I’ve been thinking about The Little Mermaid live-action remake lately.
Not because it will see black actress Halle Bailey take the lead as Ariel. Anyone who has seen Grown-ish or listened to music by Chloe x Halle sing will know that casting is a *chef’s kiss* inspired choice. I haven't spent too much time worrying that Harry Styles is reportedly in talks to play Eric or thinking about how this under- and above-water adventure will really test Disney’s visual effects team as it mixes humans, mermaids, and talking sea creatures. No, what’s really been on my mind is how exactly the writers are going to update this story so it fits into the 21st-century feminist narrative that Disney has long been selling.
Now, I’m all about giving credit where credit’s due, and The Little Mermaid deserves to be recognized as setting the groundwork for more empowered Disney princesses to come. The film was released in 1989, 30 years after Sleeping Beauty, which is probably one of the worst examples of female representation in cinema and the last of that old-fashioned run of Disney princesses.
In that film, Aurora is pretty much a submissive figure of domesticity. She’s a passive protagonist in her own story who either has fairies or princes looking after her, and instead of being given useful virtues from her magical guardians — like intelligence, courage, and strength of character — she’s given the gifts of beauty, a good singing voice, and the magnificent ability to be woken up from a curse only if a man kisses her without permission.
Three decades later, Ariel became the first Disney princess who showed any sort of autonomy. She’s curious, quick-witted, adventurous, a risk-taker, and wants to escape the restrictive bubble of her circumstances. Not only that, she is brave. Early on in the film, we see Ariel and Flounder outwit a shark, even going so far as to dive back for her bag of "gadgets and gizmos aplenty" when she drops it during their escape. She also has no qualms in disobeying her father in order to investigate the surface, and let’s not forget it is Ariel who does the first bit of rescuing when Prince Eric goes overboard.
The Little Mermaid was the first sign that Disney was moving away from its outdated fairytale stereotypes of women toward something more progressive, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Ariel really swam (then walked) so that Pocahontas, Mulan, Belle, Merida, Tiana, Moana, and future Disney princesses could run. That being said, the 1989 film is not without its faults.
The Little Mermaid, in the most basic terms, is a movie about a teenage girl willing to give up her voice and her culture to get a man. Ariel has only known Eric for two minutes, goes on about his looks, and before long she’s screaming to her dad, “I LOVE HIM” and storming off to make a bargain with a sea witch in order to get her boo. Then she waves farewell to her underwater home for good, swapping her dad's rule for her husband's rule.
Speaking of her husband, Prince Eric falls in love with Ariel without her uttering a word! This really perpetuates the idea that women should be seen and not heard, which is reinforced with Ursula’s manipulative, though majestic, song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” “Kiss the Girl” is also a certified bop, but its lyrics suggest that the only way to find out if a person likes you is just to go ahead and kiss them without their consent. Come on, Sebastian. Eric asking Ariel if he can kiss her first is not going to ruin the romance.
For most of the film, the 16-year-old character is wearing a skimpy bikini top that some male critics at the time focused rather too much on. “She's a sexy little honey-bunch with a double-scallop-shell bra and a mane of red hair tossed in tumble-out-of-bed Southern California salon-style” is an actual sentence written by actual adult male Michael Wilmington in his 1989 review for The Los Angeles Times.
Then there are the supporting female characters, who really boil down to just Ursula, given that Ariel’s sisters barely register in the film. The sea witch is the only other significant female character in the plot, and in classic Madonna vs. the Whore-style, she’s positioned as the older, outspoken, overtly sexual and voluptuous baddie against Ariel’s young, virginal, slender and virtuous goodie. She's also a self-made, confident woman who refuses to bow down to a male ruler or conform to society’s expectations of women, but as the villain, these feminist values are presented as bad.
Of course, as adults, we can watch The Little Mermaid with a skeptical eye, but as children, we were ignorant of the negative message being delivered through the antiquated, sexist ideas on show. However, to its credit, Disney has tried to somewhat rectify the more problematic elements of its Renaissance animations in its newer remakes.
In Aladdin, Jasmine gets to wear more clothes, is less exoticized, has a solo number, and eventually earns her right to become the Sultan, while Disney's take on Beauty and the Beast turns Belle into a more forthright feminist and a better inventor than her father. Even The Lion King gives Nala more screen time and dialogue, though that might be more to do with landing Beyonce as the voice artist rather than a narrative commitment to feminist integrity. Still, these remakes show that there is a way of respecting the original narrative in order to make a new one more progressive and reflective of the modern world. And there are plenty of ways the writers of the new Little Mermaid, Jane Goldman and David Magee, can reinforce better representations of women and their stories.
First, they could make Ariel older. Halle Bailey is 19 in real life, so it wouldn’t hurt to have her version of the Disney princess the same age as Prince Eric, who is said to be 18 years old in the official novelization. Older age also makes Ariel’s commitment to seashell bras less awkward if she’s depicted as a young woman rather than a young girl.
The remake could expand the roles of Ariel’s sisters too. Scuttle might be gender-flipped, with Awkwafina voicing the silly seagull, but it wouldn’t hurt to focus a little more on our heroine’s family life and her sibling dynamics rather than just the traditional father-daughter one. It would also help to even up the balance of dialogue, as the original saw men speak 68% of the time, according to linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer. This version could also do what Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast did by giving some backstory to Ariel’s mother’s whereabouts. That knowledge really helped to understand Jasmine and Belle’s personalities better, and it could explain where Ariel gets her tenacious sense of adventure from.
The writers could also focus more on Ariel’s dreams of flying the coop and “strolling along down the … what's that word again? Street,” as a reason to give up her voice rather than just landing a husband. I could really get behind a feminist adventurer willing to sacrifice the spoken word, for legs, in order to explore the unknown, but it would feel immensely old-fashioned for a Disney heroine to do the same for a guy she just met the day before. Especially as Frozen shows exactly why falling for Prince Charming after two minutes is not the best idea.
That’s not to say the romantic storyline should be retconned — that would be sacrilegious — but toning down the heightened emotions to make Ariel and Eric’s love story more relatable for contemporary audiences would be a welcome replacement. Certainly, with Lin-Manuel Miranda on lyrics duty with original composer Alan Menken, it shouldn’t be too hard to tweak a few lines to make some songs a little less problematic. Disney did it before with Aladdin’s "Arabian Nights," so a precedent does exist.
And as much as I love a truly evil villain, in the case of Ursula, I wouldn’t object to turning her into more of an antihero. The woman has her faults, yes, but clearly there is some history between her and Triton that could be explored, just like King Stefan and Maleficent in Angelina Jolie’s movie. And it could explain why she was exiled. Now, I’m just spitballing here, but what if, in fact, Ursula is actually Triton’s ex-wife and the mother of Ariel? That would be an Empire Strikes Back-level plot twist.
These are, of course, just ideas, maybe wishful thinking for what an updated version of The Little Mermaid might look like — but really, it’s more of a reminder that this is a story that has evolved over nearly 200 years to become a very different thing from what Hans Christian Andersen first published in 1837.
That’s why we should expect this live-action adaptation, in the hands of new writers, performers, and filmmakers, to offer up something new too: a film that shows respect for what came before, yes, but leaves the archaic notions of gender roles and problematic storytelling behind in order to tell a more empowering story for today's audiences.
Despite its flaws, The Little Mermaid really did lead the way for more feminist Disney princesses.
Let’s see the new version do an even better job.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.