top of page

Part of her World: A Feminist Review of The Little Mermaid (2023)

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

 

The cinema is brimming with expectation as I take my seat to watch Disney’s 7th live action princess film. I feel a mixture of nerves and excitement. As a Disney fan, their live action remakes help me to revisit childhood, despite the critique Disney is receiving for doing ‘too many’ live action retellings. As a Disney scholar and a feminist, the adaptations frustrate me, especially for the princesses.

 

The Princesses that Came Before


Fig. 1: Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Phillip (Harris Dickinson) in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

As I get comfortable in my seat, strawberry pencils in one hand, chocolate in the other, I reflect back on the princess adaptations that have come before Ariel. Maleficent (2014) reimagined a villain’s tale, with some welcome addition to Aurora’s narrative. I remember revelling in the notion that true love’s kiss did not have to come from a heterosexual

relationship, delighting that Aurora became Queen of the Moors after helping Maleficent defeat her father. But I also remember my frustration at the consistent reminders of Aurora’s romance with Phillip, which was revisited in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019).


Fig. 2: Ella (Lily James) and Kit (Richard Madden) in Cinderella (2015)

The live action Cinderella (2015) told audiences to ‘have courage and be kind’, which simultaneously could be interpreted as ‘allow everyone to mistreat you, but continue to be nice to them and even forgive them at the end’.


Cinderella’s emphasis on kindness is important to see (the world could do with more kindness). However, there is a difference between being kind, and ignoring your own mistreatment.


And of course, Cinderella can escape all this when she marries Kit, the finally named Prince Charming.


Whilst it was argued that Cinderella became more ‘feminist’ because she met her love interest before the ball, I would argue this changed her motivation of going to the palace ball for a night off to attending in the hope of seeing Kit.

Fig. 3: Belle (Emma Watson) and the newly de-cursed Beast, Adam (Dan Stevens) in Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast (2017) revisited the tale as old as time, with Belle being framed as an inventor and trying to escape the castle of her own accord. But one does have to ask the question: can this be an empowered story when Belle’s narrative has her return to the Beast’s castle as a prisoner because he saved her life? By the end of the film, Belle and the Beast dance into their happily ever after, but there is no telling whether she got the adventures she wanted or if she continued inventing.


Fig. 4: Aladdin (Mena Moussad) and Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in Aladdin (2019)

Jasmine received a more empowered storyline in Aladdin (2019), with her wanting to become Sultan, defying orders, battling Jafar, and who can forget the glorious ‘Speechless’? Frustratingly, when her father does proclaim her Sultan, the first thing that is suggested is that she change the law so she can marry Aladdin. Whilst in this scenario she does receive both, her leadership role and a romantic relationship, it is her romance with Aladdin that is prioritised.


Mulan (2020) provided a war epic that featured a new woman antagonist and commented on how the power of women is perceived to be a threat. Interestingly, unlike the original animation, Mulan has the gift of Chi, meaning she has the potential to be one of the greatest warriors of all time, but because she is a woman, she must hide her gift as the way for a woman to bring honour is to marry. This was a frustrating change to Mulan’s original story, as it implied that the main reason why Mulan was so successful as a soldier was because of her Chi, rather than the original which was down to Mulan’s sheer determination. Whilst there is a hint of a potential romance with another soldier, it is only hinted at, with the final scene being the Commander asking Mulan to once again become an Emperor’s Officer, the highest rank in the military.


Fig. 5: Mulan (Liu Yifei) being asked to join as the Emperor's Officer in Mulan (2020)
 

Lost Dreamers


In my own research, I have commented on how the animated princesses from 1989-1992 (Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine) are the ‘Lost Dreamers,’ in that whilst they demonstrate traits of assertiveness, rebelliousness, and bravery, with hopes beyond romance (Ariel wants to explore the human world, Belle wants adventure, and Jasmine wants to explore the world beyond the palace), these more empowered traits seem to disappear when a romantic relationship is introduced. Both Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Aladdin (2019), whilst attempting to redress some of the issues in the representation of femininity, had fallen short.


