My friends and fellow Disney fans, I have been privy to an onslaught of Disney Princess criticism lately. Now, I can usually take it. It's why I've resisted writing another Disney Princess article for a while. I know the girls have their faults. I know they're not perfect role models. I understand.
The following rebuttal is inspired by a video I recently saw titled “Disney Princesses in Real Life,” in which the makers (try to) portray how Disney Princesses would act in real life and why they’re the worst and they’re all bad role models, which I watched because I thought it might be a funny way of looking at things. But by the end I was just like:
I enjoy making good fun of the Princesses as much as the next gal, but this video made almost no sense. The writers didn't take much from the actual movies and they don't accurately portray any of the girls, which makes for a contrived and a pretty useless parody. I could probably go through the video and name exactly what is wrong with each and every portrayal and why it matters, and hey, maybe I might someday. But I noticed that a significant number of comments were in wholehearted agreement with all the bland, mostly contrived points the video makes, and many of them went farther by being all like, "ugh, Ariel, she's just the worst."
Here I could make a point about how not all characters need to be role models, because in order to tell a good story, characters basically need to be flawed. But this idea that every female protagonist needs to be a role model and that young girls will follow in their direction is so prevalent (even though we hardly ever talk about male ones). So Upworthy, if we're going to turn every female protagonist into a potential role model for little girls and argue about why they suck, challenge accepted. Here is my defense of Ariel.
Ariel is criticized for what I understand are two main reasons:
1). She changes herself for a man.
2). She deliberately disobeys her father.
Does Ariel change herself? Yes, yes she does. She gets legs. She puts herself through a harrowing physical transformation to get her happy ending, making it easy for people to compare said transformation to a plastic surgery-like procedure done with the explicit intent of pleasing a man. But we have to answer the question: does she do it for Eric?
Yes, Ariel does it to be with Eric, but that's different than doing it for Eric. And since being with your significant other/loved one usually makes you happy, I don't know why we criticize Ariel for doing something that would make her happy. Especially if, I dunno, she had some song lyrics that went like this earlier:
"What would I give if I could live out of these waters, what would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand..."
Ariel wanted to be a human the whole movie--she wants more. She sings that. She "wants more." Then she finds Eric, and wants to be with him, because that would make her happy. If she was really changing for Eric, I feel like at some point Eric would have needed to demand Ariel be a human, or express disgust with mermaids, or make Ariel feel like she had to be human for him to love her. And he doesn't.
Consider Eric's reaction when Ariel turns back into a mermaid. He's a little confused at first, but when Ursula takes her, he gets into his little boat lickety-split and heads right out to the middle of the ocean where the weird lights are flickering underwater and he's all like, "I LOST HER ONCE I'M NOT GONNA LOSE HER AGAIN." I highly doubt he knows that King Triton's trident has the power to turn Ariel into a human at this point. Hell, I don't think even Ariel knows. So we can only assume that once this immediate threat is dealt with, he's willing to work this human-mermaid thing out, however awkward it might be.
Changing "for" Eric doesn't make any sense, because Eric doesn't care that she's a mermaid. Ariel never had to hide that to get his approval. In fact, she tries to tell him that straight from the get-go.
Eric never offers a "be a human or I won't love you anymore" ultimatum. And I feel like some pressure on his part to change Ariel would be necessary to justify the interpretation that Ariel "changes for a man." The change that Ariel goes through is never demanded by Eric, it's sought after by Ariel, who has actually wanted to be a human anyway the whole movie. Ariel choosing to be with Eric, as a human (because that makes the relationship work logically) is Ariel's choice. And I feel like wanting to be with your significant other is normal. People sacrifice things all the time for their lovers/soulmates/etc. It makes them happy to be with each other. So she makes that choice. She changes because she wants to.
In fact, let's consider the ramifications of the change Ariel goes through: She gets legs. She gets to live on land. She's happy.
There. That's it. We considered it.
But seriously, think about it. Ariel never changes her self as a whole. Ursula's song stresses body language and demureness and, to some level, subjugation, as tactics to catch land men. But Ariel doesn't actually go for it. True, she literally doesn't have a voice, so she does bat her eyelashes and gives some pretty sexy looks as means of communication. But she also enthusiastically studies things...
...and tries things...
...and takes control...
...and she smiles, and dances, and observes, and learns. She doesn't focus on Eric the whole time, she's so into this whole human world thing. And Eric still totally digs her.
Ariel makes herself heard even without her voice, not just as a woman, but as Ariel. She engages Eric perfectly well even without her voice. She is confident, especially considering the fact that she thinks she can get Eric without a voice in three days. She never changes her identity. She knows her self worth. She respects herself, and what she wants as legitimate, throughout the whole movie.
Because she has wanted this the whole movie. Ariel balefully sings “Part of Your World” before she meets Eric. She's been collecting and studying things for some time, judging by the size of that grotto. She wants to experience being human because she'd be happier that way. And then she actually becomes human and she's happy, and people complain. It’s like someone saying they’ve always dreamed of living in New York and then meets someone who lives in New York and then moves to New York, and then gets crap about moving to New York. Ariel wants to be human and then Eric comes in and then suddenly everyone is focused on the introduced romance. The romance is a large part of the motivation, yes, but it's not the only thing. Ariel has dreams of living on land and dreams of being with Eric. Why is her desire to be with Eric illegitimate? Who is anyone to tell Ariel what she wants is wrong?
