Consuming pop culture while feminist: Disney’s The Little Mermaid

picture of the author, age 6, on stage at a dance recital, wearing green mermaid tail and pink top with hands waving in the airWhen I was a little girl, I loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I mean, I loved it. I used to sit in front of the TV screen for hours at a time, rewinding the video as soon as the movie ended, to watch it all over again from the start. I used to – and I can’t believe I’m about to reveal this publicly – sit in the bathtub wearing swimming flippers, combing my hair and singing like Ariel. So I mean it when I say that I loved The Little Mermaid.

When I was about seven or eight, Ariel and I parted ways, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I had a roommate who was particularly partial to Disney movies, that I sat down and watched The Little Mermaid again. In the years since I had stopped watching the movie religiously, I had, obviously, grown up a lot. I had had my feminist “click” moment, and had started seeing the world through a feminist lens. I had started thinking about how women are depicted in advertising and movies and pop music lyrics and videos. I had been especially shocked and disappointed to learn, courtesy of a particularly fierce feminist English teacher, the origins of the fairy tales we tell young girls. The central message of the original Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is that curious young ladies who venture too far from home and get raped in the woods deserve what they get. But for some reason, it had never occurred to me to think about The Little Mermaid from a feminist perspective. When I sat down with my roommates at 19 and watched it again, The Little Mermaid just about broke my heart.

The Little Mermaid is, quite simply, a feminist’s worst nightmare. This movie is about, as a very wise friend of mine once put it, a young woman who gives up her voice to get a pair of legs so that she can snare a man. It’s about the triumph of “good” women – young, slender, silent and lovesick – over “bad” women – old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual. It’s about a young woman forced to choose between her father’s world and her husband’s world, and there is nothing in between. And there’s the unsettling fact that the song “Kiss the Girl” tells us that the “one way to ask” if a woman wants you to kiss her, is to just kiss her.

Of course, when it comes to Disney movies, the problems I’ve pointed out here are only the tip of the iceberg. Disney movies, and the full-length animated features in particular, are almost all problematic. Whether it’s how they deal with race, class, gender, ability or colonialism, all the Disney Princess movies have their problems. And of course, each of them is a product of their time. But knowing this makes me perhaps even more disappointed in The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, when feminism was alive and well and making its way into popular discourse. I can’t help but wonder if the movie is indicative of resistance and backlash to the changing role of women in America at the time. The thought makes me feel, if possible, even more disappointed.

The lessons we learn as children are incredibly powerful ones – they inform the way we view the world for years to come, and because we learn them at such a young age, because we just know them, we often never think to question them. When we do, it can be uncomfortable and scary, as though a person you’ve known forever has in fact been lying to you all this time. For me, my first adult viewing of The Little Mermaid felt like a betrayal. I had loved this movie, idolized its heroine, believing that her thirst for knowledge and adventure made her a wonderful heroine, and even dressed up as her for my year-end dance recital (yes, that really is me in that photo). And for all those years, it had been lying to me, selling me a harmful sexist message in a brightly colored package, complete with witty lyrics and a happy ending.

Watching The Little Mermaid as an adult made me realize the importance of being open to questioning everything, even the things you know – or think you know – to be true. Watching this once-beloved Disney classic post-”click” moment made me realize that once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, it’s very hard to stop. Once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, everything you know – or think you know – begins to look different. That’s what makes feminism so powerful.

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73 Comments

  1. lezbianna
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    The Little Mermaid is many things, but a “feminist nightmare” is not one of them. As people have already pointed out in the comments, Ariel wanted to live on land far before Eric parted her waters (so to speak).
    I wrote a review of The Little Mermaid in her defense a while ago (http://www.theaspectratio.net/littlemermaid.htm). Here’s an excerpt:
    Ariel, on the other hand, albeit no feminist poster child by any means, possesses the characteristics of a heroine—headstrong, adventurous and independent. She continually rebels against her patriarchal father’s efforts to keep her under water “where she belongs,” thus creating her own kind of mobility that is otherwise denied to her and her sisters.

  2. mercaque
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I don’t have much to add to the excellent OP, which is a great reflection on realizing how screwed-up some of your childhood favorite things were.
    The only thing I can add is that I was actually just thinking about The Little Mermaid lately after re-discovering Ursula’s villain song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” I hadn’t listened to it since I was a child, but hearing it now as an adult I had a MAJOR “click” moment during one of the later verses, when Ursula is trying to convince Ariel to give up her voice:
    The men up there don’t like a lot of blather
    They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
    Yes on land it’s much preferred
    For ladies not to say a word
    And after all, dear, what is idle prattle for?

    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 gets her man!

