Rhetorical Criticism 25 April 2013

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Aneisha Lopez

Dr. Odom

Rhetorical Criticism

25 April 2013

A Young Woman’s Quest for a Feminist Role Model:

The Little Mermaid as Feminist Ideology

When I was a child, I craved princesshood more than anyone else did in the world. However, more than princesshood, I wanted to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I would sing “Part of Your World”, the main song in the film, while washing my hair. I would explore my human world for the wondrous things she found in shipwrecks; sometimes I used a fork as my comb because Ariel thought humans used forks to create hairstyles. As I grew, I stopped liking princesses because I learned about feminism. I started believing the Disney Princess films were arbitrary and provided girls with false expectations for their futures. I also believed the films promoted the idea that women were not to have a voice. The women in many of the films only search for marriage, according to Amy Davis in her article “The 'Dark Prince' and Dream Women: Walt Disney and Mid-Twentieth Century American Feminism”. Yet, when I watched a princess film with my youngest, female cousin, I realized Disney does not promote the oppression of women. The 1980s were a decade of major changes to the entertainment industry. The PG-13 rating was established, John Lennon was assassinated, and Michael Jackson released Thriller. Politically, second wave feminism was beginning. Debates on sexuality, family, and reproductive rights broadened (Bilken). Similarly, Disney movies evolved to depict these ideas on a cartoon level. The Little Mermaid depicts a young mermaid who, through magic, becomes a human by choice. The villain in the movie acts highly sexual, but promotes anti-feministic ideals. Prince Eric represents the men supporting feminism. The Little Mermaid is a feminist film by Disney that symbolizes many of the gender politics surrounding second-wave feminism. The essay separates the movie into three overlapping parts. Section one of the essay details Ariel’s personality and the feministic symbolism she depicts. Section two defines the ideal relationship between a man and a woman, as seen in Prince Eric and Ariel’s days together. Section three explains Ursula’s villainous, anti-feminist stance, and why she is not an over sexualized older woman

Section 1: Ariel’s Introduction

Ariel is a headstrong, curious, young mermaid. Viewers meet Ariel as she explores a sunken ship and soon learn that this is a normal pastime of hers. Despite being a mythical, sixteen-year-old creature, Ariel is relatable to many women. She struggles to be understood by her father and sisters, and seeks knowledge. She is more independent than other princesses are, and she yearns to take control of her own life in order to get what she wants. This, to an extent, is a great lesson to teach young girls and is inspiring to women everywhere. Her father, King Triton, emphasizes his power of Ariel repeatedly. He scolds her for going to the surface and speaking with a seagull named Scuttle. Despite her father’s disapproval, she continues to explore human items and visit Scuttle. While one could criticize that she is a bad child that disobeys her father, I consider her strong willed, and it makes me proud as a female to see Ariel stay the way she is, never changing.

Ariel wants to explore the human world before she meets Eric (Part of Your World). She feels as though living in the new world will be different from the life she leads. Ariel imagines this other world as, in a sense, more her own world than her actual world under the sea; “she believes it to be a utopia of free movement: she dreams of legs first for “jumping” and “dancing” and “strolling,” and only secondarily for marrying (Ross, 58).” After King Triton reprimands her for visiting the human world and missing a concert in her honor, Ariel swims to her grotto with her friend Flounder. Inside her grotto, she has an abundance of human knickknacks from her explorations. Each item has a playful name, which one assumes came from Scuttle. Ariel sings about her questions to humans, her desires for legs, and the various items in her treasure trove. Most importantly, Ariel reveals her main reasoning for wanting to live above water.

Betcha on land, they understand,
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
And ready to stand

Regardless of Ariel’s desire to leave the world under the sea for the human world, she ultimately receives her father’s blessing to marry whomever she chooses. This contradicts Lena Lee’s study,Understanding Gender through Disney’s Marriages: A Study of Young Korean Immigrant Girls”, which states: “in order to get married, a princess tended to be forced to abandon her own decisions and desires, or her need for socio-familial rules in marriage (14).

Because Ariel makes the choice about her body, this symbolizes the fight for women’s reproductive rights. Ariel never abandons her desire for legs; she even dances with her prince in one scene. She consistently makes her own decisions, whether the decisions are right or not. Finally, she is not forced to choose between her family and her future husband.

Section 2: Relationship between Ariel and Eric

During a storm, lightning cracks against a wooden beam on the ship and forces all the passengers to escape. Prince Eric tries to save his dog Max, but gunpowder explodes and Eric flies off the ship. Ariel saves him from drowning because she is the only one who saw what happened. Disney further separates itself from anti-feminism by this role reversal. In a majority of films, a woman needs rescuing by a man, but Ariel saves Eric first. This contradicts Laura Sells’ statement in From Mouse to Mermaid, that “despite their (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Ariel) beauty and charm, these figures are pale and pathetic compared to the more active and demonic characters in the film… The young women are helpless ornaments in need of protection, and when it comes to the action of the film, they are omitted” (37). Ariel is in the middle of the battle with Eric, facing the powerful Ursula when the sea witch uses King Triton’s trident to create a larger version of herself. 1

Figure 1

Ariel and Eric represent the feminist’s perception of a relationship on an equal footing. Eric respects her as an individual and realizes that she has her own abilities that he values and respects. In figure one, Eric willingly hands Ariel the reins to the horse, allowing her to take the lead both literally and figuratively with their relationship. Eric even relaxes in the seat, trusting her to maintain control of the horse and buggy2 as they ride through the town; he is not afraid of letting the townspeople see a woman in charge.

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