During my adolescent years, the Little Mermaid was my favorite Disney film. I had about five different Ariel Barbie dolls, a Little Mermaid tooth brush, and even a Little Mermaid birthday party. I always thought that Ariel symbolized women’s independence, but I was definitely wrong after watching it through an adult lens. For example, Ariel marries Eric at 16 years old, which teaches girls that they will be fully mature and sexually appealing by that age (which is far from the truth). For young women, today, Ariel isn’t a good role model because her character emphasizes patriarchal culture that continues to put women into a submissive, powerless role.
The film is about a 16-year-old mermaid names Ariel, who doesn’t like her life under the sea and dreams of becoming part of the human world. She is the youngest and most curious out of all her sisters. Like other Disney movies, Ariel lacks a mother figure but has a powerful and hyper-masculinized father, King Triton. This reinforces gender stereotyped behavior by portraying females as dependent on a man. Despite her father’s warnings of going to the sea-witch Ursula, Ariel exchanges her voice in order to spend three days on land where she must get her Prince (Eric) to fall in love with her by giving her a kiss. If this doesn’t happen, Ariel will become Ursula’s prisoner forever in the depths of the sea. This story mimics other traditional hegemonic “eve after” stories where the heroine must fall in love and meet her prince charming that will solve all her problems.
In the opening scene, Ariel is investigating a deserted sea ship where she marvels over human inventions. When watching the film, I noticed that she is portrayed as curious and rebellious, which may lead others to believe that she is independent. However, when she wants to venture beyond the ocean, Sebastian and Flounder (her two best friends that happen to be male) warn her not to go, which suggests her nativity is a weakness. Yet, there is a scene that suggests women independence and freedom. Ariel shows bravery when she saves helpless Eric from a burning ship.
One of the most important scenes that reinforce gender stereotypes is the Ursula scene where Ariel trades in her tail for a pair of legs at the cost of her voice. She is giving up the very things that make her a mermaid, including her tail, her singing voice and her passions and inspirations. As a result, her social identity is erased because a sexual relationship with a man is her only goal in life. This implies that girls need to give up their talents and interests in order to have a man fall in love with them.
Another extremely important character is Ursula, who teaches Ariel that femininity is a performance. I also think that Ursula could resemble a flamboyant drag queen because her hyper-masculine tone. Her octopus lower half depicts her character as gender ambiguous. While Ariel has a hyper-sexualized body with breasts and hips, Ursula represents female sexuality in a different way because she is fighting the norms of society by not having a traditional heterosexual relationship. Yet her rebellion is seen as a negative influence on society, which teaches little girls that opinionated women who fight the normal standards of gender roles are isolated from society.
In Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate souls” scene, Ariel learns that beauty doesn’t come within but it is rather based on appearance. When Ursula tells Ariel that she will have to give up her voice, she reminds her that she still has her pretty face as well as body language to get a man, which undermines a woman’s influence in society. In her song, she says, “They think a girl who gossips is a bore! Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word. And after all dear, what is idle babble 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 get’s a man.” She also shows Ariel that physical appearance is the only thing that matters when it comes to love. After watching the Little Mermaid more than one billion times, I never noticed that Ursula reinforces traditional gender roles that women should be silent and have a hyper-sexual appearance in a male dominated world. I will never see this movie like how I saw it when I was an five-year-old aspiring “princess.” Now, I look at them in pity, seeing them as poor unfortunate souls stuck in a web full of patriachal ideas.