The Little Badass Mermaid Anthropologist: Why Ariel is Actually Awesome

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.

A Polaroid recordable VHS tape with rainbow stripes.
The cover art practically gives away the entire movie.

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:

  1. Ariel is not a princess of some tiny, France-like country. Ariel is a princess of the entire ocean.
  2. 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.)
  3. As mentioned above, Ariel is obviously a Manic Panic customer, one who is somehow able to dye her hair while living underwater.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

But then the rest of the movie happens.

Yes, there is actually a Part Two, “The Little Passive Mermaid Lady: Why Ariel is Actually Terrible,” to be posted on June 28, 2019.


*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.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.