If Ariel wants to risk everything for love, then that’s her prerogative. That’s what she wants to do, against almost every character in the movie, and it seems to me that by criticizing her as a character for fearlessly going after what she wants, we invalidate her independence and courage. Shouldn’t we be respecting that Ariel, a female lead, has her own ideas and is taking her own actions towards her own happy ending? If her happy ending involves being with her Disney-lovin'-soulmate, as many happy endings for protagonists of both genders do, then great, fantastic, love conquers all. Happy endings. Yaaaaay.
It is true that she leaves her family. I cannot argue against that, except that people often move away when they fall in love and get married. That's a thing. They go to where the jobs are, or where they've always wanted to start a new life. In this case, it’s both, because Ariel can finally run all day in the sun, and also Eric, as Prince (really it’s more like King?) should stay up there in Maybe-Denmark. And Ariel’s not even moving far away. Maybe-Denmark and Atlantica are right next to each other. Her family and friends can come to the surface to visit any time they want. It's right there.
Plus, Triton's trident has the power to transform mermaids into humans. That's the resolution of the movie. Logically, it would also be able to do it the other way around, especially if we consider the sequel as canon (debatable). The families could just flip-flop back and forth anytime they wanted if this power was acknowledged. (Personal head canon. And don’t pretend you don’t want to imagine Eric as a merman).
This sort of brings me around to Point Number 2:
Ariel is criticized for disobeying her father. True, Triton’s rules about not going to the surface are pretty reasonable: humans are fishermen, they’ve got sharp hooks and entangling nets and there's not much reason the merpeople should trust them. So yeah, maybe Ariel shouldn’t be disobeying her father.
But Ariel is 16. She’s the archetype of a rebellious teenager who wants to explore and find things out for herself and knows she wants something different than what she has now. Stories are made up of heroes and heroines who want big things and make stupid, disastrous choices to get them. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. The movies would be extremely boring if they didn’t.
Plus, when was the last time you heard a male character criticized for disobeying his parents?
If Ariel was a boy, if he was Arnold the Merman...
...and if he was all like "Dad, you're wrong about the humans!," would we be calling him a bad role model for boys, or praising him for expressing his own, independent opinion to his somewhat-old-fashioned-and-prejudiced dad?
Here's some more food for thought: I am reminded of a conversation I had quite a long time ago with someone who had just gotten out of a college course that analyzed Disney films and Miyazaki films, with the somewhat simplistic conclusion that Disney films were bad for kids and Miyazaki ones were good. To illustrate the point, my companion compared The Little Mermaid and Ponyo, both based off of Hans Christian Andersen's Mermaid (and both excellent films). According to said companion, Ponyo was a better movie because Ponyo didn't sacrifice herself for a man; she was just friends with the boy and wanted to be "part of his world." (This person did actually try to use the phrase "part of your world" against The Little Mermaid).
I have since watched Ponyo, and the thing is, it's almost the same. Ponyo decides she wants to be human. Part of (a large part of) this decision is factored around a boy. She disobeys her father to get what she wants. She gets what she wants. Happy endings everywhere.
The biggest difference, it seems, is that Ariel has a romantic love interest, and Ponyo's is platonic (and honestly, you could debate that). So why is it better that Ponyo leaves her world behind, which includes giving up some pretty baller magical powers, for her friend, than it is for Ariel to leave her world behind for her significant other? They're both changing at least partly for love; so does it really matter what kind of love that is?
(Another notable difference is the amount of support Ponyo gets from her sisters and from her mother. Ariel gets no support from her family. Is family support a factor in how we see the characters?)
Now, I know changing yourself (superficially, since both girls ONLY change into the thing they wanted to be, and they do not change their identities/personalities), for a romantic interest may have some negative implications for girls about the importance of relationships, more than a movie with platonic characters might. And there is that pesky movie trend where male leads usually get an a) story about self-fulfillment, and b) a story where they get the girl; while female ones get an a) story about romance, and sometimes b) no b) story at all. Naturally this needs to be fixed.
But I don't think this means we need to completely invalidate romantic love as a motive, for girls or boys. Teaching that no compromises are to be made for romantic love, whether you want those changes or not, is just as warped a message as the other way around. Romantic love generally makes people happy, and if being with Eric will make Ariel happy, then great. She wants to pursue that dream despite all the obstacles that are in her way, and who are we to criticize her for it? She never stops knowing that what she wants is legitimate, and she fights almost every other character in the movie on it. She only gets Sebastian's support when she does this face:
At which point he concludes that he doesn't want her to be miserable for the rest of her life. Do we?
1) The moral of Disney's The Little Mermaid is not "change yourself for a man." Being a human is what Ariel wanted, not Eric. She fearlessly follows her dream and achieves it. Falling in love with Eric is the plot device that gives her a means of getting legs, but going after love isn’t a bad thing, especially since she doesn’t change her personality or anything about her identity as a means of getting Eric. Also it should be pointed out that she saves Eric first.
2) Ariel also probably shouldn’t be criticized for disobeying her father. I mean, you can make a valid point about it, but a female character who listens to everything her parents say and docilely obeys would be a worse role model, wouldn’t she? Ariel has different interests than her father (he may have some prejudice issues), she has a mind of her own, she wants to learn about new things, and she wants to explore. I’d call that admirable. Also we don’t seem to hold male characters to the same standard.
No one seems to remember that Ariel sings one of the most feminist lines ever: “I bet on land, they understand, I bet they don’t reprimand their daughters.” Maybe we should take a hint from Ariel and learn from that.
But hey, who wants to see this version of the movie?