Special Features – The Little Mermaid: The Worst Role Model

Luke Owen looks at why Ariel, The Little Mermaid is a terrible role model for children…

The Little Mermaid swam out of the Disney vaults recently for a Blu-Ray release to much praise from world. It was a movie that really kick-started Disney’s renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s, is a firm fan-favourite and is still hailed to this day as one of the best movies The House of Mouse ever put out.

As a company, Disney has always been under fire from various outlets for brainwashing a generation of children with unrealistic expectations of love, life and death. In more recent times, the Internet has been awash with bitter and misanthropic people talking about the bad that Disney has done with its Princess merchandise. But in a sea (no pun intended) of articles slamming Disney for their immoral lead characters, The Little Mermaid has always escaped the net.

Before continuing, it must be noted that The Little Mermaid is a good movie. It’s not great and probably doesn’t deserve the level of attention it receives, but it is a very well-made movie. The songs are among some of Disney’s best, the animation is nearly flawless and the cast of characters are very strong. King Trident for example may be one of the most believable and likeable kings in Disney’s history, Sebastian and Flounder work as enjoyable sidekicks and Ursula is a phenomenal villain that plays up to the campy side of brilliance that Disney doesn’t dive into nearly as often as they should. Even the love interest Eric isn’t your a-typical Disney Prince as he is interested in Ariel for something other than her looks. Everyone is great – with the exception of our lead character.

Many would argue that Ariel is a good female role model in the sense that she is very different from the typical Disney Princess fodder. She isn’t waiting for a prince to come and rescue her, she isn’t twiddling her thumbs until she can be queen and she isn’t desperate to get married. She is, in a way, the opposite of what many hate about the Disney Princess mentality. Famed critic Roger Ebert went as far as to say that Ariel is a, “fully [realised] female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny”.

In many ways, she’s a lot like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. She’s curious and wants to explore, is not afraid of getting herself into a spot of danger and wants something more in her life other than just being a princess. But whereas Jasmine is a likeable and sweet woman with her head squarely on her shoulders, Ariel is a bratty, whiny and irresponsible teenager who makes stupid decisions that put her friends in danger, thinks only about herself and is vapidly materialistic. She really is the worst kind of role model to put upon impressionable youths.

Now, one could make the argument that she is the perfect representation of 16-year old girls (at least, how the media sees 16-year old girls) but Ariel’s biggest problem is not her character defects – it’s the fact she never learns from her mistakes, nor does she ever feel responsible for her actions. And, worse still, everything works out for her in the end.

The movie tells us over and over again that what makes Ariel unique among every other female character in the ocean is her voice. In particular, her singing voice which is known as one of the most beautiful ever heard. But when she falls in love with the first guy she sees on land, she strikes a deal with the devious Ursula to give up her voice for a pair of legs so that she may venture on land and meet her prince.

Lesson learnt: Give up everything that makes you special for a man – because that’s what’s important in life.

After a surprisingly convoluted series of events, Ursula puts a spell on Eric and convinces him to marry her, thus ruining Ariel’s chances of true love. During the wedding ceremony, the nautilus shell containing Ariel’s voice breaks via interference from Scuttle, giving back her one unique trait.

Lesson learnt: It doesn’t matter if you give up things that are important to you, because sometimes you get lucky and your friends will be there to pick up the pieces.

After all this melee, Ursula kidnaps Ariel and strikes a new deal with King Trident that he will become her slave in exchange for his daughter’s release. And what does Ariel do to thank her father for this selfless act of bravery to make up for her incompetence? She gives a half-arsed “Daddy, I’m sorry” while never once sounding genuinely remorseful for what she’s done.

When arguing this point, many have said that this line could have been her redemption had actress Jodi Benson delivered it with a bit more conviction. But if you compare Ariel’s apology to the moment in which King Trident realises how mean he was to his daughter in destroying her materialistic possessions, it’s night and day. Ariel never has a scene in which she is genuinely sorry for her actions. She never once gives a heartfelt apology to anyone around her for putting them in danger or using them to better her gains. She just makes mistake after mistake, has other people pick up the pieces and then reaps the rewards at the end.

Lesson learnt: Bratty and petulant teenagers who demand everything from the world, get it eventually. You don’t even have to feel bad about it.

This is what is so irksome about Ariel as a character. She has all the elements to make her a brilliant Disney Princess, but the fact that she never learns one lesson during the movie’s running time turns her into a callous brat. And in that sense, she really is the worst role model for an impressionable mind, more so than any of the other Disney Princesses.

Furthermore, she becomes a complete hypocrite in the sequel.

Luke Owen is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.

  • alliewakeup

    My step-sister is obsessed with Ariel and is exactly as the article describes Ariel to be. Really weird to read and go “Yes, exactly, that’s my sister! Wait…” Really wish popular children’s media would contain better role models. There are lots out there! Parents just aren’t really willing to dig, but shouldn’t have to go out and search so hard for them. There just need to be lots of better ones more readily available.

  • Kiara

    I think it’s rediculous, most children watching this movie are around 4 to 7 and there minds aren’t even developed enough to understand her position as a “role model” or her rebellion and that her apology wasn’t heartfelt enough. It’s a rare ocation when a kid to say Ariel didn’t listen to her dad so I’m not gonna listen I mine. And it’s even more rediculous that prople are now turning to movies to justify the effects of there horrible parenting.

  • Aerynae

    Eric wasn’t the only reason Ariel wanted to be human. she wanted it more than anything in the world before she ever met him. Cinderella is SO much worse.

  • lzo

    I disagree. To your 3 points:

    (1) I see the message NOT that girls should give up what makes you important for a man, but that you should not let what other people love about you define you. Break the doors of your golden cage and go after YOUR dreams, not other people’s expectations.
    (2) I do not see that Ariel got a lucky break. Actually, quite the opposite: she made her luck (you know… “the harder I work, the luckier I get”) and that it is human to err but your true friends are there if you let them.
    (3) Ariel does not demand everything from the World. In fact, she is laser-focused on her dream and is only rewarded in the end bc her father realizes that she did not did what she did bc she was rebellious but because she was just pursuing her dream.

    Triton is the terrible role model in the story. He is a jerk, and NOT because he did NOT give Ariel all she wanted but because, until the last 5 minutes of the movie, he not once listened: see… in their first scene together he dozes off as he hears about her encounter with a shark (real danger) and gets alarmed when he realizes she’s went to the surface. Later, he storms in her grotto, says he is reasonable “bc he makes rules and expects them to be followed”, answers “not another word” when Ariel says “but if you just listened” and finally destroys her things “to get through to her”. If Flounder and Sebastian were not as terrorized by him as they were, they would call Childrens’ Aid Society on him.