Honoring the Heroine: Ariel

Between all the Disney princesses, Ariel is one of the most controversial ones. Oh, they are all kind of controversial, but “The Little Mermaid” is one of those movies which is often criticized because – no, I think I will approach this differently. Here is what I think about Ariel:

  1. She is a terrible role model
  2. She is a great character

And now that I have managed to enrage both sites of the controversy, let me explain.


“The Little Mermaid” is a story which allows a lot of room for a different subtext. The version I discussed in my last article turned it into the story of a young girl trapped in a patriarchal society. “Ponyo” (which I won’t discuss due to the lack of a layered female character in it) uses it as a vehicle to emphasise the importance of balance in nature. And Disney, as I explained recently in my analysis of the soundtrack of the movie, uses it to tell a story about the transition to adulthood.

While I analysed the songs I pointed out in detail the subtext hidden in them. What I didn’t address is what it means for the story as a whole. First of all, it turns the love story into a secondary plot. There is a reason why Ariel’s last words in this movie are “I love you, daddy.” Eric is not the main attraction of the movie, he is a bonus price Ariel gets on her journey. The actual main plot is about the relationship between Triton and Ariel, the father who wants his daughter to stay a child and the child who considers herself to be a grown adult. It is the conflict we have all experienced when we were teenagers ourselves.

The thing is – it is kind of expected of teenagers to be idiots. Partly because of the hormones, but also because it is a time of transition. It is not easy to find your place in life and in this age, it is way too easy to make a stupid mistake. So everyone who says that Ariel in itself is not the kind of character a little girl should emulate is totally right. Because Ariel is written like a teenager. She is reckless, too convinced of her own invincibility, a little bit selfish and she constantly overestimates herself. In short, she is in a phase in her life which most of us try to overcome as fast as possible.

But (and that is a big but) a well-written female character doesn’t have to be a role model. A female lead is allowed to have flaws, and not just small flaws which don’t matter in the long run, but real flaws. And a movie doesn’t need a role model to be a good influence on a child.

I think it is always important to remember, that more or less every claim which is made in this movie is ultimately proven wrong. Sebastian insists that Triton should keep Ariel under control. At the end of the movie he amends that teenagers need the freedom to find their own path. Ariel is convinced that she knows a lot about life on land, but she stumbles from one embarrassing situation into the next because she bases most of her knowledge on one single questionable source (A very common behaviour nowadays, as the internet rumour mill regularly demonstrates).

Ursula has a lot to say about how a young woman should behave. But she is established to be a villain, a liar. As result, the message which arrives at the audience is more or less the opposite of what she says and does. Her victims think that they have to be good-looking, but it is shown that they could have found happiness just by talking to each other. Ursula claims that a woman is only desirable when she keeps quiet. But the main barrier between Ariel and Eric is her inability to speak. He only starts to fall for her when he sees her personality shining through.

A complain I have seen multiple times is that Ariel doesn’t really change, that she gets rewarded for her immature behaviour and never has to face any consequences. While I do understand this perspective, I don’t quite agree. Because Ariel decides to ignore all warnings, her way to adulthood is an incredible painful one. Ursula’s spell rips her tail apart and if not for her friends, she would have died right there, long before she could even reach the beach. From this point onward she has to stand on her own wobbly feet and she is incredible lucky that Eric turns up and takes care of her.

In the beginning Ariel and Eric are connected through a teenager romance. But ironically, Ariel is from the get go the more mature one. True,  she doesn’t really know much about him. But she is eager to explore his world and, well, just spend time with him. While Sebastian tries to give her tips to seduce him, she always acts as “her”. She is ignoring all advices Ursula and Sebastian gave her about “body language” and just, well, “is”. And by being herself, she does win Eric over.

Eric on the other hand is initially all hung up over his dreams of “the one”. Even before he basically falls in love with a voice he is waiting for the one girl who will be perfect for him. So hung up that he ultimately nearly misses out on it. As Grimsby points out to him, Eric is so wrapped up in a voice that he overlooks the girl right beside him. Which results, and I think that this is a point which often gets overlooked, in Eric throwing away his flute, thus symbolically throwing away the idea of a girl in favour of a real one. In the end, Ursula is forced to use trickery to keep them apart long enough.

And that is another  important point: Ariel’s plan doesn’t work! She ends up trapped and it is only the sacrifice of her father which rescues her. It is only later, after she and Eric have defeated Ursula, that she gets her legs forever. But not because she made I deal with a sea witch, not because she somehow deserves a reward for the mess she caused, but because her father realizes that it is time to allow her to stand on her own feet.

I do agree that the movie could have been a little bit more poignant about Ariel having changed at this point. I think that the way she is sitting on the rock, staring at the beach longingly as if she says silent goodbye shows that this Ariel has matured. She has learned that the way to adulthood is difficult and not one she can easily tackle alone. But she can go forward in safety and without pain, under the protection of her father.

