I may be a tiny bit biased when it comes to The Little Mermaid. This was my favorite movie as a child. I would sing Part of Your World at the top of my lungs and carry my Ariel doll around with me and recreate the dramatic "emerging from the ocean" moment in the bath... it was a pretty big deal to me.
So when The Little Mermaid comes under fire for being one of the most "anti-feminist" Disney princess movies, I take it a little bit personally. The movie that they criticize is not the movie that I remember adoring. Although I've written before about how Ariel is a great protagonist, and how these criticisms are off-base, I felt some trepidation about rewatching the movie and writing about it again. I didn't think I was wrong, but what if I was?
And did I find the movie to be all I remembered? Well... yes and no. People are wrong to criticize Ariel as an "anti-feminist" protagonist, and the first two thirds of the movie are fantastic to watch. But as we approach the movie's conclusion, things start to fall apart.
Let's start with the good. Ariel is an amazing character, and completely different from the Disney princesses who came before her. She's defined by her curiosity, her bravery and her desire for adventure. When we first meet her, she's going into a creepy sunken ship to look for human artefacts, and is fascinated and delighted by every one she finds. She then outsmarts a shark, before laughing about her misadventure and braving a journey to the surface to learn about the things she's found. And these traits continue to define her throughout her story. Curiosity brings her to the surface after a shadow passes over her cave, leading her to Eric. Bravery leads her to save him from the burning wreckage of his ship. Bravery again allows her to enter Ursula's cave and ask for her help, and her curiosity and love of adventure are clear throughout her time in the human world.
She also has flaws. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella have flaws. They're all perfectly sweet and virtuous. Yet Ariel... Ariel is a bit of a brat at times. She definitely hurts Sebastian by forgetting about his concert. She probably should be a little more careful in her adventures. And her decisions and sense of invulnerability cause her father to be captured by the sea witch. She's the one calling the shots in her story, and so she's also the one who creates half the problems. And that makes her a far more interesting and compelling character than one who is a paragon of goodness.
Yet Ariel has been criticized, over and over again, for wanting nothing more than a handsome prince. We're told that she changes her entire self, she gives up her voice, and she decides never to see her family again because she's in love with a man she's just met.
But Ariel sings about her desperation to be human, even for a day, and experience their world before she sees Eric. The prince may be the thing that pushes her to action, but the aspiration to be human was there long before. Someone doesn't fill an entire cavern with treasures on a whim. She's obsessed with the human world and with humans. She wants to know everything about them, to question them, to feel what it's like to be one of them, and she has for years. Eric had little to do with it.
In fact, we could say that far from becoming human because she loves Eric, Ariel loves Eric because she wants to become human. She falls in love at first sight with him, but as she says herself in that moment, she's never seen a human up close before. So she sees her first human, he's very handsome, and then she saves his life. Perhaps it's incredibly naive of Ariel to then "fall in love" with him, but it's not completely off the wall to think that she'd build a fantasy around him and imagine him as her true love, at least for a little while. She never intends to actually do anything about it until her father destroys all her treasures, and she goes to Ursula half out of stubborn spite, and half because her father has destroyed everything that she loves. Not just the thought of Eric, but her whole passion for the human world, all of her aspirations... he won't accept any of them. And so she decides to take matters into her own hands.
Of course, when she sees Ursula, the sea witch frames it all as true love for Eric, her need to "have her man," and the idea that he has to kiss her before they can possibly be in love. But we can't forget that Ursula is the villain of the story. Everything she says is based around sexist stereotypes and a desire to completely screw Ariel over. She builds passivity into Ariel's bargain, because otherwise the bold and impulsive Ariel would just kiss Eric at some point during the three days and win the deal. She says that "true love" means a kiss, because otherwise it would be too easy to win by default, as both of the characters already believe that they're in love with each other. And although she tells Ariel that human men prefer their women to be silent, Eric doesn't fully realize he's in love with her until she gets her voice back and is able to communicate with him again.
In fact, although Ursula intends to hurt Ariel's relationship with Eric by taking her voice, this "loss" is actually vital to them building a stronger and more genuine relationship. Like Ariel, Eric is obsessed with a girl he's never spoken to, although he thinks of her solely as "a beautiful voice." That's the woman he's going to marry, even though he doesn't know anything about her. So when Eric meets Ariel, he's disappointed that she can't speak, because she can't be the woman he loves. But then, over the course of a couple of days, he starts to fall in love with her anyway. She makes him laugh, even without her voice. Her curiosity and excitement and sense of adventure and all the things we've seen in Ariel from the beginning of the movie come through, and he is entranced by them. Ursula has to intervene because Eric begins to fall in love with Ariel for real, and we can assume that, along the way, Ariel begins to fall in love with him as well.
But then things unravel. Although we see Eric begin to put aside the fantasy girl and fall in love with a real girl, the same can't be said of Ariel. She assumedly does get to know Eric better during her three days, but her love is taken as default from the beginning, and there isn't any growth on her side of the relationship until she gets her voice back.
And then Ariel the brave adventurer, Ariel the person who always questions things and doesn't give up, completely loses her drive in favor of the male characters in the story. She finds out about Eric's marriage at sunrise and goes swimming after him at sunset, but what did she do for the entire day in between? Her last day as a human? Did she just sit on the dock and cry, unwilling to do anything until Scuttle brought her more information? Even when she finds out that Eric is marrying Ursula, she doesn't do much to stop it, and her voice is returned to her completely by accident.
Worse, although true love's kiss doesn't work to save her, Ariel is also incapable of helping herself for the entire rest of the movie. She's saved from Ursula initially by her father's sacrifice, and although she attacks Ursula and saves Eric's life once again by moving the trident, she doesn't do anything effective to stop Ursula. She spends the big final battle trapped at the bottom of a whirlpool, dodging Ursula's trident, while Eric takes a wrecked ship and steers it into Ursula's heart. In the end, Ariel is just a victim of Ursula, and her prince is the one who saves the day.
And although Ariel eventually achieves her dream of becoming human, she doesn't do so herself. Perhaps Ariel's struggle has shown her father how much her dream means to her, but it's still Triton in the end who chooses to give her legs. All of her drive, all her bravery and curiosity come to nothing. She gets herself into quite the predicament, and its the men around her who save her.
It's a pretty disappointing conclusion, considering how well the movie starts. Ariel herself isn't an anti-feminist Disney princess. She's compelling and inquisitive and great fun to watch, and I certainly feel no shame in the fact that she was my favorite character in anything ever while growing up. But the movie itself lets her down. The plot isn't hers, or at least not as much as it should be. The characterization is there -- they just didn't entirely know what to do with her as the movie came to a close, and defaulted to older, easier stereotypes to save the day.