. Two writers from TIME rewatched it recently and came to that conclusion, and Rhiannon Thomas of Feminist Fiction went as far as calling Ariel a “feminist heroine”—after all, she’s adventurous and determined, and she saves Eric just as often as he saves her. I’ll touch on this idea of Ariel as an adventurer more tomorrow, but suffice to say that there may be something to that.
On the whole, though, I’d say the movie falls short of the “feminist” mark, or even the “feminist-friendly” one. There’s a feminist character, and some pro-woman messaging in Ariel’s personality, but the takeaway from the film is that only girls who are appropriately feminine can succeed in life. Some people excuse the less-than-politically-correct themes by pointing out that the movie was made in the 80s (barely), but given that it’s still heavily marketed toward today’s girls, it’s still very deserving of a critical eye.
Top image from Disney, via TIME; gif via Tumblr.