So I was worried for Ariel.


Why do you ask? Well, arguably Ariel has one of the most problematic storylines: she moves from wanting to be part of that world, to part of Eric’s world, so much so, she sells her voice to Ursula the sea witch to gain access to the human world, Eric’s world. From that moment on, she is rendered powerless in her attempts to get true love’s kiss from Eric and has to wait for Eric to deliver the fatal blow to defeat Ursula and save them all. How on earth were Disney going to approach this?


Firstly, through the casting of Halle Bailey, which received significant racist backlash. I would like to hope that part of this was drowned out by the reactions of a large amount of young girls seeing a Disney Princess that looked like them. Representation does matter, especially in the Disney Princess culture (Hains 2014; Muir 2022, 2023; Roberts 2020). We did not see a princess of colour until Jasmine in 1992. Western Fairytales in particular have been exclusively white, with Disney’s reimagining’s through their animated classics often featuring white princesses (though this is changing). Casting a black woman as the latest live action princess was a huge step forward for representation in the Disney Princess Phenomenon. Whilst this review is focused on gender, and specifically femininity, the setting of The Little Mermaid is also meaningful in this review. As Black On White TV argues:


“The casting is beautifully “colour blind” with the prince being White and his mother being Black (he is adopted). At the same time the Little Mermaid’s father is White while her Mermaid sisters are of various different races and ethnicities. Race as a social construct, as we know it, clearly does not exist underwater. A world in which the very idea of race for the main characters seems to be subverted, consciously ignored, and at the same time Black beauty is celebrated, needs to be applauded.” (Black on White TV)

So, in this sense the casting was a huge step forward for representation in The Little Mermaid and wider Disney films. However, Black on White TV also identified a significant issue with this adaptation of The Little Mermaid. As I sat in the cinema, I also noticed that the film was set in Caribbean in the 18th century. We see villagers living harmoniously and joyfully with one another. But, this is not really what life would have been like in this setting. Black on White TV goes onto argue that there is “not a single direct reference to slavery and the islanders live in racial harmony.” This is not the first time this has happened in a Disney film, with Pocahontas (1995) romanticising and brushing over colonial horrors (Anjirbag 2018; Benhamou 2014; Parekh 2003), and The Princess and the Frog (2009) fleetingly addressing segregation (Gehlawat 2010). So, whilst I argue this film is a large step forward for the representation of women, it is clear there is further to go with how history is addressed.


 

Lost Dreamer No More


Halle Bailey was truly the star of The Little Mermaid (2023). Her voice, movements and facial expressions captured Ariel’s adventurous spirit throughout the film. Her singing voice was everything we could have wanted and more for a live action adaptation, I could listen to her all day. What I was most intrigued by however, was the changes in her actual narrative and plot development.


Firstly, we must address the sacrifice of Ariel’s voice. In the 1989 adaptation, Ariel knowingly gives up her voice to Ursula in exchange for legs to walk on human land. Whilst Ariel is hesitant, Ursula reminds her that she will have no need for her voice up there:


“What I want from you is - your voice.
But without my voice, how can I-
You'll have your looks, your pretty face. And don't underestimate the importance of body language, ha!”

This is a pivotal moment for Ariel, and I was curious to see how the live action adaptation would navigate this complex plotline. This time, it is Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula who tricks Ariel, telling her that she must give up her siren voice, but says nothing about her speaking voice. Ursula later reveals she has also added an extra kick – Ariel will have no memory that she needs to have true love’s kiss with Prince Eric by sundown on the third day of being human. At this point, all Ariel knows is that she has legs, and she finally has access to the human world. So rather than being focused on Eric, we get to see Ariel experiencing the human world for the first time. In a way, whilst this is incredibly villainous from Ursula, it gives Ariel the thing that she wanted before Eric came along, knowledge about the human world.


Another welcomed addition was Ariel’s internal monologue. This way, the audience still knew what she was thinking and feeling, even though she could not verbally say it.


