In an unusual pattern, from the premiere of Peter Pan in 1953 through the 1980s, Disney animation primarily centered mainly around boys and/or male animals – One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company being a handful of the most significant examples. The only princess movie during that time, 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, possessed a female main character who was only conscious for 18 minutes out of the hour and 16 minute runtime, during which she spoke only 18 lines.
It was 1989’s The Little Mermaid that finally breathed human-esque life back into the art of Disney animated feature films and ushered in the start of the era known as the Disney Renaissance. The Disney Renaissance was a period in Disney’s history during which they returned to producing animated films that were based on well-known fairy tales, much as they had in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s with Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. The Renaissance spanned a decade, from The Little Mermaid in 1989 to Tarzan in 1999 and is considered by many to be the highpoint of Disney animation based on its critical and commercial success.
When The Little Mermaid went into production in 1985, the United States was transitioning out of the second wave of feminism. Disney had, whether purposely or not, avoided having to create their next princess while the second wave was going on, instead opting for films featuring the aforementioned male animals that were supposedly free of political baggage. Once production began on The Little Mermaid, however, they were finally forced to navigate the tension between rejecting the homemaker/child-bearer stereotypes that the second wave had criticized and considering the concerns of the anti-feminist backlash that arose in the mid to late ‘80s. As a result, both schools of thought are present in the film, with the question of which is more prevalent being open to personal interpretation. Just as the American citizenry was confused about which political path to take, so was Disney.
Those who argue that The Little Mermaid’s messaging is inherently anti-feminist primarily point to two aspects of the film: 1) Ariel sacrifices her voice to find love with a man and 2) Ariel ends the film in a wedding dress professing her renewed love for her father. They contend that Ariel is still defined by her relationships with men, whether romantic or familial. Furthermore, they assert, the narrative takes Ariel’s “selfish” desires to break away from her family to see the rest of the world and sublimates it by making the pursuit of a man the focus of her endeavors. In her journal article entitled, “Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess” author Cassandra Stover represented this perspective, explaining that, “The repositioning of Ariel’s desire [from the human world to a human man] is understandable in a society emerging from the backlash politics of the 1980’s; bombarded with images of the ruthless career woman too in love with ambition to embrace traditional femininity; society could only accept a woman whose ambitions were channeled towards love, or a woman with a great love for her father, a very prominent trend in postmodern representations of powerful female characters.” Stover makes a compelling case, but there’s another side to the story.
Those who argue that The Little Mermaid is meant to be feminist point to the fact that Ariel’s desires are fulfilled, without her having to nurture or self-sacrifice to prove herself worthy. In fact, it is believed that the Disney Renaissance is responsible for popularizing the “I Want” song, beginning with Ariel’s ballad, “Part of Your World.” The “I Want” song is exactly what it sounds like: a song that expresses the main character’s discontent with their current life and what they believe they must obtain in order to improve it. “You’re not going to miss what the film’s about [because of the “I Want” song],” lyricist Howard Ashman elucidated on the merit of the genre. “That’s the central issue of the entire film. By having her sing it, it makes that point indelible.” In retrospect, though they had not referred to them as such, Disney had created “I Want” songs long before The Little Mermaid-all the way back to Snow White’s “I’m Wishing/Someday My Prince Will Come.” Ariel’s “Part of Your World” simply marked a turning point as the first of its type not to be motivated by a woman’s sole desire for romance. Women in actuality had advanced past that, and so Disney’s princesses began to reflect the shifting tides of what defined “selfish” desire for women.
Sociology professor Lauren Dundes even posits that the depiction of Ariel is perhaps more feminist than that of Disney’s Pocahuntas, a character which came six years later in the midst of the third wave of feminism, precisely because Ariel’s “selfishness” is ultimately rewarded. Upon first glance, Ariel and Pocahontas may not come across as worthy of comparison. Ariel is a mythical mermaid; Disney’s Pocahuntas based on a historical figure. They seemingly share little in common. However, Dundes maintains, they illustrate the difference between meaningful female choice, something that every woman has a right to make as a human being, and meaningful feminist action, a choice a woman makes that goes against the established patriarchal system.
Like Ariel, Pocahontas too has a father and community to which she owes her leadership. Unlike Ariel, though, Pocahontas chooses to capitulate to the paternal and societal pressure. She renounces the possibility of a romantic relationship with John Smith and an exploration of the Western world, despite still longing for them both, in favor of satisfying the expectations of her people. It’s her right to make that decision, but it does not challenge patriarchal structures. Ariel, on the other hand, ignores the disapproval of her father, family, and subjects to embark on the adventure she has always yearned for.
In a concluding statement that could be a direct response to Stover’s critique, Dundes summarized, “So even though Ariel’s selfishness and culminating moment of matrimony exemplify sexism, it is not necessarily more pernicious than that portrayed in Pocahontas who is widely perceived as progressive. In the end, Ariel binds herself to a man she loves and admires while fulfilling her dreams in a new world; Pocahontas is bound to serve a community that does not share her interest in and tolerance for outsiders…” Ariel rejects what the patriarchy, in the shape of her father/king, tells her is best for her and instead successfully sets out on her own path. She makes a meaningful feminist choice that set the stage for those who came after her, even if it took some time.
Early in the production of The Little Mermaid, Disney did not expect the movie to do particularly well at the box office. It would, they predicted, make less than Oliver and Company had the year prior. “It’s a girl’s film,” chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg is known to have said dismissively to the directors, betraying the attitude that had prevented Disney from investing in women’s stories for the last three decades. He, as well as the rest of the film’s detractors, was wrong. The Little Mermaid earned $84.4 million during its North American box office run, 64% more than Oliver and Company.
The Little Mermaid may not be a perfect film, and it may not hold up to modern feminist critique, but it certainly paved the way for more female protagonists in Disney animated movies.