Disney Debate: Ariel

Welcome to Disney Debate!

Over the next 11 weeks, we’ll discuss each of the “official” Disney princesses. Read the information and question below and then use the comments section to join the debate. Engage with people’s comments by replying to them, and add your own points by creating a new comment. Comments must be civil to be included.

WEEK 4: ARIEL

When The Little Mermaid came out in 1989 , Ariel was considered a feminist heroine. Roger Ebert called Ariel, “a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.” But, these days, feminist critics add Ariel to the list of anti-feminist Disney princesses, bemoaning the fact that she gives up her voice and “morphs herself into a human at the age of 16 to go be with some dude she saw on a boat” (Sarah Bregel).

So, is Ariel a “fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently,” or is she just a girl running off to be with “some dude she saw on a boat”?

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28 thoughts on “Disney Debate: Ariel

  1. Ariel is a passionate, curious, independent, talented, vibrant, disobedient idiot who happened to make exactly the right choice.

    At 16, the dangers of disobeying her father in this scenario were enormous (which obviously makes a good movie 😉). In real life, Ursula could have been part easily been part of a sex trafficking ring. Or what if she had needed no permission for Ariel’s voice? Poof, gone, and she’s an ugly plant thing.

    And Eric—for only having seen him twice, she took a tremendous risk (although from what we see of him, he’s a pretty great guy). But she seems oblivious to his character, anyway. Besides how horrible he could have been married to her, what if he played it up, broke her heart, and handed her over to the sea witch? Or figured it out, and married a woman he wasn’t in love with to save her life?

    Ok, some of that is unlikely, and very unlikely considering the personality we get a glimpse of at the beginning.

    Obviously there are so many things about Ariel to praise, and her independence is truly admirable in this age of the completely dependant young adult. In a society where our young adults (and not so young adults!) are at home longer, are marrying later, know very few life skills, and don’t even know how to buy postage stamps, she is an inspiration to be better. It’s literally illegal to be as independent as Ariel was (marrying at 16).

    Getting personal: I was not taught how to survive on my own. I’ve had medical issues that stunted my urge for independence. Family is a big deal in my house and community to the point that my best friend, who is far more independent than I am, was not allowed to watch The Little Mermaid because “she disobeys her parents.” My mom gets stressed very easily (probably anxiety), so whenever we try to confront her about something, she’ll usually allow it, but it causes her tremendous pain. She was too soft a person. The nicest mom, but it backfired.

    Doing something “stupid” is perhaps my worst fear, but now I’ve started to admire people like Ariel who take big risks to find their way in life.

    I’ve noticed most Disney movies have convenient cop-out parents, usually dead. The coming-of-age story can only take place without parents, so either they are out of the way or need to be fought (it’s rare to find a parent encouraging dangerous behavior). TLM made the bold choice to keep one parent, who, like Mother Gothel, needed to be opposed. (The difference between the two Disney parents is that Trident ultimately loved his daughter and wanted her to be happy, and Mother Gothel grew to enjoy her daughter, as one might a pet.)

    I’m actually really grateful to you, Faith, for bringing up these Princess questions. It’s really helped me re-evaluate my own life. It also makes me wonder what your own coming-of-age story was, but I’m sure that will probably remain a secret.

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    1. Lol, not a secret, but probably not part of this debate! 🙂 You make some really excellent points. I think sometimes the “stupid” thing is the only thing to do if you’re living in a situation where you can’t achieve your fullest potential without escaping from it, and the only way to escape from it is to “disobey” someone and take incredible risks.

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    2. I think that you make a lot of good points. I may be biased since TLM is my favorite Disney movie(it has been since I was 5). I do think that Ariel doing something stupid is an essential part of the story. Besides making the plot boring, people make mistakes. Especially young people. The point of her making that mistake in the first place is that she sees what her stupid decision led to and then risks everything to set it right. While the consequences in real life could be worse the point of fairytales are so that we learn the moral they teach. That is what I took away from that portion of Ariel’s journey.

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  2. She’s obviously a fully actualized, independent, autonomous female character, complete with her own virtues and vices. Sarah Bregel doesn’t seem to grant that she’s obsessed with humanity before ever laying eyes on Prince Eric… her reduction is dishonest.

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    1. I totally agree. I would also add that it also ignores what the act of trading her voice for legs symbolizes, which I take to be trading her innocence and youth for womanhood and a new life. In that case, her journey isn’t just about Eric or even the human world. Her journey from mermaid to human is really about her journey from girl to woman. Sounds pretty “feminist” to me.

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  3. First I will say that this is somewhat providential. I am visiting this site for the first time after hearing your father plug you on his podcast. Then the first thing I see when I arrive is something havi g to do with my favorite Disney movie. That being the case I had to say something.

