- YEAR: 1989
- DIRECTOR: John Musker, Ron Clements
- KEY ACTORS: Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll
- CERTIFICATE: U
- IMDB SCORE: 7.6
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 93%
SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ This is definitely rewatchable. And I have watched it many, many times!
✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel Test – she speaks to Ursula about more than just Eric and her sisters are named in their introduction song.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast. I’ve always had a problem with Eric’s eyes – I can’t explain it but I don’t like them – and Ariel is a child.
❌ And it didn’t inspire fantasies.
❌ But is it sex positive? I don’t think it can be – ‘Kiss the Girl’ is a song about avoiding consent and the villain is a queer-coded drag queen.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Disney+, Amazon Prime (buy £4.99), YouTube (from £9.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: abusive parenting, grooming, racism, fatphobia]
The Little Mermaid has a very special place in my heart as it was the first film that I saw in the cinema. If my memory is accurate, there’s a chance that this is my earliest real-world memory! I remember going to the cinema on a rainy summer day when we were on holiday in Cornwall in 1989 when I was just four years old. I remember the darkness and our seats at the back-right of the screen and I remember how loud it was. I actually don’t remember much of the film and I certainly don’t remember turning to my mother near the end when Ursula rises cackling out of the sea and screaming ‘I thought you said this had a happy ending!’ but I have been reliably (and frequently) told that this is the case! Luckily, since then I have watched and re-watched The Little Mermaid without such fear and have now seen it so often that I still know all the words to almost all of the songs.
So I was pleased that this was the movie chosen from my pre-Renaissance Disney movie poll, although my research has revealed that The Little Mermaid technically is the Disney Renaissance rather than occurring before it.
This was a fascinating time for Disney movies. After decades of failures and near bankruptcy, Disney knew they needed to produce something radically different and chose to reignite the Princess model with strong female leads to better reflect the more feminist era. And it is not an understatement to say that this choice saved the corporation.
The Renaissance period started with The Little Mermaid and extended throughout the 1990s, taking in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan – a very rich seam of Princess material! These princesses had more agency and more personality but, as linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer explained to the Washington Post, the princess herself is only part of the story and this grand feminist reimagining wasn’t as grand as it may initially appear. While Ariel may have been the first active Princess who was in control of her fate, The Little Mermaid was also the first Disney movie where men spoke more than women, and this began a trend that continued all the way to 2010’s Tangled, as shown in the graph below.
Devastatingly, this is because these newer movies had a strong female lead but had very few other women: ‘Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.’ Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora famously only has 18 lines but her movie is packed full of other women and people who present as women, showing the viewer a much more equal world than the later movies. It paints a pretty damning picture of the worlds that the more modern and feminist princesses lived in, ‘who rules these worlds, who has the power — and even who gets to open their mouths.’ The princesses weren’t part of a feminist revolution; they were isolated and extreme examples that did not fit into their wider society. Which is really sad.
But let’s move on to The Little Mermaid specifically. It is an updated version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale with the new obligatory happy ending that does occur despite tiny me’s doubts, and tells the story of Ariel (Benson), a mermaid who wants to be human. One day, she sees a prince, Eric, and rescues him from a shipwreck – the first princess to rescue her prince! Her father is so furious that he destroys her most precious possessions to teach her a lesson and this proves to be the trigger to her desire for transformation. She makes a deal with the fabulous but evil sea witch, Ursula (Carroll), to give her legs. Sadly, this comes with a price and Ariel has to give up her voice and seduce Eric with her body language instead to persuade him to kiss her in 3 days, otherwise her soul will belong to Ursula. Hijinks and calamities occur with near misses, catchy tunes and quite a lot of peril in a movie for children (with only a warning of tobacco use! Extraordinary…) before Ariel and Eric can be together. Yay for happy endings!
As the Washington Post pointed out, The Little Mermaid was released into a world in 1989 that was entirely different to that of 1959 when the last princess movie had been released – ‘Walt Disney died. Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington’ – and it shows. This new world needed an entirely new kind of princess and they got that in Ariel. Roger Ebert’s review in 1989 described Ariel as ‘a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.’ Independent. Fully realised. Smart. Rebellious. Ariel is no snoozing beauty; she’s a woman of action!
But the intervening years haven’t been kind to The Little Mermaid’s feminist credentials. Of those feminst princess listicles I shared last week, Ariel is always in the bottom half, if she’s mentioned at all. As examples of the backlash against her, Chloe Anhyal for Feministing described The Little Mermaid as ‘a feminist’s worst nightmare’ and Hilary Sheinbaum for Huffington Post felt so strongly that Ariel was a bad role model that she isn’t going to let her children watch it.
