Ariel is Deserves a Defense

Right now, as I type this I hear The Little Mermaid opening credits playing in the girls’ room. It’s one of those movies they have on repeat as they play with their dolls and “ahh ahh ahh” along.  I know I am not the only one who is excited for the new version of The Little Mermaid. I also know I am not the only one who has been criticized for loving Ariel and the original movie.   

I remember having a discussion in one of my undergrad classes about Disney princesses. The discussion was about the cookie cutter princess, and we were trying to decide when they started to become more strong female figures rather than damsels in distress. I immediately offered Ariel as the first feminist princess. I was then immediately shot down. Collective groans, eye rolls, and even a gasp or two came when I said I thought she was the first step towards feminist princesses. How could I think the girl who literally gives up her voice for a man is a strong princess?

I was probably 20ish years old at the time, and I had not sat and watched the movie for years. I remember floundering a bit to explain. All I could think was that one: her muteness is part of the original story and two: in the first scene where we meet her, she beats up a shark. That wasn’t enough, though. In the moment when I hadn’t seen the movie in so long and everyone was telling me I was wrong, I couldn’t articulate why I felt like she was such a strong lead. I just knew that when I first saw The Little Mermaid at 4 years old, I wanted to be like Ariel. And my idea of being like Ariel was being spunky, strong, and independent. After class, another girl came up to me to say that she agreed with me. She told me she felt the same way, but she also couldn’t articulate why.

This 5, maybe 10 minute discussion that took place 15 years ago never left me. How could I, a woman who prides herself in her feminist ideals, have such affection for the girl who “gives up her voice?” How could anyone allow their daughters to love a princess who would give up her voice and family for a man? Every now and again I would remember and think to myself that Ariel deserved more. I knew she was a strong princess, and at some point I’d be able to explain why. 

I could not defend Ariel then, but thanks to my daughters’ obsessions with the movie, I am no longer so far removed from the film. I know now that I was not wrong about her being one of the first strong, independent princesses, so I will defend her now.  It is a gross generalization to say that Ariel gives up so much for a man. In actuality Ariel gives up very little. She risks her life for a chance to live the way she dreams for herself, yes. But give up her voice? No. She is bold enough to trade her speaking voice for a chance to pursue her own happiness. She uses actions to convey her messages, and a man just happens to be along for the ride.

We immediately know Ariel is not your “ordinary” princess because even before we meet her, we learn that she is defiant. She doesn’t care about the pomp and circumstance of presenting herself to a kingdom. Rather than being put on display in a giant clamshell throne, forced to sing and entertain, she skips out on her performance to explore a dangerous shipwreck.

We know it is dangerous because, as I mentioned in my English class eons ago, she gathers her treasures even while outwitting a hungry hunting shark. Rather than retreating home after narrowly escaping the danger of being eaten alive, she swims to the forbidden surface to try and discover more about her treasures. Then she rushes home to apologize to her father, but when he learns what she was doing her father reprimands her for going to the surface (again). What I find interesting is that the mention of the shark attack gets little to no reaction, but the danger of the surface sets the King off on a tirade. “As long as you live under my ocean you obey my rules.” Those rules include being ignorant of anything outside of “his ocean,” his world.

“If you would just listen,” she begs.

“Not another word!”

So far, in (less than) the first fifteen minutes of the film, we know that Ariel is daring, defiant, and courageous, but with a voice that is not heard. Try as she might, she cannot get a word in. I can understand how this can be seen as just an insolent teenager being shut down by her parent’s “because I said so” argument, but she isn’t disobeying her father just for the sake of disobedience. She is trying to learn about new things. She also tries to justify her actions but is not allowed to express herself. (How many of us have the same problem?)

Then comes the song. The beautiful, iconic “Part of Your World.” Interesting side note – the song is called “Part of Your World,” but the lyrics are actually “part of that world.” I think the misheard lyric attributes to the idea of Ariel giving everything up to be a part of someone else’s world rather than just that other world. Anyway, the song starts off sweetly enough, about her gadgets and gizmos, but then she desperately sings “I want more,” and she doesn’t mean material things.

Bet’cha on land they understand

Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters

Bright young women sick of swimmin’

Ready to stand

And ready to know what the people know

Ask ’em my questions and get some answers

Beyond just trinkets and objects, she wants to be taken seriously. She wants to “wander free” to explore the things she has not seen before. She wants to learn and “know what the people know.” And even more importantly she wants to “Ask ’em my questions and get some answers.” She wants to be able to ask and be answered! Not just shoo’d away, told not to think about it, just do what she’s told, and shut up. She believes that in this new world “they understand,” are less constrictive, and more open to “bright young women” who aren’t reprimanded for curiosity but encouraged. More than just dancing and sunbathing, she wants her turn to do and learn and love as she pleases.

It is important to note this all happens before she ever even lays her eyes on Prince Eric. We know right from the start of the movie that Ariel wants to be a part of a world different from hers. She lives in a world that is not her own but her father’s, where her personal voice is not a treasure. It is only there for performance purposes.

When she does see Eric, I cannot say I blame her immediate infatuation. She peers from the side of his ship – she must again be quiet as to not draw attention to herself – this is forbidden and dangerous. Ariel learns that this human is very much like her. He is humble and does not like to be put on display (in his case in statue form). We learn he does not want to be married off to just anyone for political purposes, but to “the right” person of his choosing. Also like Ariel, when faced with danger, he doesn’t cower and hide. He helps his crew gain control of the ship until it is impossible, he saves drowning passengers, and he risks his own life to save his beloved dog. He is not just a stock cut out of a prince, but a character with personality, so of course she is smitten.