Look at me, suddenly I am on land and I'm free Don't mind me as I Climb for the first time Jump for the first time”
“Look, it's a fire, it's warm and it glows And it lights this chamber Let me admire it, ow! Get too close and it bites”

Here we get to see Ariel experiencing the human world for the first time, as well as trying to use her legs. She gets to discover fire, and what it is used for. The audience see’s Ariel achieve her dream of knowing more about the human world. She also uses it as an opportunity to critique some of things women on land must experience:


“Squeeze in the shoes and the corset, it's tight And the seams are busting Some women choose this, I guess it's alright Are my dreams adjusting?”

The acknowledgment of the tight corset is perhaps a reflection back to previous princess films, animated and live action alike, that have focused on a princess’ tiny waist. Ariel’s internal monologue also provides the audience with her feelings on the sacrifices she has made:


“What did I give to live where you are?
Where do I go with nowhere to turn to?”

And whilst Ariel is clearly interested in Eric, she bonds with him over their love of the world and exploring, which also provides Eric with further plot development than just being ‘Prince Charming’. And, I must acknowledge that Eric was given his own ballad, "Wild Unchartered Waters," which gives the audience more insight to Eric’s character.


The second key moment arrives when Ursula, now parading as Vanessa, has enchanted Eric with Ariel’s voice, fooling him that it was Vanessa who saved Eric. Like the animated film, Ariel is initially miserable and leaves the castle, accepting her fate. However, when Awkwafina’s Scuttle (whose quirky and chaotic nature was most endearing) arrives to explain it is Ursula disguised as Vanessa, Ariel immediately jumps into action. As a reminder, it is Ariel’s animal friends who expose Vanessa in the 1989 animation. But not this time. I sat in my seat, hoping that Ariel would be given some agency to control her own destiny, and I was not disappointed. It is Ariel who runs back to the engagement party. It is Ariel who grabs onto Vanessa’s necklace, and it is Ariel who destroys it and reclaims her voice. This, is how Disney live action remakes should be, addressing the original problems of the film. Gone is the Ariel relying on others to help her – this is Ariel’s world and she controls her own destiny.


The third key moment comes at the film’s climax. Whilst Ariel has managed to recover her voice and identify herself as the one who saved Eric from the ship, she does not receive her ‘true love’s kiss,’ and is returned to her mermaid state. A furious Ursula claims Ariel as her own, with King Triton sacrificing himself to try and save his daughter. As per the original animation, Eric arrives, harpoons in tow to try and help, but to no avail. Ursula has the triton now and tries to kill him. And, as per the original animation, Ariel in her fury and desperation changes the direction of the triton’s blow to kill Ursula’s eels instead. As I have argued myself, it is more of an indirect act of violence (Muir 2023). In her fury, Ursula becomes a gigantic behemoth of herself, and it is at this point I find myself wondering if this scene will be a remake or a retelling (Rowe 2022).


We rarely see princesses commit an act of violence. Whilst we have seen Mulan at war, or Kida, Tiana, and Anna punch someone, or Rapunzel use her handy frying pan, we have never seen a Disney Princess commit the acts of violence in the same manner of a Disney Prince. Case in point, Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid (1989). It is Ariel, who is helplessly trapped at the bottom of the whirlpool that watches on as Eric directs the ship, fatally stabbing Ursula.


Fig. 6: Ariel trapped in the whirlpool in The Little Mermaid (1989)


As a I sat in the cinema, I wondered how this would play out. Ariel is not trapped, it is in fact Eric who is helpless and at the mercy of Ursula, hanging for dear life on a vessel. Surely, I thought, they would not have Ariel commit the final blow? My heart raced as I saw Ariel on one of the ships in the whirlpool, crawling across the deck to the helm. She takes control of the ship (and her destiny) and deliberately sends it coursing towards Ursula, fatally stabbing her, saving Eric and all the kingdom’s land and sea.


I was astounded.


Never in all the princess live actions OR animations have we seen a Princess commit this type of violence. Whilst Mulan was engaged in violence through the war, any killing that occurred was quite covert. This, was on another level. Of course, I am not condoning violence. But, for Ariel to take control of the situation as any other hero would was a huge step forward for her character development.


