A Feminist Defense of Ariel

19 Oct

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.


23 Responses to “A Feminist Defense of Ariel”

  1. Molpadia (Molly) October 19, 2012 at 11:45 am #

  2. enlightenedprincess October 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    This is great! Thank you! I will definetely reblog this as soon as I get to Ariel in my little series… if you can call it that :D

  3. Sotorya (Tory) October 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    Allow me to express my love for you with a bevy of gifs:

    Also : How I see you right now:

    What…..I told you it was a bevy.

  4. Alicia Pesce October 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    You know I was feeling down on the Little Mermaid until I read this and you do make a good about the movie. However, there are other movies in Disney that are pretty sexist like Snow White, Cinderella and Sleepy Beauty (although those were animated by Walt Disney himself which would explain a lot…)

    • Sotorya (Tory) October 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      Here’s the thing, you have to remember when these movies were created. They aren’t all bad. (Also remember that they are way better than the original stories, Sleeping Beauty for example, isn’t woken by a kiss, she’s raped by the king, gives birth, and wakes up when her TODDLER sucks the spindle out of her finger. Snow White? Evil Queen dances to death in red hot shoes made of burning iron. Cinderella? The stepsisters cut their toes off to try and fit in the glass slipper) Yeah.

      • Jacq. October 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

        I Love the European Versions so much more! Three Little Pigs: Wolf gets roasted in the brick chimney shaft & the pigs eat him. Justice.

      • celoptra November 5, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

        Hate to point out. Disney’s Cinderella is based on Perrault’s version. (GLASS SLIPPERS/Fairy GODMOTHER). The version you’re thinking of is of the Grimm Version. (GOLDEN Slippers, and magical birds/tree)

    • celoptra November 5, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

      Might I remind people DISNEY DID NOT WRITE THE STORIES!

      Cinderella “What do you expect she could DO?” She could have been treated MUCH worse then what she was getting at her step-family (ie. the master of another house could beat her (since she would be a servant and not the same equal standing,), master/master sons could force themselves upon her and she could have ended up pregnant and then be tossed out on the street.

      Same idea with Snow. Another thing Snow is 14 in the movie, 7 in the first part of the oringal and then grows while “dead” for who knows how long.

  5. seweldon26 October 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    You fail to address the most important argument the opposing side offers. She quite literally GIVES UP HER VOICE to be with this man. This is essential to the argument that she is a typical entity of Disney’s sexism. “Hey, you love the guy, huh? Well, you can be with him if you never get to voice an opinion or utilize your greatest talent ever again (singing),” WHAT?!

    • Sotorya (Tory) October 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      I will respond Once More With Feeling (and with gifs)

      You discount the MAJOR piece here, is that she. gets. it. back. Giving up her voice is not just to “be with this man” it’s to be part of a different world. She is trying to become part of a world that she views as more accepting of differences, and of quirks. SHE kicks the villians ass and regains her OWN DAMN VOICE. It’s only after she regains her voice, through her own abilities mind you, that they end up together. So, breaking it down: She saves the day, saves herself, ends up with someone she loves, and gets to join a society that’s going to accept her for who she is? Hmmmmm. Terrible. terrible message right there.

      • Sotorya (Tory) October 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

      • seweldon26 October 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

        Wow. I honestly appreciated your argument and felt you made valid points, but I wouldn’t have DARED TO REFUTE YOUR CLAIM (as you so modestly put it) if I had known this was less of an intellectual conversation than a gif war. Your condescending attitude is quite the put off, and I hope in the future that your comments display a touch more maturity and respect. Why even allow comments if you approach the blog under the presumption that any argument challenging you is wrong? Why can’t you express yourself without putting down what I had to say?

      • Penthesilea (Penny) October 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

        Actually, I have to agree with @seweldon26 here, Tor. Fewer gifs, fewer SHOUTY CAPS, please?

        We certainly encourage discussion/disagreement here at P&P, and we do love our gifs, but… we also want everyone to feel free to participate and express their opinions, even if those opinions do not happen to coincide with those of the editors or their friends.

      • Sotorya (Tory) October 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

        I’m going to be honest , I pulled an attitude because I felt that the original post I responded to here was very dismissing, and to my eyes (ears?) had a very rude tone. If that was not the way it was intended I apologize.

        The point she brought up as not being addressed, I felt was very clearly addressed in Polly’s post, as the main desire was escape from a world in which the character felt trapped.