    I’m so torn on this! Because on the one hand, Pat Carroll’s blistering, sarcastic delivery means that for a moment, the song doubles as a fairly powerful articulation of anger against the social expectations that “ladies should be seen and not heard.”
    On the other hand, it’s placed in the mouth of a villainess, and a villainess who fits the “bitter, man-hating hag” stereotype no less. So whatever legitimate points she may have are easily dismissed (in much the same way that many feminist issues are dismissed as coming from “feminazis”).
    On the third hand, you could argue that Ursula is ultimately proven wrong in advocating Ariel be “seen and not heard.” Ariel not having her voice is definitely portrayed as a Bad Thing: not only is she helpless, but it impedes her courtship of Eric (who falls in love with “Vanessa” the minute she shows up with Ariel’s stolen voice). You could argue that Ursula represents women who enact sexism against other women, although this is perhaps an overly charitable interpretation since sexism enacted by men generally goes unchallenged.
    So, I don’t quite know where I’m coming down on this. Like I said, I’m torn. But I definitely had a “Whoa, what?” moment when I got to that part of the song.
    On a final general note, I will say that as a kid I felt strangely empowered by Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. She was bold, she was powerful, and when she threatened Prince Philip with the power of Hell and turned into a dragon, I thought it was the coolest fucking thing I had ever seen. At that age, I don’t think I had seen anything like that. So I think even an imperfect depiction of a powerful woman can still have an unintentionally awe-inspiring effect. And in a general sense, just because you recognize that something is messed up, doesn’t 100% invalidate any value you took from it (nor does that value invalidate the messed-up aspects).

  3. JSS
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Although there are some definite negative points, I have to say there are a lot of positive, feminist aspects about it, especially the messages about love.
    Ariel has an established interest in the human world, long before she meets her forgettable Prince. Her attraction to him stems mainly from a shared interest (in the human world).
    When the ship sinks, SHE rescues HIM from certain death–and rather than being embarrassed or emasculated, he is appropriately grateful to her for it. The assertiveness and power that she demonstrates by saving him hold their relationship together, rather than tear it apart.
    When Ariel gives up her voice to find a man, she FAILS. The prince in question does NOT love her for her silent body, and he ends up falling in love with the false Ursula precisely because she has Ariel’s VOICE, which he really loves.
    In more subtle ways, Ariel clearly rejects the looks-and-gender-performance world of her sisters for her own adventure. She also rejects the “you have it good enough already so pipe down” message sent by a male chaperone (she swims away during “Under the Sea”) She ultimately bends her father to her will rather than the reverse, and his giving in to her demands is portrayed as the happy ending of the movie.
    So overall, it’s not perfect but it’s not terrible, either. I wouldn’t have much of an issue with my children watching this movie, as long as they discussed both negative and positive aspects after.

  4. FLT
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    There’s a lot going on here, but I agree with the posters saying be careful how one generalizes about “folktales.”
    They each speak of and to their own time–and the audience may get things the teller never intended. A careful reading of Lang’s Green Fairy Book shows that most of the smartest, most benevolent, and most powerful characters are middle aged women, for example.
    Then there’s differentiating Andersen from genuine folk tales. Very different indeed. He was a tragic figure, impoverished, believed himself ugly,sexually confused–he strongly identified with most of his tragic figures, including the duckling (who won) and the mermaid (who didn’t). If you read his work as a whole, the message could be: life is hard. Really really hard. Especially if you live it alone.
    THEN there’s differentiating Disney from folk tales. I can’t stand Disney, except Mulan. Which isn’t perfect, but I can endure it, which is saying something since my ancestors were Huns.

  5. Jrant
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I agree with you. I’m an academic, so I thrive on analyzing EVERYTHING to death, but you’re right on about the problems of over-thinking. The implications of giving up one’s voice to get a pair of legs is INTERESTING, but Ariel’s independent and adventurous spirit was the LOUDER theme in the movie, and the one that seemed to stick with many of the posters above.
    On a related note, I disagree with the OP’s suggestion that LM was the product of a feminist backlash. Disney is primarily focused on making money, i.e. what kinds of movies (and accompanying merchandise) will sell best. I imagine Disney’s portrayal of Ariel stemmed not from a backlash to feminism, but a lack of awareness that strong, take-charge women would sell to children and their parents. Rescued, white princesses had been a money-maker for them up to that point, why change a system that’s working? This lack of awareness is still disappointing, but it’s less ominous than a corporation trying to put women “back in their place.”
    I’m not a huge fan of Disney in general, but I think the company HAS recognized that “progressive” themes (ie strong women, environmental responsibility, people of color as protagonists [though they have a whole host of problems with those as well]) are potentially profitable models. And, grudgingly, that represents some kind of positive progress.