    So my response to the prompt is: Yes. Ariel’s story is about a silly child who makes a stupid choice to run off after a boy she saw on a boat. After the consequences of her choice play out she then goes through the process of becoming an adult and takes responsibility for her actions and then does everything she can to fix the bad stuff her choices brought about. Ariel’s journey is about personal growth about going from child to adult and I think they captured this in a beautiful and uniquely feminine way.

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    1. I’m glad you found the site! And that we’re talking about Ariel! That’s an interesting take. If we have to start with the premise that her decision is stupid, then I like the way you express what happens in the rest of the film. Personally, I don’t see it at stupid. I think she’s doing what she has to do in order to reach her full potential in a situation where the people who love her don’t support her.

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      1. Perhaps stupid is too strong a word. It was certainly a risky decision going to Ursula for help and one she didn’t fully understand the consequences of.

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      2. Absolutely! But I would argue she had no choice. King Triton would never have changed his mind if she hadn’t done something extreme (which showed him how much this mattered to her). She believed she had no other options (because staying a mermaid wasn’t a choice, she’d have been miserable), and — at that point in the plot — she didn’t.

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  4. That’s a tough one. I think she does act a bit immature, but if you take into account that she’s the youngest of 7 in a time where 16 was pretty much an adult, it’s not unreasonable. She rebels against a father who misunderstands her interests, which might only have remained interests that she held safely at home if her father had tried to understand. Her father has misunderstood some aspects of the world above, but she does seem to realize that he was right in part. They compromise. This is a pattern for her, both in the prequel and the cartoon series. Her father often overreacts, but she learns that he loves her and usually they come to an agreement.

    In the sequel she becomes like her father (don’t we all) and learns to embrace how her daughter grows up with a fascination of the sea (except Melody is like 12).

    Also, I love Jodi Benson.

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  5. Yes, I think the fact that her father refuses to even acknowledge that her interest in the human world is valid makes it difficult for Ariel to do anything other than what she does. And yes, Jodi Benson is awesome. 🙂

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  6. I think I kind of agree with Blindfold Bethany on Ariel and Eric’s characters. Except I’m perhaps a bit harsher. I don’t care for either of them; Ariel is a flat-out spoiled brat, not at all an independent thinker, she is easily tricked and different tastes doesn’t equal indepedent thinking. I think this movie was the 80’s attempt at feminism, with that long-held annoying conflation of strength and critical thinking with straight up brattiness and rebellions for the sake of rebellion.

    I don’t like Trident either, but like I said taking an independent stand is different from rebellion based on tastes (going back to the amazing Cinderella 2015, something this Cinderella so exemplified).

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    1. I know that this is a common complaint about Ariel, but I disagree. What was Ariel supposed to do? Ursula was literally the only person willing/able to give her the life she wanted. She was born to be human and there was no other way she could follow her dreams. Had Triton understood that, he would have helped her and she wouldn’t have had to resort to visiting the sea witch.

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      1. I have to say that I’ve long been of the opinion that Ariel is the only Disney Princess I really don’t like. Not because she’s feminist or not, but because she’s just a really rebellious idiot. (Which is harsh, I know, but it’s true. And I still love her movie anyway.)

        Think about it, though. In the first place, she is totally scatterbrained and careless of the commitments she makes–though to be fair, she does feel bad about missing the concert. Moving on. She sees a hot guy and is infatuated. Fine. Happens to a lot of girls. But then she becomes so obsessed that she is actively seeking to disobey her father for a guy she knows 0 about. When she doesn’t get her way, she lashes out, throws a fit, and ultimately makes the stupid decision to trade her voice for three days with the man, putting her life and, albeit unknowingly, the lives of her family and their entire kingdom in danger. Sure, sometimes rules seem unfair, but ultimately her father was trying to protect her. He only wanted what was best for her, even though he turns out to be wrong about humans. We shouldn’t complain about her father for not being understanding enough of his bratty sixteen yo daughter. The lesson a girl like Ariel needed to learn but never did is that we can’t always have every fleeting desire. If the only foreseeable way to get what you want is ‘making a pact with the devil’, so to speak, RED FLAG, don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

        I think that’s the best part about Rapunzel’s story in Tangled. She eventually begins to see that she can give up her own desires (freedom and family) for someone she loves. Ariel never has to do that. She never decides to obey her father because she loves him. Rather she just assumes he’s cruel and unfeeling and purposefully disobeys him (on more than one occasion–Ursula’s deal was not the first time). Then, in the end, she gets everything she wanted with no lasting consequences.

