Monday, 7 July 2014

Out of the Sea - The Little Mermaid

Ariel is one of those Disney Princesses who simply can't catch a break. She's too modern for all of the "problematic" stuff to be written off as a sign of the times like Snow White, Cinderella or Aurora from their respective movies (all from before the 1960's), but on a cursory glance she is not seen as in control  or as positive compared to later princesses (when people aren't complaining about those anyway). If you have followed me for a while you hopefully know by now that I don't consider minimizing the awesomeness of our already existing female characters to be a positive attitude. 

I believe that the culture of negativity surrounding these characters is at least in part responsible for the lack of massive expansion of female protagonists in current media. After all, nobody wants to be seen as a horrible sexist, so artists might hesitate to create female characters at all out of fear of being labeled a misogynist (within the context of our current topic, imagine trying to create this beautiful movie with an inspiring female protagonist, only to have people on the Internet dismiss your movie because they insist one of the songs is about promoting rape*), furthermore, if you tell people enough times that women are always damsels in distress, even when you are actually doing it to criticize the concept, you run the risk of actually perpetuating in people's minds the notion that women are damsels in distress by further normalizing it. So instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by exclusively focusing on the bad, I'd rather we look at awesome existing ladies, and build from there. So today I will be looking at the Disney classic "The Little Mermaid" and provide a largely positive voice for it. Obviously there will be some spoilers for The Little Mermaid.

Out of the Sea
Disney's The Little Mermaid

Ariel as a Heroic Character

When we first meet Ariel, she forgot about- and accidentally skipped an important concert in order to explore a scary shipwreck (if you are a fan of tying together Disney movies, you can pretend it's the sunken ship which carried the king and queen of Frozen's Arendelle, even though it looks somewhat different) in search of human trinkets. Her friend Flounder is clearly scared, providing a huge contrast with Ariel's look of confidence and excitement. Before she opens her mouth, she already establishes herself as an adventurer who is not overly concerned with her father's rules.

Ariel is a dreamer and a rebel. She takes full charge of her destiny, even if she doesn't always think the entire thing through before jumping at the call. She wants to explore new horizons and learn new things (even though her mentor of all things human is hilariously incompetent). She sets goals, empowers herself to pursue them through her dreams and she boldly sets out to achieve them, even if she isn't entirely sure how to do it. Her setbacks are temporary and only embolden her drive. Yet, her impulsive drive is also a cautionary tale as in her anger against her father she made a foolish deal with the sea witch. Still, through her own skills and the help of her friends she manages to overcome all challenges set before her.

Here's a typical scene which exemplifies Ariel's thought process. Ariel learns Eric has been deceived by Ursula into marrying 'Vanessa'. Before anyone else suggests any possible plan of action, Ariel has already jumped into the ocean intending to swim after them. Only after she made her own plans clear (although solely by action as she is mute in this particular scene), her friends jump into action too to help her. Sebastian drops barrels into the ocean to give Ariel something to hang onto and Flounder helps carry her to the ship. She gets help, but Ariel is the one driving the action.  

Ariel is the embodiment of "follow your dreams", not in the sense that she just sits around all day losing herself in daydreams (there's some of that too), but in a proactive way. She acts as if the background noise of her life are tapes from motivational speakers. She doesn't talk herself out of chasing her dreams. She doesn't sit around waiting for other people to give her permission. She's not scared of the negative consequences of her actions, she'll deal with those if and when they come up, because she knows she can deal with them.

Ariel's Character Flaws and Criticism

Overly criticizing Ariel for sending the wrong message with her impulsive behavior is also not entirely productive. It does clearly cause Ariel hardship through her deal with the sea witch, and this is clear to everyone watching the movie. So why is this aspect of her character only talked about from a strict "monkey see, monkey do" perspective? Role models aren't there just so we can emulate their behavior regardless of outcome, we can also learn from their mistakes. In this case: don't make binding contracts with fast-talking, obviously evil sea hags (insert charlatan of choice) who present you a poisoned gift while you are angry.

Also, isn't the opposite scenario exactly what The Legend of Zelda franchise gets criticized for? Often major criticism is leveled against the stories of video games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) because princess Zelda, being the physical manifestation of wisdom, is a schemer who works against the villain from the shadows, waiting for the right moment to strike rather than being a female knight (her weapon of choice in the franchise being the bow and arrow plays into that personality by having her at a distance even when in active combat). For not actively handling a sword however, critics reduce her to being a "damsel in distress" and what they actually claim to want is a role model for little girls like a female Link (the playable protagonist of The Legend of Zelda, in case you are unaware) who embodies courage and who jumps at the call of adventure, even though he also acts without thinking (except here the negative consequences of his impulsive behavior are rarely enforced, he's even less of a cautionary tale). So why would a female Link be ideal when similar characteristics are vilified in Ariel? Ariel may not handle a sword, but she certainly has Link's spirit and courage.

