When I re-watched The Little Mermaid for the first time in many years, I expected a feminist nightmare with catchy songs, boring characters, and a cookie cutter love story. As I wrote in part one “The Little Badass Mermaid Anthropologist: Why Ariel is Actually Awesome,” I didn’t expect to find Indiana Jones in mermaid form. I loved the rebellious curiosity of Ariel’s character. But the second half of the movie gave me everything bad I had been expecting.
If I were to write a summary sentence, it would be: “When a teenaged mermaid anthropologist seeks to join the human culture she studies against her father’s wishes, a vengeful squid-octopus witch makes her a deal that puts the entire ocean at risk.”
One interesting thing I realized about this movie is that, while Ursula the sea witch is definitely the villain, I’m not sure she’s the antagonist. That honor goes to her father, who works more directly against Ariel’s aims, especially in the early movie. Ariel is basically an anthropologist who wants to join the culture she studies, and Triton is the greatest barrier to this.
As for Ursula herself…
Finally, we have the only other character competent enough to be sharing a movie with Ariel, at least the Ariel we meet at first. If there’s one thing Disney never failed to bring, it was damn good villains. Of either gender. She’s a powerful character. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the name Ursula without thinking of her.
Not only is she a witch of the first order (look at her chuck potion ingredients into her cauldron!), she has what is probably one of the better surveillance systems in the ocean: Flotsam and Jetsam, whose eyes allow the sea witch to see what they see. Can you imagine if Triton had those? 1984 with mermaids.
Also, remember that thing where she’s impaled AND struck by lightning? When I write that out, it sounds like it should be overkill, but somehow it isn’t. She has the presence to make it work.
This is a worthy adversary for Early Movie Ariel, but once Early Movie Ariel encounters Ursula, she becomes Later Movie Ariel. Except, the transformation starts earlier. Things start going downhill for Ariel, and the movie, the instant she lays eyes on Prince Eric.
The Problem with Prince Eric
You have to go as far as real life to find someone else as bougie and boring as Prince Eric. His butler gives him an enormous statue of himself while they’re at sea. In front of all the sailors. In contrast to the Mermaid Version of Indiana Jones, Prince Eric is the one babbling on about marriage.
Loves dogs and the ocean, looking for the perfect girl. Way to be a human dating profile, Prince Eric. To give him some credit, he does impale Ursula with his ship at the end of the movie. But it’s too little too late, and she was being struck by lightning at the same time anyway.
Ariel meets Prince Eric and, just like every horror movie, does not realize how godawful boring he is. Enter the feminist nightmare of a plot in which Ariel agrees to drastically change her body for a guy she just met. Even worse (because at least the legs were a trade and will allow her to learn more about the human culture she loves), she gives up her voice.
I’ve been in a relationship for sixteen years, and as I sit here writing this, I’m still not sure I’d willingly give up my voice and my primary mode of locamotion for my partner. I can even hear him in my head saying, “Don’t do that. It’s dumb.”
This goes further downhill into the kissing plot. Ariel has three days to get Prince Boring to kiss her, but she’s apparently lost her moxie along with her fins and her voice. She tries to be pretty and enticing in the hopes that he will kiss her, but she never tries kissing him. Maybe that was against the rules of the deal and I missed it, but even the sea witch said her in song not to underestimate the importance of body language. This would have been the time for heaving bosoms and general sort of Harlequin romance behavior.
The sea witch will own Ariel forever if she doesn’t make the kiss happen. She will become one of the sentient seaweeds at the bottom of Ursula’s cave. Which means she’ll either get put into some kind of soup recipe*, or she’ll have to watch every single other mermaid who wanders into the cave fall for the same thing. This seems as though it would be greatly motivating.
But even with all that’s at stake for Ariel, she does almost nothing.
There’s even an entire song to convince P. Boring to kiss her, a song which she plays no absolutely no part in making. Instead, she leaves everything to her incompetent babysitter, Sebastian the Crab, whose solution to most problems is to have a musical number at them.**
She’s thrown into a classic love story in which she plays a classic, passive role, and she goes along with it. What happened to Early Movie Ariel, who swam back to a dangerous shipwreck for a bag?
She turned into a lady. And ladies can’t do shit.
Ladies give up their power, their agency, their voice. It’s not that Ariel is silent; it’s that she agreed to be silent.
Ladies wait for their prince to impale the sea witch with a ship instead of doing it themselves. It’s not that she’s powerless; it’s that she’s complicit in her own powerlessness.
Ariel’s last act as an empowered character is to given up her power.
Her transformation so overshadows the tough character of Early Movie Ariel that after all these years, I had forgotten the way she starts out. I realized, in Ariel’s first scene, that this was the character my five-year-old self loved. In a way that I have fully internalized and never let go of, my five-year-old self wanted to BE that character. The exciting rebel geek who cuts class to explore and adventure.
