Redheads With A Rep: Ariel From "The Little Mermaid"

(This post originally appeared on my other blog, before I set up Observational Ginger. First publication date was Feb. 22, 2014).

"Redheads With A Rep" will be a two-post series about redheaded female movie protagonists that I believe have been misunderstood and unfairly maligned by the general public. I didn't set out specifically to talk about redheads, but both of the characters I want to discuss just happen to be ginger, so there you have it.

Today, we’re talking about Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I’ll go ahead and admit up front that I have a vested interest in this argument, owing to the fact that Ariel is actually my favorite Disney protagonist. She’s the one I connected to most strongly when I was a kid. I liked collecting things and learning about my favorite hobbies, just like Ariel. I looked petite and disarming but had a will of steel, just like Ariel. I was passionate, a romantic, and best of all, a redhead.

So what’s controversial about The Little Mermaid, you may ask? Isn’t it just a cute story about a mermaid who loves a human and finds a way to cross the divide? In case you haven’t heard the gripes about this movie, let me catch you up.

First, people say it gives a dis-empowering message to little girls. The protagonist, critics say, is a woman who gives up her voice (her metaphorical agency) for the purpose of getting a guy. She leaves the only world she’s known and changes herself completely just to be with him. What’s worse, she goes directly from being under her father’s rule to being under her husband’s.

The second thing I’ve heard this movie criticized for is encouraging teen rebellion. Ariel disobeys her father’s instructions about staying away from humans, disobeys the ban on visiting the Sea Witch, and is ultimately rewarded for her rebellion by getting what she wants: marriage at 16 and her own set of wheels—er, I mean legs.

I maintain, however, that innocent Ariel has been falsely accused! The evidence shall show "Not Guilty" on all counts. Let's begin.

Accusation #1: Ariel Gives Ladies A Bad Message

I must admit, the first time I heard the explanation of how Ariel takes women back half a decade, I was devastated. I mean, the evidence was right there. She does give up her voice. She does go straight from her father’s home to marrying the prince. My favorite Disney protagonist was the antithesis of everything I now believe about women. Woe is me! My childhood was built on a vicious line of propaganda designed to keep me dependent on my father and future husband!

And then I stopped and actually thought back on what happens in the movie. Let’s examine the attacks piece by piece.

1. Does Ariel change herself (become human) for her man?

Nope. Ariel changes herself for herself.

Look, I know finding Eric and making him fall in love with her is a huge part of the plot. But let’s not forget who Ariel was before she met him. She was already obsessed with humans. She swam through dangerous, shark-infested wreckage just to bring a few human objects home. She went repeatedly to the surface though it was forbidden. She had an entire cavern of human paraphernalia, illegal in her world.

People, she even has a song about how much she wants to be human (“Part of That World”).

Yes, Eric may have been the catalyst that finally drove her to do something about her desire (except actually he wasn’t, because if you recall, it was her father’s temper tantrum that drove her to the Sea Witch), but she already had the heart to be human. She didn’t change her desire or goals to conform to Eric; that accusation is contradicted by every single bit of background and character development that occurs for the first half hour of the movie. To the point where I wonder if some of its critics have actually watched it.

Oh, but there’s so much more, you say! What about the fact that…

2. Ariel gives up her voice to get her man, which equals giving up your agency for a boyfriend.

Let’s take a multiple choice test. I want you to think back on the plot of the movie and choose the correct answer to a question. Ready?

Of the following characters, whose idea was it for Ariel to give up her voice?





The answer, of course, is #4. Ursula.

The vicious antagonist of the film.

At this point in the movie, the audience knows that Ursula plans to trick Ariel and use her as leverage to overthrow King Triton. So when Ursula suggests Ariel give up her voice and become human, we know it's a TRICK. It’s a BAD idea. It’s probably going to backfire in a way that benefits Ursula and harms Ariel. So why would that make a child think that giving up your voice is a good thing? Let me tell you something. I was way less likely to visit sea witches in caves and let their little yellow smoke hands pull out my glowing voice box after seeing this movie—not more likely!

Ursula, incidentally, is the character who espouses the view that women’s voices aren’t important. Remember her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls?”

"Come on, they're not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who's withdrawn
It's she who holds her tongue who get's a man"

This comes right after she’s reminded Ariel that “You’ll have your looks—your pretty face!”

So again, the BAD GUY is espousing a horrible view of women. But the movie continues to give blatant evidence that having a voice is important for Ariel. It’s the thing Eric first fell in love with, after all. When he meets human Ariel on the beach, she is beautiful and mute—qualities Ursula said men value—but Eric feels there’s something missing. He’s disappointed. The thing that makes Ariel Ariel is gone.

He wants the real her, not a pretty China doll.

3. Ariel goes from being under her father’s rule to being under her husband’s.

I think people say this based on one important misunderstanding: they believe the conflict between Ariel and Triton is about who has control. Through that lens, this story is about a girl who isn’t allowed to choose what she wants until her father gives her permission.