By the by, when talking about literally being a hero fighting bad guys, I would prefer my daughter (or son) to take lessons from princess Zelda rather than Link. When, say, in a hostage situation I'd rather she calculate the risk and decide not to act for her own safety and make it out alive rather than her jumping in to be the hero. 

Still, Ariel's impulsive drive as well as her "getting saved" by the prince she loves (more on that later) gets her unfairly labeled as weak. She's hated (or at best extremely cautiously loved) because she's seen as a negative influence on young girls. Instead of looking at a girl who will shift Heaven and Earth if it means accomplishing her goals and dreams, they only see a weak princess archetype who only finds value in getting married to a man.
I personally do think that in these movies they could have stood to show a little passage of time between the final conflict and the marriage to better establish that these people did get to know each other better, but are we otherwise honestly going to vilify a girl for falling in love? Especially for a character who since had a prequel movie and a television show running for 3 seasons (31 episodes) clearly establishing that no, finding a husband was not the most important goal in this girl's mind. It was just one of the events in her life. Are all her actions and motives perfectly rational and positive? Of course not, but characters in fiction are not supposed to be perfect. Their flaws help make them distinctive and help drive the plot, that's what makes them characters rather than perfect little Mary Sues.

"When some English moralists write about the importance of having character, they appear to mean only the importance of having a dull character."
- G.K. Chesterton

Recently Frozen (2013) tried to poke fut at how absurd it would be for two characters to instantly decide to get married the day they first met, as one of the partners could possibly not be who they claim they are. However The Little Mermaid also made fun of that situation with Ursula expecting a foolish concept as love at first sight to fail while setting the rules for her contract with Ariel. She just underestimated Ariel's drive in getting Eric's attention and it happened to work out for them in the end. Not entirely by chance, mind you, Ariel had observed Eric being heroic when he put himself in danger to save his dog Max. She had clearly seen him as a good person  (and rescuing him afterwards might be an example of the Florence Nightingale Effect in action). If anything Eric was the unreasonable one by being instantly smitten with a girl who in his current state of consciousness could have been an illusion. He probably also should have had a bigger freak-out when he learned the two women fighting over him were actually mythical creatures.

Some people (such as Katha Pollitt, who coined The Smurfette Principle) make the claim that the film also endorses that, in order to get a man, a woman has to shut up. Ariel gives up her voice as payment for legs because, according to Ursula, body language is much more important. Is it? It being "advice" given by the clearly evil sea witch who already revealed her diabolical plan to the viewer and who still keeps on mumbling to her pets how she's going to screw Ariel over should give you a hint on how helpful her advice is. Ariel being unable to talk is the entire reason why Eric is uninterested in her and why it takes a ridiculously romantic setting to have him even consider kissing her. Yes, it's rather allegorical as Eric is specifically searching for the singing girl who saved his life, and Ariel being mute rules her out as a candidate, but the idea is there. Eric doesn't want just any girl using her "body language", Ariel is clearly pretty enough, but he values the girl having a voice.

Saving the Princess and the Buddy Dynamic

A lot is made of Eric saving Ariel in the final battle against Ursula and how this (again) makes Ariel out to be a weak character. Not only does this ignore the fact that Ariel saves Eric earlier three times (1: saving Eric from the sinking ship, 2: showing up with her animal friends to stop Vanessa/Ursula from marrying Eric and 3: making Ursula shoot Flotsam and Jetsam instead of Eric). Even during the final conflict, Ariel is primarily concerned with Eric's safety rather than her own. Furthermore it wasn't like Ursula had locked Ariel up in a tower and now Eric had to storm the castle to save her, no, Ariel had angered Ursula by killing Flotsam and Jetsam. Ariel has Ursula's attention as she was actively aiming to kill her, which allowed Eric an opening to put an end to Ursula. Eric did not win Ariel by triumphing over the monster, she was an active participant. Not to mention this was basically the first time in the entire movie Eric had any idea what was going on in the first place. Classifying the ordeal as a "prince saving the girl" is overly simplistic and an unjust rejection of Ariel as a heroic character in her own right.

H.P. Lovecraft presents:
Call of Cthursula!

Instead of this being a case of "the hero rescues the girl", I consider this one of the earliest examples of a sort of buddy dynamic (still trying to find a proper name for it, as "buddy" usually refers to two characters of the same sex) which in recent years has become very prevalent in Disney Princess films, where it's actually the male and female protagonist working together towards their goals. It's simply not about who rescues who anymore or which character is more powerful in the relation. Thinking of it that way presents the characters in the relationship as opposing parties rather than as the team they so obviously are.
What is important is that we have two people who have each other's back coming together through adversity. Ariel and Eric are both unique people who bring their respective abilities and knowledge to the table. They aren't just a couple, they are partners (and a true missed opportunity is that DisneyToon sequel movies and series based on Disney classics rarely play up this aspect).