        It’s also , as I said above, to be able to recognize the good AND the bad. There is much more to the movie then the voice portion. There is a character who is fighting to be herself in a world that wants her to be anything but, there is a character who saves not only herself, but her beau, and everyone else.We need to recognize the time periods in which these stories were created, and that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the dishwater ,as it were.

    • Hippolyta (Polly) October 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

      Hi seweldon26! My name is Polly and I’m the author of the post. I am glad you appreciated my argument and brought up a big point that definitely needs to be addressed. I’m sorry I didn’t tackle it more clearly in the original post!

      In my opinion, this idea (that Ariel trading her voice to be human is a metaphor for being the silenced member of a relationship) does not take into account the context provided in this story. Ursula knew that Eric was looking for the singing woman who saved his life, so by taking Ariel’s voice she would prevent Ariel from winning their deal. Thus she would have leverage over Triton, her longstanding enemy.

      As I mentioned earlier, Ariel is a protagonist with agency and her desire to be human is about much more than the love of a man. Additionally, her “relationship” with Eric does not begin until she (by getting on the wedding ship and refusing to let her last chance pass by) regains her voice and he is able to recognize her.

      Also the songs are great fun to sing and the fish look pretty.

  6. seweldon26 October 19, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    My bad. I misread Sotorya as the OP. My argument remains, though.

    • Ajilia Lyran October 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

      Your argument is that Ariel literally gives up her voice and that this is a symbolism of sexism? Why, yes, it is! Which, when Ursula is blatantly deceiving Ariel, the conversation follows:

      Ariel: “My voice? But without my voice, how can I–”

      Ursula: “You have your looks. Your pretty face! And don’t uderestimate the importance of body language. Ha! Men up there don’t like a lot of blather. They think a girl who gossips is a bore. Yes, on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word, and after all, dear, what is idle prattle for? Come on, they’re not all that impresed by conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can. But they dote and swoon and faun on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue that gets a man.”

      The villain is singing about all this. Doesn’t that imply that it’s wrong? Ursula is saying whatever it takes to get Ariel to agree. And, as has been pointed out, Eric fell in love with her voice. While he thinks she’s okay as human, he falls head over heels for the girl who saved his life from the ocean and then sang a lovely reprise.

      And you truly believe she is easily swayed? She is constantly ignoring the commands and requests of her father (the king) and the second-in-command (Sebastian).

      I agree with the OP that Eric is a symbol of the land rather than the actual focal point of love. She and Eric will learn to love each other, but in the beginning, they simply represent what the other longs for. Eric wants the woman with the beautiful voice who saved him from the waves which almost drowned him.

      And Ariel wants to be a part of the land and out of her comfort zone.

      Go ahead, try to tell me that she conforms to what the men in her life want her to do.

  7. Can I Get ur Number?? October 19, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    i. love. this.

  8. Kath October 19, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    In my opinion, Ariel’s singing and speaking voice in the movie are replaced by expressive faces and nonverbal communications. She loses her physical voice, yes, but she still manages to speak.

  9. Victoria October 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Linked to my blog!!


  10. enlightenedprincess November 5, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Reblogged this on What Disney Movies Teach Us and commented:
    Great post about Ariel that I don’t wanna withheld from you! Found this a while ago already, but I wanted to wait with reblogging until I write about Ariel myself. But finally – here you are :)

  11. Danielle October 25, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    I love seeing someone defend Disney movies. It drives me crazy when people yell sexist just because the princess is not a stereotypical warrior woman. there are many different ways to be strong. I believe Disney movies have delivered a wide range of different personalities in their princesses, and I applaud them that. Not all women are fighters or warriors wielding a sword, our strength can come from our kindness and compassion. If I had a daughter and she grew up to be as kind as snow white, never letting the bad things that happened to her in life make her bitter, I would be so proud. I would be equally as proud if she if she stood up for herself like Merida, or respected herself like Belle who refused to be anyone but herself despite the pressure of her peers. I want to live in a world where all princesses can be exactly who they are without being looked down on for being weak. Women are NOT weak! whether we like make up or mud we are all strong just in different ways.


  1. Mer-monday! | Netsenshi Productions - December 9, 2013

    […] and right, but I’m going to let this feminist blog defend her even better than I ever could: https://pennyandpolly.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/a-feminist-defense-of-ariel/ It’s a great read, and brings up some excellent […]

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