Ariel: aka, Disney’s most famous redheaded mermaid (I would say most famous redhead, but now we have Merida so I didn’t want to curdle anyone’s milk). She’s always struck up a little controversy with her comparatively risqué outfit considering her age (sixteen), as well as her choice to pretty much spend a whole movie pursuing and fantasising over a prince.
However, whilst all those things can be focused on for sure, I’d like to celebrate her rebelliousness and courage instead. She is one of six older sisters and very much the baby of the family. King Triton dotes on her but also smothers her a little with her protectiveness. The emotions and transitions Ariel makes in the film are classic teenage fare. Her being seduced by Ursula and her promises of the ideal life she wants is alas, similar to things that do go on today.
Her curiosity and thirst for knowledge is well known. ‘Part of Your World’ shows how she collects all these ‘thingamabobs’ in an attempt to know and understand the world above. Of course she has errors of judgement where this is concerned: as teenagers (or even now) didn’t we all? Every Disney Princess story has a lesson to be learned, and this is no different. Her courage may be derived from her spirited youth, but this is not to be knocked at. Let us not forget we are still in the days pre-Pocahontas. Ariel is already a marked change from Aurora and Snow White. She is explicitly active in seeking out her own fate, in making a change to her destiny since it isn’t the one she wants. When the man she loves is threatened she actively does something about it instead of drape herself across a vanity a cry (sorry Aurora, it wasn’t your best moment).
It’s true she’s still ‘perfect’ as it goes. She has that amazing hair, sings like an angel and looks cute as a button. Indeed, much of the fun in the film comes not from her but from her supporting friends such as Flounder and of course Sebastian. Ariel stands at a turning point for Disney and its previous princesses. Indeed she is devoted to her man and it’s perhaps a tad weird that she’s so held in the throws of puppy love (she is only sixteen after all). In the film she is still ultimately rescued by her father and Prince – her happy ending involves marrying her Prince, not some other scenario.
Can we blame Disney? Well, (of course we can) it wouldn’t be completely fair to. After all, these fairy tales have old roots, and let us not forget that the traditional ending of The Little Mermaid was far more tragic (she turned into sea foam). In that ‘older’ period during which The Little Mermaid is set, sixteen would have been an acceptable age for marriage. As aware as they would have been of the role of women changing, they aren’t in today’s world where feminism is a bigger topic than ever. Ariel might not be the most progressive princess ever, but there are still many qualities to commend her for.