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For me, The Little Mermaid is the story of an Otherkin girl living in a world that is hostile to Otherkin.
For me, The Little Mermaid is the story of a feminist girl living in a world that is hostile to feminist ideals. For me, The Little Mermaid is the story of a culture-conscious girl living in a world that mandates insularity. We pan down under the sea to the King Triton's Schmancy Music Hall and Combination Throne Room just in time to see Ariel completely fail to show up for a music gig that was intended largely to glorify her father while his daughters display themselves to the populace and use their vocal talents to praise his name. By giving Triton this characterization, Ariel is immediately given a rich and sympathetic background before she even swims onto the stage. We are introduced to Ariel who, at great personal risk to her safety -- both from the sharks who seek to eat her and from her father who could severely punish her -- she is scavenging human items from old shipwrecks. I dare you to bring me a Disney heroine who has demonstrated similar levels of bravery, intellect, scientific pursuit, and proactive awesomeness within the first 15 minutes of her own movie. Sebastian tumbles out and informs Ariel of what she already knows: her father would be furious if he found out about the museum. We zip up to the surface for Ariel to see Prince Eric and for some character establishing shots. Triton calls Sebastian into his throne room and interrogates Sebastian while cheerily pointing his weaponized triton at the little crab.
Ariel can either go home and be a good mermaid and play with her hair and go to voice rehearsal and marry a merman who will never share her interests or understand her and she can live and die frustrated and unfulfilled. Human!Ariel washes up on Prince Eric's beach and is taken for a traumatized survivor of a shipwreck, which seems plausible enough. There's a scene with a French chef that is so heavy on the cultural stereotypes that I don't even know what to say. Then Eric and Ariel go on a tour of "his kingdom", which seems to basically be this one decent-sized town, and Ariel is in complete Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode, but for once this makes sense because everything she sees is literally new and exciting and amazing and a dream come true.
And then there's a lot of singing and near-kissing and Ursula showing up to ruin things and Ariel being towed out to the ship which is not nearly as awesome as her swimming out there under her own power, and I get that it makes sense that swimming-with-legs would be something she's not mastered, but still it feels like the Feminism Power has run out, and then Ariel and Eric reunite just in time for it to be TOO LATE and Ariel is a merperson and Eric does not care even a little bit because Eric is not a racist asshole like Triton. After the exciting showdown scene, Eric recovers slowly on the shore while Ariel watches from her rock.
But it's also one of the few movies I can think of where an Otherkin protagonist gets the form she's always felt was really hers.
Final Thoughts: The Little Mermaid is -- like most Disney movies -- rife with issues of class, race, hetereonormity, and body portrayal.
As a final link, here is a picture of Disney Princesses dressed as the villains in their movies.
I sometimes feel like everyone I meet online has seen this movie at least once.I can tell you this is not true. I have to say, that having ready this made lunch at the sushi place a lot more interesting. You did give me some interesting things to think about regarding positives of the Little Mermaid, but I think you may have lost some really important symbolism.1) Ariel is TERRIBLE to Flounder.
I haven't seen The Little Mermaid in far too long to contribute in any coherent way to the discussion. In the sequel, if my memory serves since I saw it years ago, baby Melody is born, Ursula's suddenly-appearing sister appears and curses doom if baby ever enters the ocean, family heartbrokenly walls off the entire coast of the kingdom to protect the kid. The word is so synonymous in my mind with "animated feature films" that it's like using "Kleenex" for "tissue". It was created in 1989, and has been specially beloved by many children in general and by myself in particular since then.
I like a lot of things that are problematic, and I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with liking problematic things as long as a certain awareness is maintained that Problems Abound Therein.
Ariel is a human born into a merperson's body, and in a culture that routinely lambasts humans for the very same things that the underwater world does: eat fish. Ariel is a headstrong young woman who wants knowledge and growth and her own voice, but these things are being systematically denied to her.
Ariel wants to learn about cultures and peoples and practices and histories different from her own, but she lives in a world that holds even third-hand study of such things to be utterly forbidden because the power structure believes that the populace is safer if they are steeped in fear and ignorance.