Finally, whilst the 1989 animation ended with Ariel and Eric’s marriage, the new live action provided a more welcome and empowered storyline. Instead of getting married, Ariel and Eric go and explore unchartered waters together, demonstrating that a woman does not have to choose between her dreams and a romantic relationship. Like Aurora and Prince Philip, their relationships also signify the union of two kingdoms, that of the land and sea, who have been at odds with one another as a subplot in the film. Both Eric and Ariel are trailblazers, wanting understanding of the worlds they come from and the worlds they want to explore. Rather than ending the film with a marriage, the choice to end the story with Ariel and Eric exploring lands beyond their respective kingdoms demonstrates the leaps and bounds The Little Mermaid has taken.


So, should you go and see The Little Mermaid? Absolutely. This film has changed the image of Ariel for me. Gone is the Lost Dreamer whose empowered traits and dreams of adventure got lost in her desire for a romantic relationship. Gone is the complete lack of agency. Not only did The Little Mermaid (2023) deliver catchy songs, beautiful cinematography, and reimagined characters – it is the first live action princess film to redress the gender representation issues of its animated counterpart. Thanks to The Little Mermaid, and specifically Halle Bailey, audiences finally get to see Ariel in all her powerful and adventurous glory. She is not part of that world, it is her world.



Fig. 7: Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) in The little Mermaid (2023)

 

If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Do you have a book coming out and would love to have a launch with us? Email Bee! Did your book, or someone else's book, come out and you want to see us do a book review or an author interview...that's right, email Bee!


Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

References:


Anjirbag, Michelle Anya. 2018. "Mulan and Moana: Embedded Coloniality and the Search for Authenticity in Disney Animated Film." Social Sciences 7, no. 11: 230. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7110230


Benhamou, Eve, and Eve Benhamou. 2014. "From the Advent of Multiculturalism to the Elision of Race: The Representation of Race Relations in Disney Animated Features (1995-2009)." Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 2 (1): 153–67. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v2i1.106.

Black on White TV. 2023. "Disney's The Little Mermaid, Caribbean Slavery, and Telling the Truth to Children." http://blackonwhitetv.blogspot.com/2023/05/disneys-little-mermaid-caribbean.html

Gehlawat, Ajay. "The Strange Case of ‘The Princess and the Frog:’ Passing and the Elision of Race.” Journal of African American Studies 14, no. 4 (2010): 417–31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819264.


Hains, Rebecca. 2014. The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess Obsessed Years. Naperville: Sourcebooks.


Muir, Robyn. 2023. The Princess Phenomenon: A Feminist Analysis. Bristol: Bristol University Press.


Benhamou, Eve, and Eve Benhamou. 2014. "From the Advent of Multiculturalism to the Elision of Race: The Representation of Race Relations in Disney Animated Features (1995-2009)." Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 2 (1): 153–67. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v2i1.106.

Roberts, Shearon. 2020. Recasting the Disney Princess in an Era of New Media and Social Movements. London: Lexington.


Rowe, Rebecca. 2022. “Disney Does Disney: Re-Releasing, Remaking, and Retelling Animated Films for a New Generation.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 50 (3): 98–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/01956051.2022.2094868.

Ruiz, Michelle. 2019. "You're Not Crazy - Disney Princesses Have Insanely Small Waists (and Looking at Them Is Not Great for Kids)." Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/disney-princess-waist-unhealthy-body-image-children-study.


Images:


Fig. 1: Stromberg, Robert, dir. 2019. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. United States: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 2: Branagh, Kenneth, dir. 2015. Cinderella. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Fig. 3: Condon, Bill, dir. 2017. Beauty and the Beast. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 4: Ritchie, Guy, dir. 2019. Aladdin. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 5: Caro, Niki, dir. 2020. Mulan. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 6: Musker, John and Ron Clements, dir. 1989. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 7: Marshall, Rob, dir. 2023. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Comments


bottom of page