Ever since I saw The Little Mermaid as a young girl (it came out when I was two), I was immediately entranced. I dressed as a mermaid that Halloween and belted out “Part of Your World” on the daily.
But as I grew up and became more aware of feminism ideology, I started to feel shame for the love of a movie that seemed to completely go against that ideology. Here is a young princess with the underworld at her fin, and she decides to give up all of that, including her most prized possession—her voice—for a man she barely knows.
Yeah… it’s hard to reconcile that as an adult. But here’s the thing—that’s not what drew me to this film. I didn’t run around the house with an Eric doll pining for the day I could find my own Eric and be led into another world. No, I idealized Ariel for having the guts to leave everything behind to explore something new and find her sense of belonging.
Let me break it down. Here are the real reasons I love Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
1. The Ocean
I am fascinated by the ocean, and I love any story’s depiction of it. But before Finding Nemo gave us an entire different view, there was The Little Mermaid. And the imagery is still just so wonderful.
2. Ariel’s Relationship with her Father
I was a daddy’s girl growing up. As a teenager we fought a lot. I hurt him more times than I can count. And before I had a chance to really repair the relationship, I left. I’ve been away from my hometown ever since. But in that time he’s never stopped being a dad even when he didn’t agree with decisions I made. Over time I’ve come to value that support. Now we have a closer relationship than I think we’ve ever had. But first I needed to make it on my own and discover things for myself before we could ever be on the same page.
And my dad always followed up my rendition of “Part of Your World” with “Under the Sea.” He even sang it imitating Sebastian’s voice to appease me. I have video to prove it.
3. Part of Your World
While the story itself may depend on a young girl’s obsession with a man, these lyrics certainly don’t.
“I don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.” This is not in the song but it’s something Ariel says before singing. Talk about having an open mind! Ariel is starting to think for herself and question the viewpoints around her.
“I want to be where the people are, I want to see, want to see ’em dancing.” Ariel is seeing herself in more than one place — she is starting to consider the idea that she doesn’t have to be married to where she grew up, that as a young woman she is entitled to explore the world if she so chooses.
“And I’m ready to know what the people know, ask ’em my questions, and get some answers.” I just love this. Ariel is learning for herself. She wants to know more about the world. She isn’t depending on what people tell her. She is asking questions.
“Wish I could be, part of that world.” She is starting to realize there are bigger fish at play, and she doesn’t have to live in the mold her family and network has created for her. She can be whoever she wants to be, and maybe she belongs somewhere else? But only by exploring that other world will she find out. That’s bravery right there.
4. Ariel’s obsession with another world
I love things I don’t understand. Ariel’s fascination with humans and life on land could be attributed to more than just curiosity. She was demonstrating empathy for another type of culture. And maybe some resentment for her own upbringing? But who hasn’t done that as a teenager? Although I now value my upbringing and where I grew up (this took years, by the way), I always wanted to move away and explore different parts of the world because I knew it would teach me a lot and give me perspective one residence couldn’t give. While leaving Louisville was probably one of the hardest decisions of my life, it is one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s helped shaped who I am. And while Ariel was obsessed with land, I’m fascinated by oceans and space — the two worlds I am still completely terrified of to this day. So maybe I also idolized Ariel’s courage, too? And as a young girl, I find no fault in that.
5. Ariel’s obsession with love
I am a hopeless romantic at heart but I have trouble admitting this. Most of my poems and stories that I wrote in high school center around love. And while I never wanted to sacrifice everything for the attention of a man, in a lot of ways I did. I’ve sacrificed a lot of myself to make a relationship work. I think many women do. And I’m not sure it’s the same case for men.
I attended a leadership seminar in college, and all of my student peers asked how women in public policy were able to balance a family and a career. I remember thinking at the time why are we asking this? Men certainly aren’t worrying about this, and I doubt they’re asking the same things in their leadership seminars. I saw this balance as a weakness — as the reason women could not be as successful as men. Except that’s not true. I think women are more successful because of it. They think ahead. They balance resources well. And I think women are starting to fight for more, and it gives me hope.
But that’s not what The Little Mermaid is telling young girls. And this is where I struggle with the plot line. Because in the end Ariel does win the heart of Eric and sails off into the horizon as a new woman. But I think her journey is just beginning. I think loving Eric gave her the courage to leave everyone and everything behind to explore a new world. It gave her a safety net as she became a fully formed human. But unlike the sequels, I don’t think this is Ariel’s happy ending.
I think it’s her gateway to a new world. But once she gets a handle on things, I think she will eventually leave Eric and start making her own mark in the new world. And after some time, I think she will find a way of intersecting the two worlds — of having a relationship with her underworld family while maintaining her independence and adventurous spirit above land. And maybe one day she will return to the sea? I don’t see why she couldn’t. Her dad made her human — he certainly would love to have her back.
I’m certainly not saying all young girls should use an obsessed love with a man to escape the world they live in. But there’s something real and raw about this coming-of-age storyline for many women. Emotions sometimes drive us to make brave decisions. Ariel’s emotions certainly gave her the power to venture out on her own. And it may very well be her emotions that drive her back to that supportive network.
6. Ariel’s love of herself
Now Disney certainly has a reputation of sexually objectifying their princesses, but I really love that Ariel as a mermaid was comfortable in her own skin. And nobody underwater was objectifying her for it. It wasn’t until she got on land that she started questioning her body and appearance. Just like many young girls don’t start questioning their own bodies until others give them a reason to. To this day I still don’t feel comfortable going out for Halloween in an Ariel-type costume, but I certainly don’t love her any less for it. And who doesn’t want hair like that?
7. Ariel’s family
So you see? Ariel really has the best of both worlds. She will always have the support of her dad and her sea creature friends. And she will create her own support network above ground. Not to mention she just has the most amazing friends — all from very different backgrounds. And even when they see Ariel making the worst decision of her life, they stand by her and help her through it. Through her friends, family and experiences in two different worlds, Ariel provides a unique perspective for those of us only grounded in one. And I think this is a wonderful type of woman to be.
Apparently my four-year-old self thought so, too.