Well, there are three ships in the movie, and they all look pretty much the same to me, so I'm going to assume that Prince Eric has a fleet of all-purpose boats and this is one of them. I can't imagine why a young woman might think she had better uses of her time than to be a public ornament to her father, nor why she might refuse to come to rehearsals (as Sebastian tells us). Triton isn't monstrous and Sebastian doesn't callously bring out the worst in him; they both reinforce each other's commitment to harmful patriarchy ideals, because they've been raised to believe the patriarchy expects them to. She's living in a deeply patriarchal and oppressive community where her status as "princess" is largely ornamental and wholly subject to the whims and wishes of her father. In another movie, or in a book, there would be more time spent on just how incredibly subversive Ariel is being and has been, for literally years and years. Ursula struts realistically around her cave and gods but those breasts and butt are there and they move. He cuts her off multiple times in this scene, and calls humans "barbarians" which is a nice bit of othering to throw onto the pile of objections to Triton's character. Which makes so much sense, really, that his racial hatred of humans extends so far that he would deny his subjects the ability to even study them, if only to come up with more effective ways of avoiding the humans, because studying leads to understanding and understanding leads to compassion and compassion doesn't mesh well with racial hatred.
They could have had Ariel and Eric catch a glimpse of one another and fall in love that way. He has a jazzy musical number and Ariel gives him quirky yeah-I'm-not-buying-it looks before it becomes clear that she's not really needed for this song routine and goes off with Flounder.

Because now Ariel will go to the sea witch and trade her entire life away (and her voice) to go chase after a man she's never met.
And while I'm not 100% sure I like Grim pressing Eric to woo the traumatized survivor of a shipwreck rather than, say, provide for her education and psychological care and place her in the best possible position to choose how she wants to live the rest of her life, I do love that Eric is shown as being highly reluctant to treat Ariel with anything less than courtesy and respect. I was going to say that this was one of the only animated feature film songs that features a foreign language, but then I remembered the Charo song in Thumbelina, which is also heavy on cultural stereotypes.
And then he lets her drive the carriage and she loves it and clears an oddly-placed death-defying jump and once the panic passes, Eric settles back like this is the good life and Ariel is clearly having a ball. And then Eric saves Ariel's life with a harpoon while Triton watches, and this is hilarious given Triton's earlier rant about humans-who-wield-harpoons. Triton and Sebastian watch from further out, with Triton realizing that she really does love him and that this hasn't all been About Him and her special butterfly rebellion. And it's a movie where a brave young woman defied the racist and xenophobic laws of her homeland in order to create a greater understanding between two cultures and almost single-handedly engineer a peace between both kingdoms. But in my opinion it's ironically one of the least problematic movies in the set ("ironic" because the current cultural narrative is that we're now BETTER at those things than we were in the 1980s), and if you're a white heterosexual class-privileged girl living in an oppressive patriarchy -- as I was when I came to the movie -- it may just resonate with you.
That was my main concern going into the movie and I ended up liking it AND still liking Ariel and thinking she was not sullied as a character, so you may too.
By proving that he prefers women who do have opinions and are not simply ornamental, Eric is repudiating the patriarchal insistence that women should be seen and not heard. Meow's discussion above makes me think of Lana, the Protagonist of the unfortunately truncated Spirit Binders series.
When children come to my house, as they sometimes do, they're invariably drawn to my huge selection of "Disney movies", only about 70% of which are actually affiliated with Disney in any way shape or form. I must have watched the movie eighty squintillion times as a child; it was one of the few videos I loved enough to manage to convince my parents to buy, and I watched it until the video literally broke from use. Most of the opinions are strongly polarized: either Ariel is a free-thinking young woman who bravely rejects racism to forge her own destiny and create a lasting peace between two cultures or she's an idealized anti-feminist icon, complete with Barbie-doll figure and shell bikini, completely willing to throw away her family, her culture, and her own voice for the sake of a man she's never even met. The only form of learning her father permits is that of patriarchy-approved women's pursuits: she may study music, but not other cultures.
