The women in Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid are almost nonexistent. In a cast dominated by male characters, the few women given more than a minute of screen time in the film tend to fall into roles that are stereotypical and one dimensional. At first glance, Ariel appears to be a self-actualized and independent individual. She has dreams that go against her father’s orders and she is unafraid to pursue them. However, upon looking closer Ariel holds a pseudo-feminism that is perhaps more toxic than displaying her as someone weak and independent. Ariel’s entire life is ruled by her relationship with men. As mentioned in “Eighty-Six the Mother”, by Lynda Haas, Ariel’s mother is totally absent from the novel- as if her place in the family dynamic is unnecessary. From the get go, the only women that Ariel has around her are her sisters who seem to obey her father’s every command and are not very nice to her.
King Triton, Ariel’s father is a very authoritative figure, expressing traits of strength and power that are associated with the construct of masculinity. Although he loves Ariel, he typically expresses a “tough-love” approach, showing a softer, more maternal side only once Ariel has left the scene. The very dream that he discourages Ariel from pursuing is her curiosity for humans and life on land. In this way, Ariel is discouraged from experiencing new things and challenging social norms that divide merpeople and humans. While it is good that Ariel wants to learn more about humans, she seems to be attracted to only the beauty of them. She believes that since they create beautiful objects, then humans must be good. This vain outlook casts her into a stereotype. Also the only reason that Ariel takes substantial steps to rebel against her father is because she falls in love with Eric. Without the possibility of being with this man, it is unclear if Ariel would have ever made her dreams into a reality.
In pursuit of meeting Eric again, Ariel turns to Ursula, perhaps the most stereotypical character that ever existed. Ursula is evil, ugly and power-hungry. Her masculine desire to overthrow King Triton is painted as malicious and bad. As the only woman in the story who could possibly be a mother-figure to Ariel, Ursula represents everything that Ariel is told not to be. Again referencing ideas addressed in “Eighty-Six the Mother”, Ursula’s place as a potential mother figure traps Ariel into a one-sided definition of how to be a proper woman. Although both women possess independence and a desire for a better life, Ursula’s is seen as evil because she is not beautiful and is seeking a kingdom, not a man. Ariel’s thirst for control is romanticized and seen as sweet because she is beautiful and her quest will result in her finding a man, getting married and hopefully achieving the ultimate goal of motherhood. Ursula basically tells Ariel that for a woman to be desirable she should be silent and physically attractive. She reduces a woman’s worth to her outer beauty and literally steals Ariel’s voice from her. Her bond with Ariel as women is one of trickery and jealousy. Instead of taking her anger out on King Triton directly, Ursula uses Ariel and her femininity to create destruction.
The representation of women in this film subconsciously affects the way that children, especially girls view their gender and the roles it creates for them in society. Girls are encouraged by Ariel to be adventurous without actually defying their fathers, unless of course there is a man at the end of the tunnel. The lack of a mother figure tells women that their place in the family is unnecessary, that a man can play both roles of father and mother. Finally, Ursula discourages young women from seeking power. Being ambitious is portrayed as only being manipulative and cruel, and her outer and inner ugliness eventually lead to her death. The movie teaches that for women, being beautiful is the only trait that can truly bring happiness that is found in the arms of a man.