There’s a really cool campaign online called #likeagirl. Basically, it started with a viral video asking the question, “What’s it like to run like a girl?” and had various boys and girls demonstrate. Most of the boys found different ways to mock the way they perceived girls running: flinging their arms, skipping, and just running really slow. When the girls were asked they all pretty much did the same thing… they just ran. All the other videos are about the negative stereotypes that have been established in our culture towards women. And little by little, they’re trying to snuff them out.
I am a stronger supporter of women’s rights. I wouldn’t say I’m an all-out feminist because I disagree with some of their principles (maybe it’s only radical feminism, but whatever). The point is I LOVE strong female characters in movies and books. I tend to write mostly female characters because I feel there is a lack of strong females in movies and books (and they’re wayyyyyy more fun to write). Books have propelled a variety of strong female voices lately, most notably Katnis from the Hunger Games series, but they’re not quite there yet.
The definition of feminism is: a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. I mean, it’s pretty hard to be against that right? It’s just some of the other feminist beliefs that cause disagreements (see: Republicans and Democrats bickering). It’s definitely no secret that we live in a very male-dominated society and a lot of what we consume and partake in is a MAN’S view of what a woman is, rather than a woman just being a woman. Some of that is changing… slowly, but it is getting better. We are getting a Wonder Woman AND Captain Marvel movie within the next five years which is awesome!
There’s an interesting back-and-forth debate online about Disney movies and their portrayal of women. Some say they portray strong and independent women while others say that the women make foolish decisions solely based on the pursuit of a man. The Little Mermaid probably has the most interesting backlash. One article I read said the mom was appalled that her daughter was mimicking Ariel after she saw the movie. I mean, Ariel gives up her VOICE to see Erik, remember?
Sooooooooooooo, I re-watched the film the other day, took dutiful notes, and want to give you an honest look at what I think is one of the more feminist films ever made (and also take a look at Disney’s legacy of women in their films). And when I say feminist film I mean that in the most positive way ever.
In the beginning, Ariel and Triton (her dad) don’t see eye to eye. Ariel says, “I just don’t see things like he does.” The movie actually starts with Erik and later we’re introduced to Ariel, which I think is done to establish that humans—who they really are—are in complete contrast to how Triton sees them. He only sees them as barbarians and fish eaters. Yes, some are sure to be like that, but not all. Triton’s generalizing here.
Ariel has a secret cave where she keeps all her human relics. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything.” I mean guys, she’s got 20 thingamabobs, she’s doing pretty good, but it’s apparent in her song that the THINGS aren’t enough and she wants to be where the people actually ARE.
“What would I pay to spend a day on the sand. Sick of swimming, ready to stand.” It’s important to note here that when she says Ready To Stand it’s not just about the literal act of standing but more-so the act of confronting her father to tell him her true feelings. This song is SO IMPORTANT to the core ideology of the film. There is nothing in this song about falling in love or meeting a guy. It’s all about finding her true self and dreaming about the ability to be with the humans. Ariel doesn’t feel like her home in the water is where she should be. I mean sure, I bet in her mind she’s thinking about what a hot human would look like, she is a sixteen-year-old girl, but her goal is to BE WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE, and then see what happens.
After Ariel sings her ballad, there’s an interesting scene where it’s Erik’s birthday and he’s presented with this overly masculine statue of himself which he downright hates. Where Ariel is rejecting her stature of just another one of Triton’s daughters who’s forced to marry some merman she doesn’t want to marry, Erik rejects the notion that this false representation of masculinity is who he really is. “I just haven’t found the right girl,” he says when he’s questioned about why he isn’t married yet. You see, the people around him see Erik as this super masculine prince who can bag any girl he wants. Erik pretty much says, “Hey, I’m a normal guy who just wants to fall in love with an awesome chick. Can’t I DO THAT?” It’s evident that Erik and Ariel have similar goals/personalities, and they are also going against the preconceived notions of their societies.
This huge storm sinks Erik’s boat and Ariel saves his life. WHOOO! That’s a cool moment, where the girl saves the guy’s life first. She’s not some ‘damsel in distress.’
Then the hormones kick into high gear. “I know something’s starting right now,” Ariel says after she sees Erik. The statue of Erik comes into her possession in the cave and she becomes giggly, talking to it and counting petals, playing the he-loves-me he-loves-me-not game. Oh, teenagers … But again, she may say she loves Erik and all, but it could also be her way of finally getting to dry land. Not only is the promise of dry land great, but now there’s this super duper handsome guy she wants to go after. DOUBLE PLUS!
