The Disney Renaissance hit us with The Little Mermaid and its body bearing heroine, Princess Ariel. A spirited and rebellious explorer, Ariel is determined to escape the oppressive world of the sea to the freedom of the earth above. However, her sudden love for a complete stranger and the stripping of her voice to achieve her dream undercuts her individuality and shows that she simply escapes one form of oppression to enter another. Furthermore, her scanty attire, which doesn’t just display a belly button, but her hip and pelvic bones as well, forces unnecessary attention on the physical form thus perpetuating unhealthy body consciousness and comparisons among young girls. Where’s the glimmer of hope for Ariel as a positive media image for women? Believe it or not, there is hope. Ariel illustrates determination and gumption to live by one’s own rules despite obstacles. She proves that achievement of personal freedom, self-expression, and individual fulfillment comes from defining and being a part of YOUR world.
Ariel introduces us to a new kind of Disney princess. Unlike the previous three princesses, Ariel doesn’t do what she’s “supposed to.” In fact, we meet her exploring a sunken ship, outwitting a killer shark, and journeying to the forbidden surface of the sea when she’s supposed to be performing in a royal concert. From the very beginning she proves herself independent, adventurous, and confident. What’s more, she’s willing to take risks in pursuit of her own desires.
Of course, her father, King Triton, and Sebastian, the crab, do their best to squelch the qualities that make her unique. So, she cultivates a collection of all she loves and wants to learn more about in a secret grotto. Rather than bending to the will of others, she creates a world of her own in which she is free to be herself—fearless, thoughtful, and curious, among other things.
It’s her curiosity that leads her to the “beautiful” prince Eric, whom she rescues from distress. And when he wakes from unconsciousness, does he speak of Ariel’s angel eyes, her glowing smile, or her svelte torso? Actually, he raves about her beautiful voice. It’s her voice (a symbol of identity and individuality) that has captivated him.
Soon after this meeting, Ariel visits Ursula, the Sea Witch, to be transformed into a human. However, romance is not the sole motivator. It’s upon King Triton’s discovery and destruction of her grotto—the symbol of her identity and individuality thus far—that she turns to Ursula for escape.
Interestingly, when Eric encounters a voice-less Ariel, who has traded her pipes for legs, he’s relatively uninterested and certainly doesn’t associate her with his mysterious lady love. In fact, Eric represents a world that values Ariel’s individuality and provides her the freedom to be herself.
Ariel’s lack of voice in no way deters her self-confidence, curiosity, and strength especially when Eric takes her for a tour of the kingdom. She shows the same inquisitiveness and adventurousness while pulling the prince to all the places and things she wants to see. What’s more, on the way back to the castle, she fearlessly takes the reins of the carriage and startles Eric with a successful leap across a canyon. By the end of the day she has captivated Eric, yet again, simply by being herself.
Ariel continually defines her own terms by which she wants to live. She wants to be human, she wants to be free, she wants to be accepted for all of the unique qualities that make her her. And what does she get? Everything she wants! Her desire to ask questions and get answers, to seek and discover, never disappear no matter who or what tries to suppress her independence and individuality. The fact that Eric is attracted to these qualities reveals that Ariel isn’t merely motivated by romance, but that she’s determined to live in a world where she can freely be herself. Her determination to break away from anything that would limit her self-expression and unique spirit empowers her to fulfill her independent goals. Princess Ariel teaches women to cherish one’s identity and individuality enough to fight against social limitations and to boldly try new things. She shows us never to settle for a world that doesn’t accept us for all that we are! So, what does YOUR world look like, and are you ready to be part of it today?