The Little Mermaid
Contributor: Emily Garza
Also by this contributor: “Britney Spears”
“It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.” Would you give this piece of advice to your daughter? How about your sister? No, I don’t think anybody would. This isn’t a very good message to tell any girl, yet it’s an exact quote from a very popular children’s movie: Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”(1989). I decided to go back and re-examine “The Little Mermaid” and analyze just what kind of messages the movie sends, because honestly when I was six years old there’s nobody who I wanted to be more than Ariel. She was everything a young girl ought to be: beautiful, fun, energetic, and she was a princess! I actually have quite vivid memories of swimming in a pool (and the bathtub to be honest) and pretending I was the little mermaid herself. I would have given anything to be my favorite Disney Princess.
But is Ariel really just a movie character for little girls to admire or does she represent something else entirely? When considering how superficial our culture is in the ways that it values a woman’s beauty over her mind, or considers an unmarried woman a “spinster”, it has become clear to me that maybe we should examine the media that is presented to us at a young age. When I did re-watch the movie a couple of days ago I was shocked to find how gendered it is and how maybe it really isn’t the best movie for young vulnerable girls to be watching. Now that I’m nineteen years old I found “The Little Mermaid” to be highly sexualized and have themes of dependency on men and lack female solidarity.
The most prominent thing I noticed about “The Little Mermaid” is that she seems to have been drawn more for an older male audience than for the movie’s target audience that consists of little girls to tweens. Ariel is a young mermaid who is petite yet curvy in all the right places, has a head full of voluminous fire-engine-red hair, and wears nothing but a seashell bra when living under the sea. The problem I see with this is that Ariel is only sixteen in the movie. If an actual sixteen year old girl walked around wearing a seashell bra she would without a doubt be called many names and I’m sure none would be as kind as “princess”. According to the American Psychological Association, emphasis on beauty and play sexiness can increase a girl’s chances of depression, eating disorders, distorted body images, and risky sexual behavior when they reach their teen years. When little girls watch this movie they can’t reason that Ariel is wearing what could be considered reasonable mermaid attire; they just see that this perfect pretty princess is wearing close to nothing and then think that it’s okay. The importance of beauty and body is also further driven home when the evil sea witch Ursula takes Ariel’s voice away. Ariel gains the opportunity to be with her beloved Prince Eric when Ursula exchanges Ariel’s voice for a pair of legs. At first Ariel questions how she could possibly make the prince fall in love with her if she has no voice and way of speaking, but Ursula assures her that she doesn’t need it. Ursula proceeds to sing, “You’ll have your looks, your pretty face. And don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” So what does this say to a young girl? As author Peggy Orenstein argues in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, it is lines like these that give girls the impression that their value derives largely from their appearance. The movie is essentially saying that if you are pretty enough you can make any guy fall in love with you for that exact reason.
Additionally, the fact that Ariel’s wish to be on land is driven by her want to be with a prince she fell in love with at first sight speaks volumes of how much weight is put on finding a man to marry. At the end of the movie Ariel’s success is defined by her marriage to Prince Eric, in which she is only able to become human by will of her father. For the sake of keeping score, everything Ariel gains in the movie is due to a man. In addition to her success being defined by this marriage, she also only 16 when she weds. A major part of Ariel’s appeal is that she’s young and relatable so her marriage ends up conveying that not only is it exceedingly important to marry a man, but you’re never too young. Plus why was it so out of the question for Prince Eric to become a merman instead of Ariel having to become human? As Mark Pinsky, an Orlando journalist, points out in his book The Gospel According To Disney, this movie does acknowledge that facets of our lives like culture, faith, and traditions can create barriers to a successful relationship, but then they solve this barrier by having Ariel change who she is to fit a man’s world as opposed to the other way around.
Furthermore, another disconcerting aspect of Ariel’s life is that there is a complete lack of female solidarity. Although Ariel does have five sisters in the movie, none of them are supportive of her dreams of going on land. Not to mention they only appear in the movie for a couple of minutes. The only other main female in the movie is of course the villain Ursula, who at one point in the movie refers to Ariel as a “little tramp”. It is a female who is trying to cause Ariel’s demise and almost does at that. Fellow women seem to be the source of conflict in almost every Disney Princess movie. In “Cinderella” it’s her stepmother, in “Sleeping Beauty” it’s Queen Maleficent, in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” it’s the evil Queen, and even in one of Disney’s most recent princess movies, “Tangled”, the villain is a woman as well, Mother Gothel. It is this increasingly popular conflict of female versus female that teaches girls to be in constant competition with one another instead of being a support system—after all only one can be the fairest of them all. This competition starts in these childhood games of playing princess, to competing for the boy you like in adolescence all the way to adulthood when women are competing with each other in the workforce because even then are women limited to the opportunities of a higher position. It is our fellow women that we continue to question and not trust instead of the structures put in place that create the competition. In this battle of woman vs woman, neither woman really wins.
Now let me just explain that even after coming to these conclusions about “The Little Mermaid”, it still holds a special place in my heart, because the movie, and the whole Disney Princesses collection, were such a staple of my childhood. I don’t think parents should stop showing these movies to their daughters, I just think they shouldn’t continue to go on undiscussed. Maybe when parents watch this movie with their daughters they can ask “Well, what do you think about Prince Eric becoming a merman instead?” or “Do you think it was the best thing for Ariel to give up her voice?” It’s simple questions like these that will open up a young girl’s mind to the possibilities that aren’t depicted in these princess movies. It’s okay for little girls to want to be magical princesses (Lord knows I wanted to be), but it’s important for them to know that they can be more than that too if they want.
 “The Little Mermaid (1989) – IMDb”, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097757/.
 Orenstein, Peggy, Cinderella Ate My Daughter (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publsiher, 2011).
 Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to Disney (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).
 “Cinderella (1950) – IMDb”, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042332/.
 “Sleeping Beauty (1959) – IMDb”, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053285/.
 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – IMDb”, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029583/.
 “Tangled (2010) – IMDb”, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398286/.
 “MinisterioUrbano |Sexism and Gender Discrimination Statistics: Encyclopedia of Urban Ministry”, n.d., http://es.urbanministry.org/wiki/sexism-and-gender-discrimination-statistics.