I’m tired of rolling my eyes every time some schmo with a liberal arts degree strikes up the oh-so-original Disney Movies Are Sexist conversation. So no more eye rolling. Here is my well-argued and completely irrefutable feminist defense of Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid. The film might not pass the Bechdel Test, but its protagonist is an A+ feminist role model.
(Yes, this was possibly the most influential movie of my formative years; yes, I learned to swim by shouting “I’M A FLOUNDER FISHY!” as I jumped into the backyard pool; yes, I was Ariel for Halloween for at least three years; and YES, I used to stand on tables and sing “Part of That World“ for my parents’ friends. “I’ve got whose-gits and whats-gits galore. You want thing-of-the-Bob’s? I’ve got plenty.” ((I made up the words I didn’t understand.)) I am biased. But I am still right.)
I’ve heard the favorite arguments: She gives up everything she wants for the love of a man she barely knows. She’s a vapid, flat-character who is too easily swayed by others. She is a helpless damsel in distress who would be dead if her hunky prince didn’t drive a boat through the Sea Witch.
Item 1: Throwing her life away for a man.
Ariel’s big aria, “Part of That World” occurs before she sets eyes on that dreamy Prince Eric. No man in the picture, she sings about feeling stifled in her environment physically and intellectually. “Flipping your fins, you don’t get too far.” “[I’ll] ask them my questions and get some answers.” This song is about her greatest aspirations, and is entirely free of any romantic influences whatsoever. Notice that the reprises, after she does meet Eric are shorter and less substantive!
To say that Ariel’s deal with Ursula was entirely about the lust for a man is incorrect. Her desire to be human is something she developed throughout her life as she collected their artifacts and tried (in vain due to her ignorant teacher, Scuttle) to learn all she can about them. Eric is a motivating factor, to be sure, but he fits right in to the wish she already wanted.
Analogy – I have an interview in another city for the job of my dreams. Through some mysterious circumstance I come to learn that my soulmate works in the building across the street. OF COURSE I’m going to try really freaking hard to get that job! I wanted it anyway! Mr. Right is simply icing on the cake!
And yes, people can poke fun at love-at-first-sight all they want. But she observed Eric in a very telling three minute introduction! Have any of you come across an OkCupid profile for a dashing young man who A) Is a spirited musician; B) Cares not for titles and accolades; C) Is looking for love but refuses to lower his standards; and D) Would risk his life without hesitation to save his AWESOME DOG? If you did, I bet you winked at that catch. Come on, his pick-up line is “Would you like to take a tour of my kingdom?” UMYES.
Item 2: Dumb.
Why doesn’t anyone complain that Maximus from Gladiator is stupid when he is duped by General Quintas? Atticus Finch is such an idiot for letting his kids walk home from their school play. Chief Brody. What a fool. That shark was HUGE.
I’m calling double standard.
So what Ursula lures Ariel in using the best minions ever? So what she tricks Ariel into giving up her voice? Villains take advantage of people. That’s what villains do. Ursula is a woman who knows what she wants, and what she wants is leverage over King Triton. And Ariel is merely sweet sixteen. Just give her a teensy break here. For me? Thanks.
Item 3: Helpless damsel.
Ok, I really don’t have much of an argument here. Ariel is cornered by a vengeful magic Octowitch with the power to control the sea. And she needs help? Pathetic. Good thing the invincible and completely self-reliant Eric came to her resc- BUT WAIT NOW I REMEMBER. HE WOULDN’T BE THERE AT ALL IF SHE DIDN’T SAVE HIS ASS BEFORE ACT II.
Ariel stands up to the patriarchy in the most literal of senses. Stands- as in supports her weight vertically on her legs. Up to the Patriarchy- as in the governing body ruled by her tyrannical father.
Refute my claims in the comments if you dare.