Procrastination, and the Subversive Feminism of The Little Mermaid

Writing a second book made me a better writer. The upside to that is I think I’m a better writer. The downside is that I don’t think my first book is well-written anymore. I’m too attached to it to can it, so now I have to go back and fix my first book using the skill I think I gained from writing the second, but no doubt one day there will be a third and nothing I ever wrote previous will be adequate.

So I decided to update my list of favorite Disney movies instead. Made more sense to me.

I know this is the update the world has been waiting for. You’re welcome. (Spoiler alert: that’s a reference to a newly-minted top five fave). Having a daughter has had a funny way of clearing a cloud of nostalgia from my life. My personal fondness for things doesn’t hold the same weight or value as it once did, now that I can experience the joy in her eyes when she loves something new. Nothing beats that. And so, I give you, the completely unnecessary update to my ranking of every Disney movie.

  1. The Little Mermaid
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Tangled
  4. Moana
  5. Frozen
  6. Lilo & Stitch
  7. Alice in Wonderland
  8. Lady and the Tramp
  9. Pocahontas
  10. Pinocchio
  11. The Lion King
  12. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  13. The Sword in the Stone
  14. Robin Hood
  15. Peter Pan
  16. Aladdin
  17. Brother Bear
  18. Bolt
  19. Mulan
  20. Cinderella
  21. Bambi
  22. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  23. The Princess and the Frog
  24. Zootopia
  25. Dumbo
  26. Fantasia
  27. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  28. Beauty and the Beast
  29. Big Hero 6
  30. Wreck-It Ralph
  31. Ralph Breaks the Internet
  32. Frozen 2
  33. Oliver & Company
  34. The Jungle Book
  35. The Rescuers Down Under
  36. Fantasia 2000
  37. The Aristocats
  38. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
  39. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  40. Hercules
  41. The Rescuers
  42. Winnie-the-Pooh (the new one)
  43. The Fox and the Hound
  44. The Great Mouse Detective
  45. Tarzan
  46. The Emperor’s New Groove

I still have only seen the following in snippets, so did not include:

  • Saludos Amigos
  • The Three Caballeros
  • Make Mine Music
  • Fun and Fancy Free
  • Melody Time
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (I’ve seen The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which would rank highly, but I’ve never seen Wind in the Willows and definitely haven’t seen them together in this packaged film)
  • The Black Cauldron
  • Dinosaur
  • Treasure Planet
  • Home on the Range (this is when things got real tough for the Studios)
  • Chicken Little
  • Meet the Robinsons

There you have it. The holy trinity of modern-day Disney has moved its way into the top five. *Crosses self* “In the name of Elsa, Moana, and the lost princess Rapunzel.” What can I say? I easily fall in love with my daughter’s worldview.

I don’t think anything can budge my top two. The Little Mermaid was my Frozen. The first song I ever knew by heart was Part of Your World. We sang it on the playground in first grade over, and over, and over. My generation of girlfriends grew up tossing our hair up and out of swimming pools because that’s what Ariel did when she grew legs and burst out of the sea. A lot of people I know have criticized The Little Mermaid as some sort of misogynistic manifesto because it’s about a girl who gives up her voice to be with a guy. I urge those people to look deeper. I could write an essay on how The Little Mermaid is in fact a feminist fairytale. Ugh, I can’t help myself. I’ll go into it.

The Little Mermaid works for me with two important premises. One. I like my protagonists imperfect. I want them to have flaws and dreams that are so at odds with each other they lead them to make bad decisions. I will root for a hero not because she is perfect (how boring) but because she is imperfect like I am, and manages to overcome her foibles to prevail over the dragon, or whatever.

Two. Giving up her voice to Ursula is a bad decision. This should be evident by the fact that she is making a deal with a devil, but based on how many people think LM is sending some sort of message to girls that giving up your voice for a guy is a good thing, I feel it needs to be said. Trust that your kids know the difference between a virtue and a terrible mistake. I was the kid watching The Little Mermaid. I got it.

With those two givens in mind, here’s my take.

Like so many fairytales, The Little Mermaid features a hero who wants more than her circumstances can give her. In Ariel’s case, her circumstances have placed her in the center of a patriarchal world with strict and insurmountable boundaries. She is one daughter in a veritable army of daughters of King Triton. There’s no mother in sight, though that’s never explained. Just a hyper-masculine father, and bunch of girls named by him who, when the movie begins, are paraded out with great pageantry to look lovely and sing pretty songs. That’s what is expected of them, and of Ariel.

But she skips out on that.

She doesn’t show up to her own debut. Instead, she is literally off with her best friend searching for treasure and fighting sharks. She wants to do her own thing: explore, learn, expand her world. Even with sharks around. She is curious and ambitious, and her father doesn’t like it. He wants her to use her voice to sing pretty and be pleasant. She wants to use her voice to ask questions.

Betcha on land, they understand.
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters.
Bright young women. Sick of swimming.
Ready to stand.
And ready to know what the people know.
Ask them my questions, and get some answers.
What is a fire? And why does it—what’s the word—burn!

Remember, she hasn’t seen Eric yet. So even though this song is called Part of Your World, she is yearning that she wants to be “Part of THAT world,” and it has nothing to do with a guy. She just wants to know things about a world that seems so exciting, and one that everyone else seems to misunderstand.

