So as of today, November 17, 2014, it has been twenty-five years, a full quarter century, that Ariel has been a part of our world. This is iconic for a number of reasons, not least of all that the film in question sparked a rejuvenation of the Walt Disney Company, saving it from almost being shut down, and we’ve had twenty-five additional years of amazing storytelling as a result. But beyond that, it’s amazing to see that while our culture is constantly changing, this little singing mermaid has remained cemented in place as a prominent role model.
But is she an appropriate one? The issue has been raised that Ariel’s story is not one of true love, but one of female submission to what a man wants. Exhibit A:
In case you haven’t heard it before now/can’t guess from the picture, the argument is that Ariel is a bad role model because she doesn’t convince Eric to love her for who she is: a mermaid. She instead chooses to give up a huge part of her identity and become a human simply in order to impress a man. This would give the idea to impressionable young girls that being who they really are is worthless; they need to change until they are acceptable to a man and gaining his appreciation will give them value.
Looking at the fact that Ariel is willing to go to such lengths to be together with her beloved and Eric does not change anything about himself, this argument seems to have a lot of strength behind it. But before we pass judgment on Ariel’s motives, we have to examine who she is throughout the entire film, not just in the one moment where she decides to become human.
For all you non Disnerds who might not remember the entire storyline of this classic (read: GO WATCH THE MOVIE THE MOMENT YOU’RE DONE READING THIS) here’s the basic setup. The film opens with a concert at which the seven daughters of Triton, the King of the Seas, are going to be singing. It is meant to be the musical debut of Ariel, the youngest of the clan of Princesses, but we come to discover that she has blown off the concert in order to salvage human objects from a sunken ship. One shark chase, visit to Scuttle the Seagull, and harsh lecture from King Daddy Merman later, we come to an iconic moment in Disney’s musical history.
Part of Your World is not only an amazing classic song, but it is also the defining moment of the movie and of Ariel’s character. (Fun fact: the song was almost cut out of the film because some kid dropped popcorn during a focus screen testing of the movie and it distracted the other kids around him. The producers thought that this meant the children were losing focus during that part of the film and that the song should therefore be cut out. Geez, kids. You almost cost us an iconic moment of Disney history!) If you don’t remember the song, click the picture above for a link, but if you just need a refresher, these are the lyrics:
“Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? / Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? / Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl / The girl who has everything?
Look at this trove, treasures untold / How many wonders can one cavern hold? / Looking around here you’d think / Sure, she’s got everything.
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a plenty / I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore /You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty! / But who cares? No big deal, I want more
I wanna be where the people are / I wanna see, wanna see them dancing
Walking around on those / What do you call ’em? Oh, feet
Flipping your fins you don’t get too far / Legs are required for jumping, dancing / Strolling along down a / What’s that word again? Street
Up where they walk, up where they run / Up where they stay all day in the sun / Wandering free / Wish I could be, part of that world
What would I give if I could live / Out of these waters! / What would I pay to spend a day / Warm on the sand?
Betcha’ on land, they understand / Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters / Bright young women, sick of swimming / Ready to stand
And ready to know what the people know / Ask ’em my questions / And get some answers / What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word? Burn!
When’s it my turn? / Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that shore up above! / Out of the sea / Wish I could be / Part of that world.”
Did you read through those lyrics? Did you notice anything odd about them in accordance with the argument about Ariel’s motives? Go ahead, read them again. See if you can spot the problem.
Answer: The problem is that, according to the argument, Ariel’s motive is to change for a man in order to find her value. Do you see even one mention of a man or of finding someone to love her in those lyrics? Kind of odd that, at the moment when Ariel is baring her soul and revealing what is really the most important to her, she does not mention that crucial detail if she really is looking for fulfillment through male approval.
To go even more specific, let’s examine a few key points in the song. Ariel describes herself at the end of the first stanza as “the girl who has everything”. And that’s true! She has a family that she is close with (as evidenced by the fact that she calls her frightening, kingly father “Daddy” and that her sisters are able to pick up on her feelings so quickly later on in the film), she’s a princess in her own right, she has a best friend, Flounder, who does everything with her, and she has the biggest collection of human treasures that has ever been assembled in one place under the sea. Why shouldn’t she be content with all of that?
The answer comes from the cave itself, where she stores her hordes of human goodies.
It’s literally filled to the top, sides, brims, etc. She’s cramming thingamabobs into chests and mounting dinglehoppers on candelabras because there’s just nowhere else for it all to go. This setting reminded me of something that I read concerning another (albeit more recent) Disney Princess/heroine: Rapunzel. In The Art of Tangled, the creators discuss how Rapunzel has spent her entire life filling up her tower with art. When that film begins, we see that Rapunzel has no empty spaces left to paint; she has literally crammed everything that she can into the life that she has at that point. The tower has nothing more to offer her as she has done it all; now she needs to advance to the next stage by emerging into the outside world and really living out her dream. That same concept can be applied to Ariel and her grotto. I mean, just look at it. It’s filled! Ariel’s desire for the human world has built up to such a point that she has nowhere left to take it in her current life. So she really has only two choices: she either lets it go completely or she takes it to the next level. And she makes that choice within the song itself: “I want more / I wanna be where the people are / … When’s it my turn? / Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that shore up above / out of the sea / wish I could be / part of that world”.