Well, Triton finds out and he freaking loses his mind. Ariel says, “DADDY I LOVE HIM.” Whoops. He destroys all her stuff and Ariel goes to see Ursula (a sea witch) to try and save her fate. This is where a lot of the disagreement arises. Yes, Ariel is making a big mistake in consulting the witch and selling her voice, but what choice does she have? Her dad hates humans, which to her means that he hates who SHE IS. All she wants is a chance to try her luck on dry land, and there really is no other way (NOTE: there is a HUGE revelation at the end of the film that I won’t get to here, but it really flips the entire point of the movie on its head. Basically, Triton is kind of a jerk).
Ariel DOES think about her actions. “I won’t get to be with my father or sisters,” she tells Ursula. She knows she’s sacrificing a lot. And then Ursula sings a funny song about how Ariel needs to act in order to get a man’s attention. Fling your hips, walk like this, use body language. The movie is saying ‘This is how men think women need to act.”
But ok, Ariel takes a chance and it’s a HUGE risk and she doesn’t see the other side of the coin: that Ursula wants to use her to get to Triton’s throne. But think for a second … Doesn’t any future choice–choices about love or a new job or something involve risk? Maybe not sell-your-voice-to-the-devil kind of risk, but it’s all about knowing. How can you know unless you try? When you choose to ask a girl out or date a guy or GET MARRIED you have no clue what your future is going to hold and it’s all so crazy, but you want to take the risk because you have to know. It’s your choice and you’re confident it’s the right one (the CHOICE rather than what may follow because, again, we don’t know). Ariel is confident that dry land is where she belongs. People can tell her no, but at this point it doesn’t matter.
When Erik finally meets her (she can’t talk, remember, because of her deal with Ursula) he doesn’t like her because she’s hot. He likes her because of her spirit: the way she drives crazy with the horses, her positive attitude in the marketplace. She likes to do THINGS. Well, Ursula hates this so she puts Erik under a spell so he falls in love with her, things get messy, and Triton has to give up the trident and there’s this crazy maelstrom and then Erik does the single most insane thing ever put in a Disney cartoon: he drives a shipwreck into Ursula stabbing her with the bow. WOW. “So much for true love!” Ursula shouts as she’s about to kill Ariel. See, even SHE KNOWS it’s legit real love.
We get to the end, and this is where—for the first time—I finally noticed what the movie is about. Triton says, “Children should be free to lead their own lives.” He gives Ariel legs so she can live on dry land—she marries Erik, happily ever after, yeah yeah yeah… Wait. Rewind for a second.
TRITON GIVES HER LEGS! WHAAAAAA???
This is the kicker. It’s not like Triton just waved his trident and thought, “Huh, I wonder if when I do this legs will sprout from Ariel’s body. Eh, it’s worth a shot.” NO WAY. He totally knew this all along. There’s no doubt. So the whole selling her voice to Ursula thing completely becomes irrelevant here because Triton knew there was a way for Ariel to go to dry land and he shielded it from her. Why? Because he was afraid of letting her go. In the water (which he controls, remember) she is safe and always around but on dry land he has no power to save her if he wanted. More importantly, he has no power over HER CHOICES. So the movie really shifts from a girl falling in love to a story about a parent letting their child choose their own path. It’s important to remember that Ariel’s choice to go to dry land was initially never about meeting a boy, but finding her purpose. It wasn’t until later that a boy became involved. And that’s great! I think that’s one thing that some feminists and I disagree on—falling in love, being with a man is NOT weak. I mean dude, it’s so great to be in love and have companionship and a family and just… not be ALONE. How is that weak? Ugh, that’s where I get frustrated with some feminism, but anyway… Yes, Ariel ends up with the prince and their oh-so-happy, but that was never her goal, it was just something that happened along with ACHIEVING her goal, which was to live on dry land.
Marriage wasn’t her adventure, just a part of it.
Now, briefly looking at some other Disney films here, we can see lots of similarities. In Beauty in the Beast, Belle is constantly rejecting Gaston, who is basically every male stereotype put into one person. Belle has no aspiration to get married to him, or anybody for that matter. She’s an independent woman who loves to read. The beginning song is super interesting; it’s all about how the world perceives her as odd and different and just… wrong. Why? Because she’s a free thinker, independent, and smart. Basically what they think a woman SHOULDN’T be (and can’t be).
And once again, a girl ends up with a prince, happily ever after… but once again—that was never the goal. She fell in love with the beast because he was a good person, not because she wanted to marry him and have millions of babies. She didn’t even KNOW the beast would change so obviously that was never a part of it.
Aladdin has a common Disney theme—being forced into marriage. But how cool is it (and really, how much more feminist can you get) that Jasmine’s father literally changes the law of the land so her daughter can marry who she wants. I mean, talk about women’s rights! The same sort of thing happens in Brave, where people actually accused the movie of saying that Merida was a lesbian. Um…. ok? Maybe she is or maybe she isn’t, but what she DOES SAY is that she wants to find love in her own time, and not marry the three bozos before her (the movie does an elaborate job of showing just how sucky they would be to marry). Both of those films show how the rules of man can force women to marry the wrong guy. In the end, the woman chooses what she wants to do, whether it’s to marry a different man or not marry at all.