  6. Toongrrl
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I always felt something when Ariel’s grotto and statue of Prince Eric was found by her father. “Have you lost your senses completely, he’s a human you’re a mermaid!” reminded me of how I know my parents and many parents of other queers seem to shout out something similar when their children are finally out of the closet. You got to admit that while “The Little Mermaid” is at least pre-feminist, that what Ariel feels is similar to the feelings of many queers when they’re caught between their parent’s beliefs and approval and their love for another human being and own individuality.

  7. livinginthefridge
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh Lydia… you rock. YES. The Feminist lens is very important, but it’s not the only way to view the world. It’s easy to say things like “Ariel traded her voice for legs to snare a man” but I can just as easily say “Ariel rebelled against the established norms of her society, in the pursuit of love”
    Who’s right? We both are!

  8. littlefox
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Not to go and make a long, complex thread even longer … but I’m surprised no one’s brought up race relations with respect to Ariel and Eric’s relationship. I didn’t see it as a metaphor for multi-racial relationships at first (it’s hard to notice it when all of the characters appear “white”), but there’s an adaptation of the story into musical form called “Once On This Island.” In that musical, the prince and the woman who falls in love with him are of different races (and different cultures/upbringings), and this is what comes between them. She fails in a way — he does fall in love with her, but he does not marry her because his society wouldn’t approve, and she decides that being his mistress is just not good enough and leaves.
    Unlike Ariel, she is UNABLE to change her physical appearance (there is magic in the musical – but not that kind). The musical is a beautiful tragedy, and a lot more satisfying — and heart-rending — than the Disney version of the story or even the Anderson version.
    You can watch the entire musical starting here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IzXnjZNuAo

  9. GalFawkes
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The third hand. That’s how I saw it. The audience knew from the start that Ursula was offering a horrible deal, making Ariel give up her voice for a man. Ariel giving up her voice for a guy was to her DETRIMENT.

  10. GalFawkes
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    This, exactly this. The giving up of her voice was to her DETRIMENT and it did NOT land her the man, and the man was more a symbol of the kind of world she was always interested in. And she’s breaking free of the patriarchy by talking back to her father. Between this and the levels of sexism in non-Disney films, yeah I’d rather have little girls watching TLM than, say, Twilight. I also don’t get why Disney gets singled out when the rest of Hollywood is no feminist bastion.

  11. crazyface8d
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I can understand that, but at the same time during the song “make a man out of you”, Mulan is keeping up with the boys to become ‘man’ enough. And later in the movie men dress as women in order to get into the palace. While there are certainly some moments in the movie that would make any feminist wince, I think that Mulan is certainly the most kick-ass Disney heroine.

  12. Pantheon
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen it, but if she got fins and tried to rescue her daughter, it sounds like she DID have kids and have an adventure.

  13. Pantheon
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I have NO memory of that song whatsoever. I wouldn’t be that surprised to find out my parents had edited it out. Now I have to check up on this.
    Actually, I do remember the indians in the disney peter pan being pretty stereotypical. But I have much stronger memories of a live action movie of Peter Pan (with a woman playing Peter, maybe someone famous? It was a musical). They spent a lot of time learning how to crow and I remember running around crowing like Peter. So maybe I just ignored parts of the disney version.

  14. LadyOrion
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html
    this link is to the original Hand Christian Anderson story. His “fairy tales” are really just “father knows best” tales and paints all those who are not white, male, rich or noble as stupid and unimportant, and he harbors an attitude of what can only be called seething misogyny.
    “the Little Mermaid” was anti-feminist for years before Disney produced its modern version. The Little Mermaid is nameless, soulless, and dies as tragically as any Juliette.

  15. ladybeethoven
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’ve noticed this too, how popular Golden-Age Disney is among female college students, and how much they act like it’s beyond reproach. (Like, you cannot believe how relieved I was when my class on the history of the musical covered Disney and no one rushed to defend it when my professor brought up the racism/sexism stuff.)
    I like some of those movies too – especially the music – but there’s a difference between enjoying the stuff you liked as a child and completely dismissing valid criticisms, which I feel like way too many of the “Disney girls” I know do.

  16. SarahSimone
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Oh wow! I LOVED the music from Once On This Island when I was younger, but I never got to see the show live. I am so so excited that to watch it. Thanks for posting the link.

  17. Sloppy Sandwich
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Note on anatomy: it is entirely possible for a woman to be penetrated with her legs firmly locked together, she can just bend over.
    A mermaid may not have a vagina to be penetrated if she is fish from the waist down, but presumable mer-people have their own way of sex, or perhaps they are free from sex. The message here could be quite Dworkin-esque if viewed from this perspective. Being made into a human woman and given a vagina, she is robbed of her voice and any ability to give or forbid consent to sex, thus any sex is rape. Being a human female is the inherently being subjected to rape.
    Many implications can be drawn from the story, most of which were probably not the intented meanings Hans was going for.

  18. Lily A
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    You’re probably thinking of the Mary Martin version that I loved as a kid too!

