The case for an empowered Ariel

There’s much to celebrate about the new live-action The Little Mermaid reboot, including the brilliant casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. But we're conflicted over the 1989 film's lessons about relationships and self-worth. Here's why.
Halle Bailey, star of Disney's forthcoming live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid
Halle Bailey, star of Disney’s forthcoming live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid; 📷: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

Last month, Disney announced the brilliant decision to cast Halle Bailey, an incredibly talented singer/actress, as Ariel in the live-action The Little Mermaid reboot. A lot of people were excited about this news — I know I was, both about the return of such a beloved film from my youth, and about the casting at a time when we so clearly need more black women in leading roles. 

But upon reflection, I’ve realized my feelings about The Little Mermaid are complicated. The 1989 Disney version of the story actually sends some pretty shitty messages about self-worth and relationships, and I want Halle to be a far more empowered Ariel than Disney’s previous iteration was.

I didn’t always feel this way. When The Little Mermaid came out, I, a kindergartner, loved it. The music was magical — I have more than one memory of belting out playground renditions of “Part of your world” (which, by the way, I also very embarrassingly sang at karaoke once in college while dressed as zombie Ariel for Halloween). 

Jen as zombie Ariel, circa 2005
Jen as zombie Ariel, circa 2005. (I already regret posting this photo.)

And to be fair, at that point spunky Ariel was the best princess we’d had so far. At least she was conscious (ahem, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White).

But now that my own daughter and son are around the same age I was then, I’m hesitant to even let them watch the 1989 film. I’ll grant you that the music is still excellent and that Ursula the sea witch is a fantastic villain, but when it comes to Ariel, we are talking about a young woman who trades her voice for the chance to woo some rando with her hot bod and silent charm. Disney marketed Ariel as a headstrong, willful and independent woman, yet she throws away her family, home and the ability to be a fucking mermaid because she saw a cute guy on a boat once. (Yes, I know she had long fantasized about going on land, but she doesn’t barter her life away simply because the grass is drier on the other side — that decision is 100% about Prince Eric.)

Of course, in the end, she succeeds — wins said cute guy, defeats the sea witch and becomes a teenage human bride, thus finding true Disney happiness. (Not that we know whether her ever after is a happy one. Disney tends to think waving like a moron in a poofy-shouldered wedding dress is how a woman self-actualizes. What could matter after that?)

I realize The Little Mermaid is not the only tale of this kind. Look at Romeo and Juliet — just replace the divide between land and water with a divide between families. Juliet, too, sacrifices her family and life in the name of love for someone she’s just met. (In her case, he loves her back and does the same, so that’s sort of better — but then, instead of a Disney ending, you get two dead teenagers, so it’s also much worse.) The difference is who’s paying attention: unlike they do with Disney heroes, small children rarely look to those star-crossed (but well-spoken) idiots as idols, Halloween costume muses, or — certainly — a model for what relationships should look like.

But here’s the bright spot — there’s a lot that Disney could get right in this new version of The Little Mermaid.

After all, in many ways Ariel’s just a regular angsty teenager looking for an escape from her overbearing father (“Betcha on land, they understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters”). 

Maybe now, instead of being a teen bride, what Ariel really wants is to go to college. And they don’t have universities under the sea (only schools of fish, badum-tss) so that’s why she wants to become a human. Maybe she meets a partner or lover along the way, maybe not. Then she graduates and charts her own damned course for her life. No need for a sweetheart neckline or a hoarding problem. And so it goes from there. 

You may think I’m being overly argumentative. Ridiculous, even. Commenters certainly tore The Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel apart last year when he dared to criticize the outdated ideologies of the Disney princesses franchise

But consider this: There are a lot of shitty relationships out there, and a lot of women who struggle to ditch the notion that they’ll only find their true value in a prince. 

We are flooded with images and messages (that often become beliefs) from an early age — that our beauty and ultimately our man are the keys to our happiness, that we must be rescued, and that we should sacrifice everything for love. Love that, in the real world, doesn’t always work out. That, more often than not, fails.

Don’t we owe it to future generations to try to shield them from these kinds of unhealthy models and replace them with healthy ones? Clearly, they’re not going to learn that shit by magic. (Did you?)

That’s why it’s Disney’s responsibility to significantly alter the storyline and make Halle the most empowered princess we’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s what they’re already planning — we don’t have much information on this film yet. And Disney has done better with more modern films like Moana (young woman of color protagonist, saves her people, does not waste time falling in love with anyone or needing to be saved) and even Frozen (the true love that can break the spell ends up being the true familial love between sisters). 

Here’s hoping.

What’s your take? Leave your thoughts, reactions and alternate plotlines in the comments. (And please try to keep “Part of your world” somehow. Halle’s version is obviously going to be amazing.)

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4 thoughts on “The case for an empowered Ariel

  1. I feel like Disney has continued to evolve its heroines, like Frozen. I’m hopeful they will update the live action as well. Also badass zombie mermaid.

  2. Agreed, some of the recent films have been encouraging. Hopefully that trend will continue and they’ll keep pushing the evolution further and further. (Also thanks!)

  3. I agree that Disney is doing better (e.g., Moana), AND I was a little dumbfounded when Elsa’s awesome moment of owning who she is and stepping fully into her powers including literally letting her hair down and changing into a sexier slit dress. I thought it sent a confusing message — that you should embrace who you are, doubters be damned… and you become sexier as a result?

    1. That is a hilarious and irritating point I honestly hadn’t considered. And when they’re reunited, if I remember correctly, the first thing Anna says to Elsa is, “You look great.”

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