Then she meets a guy, and yes that’s the carrot that leads her to openly defy her father. But let’s talk about that. She is defying him, but not at first. She loves her father and would want to share her feelings with him; she is desperate for him to understand, but he refuses. Like so many fairytales, The Little Mermaid is about the blossoming sexuality of a young woman and how the forces in her life try to control it, because they fear it. So King Triton destroys everything that matters to her. All of her treasures, especially the likeness of her new prince. Blows it up with his big magical man-stick.

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Do you not remember being a teenager? I do. I remember being so misunderstood, especially when it came to the guys I liked, that I made some pretty bad decisions. So Ariel, desperate and alone, runs off to seek help from the only other place she thinks she might find it, a witch. She trades her voice for what she believes is her last chance to be happy because she does not fit in at home.

Let’s talk about Ursula for a moment, and why she’s the most badass of all. Many of the characters in The Little Mermaid were shaped and developed by Howard Ashman, a lyricist and playwright with roots in musical theatre. He modeled Ursula after the legendary drag queen, Divine. Can we talk about how revolutionary that was for a Disney film in the late-eighties? Other than the army of indoctrinated daughters, Ursula is the only other female character in the film and thus Ariel’s only role model. It’s never explicit what the circumstances were, but we do hear Ursula go on about a time when she was in power, but has been banned from palace life which is why she now hates Triton so much. Let me just cut to the chase with my theory. The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, right at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Our country had been ravaged by an AIDS epidemic completely ignored and stigmatized by its president (sounds familiar), and second-wave feminism felt like a thing of the distant past. The Little Mermaid was shaped and developed by a gay man who just a few years later would die himself of AIDS. I think Divine—I mean Ursula—represents all of that, and is fucking angry about it. If Triton represents the conservative patriarchy of Ronald Reagan’s America, then Ariel is the tool with which Ursula seeks her revenge.

So yes Ariel runs off and gives her voice to the sea witch. Ursula is very convincing in all the ways she sings about the performative power of being a woman (drag queen, remember), but frankly she straight up tells her the cost of contorting yourself to please a guy. “I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day. It won’t cost much, just your voice!”

I say again, it should be very evident that this is a bad decision. Why do you think Ursula wants her voice? What could be the reason? Could it be because our villain knows that a young woman’s voice is actually the most important thing she has in forging her path in the world, and developing relationships? And therefore by taking that away from Ariel she knows she stands the best chance of Ariel failing, and thus possessing her soul for eternity—really pissing off her dad?

But there’s another layer here that gives Ariel some power, or at the very least commands our sympathy for her. Why else might Ariel be so willing to give up her voice? Oh I don’t know, could it be because that’s the only thing about her that her father ever seemed to care about, at the expense of all her other interests? He wanted to hear her pretty singing voice, and that’s about it, so what does she turn around and do? In a bold act of defiance, however misguided, she gives away the only thing he valued. If the only thing about me that my father cared about was my pretty hair, you know what I would do? I’d cut that shit. If all he cared about was my pretty voice? I might trade it to a Sea Witch to get out of that patriarchal prison.

But of course, you shouldn’t give up your voice to be with a guy. Ursula knows this. Sebastian knows this. Flounder knows. And her daddio, King Man-Stick certainly knows this. Perhaps this lesson is more of a home run in the source material when our little mermaid continues to evaporate after giving away her voice, until she is nothing but foam on the sea and wind. Pretty sad. Disney wasn’t going to end a movie like that, so we get a chance for our hero to be redeemed thanks to the loyalty of her friends, and the love of her father. Triton’s redemption pulls on this new parent’s heartstrings the most. Sebastian says to him, “Like I always say, Your Majesty. Children got to be free to lead their own lives.”

“Then there’s just one problem,” Triton responds. “How much I’m going to miss her.” And he bestows her with her own pair of legs to do with as she pleases, and lets her go.

I love the ending. It’s as layered as an onion. Our villain, Ursula, has been run through with the jagged, phallic end of a broken down ship, and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The very ship, in fact, in which Ariel first made her appearance in the film searching for treasure and fending off a shark. Don’t think I need to unpack the metaphor there. (I also just realized, in writing this, why there were so many phallic Easter eggs in the movie, like on the poster and the priest at the wedding scene. There’s an actual penis that makes up a spire in Triton’s castle, and one of his daughters has a phallus for a hairdo. These were legendary in the 90s. Funny, makes so much sense now. But I digress). Ariel runs off and marries her prince. Who knows if she ever found out what fire was. Or why it burns. Maybe not. I imagine that if Ursula had survived, she’d shake her head at Ariel, watching her trade one patriarchy for another, and sing in her divinely gravelly voice, “Good luck.”

I’m just going to say it. My generation of women has at times felt hamstrung by the rigid demands and definitions of second-wave feminism. We were Ariel, trapped between two worlds which Triton and Ursula represent. So maybe Ursula was also a victim of Triton’s Sea. And maybe Ursula helped get her out for her own reasons. Maybe it was messy, and misguided, and manipulative. But she’s out. She found her voice, and now at least Ariel’s got a chance. At least she gets to choose. And that, my friends, is how The Little Mermaid raised a generation of third-wave feminists.

You’re welcome.

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