When I was younger, The Little Mermaid was my favourite movie. I'd sing Part of Your World at the top of my lungs and try to flip my hair out of the bathwater like Ariel emerging from the sea. I loved playing with my Ariel doll, wanted to dress up as Ariel for Halloween, and was generally obsessed like only a 5 year old girl can be.
So when I got older and began to hear people argue that The Little Mermaid was anti-feminist, I was more than a little upset. The movie is criticized, again and again and again, for being a "love story" about a girl who gives up everything to be with a man who she's never even spoken to. I heard this argument over and over, and my just-getting-into-feminism teenage self started to believe it. I started to distance myself from my love of this movie and its protagonist, because it wasn't what I was "supposed" to like.
I didn't (and don't) love The Little Mermaid as some kind of epic love story. I didn't long to be a princess who married a handsome prince and lived happily ever after. People who dismiss the movie as an anti-feminist love story are missing important elements of Ariel's character, her story and her life. The key one, for me? Ariel doesn't long for romance. Ariel longs to experience a different world.
So here are my top 6 reasons why Ariel is a feminist heroine.
Ariel is an adventurer
We first meet Ariel as she explores the wreckage of a ship with her fish friend Flounder. She is then attacked by a shark, leading to an exciting chase scene where Ariel outsmarts the creature and treats the heart-pounding incident as if it was fun. No big thing.
Meanwhile, she goes up to the surface even though everyone tells her it is dangerous, because she's just so curious about what she will see up there. She swims towards a strange ship because she's eager for a closer look. She swims among the burning wreckage to save Erik, and even in the human world, she's more than happy to jump horses over ravines and engage with everything that seems even vaguely new.
Ariel has always been fascinated by the human world -- and she follows her dream
Her desire to be human doesn't suddenly appear when she sees Erik. She has always wanted to go up and see what life there would be like. She sings her I want song, Part of Your World, before she ever knows of Erik's existence, and as a kid who sang that song all the damn time, and a twenty-something year old who has lived extensively abroad, I think the sentiment of wanting something beyond and/or different from your home and your family is empowering and genuine. And although Ariel obviously wants Erik to fall for her, her adventures in the human world focus on the delights of being shown the kingdom. Walking down the streets, dancing, driving a carriage. That is her dream, and she lives it.
Ariel takes action, is determined, and knows what she wants
Was making a deal with the sea witch Ursula a wise move? No. But it was her move. Ariel knew what she wanted -- to be human -- and she knew that her father would never accept it, so she found her own path. When she gives up her voice, she's not sacrificing her ability to express herself or her agency for love (as some have suggested, but is instead choosing to pay a price to achieve her dreams.
Ariel is not the damsel in distress
In fact, a key part of her story is that she rescues Erik, and he is indebted to her. She saves him from Ursula when he leaps into the ocean to help her, pulls him to the surface afterwards, and is generally pretty badass.
Silence is not golden
Ariel is told "it's she who holds her tongue who gets the man." But some critics miss that this is said by the movie's villain, a woman who wants Ariel to fail. Although Erik does start to fall for Ariel despite her inability to speak, he only does so because Ariel remains extremely expressive. She makes faces when he guesses her name. She drags him around the kingdom in complete excitement, giddily drives the carriage in a nigh-dangerous way, and brushes her hair with a fork. Even without her voice, Ariel is full of personality and finds way to get her opinions and desires across. And even then, they do not get a happy ending until Ariel's voice is returned.
Ariel is flawed
Unlike the strangely perfect princesses of early Disney movies, Ariel is allowed to be human. She's wilful and sometimes forgets her responsibilities. She can be a bit of a brat with her father, and she ignores the advice and instructions of others because she believes she knows best. Her determination almost causes the destruction of her kingdom. And those are all good things. It isn't realistic to portray women as delicate little dolls who never do anything wrong. Not everyone might find Ariel likeable, but she's dynamic and realistic, she drives her own story, and she is allowed to act like a real sixteen year old girl, with all the strengths and weaknesses that includes. Ariel achieves her dreams, but she is allowed to screw up along the way, and that's why she's one of my favourite Disney princesses.