        Hope that makes sense. 🙂

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      2. It does make sense, and you’re not alone in this opinion (see some of the previous comments) but I do tend to disagree (you can also check out my comments about this above). What’s for sure is that people have very strong opinions about Ariel!

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      3. This reply is directed more to Elanor than to you Faith Moore, so forgive me.

        First of all, she wasn’t “actively seeking to disobey her dad.” In fact, she went out of her way to hide her love for humanity from her father. Only two times in the film did she end up having to argue with her dad, and both times were because someone unintentionally spilled the beans (Flounder, when trying to explain the situation wasn’t her fault, unintentionally made it worse when he let slip that she may have surfaced, and then Sebastian ended up unintentionally confessing to Triton due to miscommunication from the seahorse messenger making it sound as though Triton had found out about Eric or that she saved a human.). And she didn’t seek to disobey her father after encountering Eric either, certainly not going to Ursula, anyway. Actually, she planned on simply seeing him in mermaid form (she was literally rattling out said plan just before the Under the Sea musical number). It was not until Triton blew up her grotto that she even CONSIDERED Ursula as an option, and even there, she refused F&J initially, and it would have been final had they not flicked the statue remains at her, and it was pretty obvious she was reluctant as heck to go through with the deal (and let’s not forget that Ursula actually faked reform there).

        Second of all, what makes you think that Ariel didn’t have any lasting consequences from her actions? Remember, the ending actually implied that Ariel resigned herself to return to the sea, and it was literally her dad who decided to just make her human permanently. Besides, a pretty big threat to the oceans, Ursula, was dead, not to mention the people whom she cursed in that con game of that Sea Witch, including her father, were restored to their original forms. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but I’d probably call THAT a pretty big lasting consequence, actually made things happen for the better.

        And third of all, some of the “rules” Triton had in place weren’t simply stuff like go to bed at a certain time, brushing teeth, or heck, getting back home by curfew. Stuff that, while inconvenient, were at least somewhat reasonable. No, these rules were more like don’t surface, ever, not even when merpeople logically would see the ships coming long before the ships and the human crew were even AWARE of their presence. Not to mention one of his lines in their second argument implied that he may have had genocidal views on humans, due to his saying “one less human to worry about” when Ariel pointed out that Eric could have died if it weren’t for her.

        Finally, at least she wasn’t like Merida from Brave, who actually WAS very disobedient and came closer to being a sociopath, even trying to drug her mom to make her see things her way. And personally, I thought Ariel was far better done than her original rendition from Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the tale, since THAT one actually was a really selfish brat who actually DID get rewarded for her awful behavior. Oh yeah, and quite frankly, Belle in BATB came across more as a selfish disobedient jerk in the first act than Ariel did in the entire film.

        Now, if you still dislike Ariel after all of that being considered, fine, not everyone has to like her anyways. I just ask that you at LEAST not try to claim she’s selfish or anything like that, stuff that isn’t shown to be the case in either the film or any extension media.

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    2. Look, I looked up to Ariel as a kid, largely because like her, I ALSO had to undergo a very difficult attempt at getting to where I am socially, as someone who has autism, or at the very least aspergers. So I get pretty irritated when people make those kinds of criticisms that really don’t match up with Ariel at all. Now, if you complained about her naivety or her being stubborn, or being impulsive? Fine, feel free to do so, since those are at least traits she actually had.

      And no, Ariel’s no spoiled brat, period. I’ve seen plenty of spoiled brats (Muffy Crosswire, Beast, Kuzco, Gaston, Dudley Dursley, etc., etc.), and believe me, Ariel isn’t even CLOSE to that. Not to mention spoiled brats do NOT go out of their way, risking their lives, to save their friends, which is what Ariel did with Flounder in the beginning of the film, risked becoming shark food to save him from Glut. Heck, if anything, she barely even gets what she wants anyways, which is the exact opposite of “spoiled.” I might as well add that Ariel actually DOES try to reason with her father multiple times, AFTER someone spilled the beans accidentally about her going to find human stuff, and if anything, Triton is the one actually being a brat many times (I’m sorry, but do you REALLY think the merpeople would have been in any danger of actually being seen by humans? The merpeople would logically see their ships coming long before the humans are even aware of them. If anything, humans would have more to fear going into the water than merpeople surfacing). Actually, if I were to call ANY version of Ariel a spoiled brat, it would have been the mermaid from the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, and I hated that story largely because she got what she wanted while clearly leaving everyone who cared for her in some way devastated thanks to HER actions to get there. At least Ariel cleaned up her mess and redeemed herself.

