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The Little Mermaid: Not as Sexist as You Thought It Was

5 minute read

In celebration of The Little Mermaid‘s 25th anniversary — it was originally released Nov. 17, 1989 — Eliana Dockterman and Laura Stampler rewatched a film they hadn’t seen in about a decade and a half. They were pleasantly surprised.

Eliana Dockterman: So we just watched The Little Mermaid. I expected it to be really sexist because of articles like this and this and this.

Laura Stampler: It wasn’t.

ED: So, yeah, the fact that she can’t talk isn’t great. But it’s Ursula—the villain—who tells Ariel that men don’t value women talking so it won’t matter if Ariel loses her voice.

LS: And yes, it’s also not great that Ariel is willing to give up her voice for the chance to get a man who plays a mean flute — watch the movie again, he plays the flute a lot — but she is a 16-year-old girl. As a former 16-year-old girl, we don’t always make the greatest of choices in times of crushing.

ED: And in fact the reason Eric won’t marry her right off the bat is because he fell in love with her voice, not her looks. That’s good, right?

LS: Furthermore, he flat-out says he believes that Ariel lost her voice as a part of some big event. So when he doesn’t want to immediately lock lips with the feisty mute, it’s because he doesn’t want to take advantage of a recent trauma victim.

ED: Basically you think Eric is the perfect guy.

LS: A prince among Disney princes. He loves his dog, which is a good sign, and he’s into it when she has the carriage jump over that ravine. He likes daring, empowered women. And, to counter stereotypes, he falls in love with his savior. Eric was the damsel in distress and Ariel rescued him from drowning during a storm.

ED: It’s true. This is why The Little Mermaid is (secretly?) feminist. She saved him first in that shipwreck and then again from being zapped by Ursula’s triton at the end. He ultimately kills Ursula, but she wins 2-1 in the savior competition. Now can we talk about the criticism that she’s too sexy?

LS: From some angles, Ariel’s cinched waist and round derriere kind of reminded me of Kim K, which is a little disturbing to see in a mermaid. But most Disney princesses are flawed.

ED: Everyone heralded Frozen as a big feminist moment last year, even though Elsa’s eyes are bigger than her waist. So we haven’t made much progress on realistic body image in cartoons in the last 25 years. It’s obviously a problem, but let’s not single out Ariel just because she has the shell bra and great hair.

LS: The hair truly is fantastic. Dinglehoppers work, guys. Also, props to Disney for going with a redhead, although it would have been nice for Triton’s kingdom to have greater diversity than hair color and fish species…

ED: Yes let’s just say it: “Under the Sea” is kind of a racist song, though Disney has definitely done much, much, much worse. Let’s discuss the end. Specifically Ursula. Is she the best Disney villain ever?

LS: Evil? Yes. Savvy contract negotiator? ABSOLUTELY. To be fair, Ursula gives Ariel a head’s up that there’s a big chance she’s going to end up a sea worm or whatever those terrifying creatures are. And her legalese is so good that even Triton can’t find a loophole. No one is above the law.

ED: Another good life lesson. But yeah, Ursula doesn’t even pretend to be good like Cinderella’s stepmother or Cruella de Vil or Scar. Right off the bat, she owns her evil witchiness, and I love it! Can the next Maleficent be Ursula?

LS: Too bad she ends up harpooned. I mean, good for young love and all, but poor Ursula. Now that we’ve come to the end of the movie, I think we should talk about another big Little Mermaid complaint people have: the fact that she gives up her whole world to live with Prince Eric.

ED: Again, this is a thing that happens in literally every Disney princess film except Frozen—and even there Anna ends up with someone, so it’s baby steps. I don’t know why everyone’s hating on The Little Mermaid.

LS: But really, didn’t Ariel fall in love with the human world before she even knew who Eric was? She has always dreamed of being a “part of your world,” which I’m worried she’ll find disappointing considering my dad definitely still reprimanded me (even though I had legs).

ED: Her father doesn’t understand her, and she wants to explore her own interests. Any teenager can relate to that.

LS: Also, there’s a time when we all must move on from our immediate surroundings. Triton basically lives in her back yard. Most newlyweds would probably find that a little too close for comfort.

ED: And conveniently Eric doesn’t seem to have parents. And who are we to say that if he could turn into a merperson, Eric wouldn’t? Maybe in a more progressive version of the film they have a discussion about who moves where for whose career. But in the version we get, she can turn human. He can’t turn merman. End of conversation.

LS: I smell a sequel…

ED: They made one. I think it was bad.

LS: Shhhh.