So Ariel’s motives and drives are clear at this point: she wants to be a part of the human world. This is her dream, and even though it seems ridiculous, she has stayed true to it and pursued it as much as she possibly can while living her underwater life. Now her dream has grown so big that it’s demanding a high price if she’s going to carry it out. A scary price. Ariel doesn’t seem to know whether or not she’s strong enough to carry it out, as she is simply wishing for it to happen instead of actively chasing it.
But then she gets a little motivation:
When she sees Eric, following her singing of Part of Your World, she is at first enchanted. But notice that it’s not because she’s instantly in love and needing his love in return, like a sad puppy. Her explanation for her awe? “I’ve never seen a human this close before.” Her fascination has nothing to do with being in “love at first sight” with Eric, although she does admit that he’s handsome (as do I). She’s seeing her dream playing out in front of her: humans, doing what humans do. That’s what’s got her hooked (pun not intended).
Then of course there’s a storm, and Prince Pretty-Damn-Hot goes sizzling overboard, and Ariel saves him by dragging him to shore. It’s at this point, when he’s lying on the beach after she has rescued him, that we hear the first idea of Ariel wanting to be with him. But why now, when he’s half dead and drenched with sea water? Why not before, when he was dancing around with his flute and his dog, Max, and looking altogether charming?
Because now Ariel is on the board. She has spent the entire film quietly observing and hiding her love for human culture, but now she has actually intervened. She has saved a human from drowning, clearly proving herself capable of doing more than just being a bystander; she can take her actions and therefore her fate into her own hands. She knew that she wanted something more in her life but couldn’t define it; Eric becomes that clarity. That’s why, when she sings a reprise of Part of Your World, it is a much more powerful and intense version than the one we had previously seen: “I don’t know when / I don’t know how / but I know something’s starting right now / watch and you’ll see / someday I’ll be / part of your world”. This isn’t the lovesick moan of a girl needing approval. This is the determined ballad of a young woman who knows what her dream is and is going to make it happen.
From that moment on, the timidity that had previously clung to Ariel when she sung of her motives but was unable to bring them into fruition is completely gone. She is firmly devoted to advancing her dream to the next stage: she is going to become part of the human world, with Eric’s help. ‘That’s all well and good’, the naysayers will probably insist, ‘but that still doesn’t change the fact that in order to do that, she changes herself for him.’ Notice, though, that she doesn’t immediately jump to the idea that she needs to change in order to gain Eric’s attention. Just before the song Under the Sea, she mentions a plan to get to know him: “Scuttle knows where he lives! I’ll swim up to his palace, and Flounder will splash around and get his attention…” Here she has no intention of changing for him: she is a mermaid and will introduce herself to him as such.
When she does finally change into a human, it’s not, therefore, because of Eric. It’s a desperate attempt to keep her dream from going under altogether. Her father, having discovered her secret trove of human objects, destroys them all in a fit of rage. He is trying to protect his daughter, certainly, but he has also left her with nothing. The fragments of Ariel’s dream, everything that she has spent her whole life building up, is lying in smoldering fragments around her. This leaves her with the choice of accepting that it’s gone, or the possibility of throwing everything that she has left into her dream in a last-ditch effort to make it happen. A weaker person might choose to accept the loss; Ariel does not.
Now, going to a sea witch is a bad idea on any given day of the week, but Ariel’s not perfect. She makes a bad decision by trusting Ursula… who hasn’t made a wrong move once in a while? The point of the matter is that she is not willing to let her dream die: she will walk among the humans by Eric’s side. So she sacrifices everything in exchange for legs in order to emerge from the sea and finally see her dream become a reality.
This is why Ariel is not a weak image of a woman who will do anything to gain approval from the man she fancies. Her decision to join the humans on the shore up above has nothing to do with needing to change for anyone. Eric is just a part of the dream, a defining piece of the puzzle that Ariel has been putting together her entire life. When her dream became too large to contain in her life any longer, Ariel was brave enough to take it into her own hands and make it become a reality. She’s a great role model not for just girls, but for boys, women, and men, as well. How many of us are willing to pursue our hopes and dreams with everything that we have?
Twenty-five years later, Ariel’s message of personal strength, trusting in your dreams, and the pursuit of happiness is more relevant than ever. It’s much easier to give up and to believe that what you’re looking for is out of your reach. Not a part of your world. But we can all stand to take a few pointers from this little mermaid who decided that she could, and so she did.
Happy twenty-fifth, Ariel. You earned your place in our hearts and in our world.