  19. Lily A
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I do love Once On This Island, mostly for the fun music and sweet story.
    But I really think it’s a problematic musical. It’s white Americans writing a musical version of a Haitian novel, with Haitian characters (but never explicitly mentioning Haiti). The alternate version of the musical, which is more often performed because it does not require racially-sensitive casting, takes out explicit mentions of race and replaces them mostly with references to class (“they despise us for our blackness” changed to “they despise us for our lowness,” for example). The music is “inspired” by Caribbean music and melodies, but to me it’s sort of the equivalent Aladdin’s orientalism, imitating the music of another culture in order to “suggest” an exotic place without actually doing the research to represent the music in an accurate way. Haitian spirituality is also portrayed in an exoticized and not terribly accurate way.
    And the moral of the story is tricky as well. [spoiler alert] Yes, Ti Moune ends up being a victim to racism / classism when she hopes that love and faith will overcome those barriers, which is perhaps realistic. But at the very end, Ti Moune’s “sacrifice” is fruitful, because Daniel’s child is “free to love” a peasant girl… maybe this is about the time it takes to break down barriers, and the fact that you can have an impact even if you don’t find success within your lifetime… but to me it always felt like a co-out ending to what should have been a tragic story.

  20. Brilliant V
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    This is a really beautiful piece.
    I believe that most, if not all, feminists can relate to the heartbreaking moment you have described above–those moments when we discover that the world is not trying to empower us with their stories about mermaids who thirst for knowledge or value her longing for independence, but rather they tell us that if we lose our voices, if we just act small and feminine long enough, we will get our man–and a theme song to go with him.
    Thank you for sharing…now, the trick is to get “Kiss the Girl” out of my head. :)

  21. LSG
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I dunno, I read those songs as all about Mulan facing and struggling against sexism — especially “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” As the men (all straight, naturally) obnoxiously wax poetic about the girls they want to win over, who are beautiful and cook for them and praise them to the skies, Mulan says “How ’bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” They all summarily dismiss her, which is portrayed as a bad thing. And Mulan DOESN’T stop speaking her mind or having a brain. I see it as similar to “Please Bring Honor to Us All” — Disney is hammering it in that while everyone around her is telling her to be quiet, demure, obedient, and pretty to be desirable, and marriageable to be worthwhile, she has much more to offer.
    There are things to cringe over in Mulan, absolutely, but I thought they did a pretty good job on questioning traditional gender roles. I see it as more of a problem that they also seem to be implying that this is a Chinese thing as opposed to acknowledging the same attitudes within Western cultures — look at those exotic Chinese people expect their women to silent and obedient! And apparently, dress as geishas! Who are Japanese, but okay!
    Do not mean to completely disrupt The Little Mermaid discussion…back to the half-fish people!

  22. LSG
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Yes, horrible. That song is not only horrifyingly racist, it gets some delightful misogyny in there, too. Not only with the “squaw” references — the hilarious jokes are that the “red man is red” because he was kissed by a pretty girl and blushed permanently, and that he says “ugg” (!!) because then he saw his mother-in-law. UGH!
    I remembered the Mary Martin live action version being much better, and when I watched it with the little girl I babysit we had a chance to talk a little bit about gender identification, which made me happy.
    …and then a white woman in a wig with long black braids, a feather headband and a fringed buckskin miniskirt came out war-whooping, my babysittee said happily “That pretty lady is an INDIAN! I want that pretty outfit!” and my happy feelings were over.

  23. Libbierator
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I tried to comment on this a while ago, but my computer failed; however, apparently other posters on Feministing did not, and filled in what I was going to say. Thank you to ALL the posters above who wrote in defense of Ariel and Disney in general.
    Next year I am living in my college’s Disney House, because I love Disney and have decided, upon much reflection and conversations and tears, that I can be a feminist and still love things that make me happy. One of those things is Disney.
    I agree; I find many feminist messages in Disney. It’s similar to looking for those messages in general pop culture: yes, there’s a lot of shit we need to fix as feminists and watch out for and pay attention to. And I do, and I can’t entirely shut out the voices that criticize Disney or The Little Mermaid specifically.
    But Disney is part of what inspired me to BE feminist. Belle, Ariel, Mulan, and Pocahantes all inspired me as a child; they made me, and still make me, want to wear my heart on my sleeve, be a feminist, be loud and proud and be myself. Proud and strong and brave and loving and everything that I am, brave and strong and true and afraid and loving and thoughtful and poetic and a dreamer, all of them are in me and all of them Disney encourages in my spirit. So, if it winds up inspiring me to change the world…then it’s really not a problem in my life anymore. :-)
    Look at this video from Mulan II:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMU8TLaX_jw&feature=fvst
    it continually inspires me to be “unafraid”, and also playful, and to laugh at myself. And with others!! :-)

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