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Why The Little Mermaid is a Kickass Feminist Movie

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.

Nonsense, right?

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.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

7 thoughts on “Why The Little Mermaid is a Kickass Feminist Movie

  1. I agree with everything you said. When i heard some people thought this was an anti-feminist movie I was somewhat shocked for most of the reason you said. It’s a kids movie people, get over yourself folks

  2. This is great! My experience with Ariel was very similar to yours, she was one of my two favorite princesses growing up (I had an Ariel barbie, costume, and a “mermaid rock” I would play on at the beach). But when i got older I was told how bad this movie was from a feminist point of view, so I didn’t let myself enjoy it. This was kind of heart breaking because i could fully enjoy basically everything else from my childhood, and i felt that i wasn’t allowed to enjoy the Little Mermaid. I was also a little confused with everyone’s oppositions to the movie because they didn’t match what I got out of it. When I was little I would dream about adventure and new worlds, not princes. I actually never paid any attention to the prince, he was just another character. It didn’t leave me “longing for prince charming”, I didn’t think much about the part of the story until i was older and was told how wrong it was. Thank you for making me realize that it is a great movie that I can fully enjoy again!

  3. My thought on the subject is: Ariel starts as a more emancipated version of the previous Disney princesses, but the content of the movie turns her into a classic Disney princess and this is why many people (including me, to some extent, I’m afraid, but to be fair, I do not like the movie) see The Little Mermaids as anti-feminist.

    The thing is, we all see as aspect of the movie more than another depending on our taste and what we want to see ; hus, I will not deny that my point of view is subjective.

    I do think that once Ariel sees Prince Eric, she becomes an empty shell. I can accept the flawed teenager who is obsessed with Human culture, it is definitely interesting and gives her neutral traits such as curiosity, but all this is is driven by the need to make her meet her prince until her “love” becomes the sole aspect of her character and existence. She is even willing to give her voice (which she could use to satisfy her curiosity about the human world and her love) just to get legs to be with a man. She basically leaves her father for her husband, and that’s pretty much all. It’s quite a traditional tale that didn’t manage to get as far as it could have. But I do think Disney is a bit shy on this issue with their princesses. In The Princess and the Frog, it’s a bit better though.

  4. After reading this article, I can’t say my opinion of this Disney film has changed. I’m not going to lie. When I was a kid, I used to love this movie since, being a Disney film, everything looks beautiful, and amazing, the whole world is magical. I respect the fact that Ariel has an adventurous side, but at the same time, I don’t like the fact that she abandoned her whole life to be with a guy she just met. You think by saving someone from the water, Eric will be unconscious and say, “Oh my God, she’s beautiful, I feel like I’m falling in love.” It’s blasphemy!

    Again, I’m not bashing on the movie, but this is where I get divided over this Disney Princess. Ariel wants freedom, yet she rebels against her father. Where are her sisters when all of this is happening? Realistically, you don’t fall in love with someone at first sight. That’s a rare thing to occur in the real world. You have to know people by dating them, understanding their likes and dislikes, what their desires and dreams are, so on and so forth.

    If I had to give this movie my own personal rating, it would be a 6 out of 10. The songs “Kiss the Girl” and “Part of Your World” are truly amazing and catchy. As I have stated before, I can’t understand how Ariel giving up her voice would allow her to communicate with a guy she just met. Can I also mention the fact that she’s only 16 in the movie? You don’t fall in love at 16 years of age. Your brain is still developing. While I admire your reasons for loving The Little Mermaid, and respect them, I just don’t have any desire to like this movie other than for the songs.

  5. An adventurous side to the point of Ariel like recklessness is often a sign of a personality disorder. Just, no. Ariel is a beautiful looking character who turns out to be an empty shell of a girl.

  6. I think the plot focus on the romance can be excused somewhat by that being a term of Ariel’s contract with Ursula, whose opinions we are not supposed to agree with. Ariel has to get Eric to kiss her; she doesn’t change herself to do it, which is admirable, but it does explain why their relationship begins to take the fore. Also, while she has to have the ‘true love’s kiss’ from Eric, there’s no requirement that she stays with him for her entire life, so it could be seen as a happy coincidence that she decides to marry him (which we much assume is permanent because this is the Disneyverse).

    I think it’s also important that Eric shows he wanted to meet the singer who saved his life, and so actually has more of an interest in the non-mute Ariel than he first realises.

    I wouldn’t put much weight on her age because plenty of protagonists meet their supposed true loves at ridiculously young ages. It does happen more to women, but often because of the trend of younger women pairing with older men.

    I’m happy I can continue to love Ariel less problematically in my feminist days. However, it’s important not to forget about Ursula, the classic evil ugly witch who preys on the innocent heroine, and the fact she was modelled as a drag queen.

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