The problems with The Little Mermaid boil down to the fact that Ariel seems to give up her entire identity – her species, her voice, her personality – to pursue a man she saw once from a distance. She makes a deal with her family’s nemesis and leaves them behind, eventually needing to be rescued by both her father, who has to sacrifice herself to undo her mistakes, and her man. Cool, cool, cool.
But I think this interpretation is all wrong. For me, the question of Ariel’s feminism boils down to the fact that she is only sixteen and depends on whether that means that you view her as a child who is going to make childish and selfish mistakes, needing to be protected and then rescued, or whether she is a young woman who is capable and able of knowing what she wants and has the agency and confidence to go and get it.
Teenagers, and particularly teenage girls and other young people who don’t present as men, are too often underestimated and their opinions trivialised. Mature enough to consent to sex but not yet mature enough to vote (in England at least), teenagers are often told they are too young to know better, too young to really even know what they want. People too often feel that they need to protect teenagers from themselves and don’t believe that anyone that young can really know what they want. You only need to look at the recent disastrous legal precedent set that prevents trans young people from accessing puberty blockers, despite ample scientific evidence proving the benefits to mental health, to realise that the ‘grown ups’ don’t always know what’s best for young people. They simply don’t believe that anyone that age can possibly be capable of making lifelong decisions, and they are wrong.
Because the anti-feminist crew seem to forget that Ariel didn’t decide to be a human because she met Eric. She had been obsessed with humans for long enough to have collected an entire cavern’s worth of treasures and sings ‘Part of Your World’ before she saw Eric, singing ‘I wanna be where the people are. I wanna see, wanna see them dancing’ and listing everything that she wants to do when she can walk on land. Her desire to be a human had absolutely nothing to do with Eric! Yes, she saw him and thought he was beautiful but it could have been a crush. Watching it again now, Ariel never says that she wants to be with him, never says anything about needing to change or finding a way to be with him, until she’s pushed by Triton and until Ursula offers her a way out. She mainly treats Eric like a celebrity crush, mooning over his statue like I did over posters of Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ariel isn’t chasing recklessly after a man. She simply knows that something isn’t right in her life. She’s not satisfied under the sea and doesn’t feel comfortable or at home in her mermaid body, yearning after an existence that feels more right and more her. Really, it’s no wonder that Ariel is considered a trans icon! As Shon Faye told Buzzfeed, ‘Ariel was always my favorite Disney princess. I always strongly identified with her, probably because we’re both trans women…I mean, I’m just transgender, whereas I guess Ariel is trans-species, but you know, getting here wasn’t an easy ride for either of us!’
Looked at through this lens, I’m actually more worried about the lessons that The Little Mermaid teaches us about parenthood than about whether or not Ariel is a good role model for young people.
Because Triton is not a good father. He is the ultimate patriarch and he rules with an iron fist, flipping into an explosive rage whenever he is slighted. His rules are dictatorial and frankly a little racist, or at least species-ist. Whether or not he thinks he is acting in their best interests, forbidding anyone in his kingdom from visiting the surface because humans are ‘all the same! Spineless, savage, harpooning fish eaters, incapable of any feeling!’ is judging the entire human race with a very broad brush. And does Triton change his mind about humans after Ariel and Eric’s wedding? Or is he just forgiving Eric because of Ariel’s love and still hates and distrusts all the rest?
Sadly, Triton uses the same authoritarian rule with his family, telling Ariel that ‘as long as you live under my ocean, you’ll obey my rules!’ despite her protestations that she’s ‘sixteen years old [and] not a child.’ If I’m completely honest, I have gone around in circles on who I agree with here – when I was a child, I obviously sided with Ariel and thought that Triton was being hugely unreasonable but, as I got older, I changed my mind. There was even a meme about how you can tell that you’re getting old because you start agreeing with these supposedly unreasonable parents in Disney movies. But I’ve come to realise that there is more nuance in this situation and it’s brought me back around to Ariel’s perspective. She is perfectly capable of knowing her mind at sixteen and, while not many teenage love affairs last a lifetime, not all ‘adult’ relationships do either and, anyway, a relationship ending doesn’t invalidate or diminish the strength of feeling that was there before. Whether she does want Eric or is just desperate to be human, Triton shouldn’t have just shut down the conversation. He should have tried to understand. ‘But if you would just listen!’ Ariel pleads to her father, but Triton doesn’t seem interested in getting to know her at all.
I couldn’t help but think of a different version of The Little Mermaid where Triton had made an effort to know his daughters, rather than just giving them all ‘A’ names and making them sing to him. Ariel could have spoken to him about her love of humanity and how she didn’t feel right as a mermaid. She could have included him in her explorations and he could have protected her, helped her, guided her. More, he could have facilitated her transformation into a human without needing to make a deal with Ursula – he clearly has the power! With his blessing, she wouldn’t have needed to make Eric fall in love with her under time pressure. She wouldn’t have needed to run away at all. But he doesn’t do that.