If this movie was just about a girl who was willing to give up her voice for a guy, Ariel would have made her bargain with the Sea Witch right then and there. But she doesn’t. She does what most teenagers do and fantasizes about what could be, but she never considers making a bargain with Ursula until her father finds out about her crushing on a human.

From the aforementioned shark scene, we know Ariel has risked her life for at least some of the pieces in her human artifacts collection. Her last haul was only a few items, but her cavern is filled from sand to ceiling. Who can guess how long she has been collecting? But because she disobeyed her father, her collection of artifacts, her life’s work, are turned to dust and all she can do is watch. It doesn’t matter if she begs, pleads, and cries. A disobedient teenage girl must suffer and be silenced.

It is only after the work of her life is destroyed that she considers talking to the Sea Witch. Ursula insists “on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word.” So far, we can see why Ariel does not value her speaking voice. Any time she attempts to use it, she is silenced, must be quiet for her own safety, or told it is not needed. In this world, Ariel already doesn’t have a voice. What difference does it make if she gives up what she doesn’t actually have?  At least now she has a chance at having her “turn” to “explore that shore up above out of the sea” and be “part of that world.”

Throughout the rest of the movie, we See Ariel and Eric reunite, and I appreciate the fact that Eric is not so easily won. We see that he does begin to fall for Ariel’s charming personality as she combs her hair with a fork, her adventurous spirit as she leaps her carriage over a cliff, and her unapologetic excitement as she blows pipe smoke in Grimsby’s face. But he is ever respectful, and even “Kiss the Girl” doesn’t really work until Eric is sure Ariel wants to be kissed (I am curious about the lyric change in the new film, and I applaud the writers for making necessary changes).

Certainly Eric’s chivalry and honor are beside the point here. Having two interesting and lovable characters fall in love with each other is really just a bonus happy ending to Ariel finally getting what she wants. As Sebastian points out, Ariel “traded her voice to the Sea Witch and got legs” (NOT Eric – legs). Because of that trade she is able to experience everything she sings about in “Part of Your World.” During the scene where she and Eric tour the kingdom she jumps, dances, strolls down the street, and more. Furthermore, her speechless communications with Eric were effective. He understands what she wants to see and do and assists her in all those things. He doesn’t tell her she can’t take the reins but hands them over and lets her guide their carriage. She doesn’t spend her time touring the kingdom trying to make Eric fall in love with her. Instead she uses the time to engross herself in and truly becomes “part of that world,” to which his falling for her just comes naturally.

And it is, in fact, Ariel’s voice that Eric loves. He wants his bride to have her own voice and not just be a thing on his arm. It is her voice that enchants him. He wants his future wife to be heard. This is what makes Ursula so clever. She knows that a good man (a feminist – yes they can be men too!)wants the woman he loves to have a voice. Ursula convinces Ariel that men do NOT want a talking woman because she knows that is only true of oppressive men – the exact type of men Ariel could never fall in love with anyway. (I am especially interested to see the lyric change in the new version. To me this manipulation is key, and I wonder how it is changed without taking away the fact that Ursula is clearly lying.)

Of course this is why the real drama occurs. Eric is cursed by Ursula and Ariel must save him yet again. She saves him from remaining possessed and marrying a squid, then she saves him once more from the Sea Witch’s magical blows. If not for Ariel, Eric would have been dead a few times.  Unlike many other past princesses, she is the one who does the saving.

I think we could take away the whole romantic element of the movie we would still have the same outcome. Upon his destroying her possessions and ignoring her voice, Ursula could have used almost anything to get Ariel to agree to her contract. But this is not an original fairy tale. It is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, which is a romance. That is why it is so important that both Ariel and her romantic interest are strong, feminist characters. While Ariel might be a bit naïve (or just flat out wrong) about the human world’s treatment of their daughters as a whole, the person she is willing to be with does in fact hold her beliefs that women are “bright” and worthy to “get some answers.”

I also think as adults we forget what it is like to be young and ambitious. That’s why it is so easy to dismiss Ariel as a silly teenager who is willing to give up her life for some boy. It’s easy to mistake her bravery for foolishness or her determination to be heard for insubordination. It’s easy because a part of us want her to be a silly, foolish, insubordinate teenager because gross generalizations are easy to understand. And why would a children’s cartoon have depth anyway?

The Little Mermaid is not a perfect movie. I am hoping that the writers of the live action film have taken advantage of the nearly 35 years between releases to help clarify Ariel’s strengths. Maybe they will clarify why she can’t just write a note to Eric, or at least have her marry as an adult. I hope the movie makes clear that Ariel did not give up her voice for a man. She traded her voice for a chance to live exactly how she wanted to live. That’s the amazing thing about Ariel. Even though her story is about a girl who is mute, she is not the silent, placid, cookie cutter princess. She finds ways to express herself and follow her dreams without a voice, the same way so many women in the real world are forced to – through expression and actions because we are often silenced by the world around us.

Ariel is a badass, and I am glad my daughters love Ariel as I did. We have the release marked on our calendars and can’t wait to see it!

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