So what is this movie telling its audience? That you should speak up, that you should be yourself and that you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you otherwise. That short-cuts can have terrible consequences. And it allows teenagers to live out their more reckless tendencies through Ariel.

I think Ariel is kind of a character some of us grow out eventually. When I was a teenager I loved this movie, because it was so easy to relate to her. Nowadays when I watch it, it is hard to imagine that I ever was that foolish. In a way, I never was, though, thanks to countless movies showing me the possible consequences of this kind of foolishness. The Little Mermaid was one of them, and it didn’t really matter that Ariel did get her happy end, I was not ready to risk getting ensnared.

Quote: Singing-Princess

If you like Disney Princess movies, you will most likely enjoy this one, too. But if you want a version which is actually close to the source text you have to search elsewhere. The movie I talked about two weeks ago would be my recommendation, and another really popular one (which I don’t like that much) is the Toei version. Hopefully I picked out the best (I actually watched a lot of adaptations just for this month but, well, they either were downright bad or I didn’t manage to connect with them).
If you want to read more about Ariel, well, in my other blog I am currently busy discussing the best animated movies of the last century in order to find the most deserving recipient for The Swanpride Award. Tomorrow there will be the opportunity to vote for The Little Mermaid when I discuss the years 1989 and 1990. And there are already a number of articles up, covering the whole century.


23 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Ariel

  1. Ah yes, you had to tackle this one eventually! I guess my opinion of her agrees with yours: she has a lot of bad qualities that I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter emulating including brattiness, talking back to her father, etc. Heck, if I did all of that to my parents when I was a teen, I’d have been slapped silly, lol!

    But, I also don’t agree with the common thing people blame her for that “she changed her body to get a man”. I think that’s just stretching the truth to its absolute maximum where it no longer becomes the truth.

  2. This is probably the best analysis of Ariel I’ve ever come across. Bravo!
    I think the fact that Ariel is a teenager is something her detractors often forget; that, as you said, teens do make mistakes like this, and that her conflict is something teens all go through at some point. I think that’s why Ariel, and her movie, for that matter, are so popular with teenage girls, since they probably see a bit of themselves in the character.

  3. Oh man. Great article, and I see some of your points, but I still cannot like or relate to her. You can still be a teenager, and go through all of that without handling it the way she did. Not every (and not even the majority) of teenagers are even reckless. She is not the worst character, but I just do not really find her likable. To each their own.

    • Well, that is the point though…the movie never claims that Ariel handles it well, quite the opposite in fact.
      I can understand why it is difficult to relate to Ariel for some people, especially once you have reached a certain age. But I think that critics who complain about the messages in The Little Mermaid don’t give the movie enough credit.

  4. Pingback: The Swanpride Award: 1989 and 1990 | Movies and Lyrics

  5. Interesting analysis but I’ve always found a deeper meaning to Ariel’s struggle than just teenage rebellion
    To me it is a character who is uncomfortable in her own skin, in her own body. She doesnt belong in her tribe and knows she is meant for something else. This is why Sebastian recognizes if she cant stay on land she will be miserable for the rest of her life. And her father see’s that in the end changing her to whom she has always been. To me she is put in a position where Ursula is her only option. It’s not a plan per say but an act of desperation.
    It is these reasons why Little Mermaid is a profound film for many people who feel apart from the norm such as LGBT community. It’s what I’ve always related and loved about the story. If it was just a bratty teen I dont think she would have taken such risks but she knows she needs to be part of this other world and she will do whatever it takes to get there. I admire that.

    All that said a lot of feminists are extremely tough on Ariel so I admire your fair piece. Nicely done

  6. Just re-watched The Little Mermaid, but I can’t agree that Ariel actively denied the seductive advice Ursula and Sebastian gave her. Ursula really only told her in a few sentences (during “Poor Unfortunate Souls”), so it wasn’t really something that stuck with Ariel. Also, Ariel was falling asleep when Sebastian gave her the same advice, so it wasn’t as if Ariel was listening. Ariel didn’t really have a choice but to act like “her,” as she is very socially awkward in her human form. I don’t think she really understood what Ursula and Sebastian would have meant by impressing Eric with her body or anything like that. The deemed to be adapting to human life than acting like “her.”

    I think criticism launched towards Ariel is a little harsh too, and she is a teenager and all, but in the real world, a teenager usually faces some sort of consequences. It’s pretty normal for a teenager to make dumb decisions, but Ariel didn’t even say sorry to King Triton in the end. She got her happy ending. I also thought that King Triton was somewhat in the right for keeping Ariel from humans. Human eat fish, and they’re half fish, so King Triton watches his subjects be killed everyday and doesn’t want that to happen to Ariel.