But the sailors are singing while they collect fish in their nets and Eric (and the audience!) is learning, and here are a couple of problematic things up-front. Oh, the fishermen are fishing, but this is really the only work you're going to see in this movie outside of a quick shot of laundry-washing and some cooking. And when her father realizes that Ariel has failed to show up for the concert, his eyes literally turn red with rage.
Neither is it a coincidence that Triton's final act of redemption comes after he and Sebastian have revisited a previous conversation and they've admitted that they were both wrong and that their actions were harmful.
While she probably had moments of tenderness between her and her father, particularly when she was younger and could be indulged as a child instead of punished for being a woman, their relationship is strained by his insistence on publicly conforming to aggressive and abusive parenting models whenever anyone is looking.
This isn't a trivial hobby or a girlish obsession; she's the only person in her culture who is both willing and privileged enough (due to the fact that Triton might not blast his own daughter into tiny bits for breaking his laws) to almost single-handedly set up an entire cultural museum of study on a race of people right outside the kingdom's doorstep. On the one hand, she's a fat woman and a villain in a movie that has problematic body portrayals.
And -- skipping forward a bit to Ariel's "I Want" song -- Ariel shakes her hips when she sings about "strolling along" the street; she undulates her whole body sensually when she imagines being "warm on the sand". He then tosses a tone argument at Ariel, which effectively cuts off not only what she was going to say but also punishes her for reacting realistically and legitimately to his bullying.
The parallel is obvious in that Ariel wants to be these women, but I'm still blown away looking at how many women are in this film in places where I frankly think nowadays they'd be edited out. He's hanging out with his working class and while that could be seen as slumming, he doesn't seem to mind getting rope burn on his hands and he knows how to steer the boat, so he's at least not adverse to learning.
Ariel could have been singing in a quiet grotto and Eric could have been drawn to the sound and seen her for a split moment before she disappeared. And here is a big ol' world-building mess because apparently the fish neither work nor eat, and they all live off of plankton delivered to their doorstep every morning by magic. Sebastian breaks down and tells Triton about Ariel's museum, and Triton shows up and brutally destroys it all while she weeps and begs him to stop.
And she can become that human by finding true love -- "Not just any kiss," Ursula cautions.
A privileged man who doesn't react to a pretty half-naked woman washing up on his beach like Christmas has come early? And she did all this while she was sixteen, as a young woman in an abusive family where she was only valued for her ornamental status. The humans with whom she interacts, while they find her a bit strange until she gets the hang of being human, don't seem to care a bit about her origins at her marriage to him at the end. The image at the top of today's post has her sitting with her arms wrapped around her tail, and her tail bent to resemble knees.
By that point, Disney had locked the reel in their "appreciate for value" vault and when they relaunched the movie in theaters in 1997, I was there to see it on the big screen.
I think Eric's kingdom is supposed to be one of those picturesque smaller ones where the royalty aren't far removed from the common folk and don't mind getting their hands dirty, but it's kind of a muddled message and it only gets worse when we get to Triton's kingdom.
You see this clearly in the scenes with Triton and Sebastian: both men shore up each other's will to be harsher than they otherwise individually would be inclined to be, and they do this because they think it's expected of them.
These shifts in emotional tone probably confuse and frustrate Ariel: why is her father so kind at times and yet so harsh at other times? The sheer bravery and gumption and intellectual devotion necessary for Ariel to have done what she's done is amazing: she's essentially created her very own Human Studies department right under the king's nose because studying other cultures is important, dammit. Then Triton tells her that as long as she lives under "my ocean", she'll obey "my rules", which is totally not controlling or an abusive conflation of kingly privilege and parental privilege.

I don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad." -- reinforce that Ariel is not only longing to be human already, but she's also inherently more open-minded than her close-minded and prejudice liege-father.
Maybe it helps that this movie wasn't made or marketed with the All Important Male Demographic in mind, I don't know.
