Character Study: Merits of a Maligned Mermaid

Lately I have been watching Disney movies while baby-sitting a ten-month-old and, because he can’t talk yet, I get plenty of time to think about them while stacking block towers and blowing raspberries on his feet. I’ve decided to start a series of Character Study entries based on these thoughts, and my first musing is:

Belle is not a cooler, better, or stronger princess/female character than Ariel.

Hashtag drop the mic.

Hashtag pick it back up. I have to explain why.

Stuff People Say About Ariel 

1. She’s selfish

Uh, she’s a sixteen-year-old girl. They’re all selfish. Even a not-so-selfish one is selfish by non-teenage human standards. Ariel failed to show up for an extracurricular activity organized by her father because she was immersed in her hobby.

For comparison: Belle refused to eat until the middle of the night, then only took a fingerful of gray stuff from the feast the entire castle staff prepared for her while performing a musical number! Merida pestered her mother about whether or not she’d have to get married while her mother writhed in pain, possibly poisoned by Merida herself. Snow White broke into someone else’s house and slept in ALL their beds at once!

2. She left her loving father to make a deal with a witch in hopes of snagging a boy she’d just met

First, she’s still a sixteen-year-old girl. A lot of sixteen-year-old girls do dumb stuff for boys. Even without considering that factor, what Ariel did is still pretty understandable:

Fact 1: From the first scenes of the movie, long before she spots Prince Eric, we know that Ariel is an explorer at heart who desperately wants to check out the world of landlubbers. She sings a whole song about it.

ariel_dream

Fact 2: Her father comes into her room and, in a rage, destroys all of the possessions she’s spent years collecting (and takes great pride in)

Up until then, Ariel was just fantasizing about her crush.

Fact 3: Ariel runs away and accepts the only help offered.

That “help” happens to come from a sea witch. Ariel’s a teenage girl fresh off a fight with her father and having her prized possessions destroyed in front of her, meaning she’s not in the clearest state of mind, and she’s being offered the fulfillment of her greatest dream. Maybe her choice isn’t the smartest or most logical, but it just makes her more real as a character. To her credit, she does worry about never seeing her father or sisters again but has confidence in her ability to get a smooch from Eric.

Belle offers herself as a prisoner to secure her father’s freedom, but in doing so she gets to leave a town she hates and fulfill her literary fantasies while wearing fabulous gowns and singing with the furniture.

3. She’s a hipster

ariel

Okay, maybe this is a meme and people don’t really mean it about movie-Ariel, but can I just point out that Belle’s whole first song is about how her town is full of friendly assholes baking bread and saying hello every morning and she’s so over it?

hipsterbelle

Seriously. She calls them “little people.” Condescending much? She escapes that “provincial life” to live in an isolated castle with a temperamental prince and a bunch of servants, which doesn’t seem like an improvement unless one is a snob.

Stuff People Don’t Say About Ariel (But Should)

1. She’s brave

As mentioned before, Ariel is an explorer with a streak of the adrenaline-junkie. She snatches treasure out from under sharks, she leaves behind the comfort and familiarity of everything she’s known for a shot at her dreams, and she’s a daredevil at the reins of a carriage. Belle might read, but Ariel gets out into the world to see and experience things for herself much like a popular princess in recent years, Rapunzel.

carriage

2. Ariel has friends

Belle doesn’t. At the beginning of Ariel’s movie, she has Flounder and Scuttle (Sebastian is more of a handler than a friend.) Even when she can’t speak, she charms everyone she meets with her enthusiasm and curiosity. Belle is admired for her beauty but thought to be strange, and she probably doesn’t help matters by being so judgey about the townsfolk. The servants at the castle are anxious to hook Belle up with the prince for their own salvation, so I wouldn’t count any of them as friends with perhaps the exception of Chip.

3. Ariel actually has a lot in common with the guy she marries

Eric and Ariel are both brave, friendly, adventurous, musical, love the sea, and will risk their lives to save someone they care about. Compare that to Belle and Prince Adam, who are both…good dancers? Adam has a lot of books in his library, but I’m guessing by the way it was closed up until he gave it to Belle that he wasn’t reading too many of them himself. Prince Adam was tasked with getting someone to love him because he was a jerk to an old woman, and with a lot of assists from animate objects he manages to marry the most beautiful girl around. What will he act like when she gets old?

4. Ariel has agency

At every turn, Ariel is the engine that drives her story. She discovers her dream guy while out exploring, she saves his life, she makes the deal with Ursula, she tracks down said dream guy and does a darn good job of wooing him without being able to speak. When her dream guy falls victim to a spell himself, she doesn’t give up. She swims all the way out to his wedding ship, even though she doesn’t know how to swim with legs, on the off-chance that she can save him from marrying an evil witch. When the witch turns her father into seaweed and steals his throne, she urges Eric to save himself and distracts Ursula while Eric takes her down. Ariel is not passive or reactive.

In conclusion: you call Ariel selfish, I answer

bitches-get-stuff-done

2 responses to “Character Study: Merits of a Maligned Mermaid

  1. Tina Fey has it right! Women who are strong, can often be labeled difficult or diva-ish, but a man can behave the same way and he’s respected. It’s the same in fiction. I say we keep pushing the envelope to make strong women the mainstream!

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