Part of That World, Part II–In Which I Defend Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)

To read Part I, in which I tear The Little Mermaid a new pair of fins, go here.

Dear Lily June,

Having attacked one of my favorite childhood classics (and not having even had the chance to launch into Ariel’s unrealistic waist, which might kill a woman in that it allows no space for her organs), I figure I should offer up some sort of defense, too, for one of my past, and hopefully one of your future, favorite cartoon films.

For one thing, Ariel is admired for her talent, not her beauty.

Far from focusing on how well she fills out her seashells, the movie’s males, from crab to prince, and even its females, including the tentacled sea witch, are obsessed with Ariel’s singing voice. Though she’s not much for showing up to her recitals, Ariel’s song harbors the dulcet tones any vocal artist might admire, and it’s this art, not the art of seduction, which makes the main character a catch. I’d much prefer Belle’s, of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, brains or Merida’s, of Disney’s Brave, self-sufficiency, but putting the eggs into the talent basket rather than the swimsuit competition earns points in my book for the film’s feminism.

Eric ultimately falls in love with her for both singing to and rescuing him, admiring aspects of her physicality that go beyond mere looks. That’s the kind of partner you should aim for, my darling daughter: Someone who sees the whole picture.

For another, Ariel’s not the typical damsel in distress.

Instead of focusing on a woman in captivity, who must be rescued by her handsome prince, the two characters must work to save each other at different points in the film.

Yes, Prince Eric deals the crushing blow (with the phallic tip of his ship no less) to the film’s villain, intent on undersea domination. But before that moment, it was up to Ariel to save him from an octopus-turned-succubus when she tried to defraud him with her “stolen set of pipes” and marry him under false pretenses. (Credit where credit’s due: Your dad pointed that bit out to me.)

And before that, it was Ariel who, despite a stunning lack of upper-body muscles in the animation, was strong enough to save her prince, a full-grown man, from drowning in a shipwreck. Sirens of the sea were known to lure men to their deaths, folklore’s answer to the misogyny of sailor culture. But this mermaid literally carries a man to safety.

If you’re lucky enough to find love someday, Lily (if, of course, you want to), I hope you will keep this lesson in mind: You have to be willing to alternate between who rescues the other. You do not always need to be swept off your feet and carried into the sunset. Sometimes your partner needs to be pulled like a drowning rat from treacherous waters. It’s in the reciprocity that true romance can crash over you like a tidal wave.

And despite the fact that her object of adoration is a prince, Ariel doesn’t save or love him for any monetary reward.

Remember, Ariel is already a Princess, the daughter of King Tritan, ruler of what viewers can safely assume, I think, to be the kingdom of Atlantis. True, she’s not exactly in line to the throne, being the youngest daughter in succession to what seems to be a patriarchal monarchy, but she certain lives a life of relative luxury, and thus doesn’t need the above-ground offerings of her handsome Prince.

Gold_Digger (2)
Ariel’s not a pearl-digger, as might be the expression for one who lives under the sea.

In fact, Ariel must reject the domination of her father, thus resisting, to some degree, patriarchy.

I hate to keep returning to the same well, so to speak, but the song “Part of Your World” is a key component to the movie. Its lyrics are clear on this: Ariel wants her freedom, as she sings, “Betcha’ on land, they’d understand / Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters / Bright young women, sick of swimming / Ready to stand.”

Now, of course, there’s a clear degree of naivete in her statement. In fact, women are often reprimanded–by their fathers, brothers, bosses, coworkers, male friends–on land as well as undersea. But the point here is that she wants to be lumped in with women who are intelligent (“bright”) and strong (“ready to stand” [for what they believe in, implied]).

And even at sixteen, she’s brave enough to love someone of another culture without allowing her father’s discrimination to rule her.

King Tritan refers, at one point, to humans as “barbarians,” clearly (and ironically) an attempt to dehumanize Ariel’s beloved, Eric. And yet. Ariel will not be told she cannot love him just because of where he lives and the culture he belongs to.

If you can forgive (and I’m not sure you should) her appropriation of that culture at points in the film, it’s easy to admire the fact that Ariel has an open mind, despite that she’s been raised to hate that “other kind.”