Meet the Voices of the Disney Princesses

Anna: Kristen Bell Best known for her role as Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell plays Anna, the younger sister of Elsa in Disney’s Frozen. Although Anna will not be officially added to the pantheon of Disney princesses until she’s inducted in an official ceremony at a later date, Bell was nonetheless excited for the part. “Oh, I was in glee.” Bell said in an interview with wegotthiscovered.com. “I have always wanted to be part of a Disney animated feature. I grew up watching all of the old Disney musicals, and was especially obsessed with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. It had always been my dream as a little girl to be a Disney princess, like it is everybody’s.” Disney; Imeh Akpanudosen—WireImage
Elsa: Idina Menzel Fans of Broadway and Glee will instantly recognize Idina Menzel. The storied thespian was part of the original casts of Rent and Wicked as Maureen Johnson and Elphaba respectively. She also played Shelby Corcoran, Rachel Berry’s mother, in Glee. Like Anna, Elsa will not be officially known as a princess until the character is inducted at a later date.Disney; Imeh Akpanudosen—WireImage
Merida: Kelly Macdonald The Scottish actress made her movie debut in the cult classic Trainspotting and played Helena Ravenclaw in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 before voicing Merida, the first Disney princess produced by Pixar. Disney; Todd Williamson—Invision/AP
Rapunzel: Mandy Moore The Grammy-winning pop star made her music debut with the single “Candy” in 1999. Ten years later she was singing a different tune as a Disney princess. “To be a Disney princess in a Disney film, it really has been a total dream come true.” said Moore in an interview with SheKnows.com.Disney; Brian Dowling—PictureGroup/AP
Tiana: Anika Noni Rose It was Anika Noni Rose’s lifelong dream to work for Disney. “Since I was a little kid I wanted to work for Disney—and I didn’t need to be the Princess! I would have been a tick or a flea!” The Tony Award winning actress got her wish when she was chosen to voice Tiana in The Frog Princess. In 2011, Rose would also be inducted into the Disney Legends, a hall of fame for those who have made a significant impact on the Disney legacy.Disney; Todd Wawrychuk—Disney Channel/Getty Images
Mulan: Ming-Na Wen The Chinese-American actress made her television debut on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1985 as a Royal Trumpeter and starred in The Joy Luck Club as June Woo before she became the voice of Mulan. She currently plays Melinda May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Disney; Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
Pocahontas: Irene Bedard Born in Alaska, Irene Bedard is of Inupiat, Inuit and Métis descent. Bedard was not only the voice of Pocahontas, animators also incorporated some of her facial expressions into the character.Disney; Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
Jasmine: Linda Larkin “Aladdin was my first big job, and it definitely opened a lot of doors for me,” Larkin once said. “I think being the voice of Princess Jasmine has given me an extra advantage in getting some of the jobs I’ve had—although sometimes they find out about me being Princess Jasmine after they’ve hired me, and that’s always fun!” She would continue her acting career on TV series such as Wings and Law & Order: Criminal Intent and was honored as a Disney Legend in 2011. Disney (2)
Belle: Paige O’Hara Paige O’Hara auditioned for Belle five times before she got the role. “I had been a Disney fanatic from the time I was little,” O’Hara once said. “As soon as I heard about the project, I called my agent and said, ‘I have to be seen for this.’ She would go on to have a musical career spanning the opera and Broadway and was inducted into the Disney Legends in 2011.Disney; Jeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
Ariel: Jodi Benson Jodi Benson’s goal was always to make it to Broadway, but along the way she beat out over 500 other actresses to become the voice of Ariel. She was also the voice of Barbie in Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and also became a Disney Legend in 2011.Disney; Jordan Strauss—Invision / AP
Aurora: Mary Costa Mary Costa’s first professional singing job was as the voice of Aurora. “I really had no experience, but by the time the movie was released, I was singing in the opera. It was a very fast, exciting time for me.” Costa would go on to perform in 44 operatic roles throughout the United States and Europe and joined the Disney Legends in 1999.Disney; Disney/AP
Cinderella: Ilene Woods Ilene Woods lucked into the role of Cinderella by singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and “So This Is Love” for her songwriter friends Mack David and Jerry Livingston. Walt Disney heard her recordings and hired her to be the voice of Cinderella. Woods would be honored as a part of the Disney Legends in 2003.Disney (2)
Snow White: Adriana Caselotti More than 150 girls had already auditioned for the role of Snow White before Adriana Caselotti was chosen to voice the first Disney princess. She recalled in 1987, “I’d never worked in show business before (Snow White). I feel very blessed. Not everyone gets the chance to be part of a genuine classic like Snow White.” Caselotti would also be inducted into the Disney Legends in 1994.Disney; AP

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com