Aladdin (1992)
Consider the following: in Aladdin (which came out in 1992, a mere 3 years after The Little Mermaid) a lot of the conflict is driven by Aladdin rejecting the help of princess Jasmine by not being honest with her out of fear she would reject him. He grows as a character once he learns to accept his own value, rather than the facade he constructed to impress others. When Aladdin and Jasmine work together (Jasmine is incredibly good at picking up on Aladdin's schemes and playing along with them), they managed to outsmart the violent shopkeeper and even Jafar. (For another non-princess movie with a similar setup released around the same time, consider Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers Down Under (1990))

Ariel losing her voice when she gets on land is an important factor in all of this as it plays with the concept. Had she been able to speak, the conflict would have been instantly resolved as Eric would have recognized her as the girl who saved her and became infatuated with. Instead however, because of Eric's doubts about her being that girl, the two of them actually have the opportunity to get to know each other as people. Ursula makes the relationship between Ariel and Eric more powerful as she prevents them from instantly having their happily ever after. It was just rather foolish of Ariel to jump into it with a contract that had no chance of being cancelled and would mean her becoming enslaved by Ursula if it failed.
In this aspect, Aladdin's lies are essentially his movie's counterpart to Ariel losing her voice. They are both story elements that prevent both the male and female hero from working together and solving the conflict more efficiently, but they grow from the hardship that resulted because of it.

For Tangled (2010) Disney finally decided to actually market a princess movie in which this dynamic is made very clear from the start. A part of this was done by removing Rapunzel's name, the actual title of the fairy tale, from the movie in certain areas (my DVD & Blu-Ray boxes still call it "Rapunzel") to put the male and female hero on even more equal footing. Although because we live in an environment where female characters are instinctively valued less than their male counterparts, the writers also almost reduced Flynn Rider's role to comic relief to make Rapunzel an even more resourceful character. It actually works out for this movie so that's not a negative point against it, mind you, just an observation on how hard it is to create a positive female character in the eyes of critics, and Rapunzel still doesn't get the credit she deserves.  


If there's anything I want you to take away from all of this, it's the following: in a lot of situations it is very good to be critical of what's going on around you, of what people tell you, even your own thought processes, etc, etc. However there is absolutely nothing wrong with in your downtime just parking yourself in front of a movie or video game without constantly worrying about how what you see affects you (especially negatively). Having fun or having your heart warmed may not seem like the most intellectual of pursuits, but it might just make you a better, more caring person. Too much negativity poisons you too.

And to all my artist friends out there, even if I don't know you and will never meet you: don't let fear of negative criticism or the negative voices who find fault in everything prevent you from creating the art you want to create.

Screw your negativity, Ariel is awesome!

Links & References

Images from:
Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989)
Disney's Aladdin (1992)
Disney's Tangled (2010) Film Poster

* No, I'm not going to debunk that stupid "Kiss the Girl is about rape"-thing. It's bullshit alarmist quote mining on the level of playing music backwards for bad messages. 


  1. Thank You for that post. Just thank You.

  2. Or as Ariel would put it "Oh Artists- don't be such a GUPPY"

  3. I should note that I like Ariel in the videogame best. Saving the ocean with BUBBLES!!!

  4. Thank you for this post. Especially that last bit. I write as a hobby, so it's a little (read: a lot) easier for me to say "screw it" and write characters that I want to write about than it is for someone who writes for a living, but I can understand why people are reluctant to write more female characters when the ones that exist get so much negativity except for a select few who get to be deemed "awesome" solely because they hit things (not that there's anything wrong with female characters who are capable of fighting, I'm expressing annoyance with a trend that treats fighting prowess as indicative of, and in the case of a few I can name, a substitute for, personality, character development, or both). I have a writer friend whose response to the lack of incentive is "Well, they should do it anyway", even though it's not that simple. Last I checked, being called a sexist in this current environment doesn't exactly ensure commercial success, whether that accusation is true or not. Especially since one can be called a sexist for having a female character wear a dress or agree to go on a date with a guy who flirts with her, or is a healer, or has to be rescued, or freakin' whatever. My frustration shows, since I genuinely like female characters and people who call themselves "concerned" are making it harder for people who might want to write female characters but not necessarily "Awesome Ladies".

    On that note, I've recently read a self-published book called Sex Brood, and let's just say that if the female lead in that book is what a "good" female character looks like, then I'll stick to my "bad" female characters who are actually good people, as opposed to being reprehensible and boring.