The Little Mermaid turns 30 this year and, in celebration, the film is coming out of the Disney vault. Retrospectives abound, as do questions about whether or not this story, and its princess, hold up in the world of modern feminism. Everyone desperately wants it to — even modern feminists — because everyone (well, almost everyone) loves the movie. But, in the thirty years since its release, modern feminists have raised concerns about Ariel’s willingness to “give up her voice for a man” and the film’s supposed emphasis on physical attraction. So, what are good feminists to do? Simple: they dub the film “a product of its time,” and call it a day.
In an interview with Hello Giggles, Jodi Benson — who voiced Ariel — said, “I think we have to take into consideration that we [made the film] in 1989 . . . To expect an ’89 film to leap to 2019 as far as feminism goes, I think it’s asking a lot. I’m not defending it.” She continues, “That’s what makes classics classic. Snow White is classic. Can our children relate to that? Maybe not. But it’s a classic animated film.”
This argument isn’t new. Among feminists who still love Disney princesses, this is a really easy way to have their cake and eat it too. Snow White does nothing but get tricked and fall asleep? That’s okay, that’s all women back then were allowed to do! Cinderella needs a rich guy to save her from her wicked stepfamily? That’s okay, women back then pretty much had to marry rich guys! If you want to be a feminist and a lover of Disney princesses, all you’ve got to do is throw your favorite heroines under the “back then” bus, and all is forgiven.
But, while the princesses do all exist within the the ethos of the time period in which they were created, saying that they don’t measure up in today’s world sells them short. And it allows the feminist myths and misunderstandings about these movies to continue because — instead of refuting the idea that Disney princesses have nothing to offer modern girls and women — it continues to promote that notion while giving Disney princess lovers permission to love them anyway.
But that makes no sense. If these characters are so outdated and oppressed, why do we still love them? Surely the most logical argument is that they’re not outdated and oppressed, not that we love them while hating everything they stand for. Surely someone who believes firmly in the tenets of modern feminism wouldn’t be drawn to a character who is the complete antithesis of everything she holds dear! And yet, many feminists love Disney princesses.
A much better argument about why feminists can love Disney princesses and still be feminists is that Disney princesses aren’t anti-feminist. Or, more specifically, that the feminist complaint that they are anti-feminist is misguided or misinformed. There’s much more about this idea in my book, obviously, but let’s just continue to use Ariel as our example.
The main feminist complaint about her is 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?” (mommyish.com). According to the “product of her time” argument, this would have been something that was fine in the late ’80s but is totally unacceptable now. But, honestly, was that even acceptable in the ’80s? A much better argument is that she really doesn’t do that at all.
Ariel doesn’t give up her voice for a man, she gives it up to be human. Eric doesn’t fall in love with her until she has her voice back because her voice is her most important quality. Ursula asks for Ariel’s voice because she knows that it will be much harder for Ariel to win Eric’s love without it. (I mean, she could have asked for her looks, but she didn’t.) The point is: rather than just accepting the feminist critiques as true and then pardoning the princesses for being “products of their time,” I think it’s time we reexamined some of the critiques.
If we don’t push back against the feminist insistence that Disney princesses are anti-feminist, then we have no hope of stopping the flow of truly horrible “feminist” princesses Disney’s been churning out. The answer here is not to make excuses for the poor, oppressed princesses of yesteryear, it’s to defend their honor! We can’t buy into the narrative if we want to save the princesses. We’ve got to see them as they truly are: strong, and brave, and beautiful. Then, now, and always.