I want the story of Early Movie Ariel to be the story. I want her to impale the sea witch herself. I want her to swim back to Ursula’s lair, smash the amulet containing her voice, and use her vast knowledge of human culture to broker some kind of treaty between Prince Boring and her father. And maybe to depose her father and reopen her underwater museum.
But unlike so many stories in which the character grows, changes, and overcomes inner weaknesses, Ariel’s character development simply cuts off. The story beneath the story beneath the ocean is of Ariel giving up all her agency to become a lady. What she used to be is simply…lost.
Pessimistically, the moral of the story? Never give up your agency. You might get back your voice, but so much else might be gone forever.
Alternately, the moral of the story? Teenagers are stupid. Don’t be one. If you are one, stop that. It may take you seven years, but stop that.
Optimistically, the moral of the story? All feminists have bad days. You do something awesome like keep your name when you get married, but then you continue to shave your legs, or to miss experiences because you didn’t. No one is perfect. No one lives by their ideals all of the time.
That’s Ariel’s story, in the end. We all make compromises. Sometimes they hurt. Ariel is awesome, Ariel is terrible, Ariel is flawed.
That might not be the story Disney set out to tell, but it’s the only way I can reconcile the two halves of this character. My brain keeps wanting to find some way for the disconnect to make sense. To make a story out of it.
*Does kale have more protein if it’s made out of a mermaid? Only genetic engineering can tell.
**I think he gets sick of babysitting and wants to go back to something he’s good at. I find Sebastian the Crab relatable in the same hand-wringing way as C-3PO.
After telling someone how much Frozen reminded me of the Disney movies I liked as a kid, I decided to watch The Little Mermaid again for the first time in many years. As much as I loved The Little Mermaid and Aladdin when I was younger, I came to retroactively hate the whole Disney Princess thing. I went in expecting that I would hate the music and the love story, and find most of the characters boring, except Ursula the sea witch. One thing I wasn’t expecting from The Little Mermaid? To find the title character herself even remotely interesting, let alone a beacon of competence and badassery in the midst of a literal ocean of incompetent and evil associates.
While I went into the movie fully prepared to snark, I was drawn into the Magical World of the Ocean almost immediately. After the opening scene gets past some stuff with Prince Eric and his sailors dropping hints about the mythological sea creatures to show up in the next minute, there’s a really nice intro that plunges us down into the ocean to a majestic, mystical score. It’s a wonderful opening that makes me want to go to the library, check out a stack of books on jelly fish, and then geek out on marine life for days and learn about crazy, esoteric creatures that glow in the dark and mate with their own tentacles*.
And then we meet Ariel, who is leaning against the side of the convenience store with the dumpster and the hints of danger, smoking and flipping her Manic Panic Pillarbox Red hair while cutting class with her dumpy, inadequately-eyelinered best friend/ tag-a-long, who is drinking root beer out of what looks like a beer bottle if you cover the label with your hand.
Oh, wait, she’s actually skipping a lame musical rehearsal with her goody-goody sisters to explore a dangerous, shark-infested shipwreck** because she’s Indiana Jones in mermaid form? And then a shark eats the ship and she goes back for her bag?
But I’m pretty sure the friend is the same.
I’ll pause to note that this character introduction is awesome, and the movie is definitely setting me up for disappointment. But this isn’t a scene-by-scene recap, so…
Here are some things that make Ariel more awesome than other Disney princesses:
Ariel is not a princess of some tiny, France-like country. Ariel is a princess of the entire ocean.
Ariel is a mythological creature, and a magical one at that. None of the mermaids have gills–how are they breathing underwater? MAGIC. (Or intense Guybrush Threepwood-level breath-holding skills.)
As mentioned above, Ariel is obviously a Manic Panic customer, one who is somehow able to dye her hair while living underwater.
Ariel is a human geek, in the same way that many of us are Star Trek geeks or typography geeks or what have you. Remember how excited she is about the fork she finds in the abandoned ship? Only someone who truly loves a subject geeks out over minutiae like that.
Ariel is a mermaid anthropologist and archaeologist with an enormous, SECRET underwater museum housing her collection of human cultural artifacts. I mean, I know she gets caught, but she still amasses a sizable collection before that happens. I like to think that, in an alternate timeline, Ariel connects with the mermaid anthropological community at large and lets people in if they present secret golden scallop tokens in their palms. Or maybe not a scallop. Maybe some sort of token that shows their sympathy with the human community above the oceans. Like a golden foot that doesn’t have the right number of toes because they aren’t quite straight on that yet.
Speaking of King Triton…
I think the audience is eventually supposed to decide that Triton’s not so bad because he loves his daughter and wants her to be happy. But this guy’s a bigoted asshole. When he finds his daughter’s museum of human cultural artifacts, he blasts that thing to smithereens because he thinks humans are barbarians.
