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.
I just scheduled Part Two of my series on The Little Mermaid. At first, I resisted the idea of writing a two-part series on this movie when I’m not that into Disney as a whole. But now that it’s finished, I think this was appropriate. This movie loomed huge in my childhood. I can’t count how many times I drew grotesquely proportioned pictures of Ariel’s red hair, purple shell bra, and green fins. It’s revealing to delve into obsessions, even (or especially?) ones from long ago. Now that I’ve written both parts, I can see how Ariel’s character in the beginning of the movie influenced me profoundly. Even now, I want to go trespassing somewhere and disrespect authority more.
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 went in expecting that my retroactive hatred of the whole Disney Princess thing would extend to the music and the love story, and that I would find most of the characters boring. Except Ursula the sea witch, obviously 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 wonderful intro that plunges us down into the ocean to a majestic, mystical score. It 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.