I hope beyond hope that by the time you’re old enough to see this film, racial tensions in America will have improved considerably. But it may be hard for you to imagine (sometimes it’s even hard for me, considering that I’m only thirty as I write this) what it was once like to live in a more hateful American society than today.

There was a time when it was a crime in some states for interracial couples to marry. Enter Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving who had to circumvent their southern state’s hateful policy by marrying in Washington. (It’s all the more ironic since they were from Virginia, a state whose travel slogan would, years later, be Virginia is for Lovers). In the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court overruled their criminal charge of miscegenation, thus striking a blow to all those who gargle Haterade.

Could there be a more appropriate surname for this couple than the Lovings?

I don’t want to overstate the case–I get that, for all animated intents and purposes, both Ariel and Eric appear white, and Ariel has to fight her father, not a nation’s government (though arguably, in a monarchy, her father is the government), for the right to embrace her crush, not the father of her children. (My comparison with the Lovings isn’t meant to offend, but merely to point out that prejudice is terrible wherever and however it happens.)

And hopefully this film, with its message of love across cultures, will be inspirational to you, as I hope you’ll still live in an America where you can marry (or not marry) whomsoever you choose, regardless of race, religion, sex, color or creed.

Of course, the fact that Eric’s kind eats members of Ariel’s kingdom–as we see when his French chef whips up fish heads and stuffed crab for dinner–is a reasonable objection to my overt romanticism. But then, we eat animals that dwell on land, too, because we assume they don’t have a soul or the intellectual capacity to object (cows, chickens, etc. are proof of this) so at least Eric’s people spread their equal opportunity barbarism around.

Some other points that your father helped me hash out: The film covertly critiques the ills of capitalism (though unfortunately not materialism) as well as privileging sex over love.

You might be tempted to think, as a collector, that Ariel’s the perfect capitalist, hell-bent on obtaining goods only (re: “Look at this stuff / Isn’t it neat?”) But Ariel essentially procures free goods as the fruits of her discovery. Because she’s repurposing found objects (from shipwrecks, what’s floating around on the surface, etc.), she’s actually, if you think about it, an avid recycler. She buys nothing.

It is Ursula who wants a free market exchange–a voice for legs, a trident and crown for Ariel’s freedom–and she’s the villain we’re meant to reject. I’m in no way entirely opposed to capitalism as an economic system, but I do think its trappings–especially that it tends to end in exploitative practices–are something worth being critical of.

Likewise, I don’t want to “slut-shame” Ursula, but far more visual emphasis is put on her sexuality. She is the one seen applying bright red lipstick, a sign of her valuing superficial sensuality. The trouble is that she uses her body–albeit with another’s voice–to seduce a man she doesn’t love just to gain power. That may be, in our less-than-equal and still glass-ceilinged society, how it’s sometimes done, but that doesn’t mean it’s how things should be.

In all fairness, when she’s not busy making up her face and seducing princes, she’s negotiating business deals with contracts so airtight, they can steal the soul of a king.

I would rather you achieve things by your wits than by your pair of, um, lips so consider, each time you apply it, who you’re really painting your face for. Only proceed if the answer, Lily, is you.

To get a little anti-climatic, the songs are just so darn catchy.

“Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” have stuck in my head for twenty-five years. That’s one hell of an earworm (ear krill?), Lily, so I hope someday you’ll sing them with me.

All of which is to argue, despite being almost as old as me, the film has held up pretty well across the decades. Just like any movie, it’s got some problems as well as some morals worth fighting for. But it’s not every film that drags its fantastic battles to the playground of the sea. As Sebastian sings,

“Darling, it’s better down where it’s wetter / Take it from me.”

Picture Credits:

3 thoughts on “Part of That World, Part II–In Which I Defend Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)

  1. originaltitle says:

    Loved this as much as Part 1. I will have to have my daughter read your letters one day. They have summed up so much of what I want to tell her about what’s going on in our country right now and about being a woman in general. Thanks for sharing a great read!

    Liked by 1 person

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