He’s also an irresponsible monarch, putting an entire ecosystem in danger. He sacrifices himself so that Ariel doesn’t become a seaweed-thing, allowing Ursula control of his trident, and therefore, the entire ocean.
Do you think the sea witch cares about the salt marshes, one of the greatest oxygen producers on earth? She does not! Triton should be thinking of things like this.
Anyway, it’s unfair to group Ariel with the other Disney princesses, because she is SO much cooler. It was with some surprise that I found myself not only enjoying the movie, but starting to realize why my five-year-old self loved the character of Ariel so much: it’s not because she’s a princess and wears assorted dresses and finds true love***. It’s because she’s a spirited badass in the vein of Indiana Jones, and until she fell in love with the prince, I actually loved this character in the present day too.
*The ocean is filled with crazy stuff, my friend. **I now realize that the shipwreck is foreshadowing. Thanks, English Degree! “You’re welcome, Kris! Can we chat about postmodernism later?” ***Or whatever you call it when you marry someone you’ve known for three days. Poor judgment.
A few years ago, I picked up Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk on the used book shelf at the grocery store. We put it on our cinder block bookshelf next to our Star Wars books and our giant thesaurus, and whatever other books we have on display in our living room that we think make us look cool, but actually do the opposite.
Please Kill Me thinks it’s cooler than the other books on my shelf. Even the Star Wars ones.
For years, music books were among the few types of nonfiction that could hold my attention through a few hundred pages. One day, I picked up Please Kill Me on a whim and read a few pages. I remained hypnotized in its pages until I finished it.
There’s less about the music itself than I would like, and the focus is on a fairly small number of bands. Plenty of TMI moments as well. However, it stitches together direct quotes so seamlessly that sometimes it doesn’t feel like reading separate voices. And despite the overwhelming number of people whom I’d probably hate if I met them in real life, it really conveys the living community of the New York punk scene, and it makes me want to be there. It reminds me of how important community is.
I wanted to share this quote from Legs McNeil, one of the authors of Please Kill Me (from page 334):
“Overnight, punk had become as stupid as everything else. This wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music was really about corrupting every form—it was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.”
At its best, punk wasn’t about studied coolness or meticulous safety-pinning. It was about doing shit. Kicking down doors. It was refusing to be stopped by roadblocks on the obvious path in front of you, roadblocks that say “you can’t go here,” and taking that DIY spirit and making your own road out of salvaged bricks and broken glass and a found bucket of tar*.
That quote reminds me to make my own damn artwork to hang in my apartment rather than to buy manufactured art from Target or someplace, and to make that artwork out of subjects and materials I like rather than worry about getting things a certain way. It’s better to do something creative and true than it is to make the place you live a poor copy of something in a magazine.
It reminds me of why I’m going to help make a new wooden table top for what used to be a glass deck table but, thanks to an incident** that qualifies as “embarrassing, awful, and stupid,” is currently just an empty frame sitting on a sad deck.
It reminds me to experiment and do things and learn, because so, so many people do not do things, only consume them. It reminds me that the biggest difference between many of my bad days and my good ones is that I did real things on the good ones. I made life up for myself.
*You can tell I know a lot about making roads.
**We didn’t buy a base for our umbrella because we didn’t like any that the store had. We knew we needed to get one, but the umbrella didn’t blow away, which sort of caused an idea to creep into our heads—an idea that maybe we didn’t need a base after all. Sometimes, we left the umbrella open, though we knew not do this. But again, nothing tragic happened, and another idea crept into our heads—an idea that it’s probably not the end of the world if we leave the umbrella open sometimes. One day, we came home to find that our umbrella had nearly blown off the deck in a big gust of wind, and a pile of tempered glass pebbles sat underneath what used to be our table top. And we knew better.
In a little over a month, on August 26th, the Storytime Blog Hop is coming.
What manner of Internet nonsense is a blog hop? I can hear you ask. Because I’m in your thoughts, thanks to the dark magic of internet cookies.
Remember the web rings of old? If not, pretend I never mentioned them. A blog hop kind of reminds me of that. Except, it’s also like a pub crawl, without the irritation of leaving your house. And without the alcohol, unless you provide that yourself.
What happens is that, on August 26th, I will post a short story, along with links to stories from other writers in the blog hop. None of them will be very long; some will even be flash fiction.
All the stories will be somewhere in the genre of speculative fiction—fantasy, sci fi, horror, or any crazy cocktail of those three. We could have anything from woodsprites to lasers, clockwork dragons to genetically engineered tentacle beasts. All of the above, even. Stories in the blog hop will be somewhere in the realm of PG-rated. No graphic sex or violence.
My own story will be about a powerless noble in the frigid city of Yauglesk, a place where an uneasy two-hundred year occupation is beginning to falter.
So, stay tuned for that. And also for the potpourri of upcoming blog posts, about things like pudding, typefaces, artwork, and monsters.