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:
- She is a terrible role model
- 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.
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.