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"The Little Mermaid" (1989): Ariel Was so Weak


Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Disney's The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 and is believed to be the first film in the Disney Renaissance.

As for the title of this article, I've always felt that Ariel was weak. But watching the movie again recently (don't judge me), it hit home for me just how weak she was and to what extent.

Rather than driving her own story, the second she gets a pair of legs, Ariel becomes a helpless victim.

I find this remarkable because Ariel is pretty badass in the beginning of the film.

She bravely goes exploring in shark-infested waters and out maneuvers a blood-thirsty shark without blinking.

Then she braves a dangerous storm to save Prince Eric.

This is remarkable because she's a skinny teenage mermaid and Eric is a heavy human male. Yet she carries him through fire, raining debris, tossing currents all the way to shore, without getting hurt herself in the process.

That's pretty awesome.

There's no "queer" subtext in this film, The Mary Sue. Just stop.

There's no "queer" subtext in this film, The Mary Sue. Just stop.

Then her father yells at her and bullies her by destroying her stuff (what a jerk) and she stands up to him.

I always felt that it was right for Ariel to stand up to her father. His behavior was emotionally abusive and tyrannical. It's like no wonder she runs away to a sea witch!

Pay attention to what a lunatic King Triton is during the film's opening, when Ariel fails to show up at the musical his daughters are putting on specifically for him.

First of all, what kind of man makes his daughters entertain him like this? It's like they had no choice but to sing and dance about how great their father was whether they wanted to or not.

Second of all, when Ariel doesn't show up, Triton's eyes turn red and he screams her name.

What the hell?

Any sane person would not overreact like that. King Triton had some serious emotional issues. I realize Disney was just trying to make him all angry for dramatic effect, but in the end, he just wound up being an abusive bully.

Still rocking that agency and control over her own f******* story, Ariel then defies her father by swimming off to see Ursula.

Granted, making dark deals with a shady octopus woman probably isn't the smartest thing to have done, but Ariel is an emotionally immature teenager (yet somehow still more emotionally mature than her father).

The point I'm making is, Ariel spends the first thirty minutes of the film fighting bad guys, heroically saving lives, standing up to bullies, and driving her own destiny by taking charge and making choices.

But the second she becomes human? All of that stops.

Once she has legs, Ariel becomes a helpless buffoon. And I don't just mean the fact that she stumbles and falls down because she can't walk.

I mean that instead of being proactive (like she was originally), she becomes reactive. She completely loses control and is instead controlled by her circumstances.

When once she was full of win, Ariel is now full of fail.

Maybe Eric's gay?

Maybe Eric's gay?

Ariel is beautiful, is completely naked when she meets the prince, but for some bizarre reason, can't seem to get the young red-blooded straight male to kiss her.

This really must be a fantasy film, completely and utterly detached from reality.

When Ursula intervenes in order to sabotage Ariel's chances, what does Ariel do?

She curls up in a ball and cries. . . . literally. She doesn't do anything to fight back. Her friends -- Sebastian and the sea creatures -- fight for her. They sabotage the wedding between Ursula and Prince Eric while Ariel sits nearby crying.

Keep in mind that Ariel doesn't sit around crying for a few minutes. She cries helplessly for the entire day. She wakes in the morning, learns that Eric is marrying "Vanessa," and then cries until sundown.


And when the wedding is sabotaged, Ariel still manages to let Ursula kidnap her.

She's so painfully helpless.

What happened to the fearless girl who fought sharks, for Pete's sake? Was her voice her super power or something? Why is she suddenly so weak without it???

I mean, losing her voice was not an excuse to be this pathetic.

Ariel knew how to write. She signed her name on Ursula's contract. So why didn't she write a note to Eric??? Something? Anything?

Maybe Ariel actually didn't know how to write, though. In the film, it looks as if Ursula's magic is controlling her hand and she's not actually signing the paper herself.

Either way, it still makes her look helpless and dumb (no pun intended). She gave up her voice -- the one thing that would help Eric identify her -- and then didn't even try other methods to make him understand who she was!

Assuming she couldn't write, couldn't she draw a doodle or something? Geez.

In the final showdown with Ursula, Ariel doesn't even defeat her own enemy -- Eric does.

Ariel is supposed to be the protagonist, which means she's supposed to be the character who drives the story and saves the day. Instead, she cowers in a corner, cries, gets kidnapped, gets her father turned into a booger, and has to wait for her prince to rescue her.

It's tragic given how strong she was in the first thirty minutes of the film.

So after Eric saves the day, Daddy Triton gives his guppy legs, makes everything better, and Ariel wasn't even strong enough to fight for her own happily ever after. The end.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Ariel was created on the heels of an era where Disney princesses were helpless victims of circumstance, all waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella -- they were all damsels in distress.

When Ariel was created, Disney was trying to find their feet, trying to figure out how to write a female character who wasn't a pushover. They took some baby steps by having Ariel actually own her own story for the first half hour . . . only to fail to follow through to the end, instead reverting her to a classic damsel in distress up against a wicked witch.

I have no intention of seeing the live action version of this film (or any more films Disney puts out), but I sincerely hope Disney will at least let the new Ariel own her own story.

She deserves more agency and power than the scraps the original was given.

© 2019 Lee

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