Sebastian tells him "children got to be free to lead their own lives" and Triton references as earlier conversation where Sebastian said the opposite. She held on to her inner essential self and managed to forge her own path without ever once beating herself up for the abusive things that others did to her. The species hatred of the mer-society doesn't seem to be reflected in human society, and that is awesome. I can't help thinking that removing the wedding would do a lot to push the movie into more clearly a feminist message. They each have their own problems, but a good many of them have something truly positive that I treasure. I have never been able to watch the movie without sobbing straight through from opening titles to end credits.
Certainly, it was my first introduction into a feminist narrative and I have always considered the problematic romance storyline to be camouflage for the real story.
Let's just place a big sign over the deconstruction that these are Privileged White People with the inherent issues that inevitably follow.
When Triton is alone and when no one is looking, his face softens, his expression is sad, and he sighs and weeps for the decaying relationship he has with his daughter. What's more, she's a scientist, going to a direct source (albeit a bad source, since the seagull is actually ignorant of human affairs, but Ariel has no way of knowing that) to be educated on the items she finds. The only other fat women in this movie are the castle servants, who are fat in the non-threatening happy-servant kind of way, and the fat woman in the Ursula song who "this one [is] longing to be thinner".
And then Triton and Sebastian decide that Ariel, who is a young woman budding into her sexual awakening, needs "constant supervision". As much as Ariel laments in a moment that "If I become human, I'll never be with my father or sisters again", her father has driven her away. It's a gamble, and possibly not a good one, but it must seem like the one hope for happiness left available to her.
And this is the moment where everything is unspoken, but for me it seems like they're saying yeah, this whole Patriarchy thing is garbage and we were wrong. Throughout the movie, the entire narrative seems to scream that being strong-while-female is not a bad thing: it's okay to defy your racist asshole dad, it's okay to save the life of the handsome guy who won't then turn around and act all emasculated and shun you, it's okay to own your "acceptably feminine" talents in ways that make you happy, social expectations be damned. Similarly, Cinderella just looks so poised and confident -- I actually like that dress BETTER than her sparkly fairy godmother outfit. And what better way to start a deconstruction of animated feature films with the one I knew first and loved best: The Little Mermaid?
It's when others are looking -- notably, Sebastian, the only other adult male in Triton's scenes -- that Triton is at his most abusively fierce. By forgetting rehearsals and the concert and pulling back into her cavern of collections, she's not passively asserting herself or deliberately catering to the patriarchy; she's trying to carve out a safe space, mentally and physically. She wants to understand the humans, and to study the things they do and the items they create. They had her proactively search the burning wreckage of a ship, and drag an unconscious man to safety on the shore.
And the Triton gives Ariel her legs back, she marries Eric, and there's a new era of peace for both kingdoms, and it is awesome. Her life's obsession with studying and understanding and educating herself on human culture will never be accepted -- and if she persists in trying to do so clandestinely, it will only be a matter of time before someone discovers her secret, betrays her to the king, and all her work is destroyed. I do not like the Mandatory Marriage at the ends of these movies, or the implication that it's not a Happy Ending without one. Because nude fat stomachs are obscene and ugly, but thin fat stomachs are normalized and pretty! I like how it seems to normalize women's bodies as real, as things that come in different sizes, as things that can be uncovered and sexy and yet not objectified into T&A without a head or a personality needed.
One, in 1989, being saved from death by a woman didn't emasculate you forever in the eyes of the (probably) male screenwriters.
And I like the Mandatory Marriage even less when it happens to two teenagers (or one teenager and one guy in his early twenties) who've known each other only over the course of a few adrenaline-packed and hormone-driven days. Two, in 1989, saving a handsome man from drowning was considered an acceptable female fantasy with all the strength, verve, and determination that accompanies that. Ursula isn't evil because she's sexy, nor does she seem really to be evil because she's fat. He doesn't care that he's frightening his daughter; the rage has built in him to a point where terrorizing her makes more sense to him than actually talking to her or doing anything other than abusing his position as both king and father. She's just evil and fat and sexy, all in the same package, and I guess that's kind of cool? But then when I noticed that in this viewing, I realized that this movie is actually VERY filled with women's bodies.
Also, To Dream, Perchance to Soar, which I know has been plugged up and down this blog but is really really good, so.)I am apparently Captain Run-On Sentences today.

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