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Analysis

Disney’s Ariel Isn’t a ‘Bad Example’ For Girls

The internet has produced a weird range of highly critical takes on childhood films. I blame Cracked and CinemaSins, amongst others. Clickbait headlines like “Belle has Stockholm Syndrome” (she doesn’t). Even Disney’s gotten in on the action, with the whole sub-plot in Frozen about how you can’t marry a man you just met, mocking their own films.

The one that always baffled me, however, was that Ariel “left everything behind for a man” and this is a Bad Lesson for Young Girls. It’s so objectively untrue that it staggers me anyone would even make that statement because that’s not what happens. That is not the plot of the movie. It worries me that people apparently didn’t watch this movie to the point that they caused damage to the VHS tape. There are people out there who cannot recite every line from this movie, and that’s sad for them, but luckily, I am here to help.

The real plot of the movie is, “A young woman strikes out on her own away from her dysfunctional family, and finds a man that supports her interests, her culture, and her background. Then she reconciles with her family, setting healthy boundaries which they respect, and lives literally next door, having the best of both worlds”. Let me show you.

What Is Ariel’s Motivation?

Ariel, our Little Mermaid, is fascinated by the human world long, long before she meets Eric, the Prince. We meet her exploring a sunken ship, and taking little keepsakes with her to a cavern filled with scavenged human items. (Official merch refers to this as a “grotto” but she calls it a “cavern” in her song, so cavern it is).  Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seagull, her father, and Sebastian the crab refer to her fascination with humans and the human world as a long-standing hobby. Judging by the items in her cavern alone, she’s been diligently collecting for years. Her interest in humans long predates any knowledge of, or interest in, Eric.

In Disney films, there’s a song called the “I Want” song, in which a character explicitly sings what they want. Ariel’s version of this is “Part of Your World,” which she sings in her cavern pf collected items. Ariel has both saved Eric from drowning and collected a sunken statue of him, b this point, and during the song, she does interact with the statue. However, the lyrics to  Ariel’s song focuses on her fascination with humans and doesn’t reference romantic love or Eric even obliquely. What she does talk about is her interest in humans “I want to be/where the people are…” and her tense relationship with her father “Betcha on land/they understand/bet they don’t reprimand their daughters…”

And we hear the most important plot point of the movie: “What would I give/if I could live/out of these waters…”. Ariel has already decided she wants to leave. What she doesn’t know is what the price for doing so is, or if she’s willing to pay it. 

After this song, her father finds her cavern, demands that she never visit the human world again. Ariel tells him she’s in love with Eric, and in a fit of anger, her father destroys all her possessions. THIS is what pushes Ariel over the edge and brings her to finally visit Ursula, the evil Sea Witch, to ask to live amongst humans. This is agency, because Ariel DECIDES, of her own free will, to leave a miserable, tense home life for something better. She doesn’t leave to go to Eric, she leaves to get away from her father, and I don’t know how people don’t see that as something to respect. In terms of “modeling”? If your parents destroy your possessions as a way to control you? That’s abuse. Get out, seek help. And Ariel did. 

Ursula is the one that makes Ariel’s transformation into a human entirely dependent on Eric’s love, and Ursula does this specifically to try and screw Ariel over, knowing that Ariel has no choice but to accede to Ursula’s demands. If Ariel interrupts and says, “While I really like this guy and want to shoot my shot, this is really more about me being human and ditching my father, can we restructure the deal?” Ursula might chuck her out of the cave. When a witch makes you a magic offer, you’re not really allowed to counteroffer.

When Ariel turns human Eric finds her on the beach, wearing a sail as a dress and clearly needing help. Eric immediately decides to help this woman who is unable to speak, brings her home, provides her with clothing and food, and tries to see what he can do to help her. In an amusing, but telling moment, Ariel brushes her hair with a fork at the table. Seeing Eric’s shocked reaction, she quickly stops, and Eric gets over it. Later, he offers to take her to the local village, and Ariel jumps at the chance, thrilled to explore human life. Even knowing she has three days to try and convince a guy to fall in love with her, she can’t resist her interest in human things–because that’s more important to her at this point than Eric’s love, and her own life. 

Much later during the final confrontation between Ariel and Ursula (who has bewitched Eric), Ariel turns back into a mermaid in front of Eric and his gathered friends and family. Eric experiences a moment of shock, but pretty quickly recovers, and then fights (and kills) Ursula, who by this point is a giant, monster octopus whipping up a storm to destroy Atlantica (the end of the movie gets weird fast, you have to roll with it). 

What About Ariel’s Relationship With Eric?

When Ariel is transformed into a human by her father at the end of the film, Eric sees her walking out of the sea and immediately runs to her, hugs her, swings her around in joy, and kisses her. That’s not a man who’s mad that his girlfriend is a mermaid, that’s a man who does not care. Ariel goes from her father, who destroys her possessions and derides her interests, to Eric, who takes her to the human village and joyfully accepts her for exactly who and what she is. 

Examine, again, the claim Ariel “gives up everything” for Eric. She actually doesn’t give a single damned thing. She doesn’t give up her title–she’s still a Princess, only now, she will become a Queen someday, unlike before, where she has six older sisters in the line of succession, so that’s a net win.

We see her get married on a boat, with her mermaid family (and her father) all in attendance, she goes to live in a castle that’s right on the beach, and marries a guy that loves to sail. She doesn’t give up her family or her home. In fact, we can assume she now lives less than a day away from Atlantica. How can you tell? Early in the film, Ariel, in her mermaid form, brings Eric to the shore outside his castle, and no one comments that she was missing for weeks or months. This strongly suggests Atlantica is less than a day away from Eric’s castle. Ariel moved to a neighborhood that’s literally right next door to her dad’s house. That’s not “giving everything up” that’s “grew up and has a house where she doesn’t live with her dad”.

While she can’t likely dive deep enough to visit Atlantica she doesn’t seem interested in living her life as a mermaid–that’s got nothing to do with Eric, in particular. And her family and friends are more than capable of coming to the surface to visit and chat, or she can get on one of Eric’s boats and sail out right above the city for a picnic. She hasn’t lost out on being close to them at all.

What bothers me the most about this take is how it erases Ariel’s choices and agency and her real motivations. Ariel is a brilliant, driven young woman who seeks out a new world. She makes incredibly painful sacrifices for the things that are important to her. She refuses to allow her father to frighten or control her. She strikes a deal with a frightening Sea Witch, even when offered the chance to leave.  She meets a guy she likes and approaches him boldly. She makes the choice to leave her home and forge her own destiny, and the man she does end up marrying loves her culture, loves her background, openly accepts her for who she is, and doesn’t even ask that she change a thing about herself. We should be teaching young kids that THIS IS WHAT YOU LOOK FOR IN A PARTNER–someone who supports your interests even though they don’t really understand them, accept your quirks and foibles, and respects your culture and heritage. Eric and Ariel have a mixed wedding, and Eric doesn’t have a second thought about it. 

I know it’s a Disney movie. I know that clickbait titles shouldn’t set me off. But it strikes me incredibly odd that a story motivated entirely by a woman’s desires and agency has been twisted into being culturally understood as the exact opposite of that. That a movie that so many little girls adored is now “bad” and supposed to be mocked. 

Seems ironic that a movie that tells little girls that they should like whatever they want, not let anyone control them, explore their world, and only marry men who respect and celebrate their culture and background is now being reframed as something “bad”.

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Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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