Pocahontas and Mulan have strong women in militarized roles, which is a cool element. And again, not PURSUING MEN but it’ s something that does end up going their way. I think there’s a misconception that Disney films have these girly-girls who prance around dreaming of men all day every day, and I just don’t think that’s the case. Cinderella doesn’t get the prince because she’s this hot babe trolling around the castle. She gets him because she’s a good person and literally has busted her butt her whole life as a servant. And yeah, there’s a lot of love at first sight going on but the movie is only showing the beginning. It’s showing that initial attraction, the choice to marry, and then NOTHING ELSE. We’re only getting a glimpse of their love journey. It’s not like they had dating sites back in those days. When they saw someone they were connected with they got married. They didn’t dance around it. It’s different culturally to how we view romance today. We like to take our time, go on lots of dates, and plan these extravagantly long engagements. But I want to make it clear that in all these films the girl is making her own choice, on her own terms, for her own life. And the guy is rarely, RARELY the goal in her life but just where her life ends up taking her.
Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Why? Because that’s what the cool kids did! And she’s sick of being a slave! She wants to be on her own!
Frozen probably has the most feminist message of all: that true love exists outside of a relationship between a man and a woman, which extends to siblings, family, friends. The movie literally mocks the fall-in-love-at-first sight idea with a goofy song in the beginning, only for the guy to become the villain of the film. Elsa is wise enough to recognize this early on and scolds her sister for wanting to get married so soon.
BUT LISTEN!! The REASON that Anna’s love at first sight is foolish is because it’s her only goal. It’s her LIFE’S PURPOSE. Where Ariel fell in love with Erik after she wanted to go to dry land, Anna falls in love because that’s all she wants to do. She wants it so bad she’s willing to fall in love with anyone. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine—they know where they want their life to go, and it just so happens the guys they meet have the same goals. This is why the idea that Disney promotes love at first sight is WRONG. What they’re really promoting is that the one you love should have the same goals as you. Yes, love at first sight can happen, but only if you know who you are. Otherwise, it’s dangerous, as Frozen illustrates.
Love at first sight is only real if you’re SEEING CLEARLY. Your significant other should share in your adventures, NOT MAKE YOU THE ADVENTURE. The adventure comes from the journey you share together.
Some of the women (I guess let’s stick with Ariel) do make some bad choices in the movies. But they’re almost all because of the pressure from the men around them. They’ve been put in a box with no way out. “Trapped!” as Jasmine and Aladdin say together. And again, for the millionth time—they are THEIR CHOICES. I think Disney creates great characters because they’re not always perfect. They make mistakes too. But they always learn from them.
We do need to remember that though we are equal–men and women that is–we are not the same. Men are not women and women are not men. But like in all the Disney movies I referenced, women are truly women when they’re making their own choices, not the choices society pressures them into making.
Maybe that means living on dry land (Little Mermaid). Maybe that means not marrying a stuck up prince (Aladdin). Maybe that means not getting married (Brave).
Maybe that means a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mom. Maybe that means a woman wants to be a professional boxer. Maybe that means a woman wants to wait until she’s 30 to have kids because she wants to go to school for eight years. Maybe that means a woman wants to work in the same environment as men and be treated equally.
Figure out who you want to be before you figure out who you want to be with. When you conform to match someone else’s personality you lose your identity. Falling in love and getting married is a great goal in life, but always make sure that it’s a part of your adventure and maybe not the adventure. WHO AM I? A good question to have answers too:
(Disclaimer–maybe you don’t know exactly who you are when you meet someone, but please oh please, you should at least have some sort of identity otherwise you’re basically pulling an Anna from Frozen where you are super duper excited for the idea of marriage but maybe not ready for marriage. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s wrong to go on dates with people you don’t know much about, via online dating. I’m totally for that. Just remember to always, ALWAYS have an idea of who you want to be. And once again, it’s a risk either way. But make sure YOU have control over the choices and YOU are satisfied where they are heading).
Ariel wanted to get to dry land before she met Erik. When she saw Erik up there then she really wanted to go. See the difference? The wanting to be with the man was enhanced because it correlated with her journey. It was a reason to go not THE REASON. Disney isn’t about these aimless princesses batting their eyes at every man. They’re cartoons about strong women learning who they are by their own choices rather than the choices of men. And by doing that, they sometimes end up with the RIGHT man, rather than who society thinks is right for them.
Girls, stay awesome!