The Little Mermaid, for me and probably millions and millions of people across the world, was a defining movie. It might even be the first movie I remember seeing in theaters as a child almost 30 years ago. I, a young boy, was completely into this story of a young teenage girl. In a way, it may have been the start of the women’s equality movement pushed by millennials now.
Okay, that may have gone too far, but there could be something there. Disney did something remarkable with this young heroine, Ariel. They made a coming-of-age story about a young girl finding true love one that boys who were only into Superman and Ghostbusters and sports get completely invested in.
So it’s been somewhat surprising and upsetting to see Ariel be criticized for being a weak girl and a terrible example because she had to be saved by her boyfriend. So I’m going to mansplain- kidding. Kidding… I’m going to defend this bright, young woman, not as a male, but as a writer because I think the people at Disney created a great character and one of our strongest heroines.
The movie starts off telling us Ariel is not only the best of the mermaids with the most beautiful voice, but she’s also very much her own person. When the other mermaids are all at the performance, she’s off doing her own thing. And what is she doing? She’s exploring a human wreck. She’s fascinated by everything human, despite the mermaids accepted belief that humans are barbarians who would eat anything they catch in the ocean. But Ariel believes two things: humans are not bad, and she’s old enough to explore their world that she’s curious about. She has her own opinions that no one else in the mermaid kingdom believes. In other words, she has her own voice. A voice her father won’t listen to. “Not another word,” he says as she tries to explain herself, and only pushes her away.
In this regard, The Little Mermaid is very much a coming of age story. Ariel is a 16-year old girl who’s growing up and developing her own beliefs and just wants to go out into the world with them. She’s a bright young woman, sick of swimming in her daddy’s ocean, ready to stand on her own, and she wants to go somewhere where she believes she’ll be listened to and respected. And she’s drawn to this surface world she doesn’t know, because the one she does know doesn’t approve of her beliefs, so maybe this other world will.
So she swims to the surface and gets up closer to humans than she ever has before, and she’s instantly drawn to one human: Eric. Why? Is he handsome? She sure thinks so, but it helps that the first time Ariel sets eyes on him, he’s playing lovingly with Max. His dog- in other words- not a human. In fact, Eric jumps back into an exploding ship to save Max. Again, a dog. Again, not a human. Eric, this human is risking his life to save a non-human. And this is the man Ariel falls in love with.
Sebastian goes on to sing about how fish are only food on land, but Ariel saw Eric care for a non-human. She believes differently, and she doesn’t even listen to this anti-human diatribe anymore. She’s off to follow what she believes in.
After King Triton tries to silence her again and completely pushes her away, she turns to someone who offers to give her what she wants- Ursula. Ursula sings about the poor, unfortunate souls she’s helped, and this song is a seduction. It’s terribly vampy, and always creeped me out. With her song, Ursula offers Ariel a deal that will give her the ability to go where she wants, and all she has to give up is her voice, and possibly her soul if she can’t win over Eric’s heart. But what will Ariel do to woo Eric without her voice (and if you were paying attention, her voice is her beliefs, who she is, what makes her her)? By using her body language, of course. Because a body used right is what men care about. And the innocent, naive Ariel who doesn’t know men, falls for it.
Then, when she gets to the land and meets Eric without her voice, she’s just an empty girl. A beautiful girl, but vapid and clumsy and completely in need of a rescue, and Eric helps her because he’s a good guy, but he doesn’t fall in love with her. He’s already in love with a girl that looks like Ariel, but that girl has a strong voice and she risked her life to save him. This mute girl may look like her, but there’s more to a girl than her looks. Eric doesn’t fall in love with Ariel until she gets her voice back, until he sees who she is and what she believes in. Until he sees she’s a girl with a heart, a mind and spirit.
And then it all goes to hell. Ariel turns back into a mermaid. Ursula takes her down to her lair, and then she gets Triton’s powers and wreaks havoc. And here is where everyone loses respect for Ariel and this story: Eric comes to the rescue and kills Ursula, saving everyone. Little Ariel isn’t a strong woman because she needed to be saved by a man, right? Wrong.
It HAD to be Eric that saved her. Ariel’s entire person, her voice, is based on the belief- the belief that her father and everyone else tried to break- that people, and specifically Eric, could care about non-humans, fish, mermaids, whatever. Eric had to come back and risk his life to save a mermaid to prove her right. Eric saving Ariel vindicates her, it gives her a leg to stand on, and makes her father realize Ariel is ready to go off and stand on her own two feet.
So, you see? Ariel isn’t a pathetic damsel in need of saving. She’s adventurous. She’s bright, and she’s willing to risk everything for what she believes in. That’s who she is, and who she is earns the love of a person willing to risk everything to save her and the respect of her father. And it also she changes the entire belief system of her species, and perhaps every fish and mammal in the ocean. But no big deal. Not to Ariel. Not that bright, young woman.