Monday, June 4, 2012

The Little Mermaid: Feminist Role Model

I have an ongoing argument with some egalitarian friends regarding Disney princesses. They have a three-year-old daughter and don’t want her to grow up believing that she is helpless and needs saving. I can see their point for some Disney films. Sleeping Beauty, for example, falls into an enchanted sleep and is unable to act for half the film. She awakens after her man has defeated the evil witch woman. Snow White finds a messy cabin in the woods and immediately sets to cooking and cleaning for seven bachelors. She also falls into an enchanted sleep and has to wait for Prince Charming to resurrect her.

However, when they start attacking “The Little Mermaid,” I start fighting back. Aside from her awesome voice and gravity defying hair, I think Ariel is a fine role model for any budding feminist.

On the surface (oh, nautical puns!), Ariel is a teenage nightmare. She’s irresponsible, disobedient, and goes to extreme measures to modify her body. Some would even say that she’s a spoiled brat. She hoards a grotto full of treasure from shipwrecks, but is not satisfied. Not much is asked of her except that she stay away from the surface for her safety. Plus, she’s royalty in a kingdom that adores her; what more could a girl want?

What she wants is to be her own woman. Long before she meets (and saves!) Prince Eric, Ariel longs for a break from a society that doesn’t understand her differences.

“Betcha on land, they understand/ Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters/ Bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand/ And ready to know what the people know/ Ask ‘em my questions and get some answers”
This is a girl who wants an education. She knows she’s intelligent, but she also knows that what she can learn under the sea is limited. She is tired of the constraints put on her by her overbearing father, who discourages her passion for exploring and learning. She has a grotto full of material things, but she doesn’t want thingamabobs; she wants experience.

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to go up to the surface considering the life she leads as a mermaid. She has six older sisters, all apparently still living at home with Triton. The only scenes we see of the sisters are their musical performance in honor of their father, and something akin to a group beauty session. Ariel may enjoy the occasional dinglehopper, but vapid homebody she is not. While her sisters flounder at home, our heroine seeks adventure as far as her fins will carry her.

Ariel has good reason to get out from under the thumb of the overbearing King Triton. The man has some serious control issues. After she misses her concert, he shouts down her explanations, expresses his prejudice against humans, and forbids her to participate in her favorite hobbies. When he destroys her most prized possessions in a fit of rage, Ariel decides that she’s had enough. With “no one else to turn to,” she swims straight into the tentacles of the Sea Witch.

Some feminists would argue that the fact that Ariel gives up her right to speak for a man makes for a sexist film, but I argue that the exchange between Ariel and Ursula unites sexism with evil, and therefore, the film is against it. Ursula is able to wrest Ariel’s voice from her by convincing her that “on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word,” because she knows the girl is desperate, not because it’s true. In fact, the rest of the film proves the opposite. Eric is devoted to the woman with the golden voice who saved him, and when Ariel appears voiceless, it’s a serious hitch. He clearly wants to get to know her better, because he’s a nice guy, but doesn’t really fall in love with her until she again has the ability to speak her mind. (As a person who works with students with disabilities, I have mixed views on this, but that’s another blog.)

In the end, Ariel and Eric have each saved the other’s life once, and so are on equal footing in the relationship. Their marriage is a celebration of the unity between two worlds where there had previously been misunderstanding and hatred. A diplomatic mermaid sounds like a feminist heroine to me! Ariel is a good role model for girls young and old because she seeks to free herself from an oppressive, closed-minded society, she takes risks to become a woman of the world, and because it is her courage to speak her heart and mind that gets her to her happily ever after.