    • The point is for me that Ariel, actively or not, ignores all the advise she is given to seduce a man and acts like herself instead. And that is which wins Eric over. That is an important point.
      There are certainly some points the movie skips over and as I pointed out myself, Ariel’s moment of realization could have used a little bit more room, but I would disagree that she doesn’t face any consequences. Even in the real world a teenager who act foolishly gets a slap on the wrist where an adult would face a harsher punishment because we assume that they lack the experience to really judge the situation properly.

  7. Ariel is not my favorite Disney princess (Belle is), but I really think that her detractors are way too harsh on her. Yes, it is true that she makes some mistakes and rash decisions. But like you said, that is normal for a teenager. And honestly, her father, who is notably older and should be wiser, is just as dangerously impulsive as she is. And speaking of King Triton, people who dislike Ariel will often list her disobedience to her father as one of her negative qualities. But I have to think otherwise. When you’re sixteen years old, you should be allowed to have a different opinion than your father. And also, Ariel was right that the human world isn’t completely bad.

    • Well, I wrote an article about Belle, too.

      I agree partly. What Ariel is doing is extremely dangerous and life threatening. She is allowed to have another opinion than he has, but she shouldn’t thoughtlessly risk her life. But, like I said, she is a teenager, teenagers are actually hard-wired to take more risks.

  8. Firstly great text as always, secondly sorry this comment must be huge but I really want to discuss this subject.

    oh Ariel, Ariel, Ariel, I really wanted to love Ariel, I already tried, but I can’t, she’s an identifiable character, mainly for the reasons you mentioned, I’m 18 years old and I’ve seen a lot of my behavior in her, I do not agree with the criticism that she left everything in life for a man for obvious reasons (Part of Your World and all her scenes in the first 20 minutes). My problem with Ariel goes a little further, at the beginning of the film she is fascinated by the human world and everything related to him, she is so passionate about why she wants to be part of the human world, so far so good, that desire is established as the focus of the film and has the potential to make her an interesting character, so she meets Eric and that’s where my problems start.

    I have the feeling that throughout the film your goal gradually becomes exclusively Eric, during the second act of the film your desire for the human world is used only for comical scenes like the dinner scene and the promenade scene, but that desire it is no longer used for a narrative purpose (the most I can see is that her fascination fascinates Eric with her but it seems more like a tool to make their romance happen).

    And from the Kiss The Girl scene throughout the third act, Ariel’s desire for the human world is never mentioned again, instead, her goal becomes only Eric, that’s what becomes the focus of her character, that’s why i don’t consider her a great character, i think her motivations are inconsistent and lack focus.

    For me, the film kind of abandons its initial character arc and everything that made it so interesting and takes the focus away from their relationship with triton (at least they didn’t completely abandon everything as they did in Moana) to be just a simple and basic story of love, something that is so important to the story as to receive the last sentence of the film has become very secondary

    And about the criticism that Ariel doesn’t learn any lesson, well, I agree, the film doesn’t even make it clear what she learned (if she did) but let’s say that Ariel really learned a lesson, it doesn’t have any impact because even after all the tragedy what happened Triton immediately gives her legs and she can enjoy her happy ending, this is good for Triton’s bow as he finally learns to let his daughter go to live his own life, but in the meantime the film also gives Ariel a reward that she alone did nothing to deserve, Ariel and Triton were equally guilty of Ursula coming to power, but he redeems himself and she doesn’t, that makes The Little Mermaid’s message messy and incoherent (in my opinion), of course that she doesn’t need to be a model but I think that the fact that she doesn’t learn anything damages the morale of the film itself a bit (but I love everything else in the film and I like Ariel, I just don’t love her and I can’t see her a good character)

    • Oh, don’t worry, I love long comments.

      As I mentioned, the lesson should have been more poignant. And the end of the day, the movie is more about Triton’s development as a father than Ariel’s development as a teenager, and a lot can be found in the symbolism instead of necessarily in the surface narrative. But frankly, even if she didn’t learn anything, I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. There is no rule whatsoever that a character has to “learn a lesson” to be a good character. In fact, some of the most popular characters in Pop culture never change. Hence the question if someone changes is not really a big marker for me when I consider them as a character. I mostly care about the question if they are actually layered characters or just card board cut outs, and if the story the movie tells is a good or a negative one. I think the message that one should allow daughters to grow up is a very good one and that Ariel is certainly not a card board cut out. Hence she deserves an article here, regardless of the question if I “like” the character on a very basic level.

    • What you seem to forget is that Ariel saves Eric from being killed by Ursula.
      So she is a participant in the final battle and earned a happy ending.

  9. it makes sense, it’s good to see opinions different from ours, and I’m happy that Ariel received a text from her, she’s always an interesting character to discuss

    • Yeah, she is, and that makes her a pretty good character overall…just a really bad role model. But I guess she is more a cautionary tale for parents than for teenagers.

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