Ariel, just fighting to get above water…by Yara González-Justiniano

I am all for the critical deconstruction of Disney Princesses, especially since now I see more of a commercial push for them as a collection than when I was growing up in the late 80’s. However, I too had a favorite princess growing up, Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I lived next to the ocean and it made sense that she would be the most relatable Disney character to a Puerto Rican 5-year-old at that time; a character like Moana was not yet in site to appeal to this isleña.[1] I remember going to the beach every week and hoping to find a fish or a seagull that could talk. What drew me into the film was her story and the whimsical animal characters, not particularly the “finding prince charming” fairytale.

Recently, as more modern and independent female characters continue to make their Disney debut, I hear people refer to Ariel as the worst princess of them all. ¡Ay bendito![2] Poor Ariel is always critiqued and looked down on for giving up her voice for a man. But in reality she was infatuated with humans and wanted to be “part of [that] world” long before she met Eric. She was an explorer, a questioner and as naïve as we all can be sometimes when we set our hearts to follow a dream. Regardless, she wanted more!

Author with Ariel sleeping bag

My days trying to find fish that can talk are over. I am now swimming in the world of higher education. So I ask myself, don’t we, those of us in the academy (or in any other institution for that matter), continue to give up our voices to gain upward mobility? Don’t we change who we are in society so we can walk in its dry land?! She wanted to leave her father’s patriarchal regime, and ends up entrapped in a new patriarchal scheme. In my experience, academia pushes the boundaries of thought but its culture can still reinforce the same oppressive colonializing paternalistic capitalist practices it critiques. Its freedom of thought does not equal an embodied freedom.

If this story teaches us anything, it is that women continue to struggle with and within patriarchy even when they think they are freeing themselves from it. All the secondary characters in the movie revolve around Ariel and another strong female character, Ursula. Ursula, does not conform to the “laws of the sea” and lives at the margins as the evil witch. For her the only way to get on top of the patriarchy and acquire power is through robbing the voice of the other female character. Patriarchy is never to blame in this “the end justifies the means” world. Individualism and capitalist practices of transactions and exchanges where the most vulnerable pay the higher price, are not questioned. But Ursula (the only other woman character that is developed in the story) is the evil one and Ariel la boba.[3] The male characters in this movie just go about their day while the women struggle to “get above water.” Here we see that the fate of breaking away from the patriarchy lands you in the outskirts of society as an undesirable monster sorceress. It says that to find happiness and fulfillment––the “appropriate way”–– is to continue participating in patriarchy; just as Triton blesses Ariel and Eric’s marriage, for she is simply being reinserted in the system. El mismo perro con otro collar.[4]

Have you noticed that Ariel’s father is a god? What better way to understand and interpret this hegemony of patriarchal control than to establish a system through a higher power? Ay bendito, poor Ariel never had a chance but to continue to strive to go above water. She moved through liminal spaces, and all of this came with a cost––the cost of her voice, her identity, her family. How else would she have found a world where she could follow her kindred spirit, or at least I hope she found that world after she sailed with Eric towards a “happily ever after.” If the Little Mermaid has taught me something, aside from not combing my hair with a fork, it is that women cannot find the fullness of God within the patriarchy. The limits and understandings of life and cosmology are restricted to the constructions of a man-made society. The only two alternatives in the patriarchal world are either to move towards a new/different patriarchal scheme or to become la bruja loca[5] of the ocean. The only way Ariel could find ––within the world that is painted in the film––a fuller understanding of God was outside of the patriarchy, if she ever made it out. The liberating God of life does not live inside the patriarchy. And those who dare live on the borders of it and pursue its horizons, find Her.


[1] Female islander.
[2] Puerto Rican expression that denotes pity or sadness. Similarly used like the phrase, “bless her/his heart.”
[3] Naïve.
[4] Expression: Same dog with a different collar.
[5] Crazy witch.


Yara González-Justiniano is a Practical theology PhD Candidate at Boston University. Her work focuses on hope, decolonial theory, liberation theology, and popular culture. 

Categories: Divine Feminine, Feminist Awakenings, General, God-talk, Spiritual Journey

Tags: , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Thank you for this feminist reflection on Ariel and Ursula. I never saw the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, but the Hans Christian Andersen version (already one of many) made an impression on me as a child. When my mother enrolled me in a summer writing program, I wrote about the mermaid losing her tongue/voice which must have seemed a dreadful thing to an aspiring writer. In the Andersen telling, the mermaid does not marry the prince but dies of a broken heart. Instead of turning back into sea foam, she becomes an air spirit with a chance to win an immortal soul for three hundred years of good deeds. I can remember thinking as a child that being sea foam on the crest of a wave sounded like a better fate.

    Your analysis of what happens to women between two patriarchal systems is so accurate. Loved your touches of humor. No hair combing with forks in the Andersen version.


  2. I sort of know the Andersen version of the story, but I don’t know anything about Disney’s. I haven’t been a fan of much of anything Walt Disney and his company have swallowed up (like the whale in Pinochio) in a long time. It’s interesting to read your take on Ariel. Did she comb her hair with a fork?


  3. Oh what a wonderful post… You ask so many powerful pertinent questions here. Like you I don’t believe that our educational system frees us, it keeps us in chains… even as a college instructor those chains bind us. I remember leaving teaching with relief…
    When I was about 40 I was at a woman’s workshop where we made string dolls. Even when I finished my doll I was surprised that she didn’t have feet – but rather a braided tail…for years I looked at that doll with a strange curiosity – she had my grandmother’s silver buttons for eyes – yet she was a mermaid – now it’s crystal clear that the child in me was crying out that she had never had a voice – just like the little mermaid – Now she has one and I am 74! by the way.. your words”My days trying to find fish that can talk are over” are not mine… I am still listening to creatures who say all sorts of things to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing your reflections about this story and yours wrapped in hers. I agree with your descriptions of our ongoing journey through patriarchy … I don’t know of a single woman who hasn’t at times given away her voice in order to get something or one who hasn’t at times been an Ursula. That doesn’t make us less than, as long as we keep reflecting and moving beyond toward what might be. Blessings to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for posting today. Your experience in academia mirrors my own. “In my experience, academia pushes the boundaries of thought but its culture can still reinforce the same oppressive colonializing paternalistic capitalist practices it critiques. Its freedom of thought does not equal an embodied freedom.” Things never move forward in a straight line.


  6. What insightful analysis, Yara, and I love your sense of humor! I confess that I have always liked Ariel and mermaids. In fact, my bathroom is decorated with many mermaids, although none of them are Ariel. The rest of my house is full of fairies. Make what you want of that! :) I do think you are spot on about academia silencing people, especially women. I saw that when I was a grad student.


  7. Yara, me encantó leer tú escrito. Me quedé con ganas de leer más. Muy cierto lo que planteas. Y quiero añadir que recuerdo claramente a esa niña de 5 añitos. Muy orgullosa de tí y sigue pa’lante.


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