Part of reviewing Disney’s fourth princess movie, the 1989 animated classic the Little Mermaid, involves admitting my history with the film. Because when I was a little girl, the Little Mermaid was my favourite Disney film (may or may not have been tied with Peter Pan, and it would later be replaced by Pocahontas, but more on that later).
I wanted to be Ariel. My family still tells stories about me as a snot-nosed three-year-old obnoxiously trying to sing like her, stuffing both of my legs into the same pants leg so that I could pretend to be a mermaid. Because a big part of my obsession with this movie has to do with my lifelong obsession with mermaids that started at a very young age (partially due to the Little Mermaid, partially due to a little-known horror film called She Creature that I also watched obsessively as a child). My love of this movie may or may not be responsible for the fact that I would later start dying my hair bright red and haven’t been able to stop since – who knows? All that I’m trying to say is that this movie impacted the little girl who first saw it.
But I’m twenty-two now. My tastes have changed, I’m a bit more mature, a bit more critically minded; how do I feel about it now?
To be honest, I still sort of love it. Not for any specific, intelligent reason that I can discern – in fact, I don’t really know why I do (besides the fact that I’m still obsessed with mermaids). What is it about this movie that has kept me coming back after all these years?
Could it be the villain? Because when I think about this movie, Ursula is one of the first things that comes to my mind. Once again, Disney has made use of the figure of a wicked woman for their villain, but there’s just something fabulous and wonderful about her. I remember hearing that Ursula was inspired by the famous drag queen Divine, and my first thought was that that makes total sense. Ursula perfectly captures the personality of the stereotypical drag queen performance, the overall big-ness. And unlike the last three female villains, Ursula is not necessarily a woman with power. She’s a witch, yes, but she lives on the outskirts of society, banished for reasons that I still really want to find out. She has no influence over anyone, unlike the Evil Queen of Snow White, the stepmother who rules with an iron fist in Cinderella, and the castle-dwelling fairy who demands respect from even the monarchy in Sleeping Beauty. Though a small change, it does a great deal in altering the message that woman should not be given power lest they misuse it and hurt someone that could be read into the prior films. In fact, the argument could even be made that Ursula acts as she does directly because she has been robbed of her power by the King, as we never really know why she was banished from society in the first place. Her cruelty might actually be a desperate attempt to seize back the power that was taken from her.
And if this moral can’t be read into Ursula, it most certainly can be read into Ariel. Ariel who quite literally loses her voice, her ability to communicate and stand up for herself, and in the process loses everything. It isn’t until she takes her voice back and once again gains the ability to speak that she is able to fix the mess that has become of her life. Though most of this is on the metaphoric level, a lot of it seems to be indicating a message that women need to have their own voice. They need to have power in their own personal lives if they are ever going to find happiness. That’s why I don’t mind the changes that this movie makes to the fairy tale – the unhappy ending works brilliantly for a Christian tale, but when you take the Christianity out of it (as Disney does) you need to replace it with something, and a message about girls shaping their own future as opposed to leaving it in the hands of their fathers or lovers is as good as any.
But I have heard a lot of people argue that this movie is actually incredibly sexist, claiming that the story is all about how women should have to change to get a man because Ariel trades in her tail and her family for legs and a husband. Personally, however, I never quite saw this in the movie, mostly because… well, Ariel wants to be human before she even meets Prince Eric. It’s her defining trait, the thing that makes her different from everyone else in her kingdom. Heck, she even sings Part of Your World before laying eyes on him! Eric just becomes a part of this great, big package that she already wanted. So the way I see it, she isn’t sacrificing her tail and family for a man, she sacrificing them for the life she always wanted, the life that she thinks will make her happy, the way that real people without fins will sacrifice things for the arts, or to live in a specific city, or go to a certain school. The deal just becomes a little sweeter when you throw love in there as well. And, to be honest, as a writer I can completely relate to the longing to reach a world that everyone and everything around you tells you you can’t. A mermaid can’t walk on land, and I can’t make a living off of creating fictional stories off my life. So maybe I just like to watch Ariel prove them all wrong.
And I’ve also heard some people state that the Little Mermaid can be read as a metaphor for life as a transgender person – being born in a body that you’re dissatisfied with, longing to be able to change, not being accepted by your old-school father because of it. And, personally, I think that any story that is able to resonate with people in that way is awesome.
So now that I’m a grown-up person, maybe I love the Little Mermaid based off a bit more than just the fact that Ariel’s pretty and I want to be a mermaid. I don’t entirely know if I’d still love it in the same way if I didn’t have that history, but fortunately I’ll never have to find out. I can just spend my life sitting in front of the TV and singing along with Ariel about how I long to be part of her world.