Part of [That] World: Alpha-Females, Patriarchy, and Punishment in THE LITTLE MERMAID
8 June 2014
In The Little Mermaid (1989), strong and powerful females exist in oppressive “kingdoms”; these women are Ariel, the title character, and Ursula, the sea witch. Yet, in these “kingdoms,” the females have found ways to exert their strengths and powers. But, according at a feminist read on the film, these two women, both alpha females, fight each other because, in a patriarchy, strong and powerful women see other strong and powerful women as their greatest threat. In fact, although both women are actually trapped in male-run and dominated societies (both in sea and on land, they, ultimately, fight each other to the death. And, in the end, both women are punished and stripped of their strength and power (and, for one, her life).
Ariel is a strong and powerful female because she is a resourceful, brave, independent, and loyal individual. She is an explorer, a scholar (of her own education), and a dreamer, consistently risking danger and voyages into the unknown in the pursuit of her own happiness and self-satisfaction. Because she spends her time in two patriarchal kingdoms (her father’s underwater sea kingdom or Eric’s land kingdom), there are always men around her, trying to guide her and harness her power and strength; however, these male characters (King Triton, Prince Eric, Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle, Grimsby, and even Max), are typically chasing after Ariel as she slips (or swims…or runs) from underneath their thumbs.
Additionally, the other female character in the film, Ursula, is incredibly powerful. She possesses magic and can exist underwater or on land. Taking that further, no matter where she is, she is able to access her power and control situations. Because she is the villain in the film, her power is negatively veiled. For example, she is manipulative, tricking countless merpeople, like Ariel. Nevertheless, being manipulative, on some level, is being powerful. After all, Ursula is able to get Triton’s crown (if only for a short time) because of her manipulation.
Of course, these two strong, powerful women oppose each other in the film; they are the protagonist and antagonist, and they must fight to the death, suggesting alpha females destroy each other in the patriarchal world.
As soon as Ariel and Ursula’s paths cross, the power struggle between these two strong females begins. Ursula tries to assert her power over Ariel when Ariel seeks her out for legs; Ursula grants Ariel legs, but steals her voice as payment. This literal fee symbolizes Ursula’s attempt to remove Ariel’s strength and power. Yet, once on the surface with legs, Ariel proves that, even voiceless, she is still strong and powerful. So much, in fact, Ursula has to, again, challenge Ariel by surfacing from her underwater lair and tricking Prince Eric into marrying a disguised version of herself. Although Ariel fights back, times runs out on the deal Ursula and Ariel make, forcing Ariel back into a mermaid and Ursula back into her sea witch self. This brings viewers to the ultimate showdown between Ursula and Ariel.
By this point in the film, Ursula achieves ultimate power; she becomes ruler of the sea kingdom when King Triton offers himself to Ursula in exchange for Ariel’s freedom. This, of course, throws the film in chaos, and is the climax of the movie. Ursula does not have power for long, through. As she grows (in literal and figurative size) both the land and sea are rocked with a mighty tempest Ursula creates. Because of the strong currents created by the storm, the ship from the film’s opening scene—a ship that sank in that opening—resurrects and Eric takes the wheel. He holds on as the ship’s bowsprit stabs Ursula, killing her. The film recuperates, with Eric, safe and sound, back on land and King Triton once again ruler of his underwater kingdom. Triton changes Ariel into a human so she can be with Eric. In the final scene, Eric and Ariel marry.
Reading this ending through the feminist lens, although Eric is onboard the ship that pierces Ursula, this strong and powerful female is killed by another strong and powerful female: the ship, which represents Ariel. The film’s opening shots of the ship, a vessel recognized as female, reveals a mermaid carved into the front of the ship; therefore, when that ship stabs Ursula, the strongest and most powerful female wins, and that is Ariel. Ursula is punished for her strength and power, and her punishment is death.
Ariel is also punished. She may appear to have a “happy ending” in the film’s conclusion, but really her father violates her body by transforming her, without her knowledge or consent, into a human. Her identity as mermaid is taken from her. Also, she marries Eric. This seems to be what Ariel wants, but this too affects her identity. Exchanged from father to husband, Ariel is now someone else’s princess, a new person from who she was just moments prior. In body and status, Ariel is completely stripped of her identity, and therefore her power and strength, her punishment.
The Little Mermaid’s ending demonstrates that, in order for the film to achieve its “happy ending,” the strong and powerful women must be punished for their strength and power. Expectedly, Ursula, the villain, is punished, but Ariel, the heroine, is punished as well for her strength and power.