      She also wasn’t tricked easily, period. Yes, she did get manipulated by Ursula, but on the other hand, she was a literal wreck by that time. Even the world’s biggest genius would not be thinking straight when in an emotional wreck. And it’s also implied that Ursula deliberately waited out until AFTER Triton had his little blow up to prey on Ariel. Someone who is tricked easily would have the attempted tricker not even need to wait until they’re in a vulnerable spot, since they can easily manipulate them then and there. Actually, to be honest, Jafar was tricked far more easily in Aladdin’s climax than Ariel was by Ursula. Heck, even during that time, Ariel outright refused F&J, DESPITE being a wreck, when they directly suggested that she go see Ursula. Someone who is easily tricked would NOT refuse them when directly asked. Not to mention she actually tried to explain the inherent flaws of why she should give up her voice. Not to mention throughout the deal, it’s pretty obvious she was extremely reluctant to go through with it, and even implies that part of the reason she was reluctant is because, regardless of how the deal goes, she’ll never see her father or sisters again.

      And Ariel also wasn’t “rebelling for the sake of rebellion.” I know those types far too well (heck, Merida was one of those types, and don’t get me started on Francis Wilkerson from Malcolm in the Middle, who is effectively a teen sociopath, and don’t get me started on Palpatine from the Darth Plagueis novelization. Oh, and Bart Simpson as well), and believe me, she’s NOTHING like those guys. She had a dream to learn more about humanity, and wanted to pursue that dream. She wasn’t trying to participate in, say, riots against her dad and doing everything she can to make him look bad in unrestrained malice, nor was she participating in anti-war movements or engaging in free sex or fighting police. And she was at least smart enough to realize that knowing objects isn’t even CLOSE to enough regarding knowing about humanity, that she still has a lot to learn about them.

      Sorry, Faith Moore for going there, but this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

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  7. My problem isn’t with Ariel taking her own path, but rather how its done, its more prissy, bratty, naive rebellion than grown-up independence. She’s all in a huff, assumes she knows everything, and then marches right into a trap. A little coolness and Ursula could’ve been the one tricked perhaps. Of course the real fairytale actually shows the more natural, believable ending to those actions.

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    1. To be fair to Ariel, she actually DID attempt to refuse Flotsam & Jetsam when they directly suggested that she go to Ursula to pursue her dreams (and that was still while an emotional wreck). And quite frankly, I hated the original tale, and wouldn’t even say it was a believable ending, mostly because the mermaid STILL got rewarded for effectively screwing over her family and everyone around her in a permanent manner, far more than Ariel EVER did I should add, got rewarded with an immortal soul. Had it been me who wrote the tale, I would have had God give her an immortal soul… and then cast her down to the fiery depths of Hell for her selfishness in that tale. If you ask me, the Disney version was an improvement. At least Ariel actually attempted to clean up her mess, which the original mermaid didn’t even bother to do. At least the Disney version did come across as Ariel actually EARNING her happy ending rather than it being handed to her on a silver platter like the original tale.

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  8. To address your question, I’d probably say “fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently”. Let’s not forget, she did dream of becoming human long before she even MET Eric, heck, before she even was aware that he existed. She even had a song that made this very explicit: Part of Your World (a side note, it’s a darn good thing that Katzenberg wasn’t allowed to cut that song out, or else we actually WOULD have those complaints against Ariel be a bit more accurate). Sure, Eric played a bit of a role there, but it’s closer to a nudge in the right direction than literally only wanting to become human because of him (in fact, ironically, that latter thing was actually pretty close to what the original mermaid was like). And I actually have quite a bit of respect for Ariel largely because of both that AND the fact that even with her thinking and acting independently, she still actually loved and actually WANTED to go for Eric, her love. Recently, at least starting with Beauty and the Beast, they make it sound as if women can only be fully independent in acts and thoughts if they pretty much hate males and have them do anything without males being involved in any way, even demonizing the latter sex a few times. Heck, critics complained about how Ariel simply pursued a guy since the movie was released (and I’d know, because it was thanks to those critics that Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded a feminist twist to Beauty and the Beast shortly afterward, and even had Linda Woolverton write it). Of course, I’m a bit hesitant to call Ariel a feminist, mostly because of how “feminism” has been defined as of late. Suffragette, oh yes, she definitely was closer to that. But feminist? Actually, the only character who made an argument FOR feminism, at least the more recent version since the 1970s, in The Little Mermaid was Ursula, and it was made pretty obvious she was lying about that (long story short, she basically stated men were intolerant of silent women and only appreciate “body language” in order to get Ariel to give up her voice.).

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    1. Sorry, I made a mistake, I should have said “[Ursula] basically stated men were intolerant of women who talk and only appreciate “body language” in order to get Ariel to give up her voice.

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