What Ariel taught me about feminism

Last week, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere exploded after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show.  I’m not really interested in revisiting the subject or trying to defend her.  I’m not going to reopen the conversation about whether or not her performance was inappropriate.  What I am actually interested in is a side topic that came up as a result: Women taking back our bodies and claiming our right to defy the cultural expectations on our womanhood, and how that looks for different people.

Bear with me, I need to make a side venture.  Those who know me well know that I love Disney movies.  I’m particularly fond of the newer Pixar films, but I do love some of the classic animated features.  I even enjoy the old fairy tale movies, complete with Prince Charmings, fairy godmothers, and Princesses-in-the-Making.  Within that context, there are definitely some stories I enjoy more than others.

To this day, The Little Mermaid remains one of my favorite films of all time*.  As I’ve ventured deeper into feminist waters, I finally recognize what it is about Ariel that I find so compelling.  She is, in a way, a picture of a woman claiming her power over herself and her future.  Sure, we could (and should) have a conversation about the more problematic elements of the movie, including Ariel’s rail-thin body and the fact that the Sea Witch’s use of overt sexuality is viewed as negative.  But ultimately, what matters to me is that there are some striking metaphors that make the feminist in me do her happy dance.

Ariel is not a plucky or spunky “tomboy princess.”  She is intelligent and curious, cultivating a hobby of her own rather than being confined to the role she’s been given.  She bucks the patriarchal norms set for her and seeks to create her own destiny.  She is physically fit and strong, rescuing Prince Eric from drowning and pulling him to safety–but instead of feeling emasculated by this, he is enchanted.  When Ariel is voiceless, she still retains her ingenuity and creativity.  Her true friends accept her for who she is and trust her to make her own decisions.  They help her–and she accepts their help–when the occasion arises.  She and Prince Eric are equals; when they have to fight for their lives and the lives of those they love, they do it together (which is a rare thing in Disney films).  And in the end, instead of her father continuing to make choices for her, he accepts that she is her own woman and capable of knowing what she wants.  (Unlike in Aladdin, where the Sultan simply changes the rules to suit his daughter–while still having to have rules–Triton actually acknowledges Ariel’s decision-making skills have merit of their own.)

Although Ariel isn’t directly asserting her control over her sexuality (it’s a children’s cartoon movie, after all), she is challenging the standards to which women are held when it comes to autonomy.  This was the takeaway for me from Beyoncé’s performance as well.  Here is a woman–bright, creative, and with solid knowledge of who she is–claiming her power over her own body.

There are so many ways that we, as women, can reclaim ourselves.  This might be in terms of bodily autonomy and sexuality; it might be our functional roles within marriage, family, and the church; it might be a challenge to what is considered ladylike behavior.  Sarah Moon said it best in regard to “flaunting” our sexuality and expressing ownership of ourselves:

When I feel defiant, I usually chose my baggy cargo pants. Yeah, world. Don’t care if women are supposed to exist to be pretty and be looked at as if our bodies are public property. My body. MINE. But I also “flaunt” my sexuality in other ways (like talking about it on my blog or being an advocate for sexual health) that say, I can hide my body from who I want AND share it with who I want because it’s mine so THERE. I think autonomy and self-expression are what’s important…not what someone is actually wearing.

I don’t tend to exert my power through the way I dress, but I do use my words.  I write with ferocity when I’m passionate; I talk about things women aren’t supposed to discuss; I swear sometimes (admit it–the word fuck is just dead useful now and again).  But there is something that is considered unladylike about using such coarse language.  I have been told that it’s not “appropriate” for Christians or that I could say the same thing with some other word.  I’ve been told that I’m not “polite” when I’m angry about injustice.  I’ve been told to be more gentle and that I’ll “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  Here’s the thing, though: This is my way of fighting back against the idea that being a Christian woman means that my words must always reflect “niceness.”  This is me, claiming my power and using it.

You, too, have autonomy.  Your body, your words, your mind, your heart–they all belong to you**.  Not the church, not the government, not other people: you.  You can share or hide any of  those things as you choose.  The decision is entirely yours.  Today, how will you live your life in a way that honors your autonomy?

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*I’m talking specifically about the film, not the Hans Christian Anderson story (which I don’t like much).

**I understand that most Christians believe that they also belong to God and that God and others should also be honored in how we carry ourselves.  I’m not meaning to step on that, but I fully believe that sometimes honoring God and others means reclaiming our power and acting as we are called–even when patriarchy says no.

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4 thoughts on “What Ariel taught me about feminism

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Sports Fan « unchained faith

  2. This is really interesting, especially since The Little Mermaid is one of the more problematic Disney princess movies for me (full disclosure: not part of my childhood, but it was my daughter’s favourite movie for about 3 years after one of the grandparents showed it at another house). I have always felt that it pounded home everything I hate about marriage in our culture: the idea that marriage is how we de-infantilize brides and transforms them into proper women (Ariel is literally transformed in this story), the requirement that the bride break with her own life – including her home and her family – and join her husband’s world (again, literally in this story, as Ariel leaves the sea), the belief that pursuit of a romantic relationship is itself a worthy use of a female human life (Ariel’s greatest achievement is her relationship with the prince), and finally that this relationship should be valued so highly that not only is it worth all physical risk, but it’s appropriate for the bride to completely change her personality (represented in this case by her physical form) in order to win her man. These are all messages that I would have liked to keep from my daughter, at least until she reached puberty.

    I think I can see what you’re arguing, but to me it’s like she is rebelling not by choosing to control her own destiny, but by choosing which man to give her whole self to. I think I would have respected Ariel more if she had thrown over her family and home and traditions for something *other* than a man. It’s not that I would prefer she ended up alone (although maybe just one Disney movie where the princess doesn’t need a man to fulfill her would be nice), it’s just that I would rather my daughter worship some sort of kickass marine scientist or something instead of just another bride. If Ariel had become a famous undersea explorer, or an enlightened leader of her people, I’d like to think the men in her life would be nearly killing themselves over her, not the other way around.

    • That’s an angle I hadn’t considered. It might be in part because my own daughter wants nothing to do with Disney Princesses (though she did like Merida in “Brave”) because she says they’re boring. It might also be because I was not a child when I saw the movie for the first time, and I went into it with ideas about women, relationships, and marriage already formed. And it might be because I find they Disney-fied version of “Beauty and the Beast” far more problematic (tell me again how the right woman can “tame” an abusive man). But your perspective is definitely worth examining further; thanks for sharing it.

  3. I am honestly fascinated by this discussion. Growing up Little Mermaid was one of my favorite films. As a teenager, I sang “Part of Your World” for my final in choir. These things that you write never occurred to me, same with Caf’s reply.

    Even now as a woman in her early 30s, I don’t think of them much. Movies are entertainment for me, not something I watch and search for deeper meaning or to dig out social issues that are problematic in some way. I guess to some extent I’ve allowed myself to live in a bubble, one that ignores the larger issue. After years of dealing with so many challenging personal issues I have become a bit more sheltered than I used to be and shy away from these things.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to this. It’s a great perspective and one I’ll be thinking about more often.

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