But I don't believe that is the lens through which to view this movie. I don't believe it’s about who has control or who has the right to give permission. But we have to delve into the next section to fully answer that, so please hang on to your hats, hold those thoughts, and stay with me!

Accusation #2: Does Ariel Endorse Teenage Rebellion?


Y’know, I’m just not even sure where to start.

If you believe that movie portrayals of kids going outside their parents’ jurisdiction is bad for your kids, then probably most of my opinions about life in general are things you’ll disagree with. But I’m going to try and explain this one anyway.

Remember way back, a few seconds ago, when I said people mistakenly believe the Ariel/Triton conflict is about control? Well, that misunderstanding is also what fuels the belief that The Little Mermaid endorses teen rebellion. In actuality, I believe the Ariel/Triton conflict is a classic case of "children, obey your parents, and parents, don’t frustrate your children." Rather than asking the question, "Will Ariel learn to submit to her father's will?" the movie asks "Will the father and the daughter learn to understand each other?"

The point is that Triton and Ariel are learning mutual respect. They both have to swallow their pride and recognize their mistakes. Ariel acts rashly and does dangerous things in an attempt to get back at her father; by the end of the movie, she sees what a mess her anger made of everything. Meanwhile, her father refuses to respect his daughter’s differences and acknowledge that she’s old enough to make her own choices; he must face the reality that his little girl is grown up, and will start choosing things with or without his help.

They both make mistakes. They both grow.

So if you’re one of those parents who wants all movies to teach that parents are always right, then I can see why you dislike this one. But I hope, as a parent, you’re open to the idea that you have things to learn from your kids, too.

This is why I don’t believe the story is about Ariel going from the rule of her father to the rule of her husband. It’s not about a father owning his girl-child and selling her off to a prince. It's about a father who holds on too tightly until he's forced into the reality that his girl has become a woman.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, Sebastian says it right out loud at the end of the movie: “It’s like I always say, Your Majesty. Children got to be free, to lead their own life.”

That is the line that ultimately makes Triton realize Ariel should be a human. It’s her decision, not his.

But back to the whole “it will teach my daughter to rebel” thing. I have to argue against this just on movie-making principle. Stories about kids or teenagers are only interesting if the kid or teenager is somehow moving through the world outside the parents’ protection. This is Children Storytelling 101. That’s why most young protagonists are physically separated from their parents for the duration of the film. Land Before Time, anyone? Finding Nemo? Beauty and the Beast? American Tale? The Great Mouse Detective? It's not a coincidence that all these kids' movies feature kids making their own decisions. It's more interesting that way.

Yeah, but this character is beyond her parents’ protection specifically because she disobeyed, not because of circumstance or natural disaster or death.

And your point is? Look, here’s the bottom line, and this is actually really good news: Your relationship with your child is not determined by what they see in the movies. If your kid learns to trust your judgment, it’s because of choices you made in real life that affected them—not because they watched a movie where a mythical creature wanted to try inter-species dating. Conversely, if your kid mistrusts your judgment, it could be because of choices you made in real life that affected them. Or maybe they made a conscious choice to go their own way, or any number of other factors. But I highly doubt you can really blame it on one movie.

If you want some proof, you’re looking at it. I, the girl who practically was Ariel, the girl who watched that movie literally hundreds of times throughout childhood, had an incredibly trusting relationship with my parents. We did not experience the apocalyptic teenage friction that pop culture promised we would. We didn’t fight over who I dated. I never went to a sea witch, or anyone else for that matter, for help going behind their back.

As a side note, I also watched Back To The Future without thinking time travel was real, watched JAWS without going around the house biting people, watched The Great Mouse Detective without becoming a sewer-dwelling supervillain OR a stripper at an underground mouse pub, and I watched the show Beetlejuice without believing that the phrase “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice” would make a disturbingly bizarre little man pop out of my closet (okay, okay…I did try the Beetlejuice thing once. Not gonna lie. But nothing happened).

Oh yeah? Well, what about the fact that she doesn’t see any consequences for disobeying her dad, but instead gets what she wants?

She doesn’t see any consequences? So almost being killed isn’t a consequence? The Sea Witch getting Triton’s triton and almost becoming the ruler of the sea isn’t a consequence?

Ariel doesn’t “get what she wants” (a human life and marriage) because she disobeyed and went to the Sea Witch. After the witch is defeated, Ariel is left a mermaid, right where she started. As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that workin' for ya?"

She “gets what she wants” because she and her father finally work out their differences. She gets closure on her childhood issues. The healed rift with her family is what gives the power for her to move on and start her adult life.

So there you have it. All the reasons why I still love The Little Mermaid and don't worry about it corrupting my children in either direction (too rebellious or too retiring). Any other questions? No? Good. I’m going to go watch that movie again.