Triton: I consider myself a reasonable merman. I set certain rules, and I expect those rules to be obeyed!…So help me, Ariel, I am going to get through to you! And if this is the only way, so be it.
He makes a choice that now appears to be shockingly abusive and he destroys the treasure collection that makes her happy. As Chelsea Steiner wrote in The Mary Sue, this is ‘literally an AITA dad move if there ever was one.’ And it pushes her away. Worse, it pushes her into Ursula’s arms and gives Ursula the opportunity to be the only one who understands, which now looks disconcertingly like a grooming technique.
Ursula is a fascinating character. Inspired ‘in both appearance and demeanor’ by legendary drag queen Divine, it sadly says a lot about the prevailing attitudes towards minorities that she is a villain. Ursula is a fat, old merperson of colour with more than a dash of queer coding thrown on top, which of course means that she has to be evil. Urgh. It really is distressingly fatphobic and misogynistic that Disney would create a villain out of a plus-sized female presenting character that is so comfortable in her body and with her sexuality: ‘The belief here that evil equates to bigger, or rather fatter, is apparent and it sets a dangerous precedent for viewers of the film.’
And Ursula is certainly ‘one heck of a feminist anti-hero,’ fully aware of the Patriarchy but choosing to profit from it rather than smash it. While it shows incredible business sense, using ‘Ariel’s internalized sexism’ against her, all she is doing is perpetuating those stereotypes that we should be working to get away from and her song ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ makes it very clear that she knows exactly what she is doing. Fat people want to be thinner, ugly people want to be more beautiful; everyone thinks they need to conform to society’s expectations to be happy and would be willing to sell their soul to get it.
The juxtaposition of Ursula’s size and Ariel’s apparent beauty also reinforces the old misogynistic trope about ‘the triumph of “good” women – young, slender, silent and lovesick – over “bad” women – old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual.’ Whether they’re sea-witches or conventional witches, movies constantly emphasise that deviating from blonde, white, cis, thin beauty standards just makes you a bad person, and that has to stop.
While I’m talking about her beauty, can I quickly mention how gross it is that so many reviewers in 1989 mentioned how sexy Ariel was. She was literally sixteen! This LA Times review by Michael Wilmington feels particularly distasteful now: ‘Mermaid‘s saucy heroine, Ariel, isn’t much like Andersen’s sad, noble sea-maid. She’s a sexy little honey-bunch with a double-scallop-shell bra and a mane of red hair tossed in tumble-out-of-bed Southern California salon style…There’s a heightened element of sexual sophistication in the story–partial nudity and double entendres, despite a “G” rating.’ Eww.
Ahh, the length of this review is getting out of hand but I briefly wanted to sing Eric’s praises as he is a hugely underrated hero! I know that the fact that he refuses to kiss Ariel is a problem for the plot but it does make him seem like a much better man. He doesn’t fall immediately for Ariel’s looks and, shock horror, wants to wait until they can have a conversation before agreeing to marry her. And, as Eliana Dockterman and Laura Stampler point out in their article for Time Magazine, ‘he flat-out says he believes that Ariel lost her voice as a part of some big event. So when he doesn’t want to immediately lock lips with the feisty mute, it’s because he doesn’t want to take advantage of a recent trauma victim.’ Finally, he seems to be the first prince to care about consent – something that apparently Sebastian the crab does not: ‘there’s the unsettling fact that the song “Kiss the Girl” tells us that the “one way to ask” if a woman wants you to kiss her, is to just kiss her.’ Coooooooool.
So I know I said in my Frozen post that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to introduce my daughter to Ariel until she was old enough to talk about her value and independence, but having watched The Little Mermaid again, I’m not worried about that anymore as I think Ariel is a pretty great role model for her. Although I may regret wishing for this, I’d love any child of mine to be that fiercely curious and brave enough to go after what she wants with such commitment and passion. Ariel stands up for herself to both Ursula and her father, she is adaptive enough to just get up and walk when she is given legs, and she never appears scared or unsure. She’s incredible. AND she was the first red-headed Disney Princess and, considering the strawberry blonde nature of our family, it’s important that this is celebrated!
Instead, watching The Little Mermaid with her will serve to remind me where I can improve as a parent. Remind me that I need to listen to what my children want and be interested in what they like so that I can be there for them when they need me: ‘To the king, Ariel isn’t mature enough to do things on her own but her curiosity, adventure, and drive prove him wrong. Ariel encourages young girls to stick to their beliefs at a young age and [not to] be afraid to chase your dreams.’
Because I’d much rather be like Ursula than King Triton anyway…
NEXT WEEK… Beauty and the Beast