Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Y can mine their collective histories by naming their most formative animated Disney film. I had my share of favorites. At four, I fixated on Sleeping Beauty and watched it repeatedly although my parents tried to get me to pick different videos at the rental store. I’m sure they were sick of hearing the movie ad nauseum. At 11, Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney film I watched in a theater. But my true Disney princess obsession never hit a higher pitch than with Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
The obsession of a nine-year-old is something to behold. At that age, I had all the fervor and attention available to me that other girls were putting into horses, The Babysitters’ Club, or boy bands. I aimed that pre-adolescent focus on the red-haired, be-shelled Ariel, making it my mission to honor her in the best way I knew: memorize all of her songs.
Just kidding. I memorized the entire movie.
I belted those songs out on the swing set at school recess. Sometimes along with friends, sometimes alone. Shifting the swing higher and higher, pumping my legs, and singing about longing and independence was the best kind of high I could get at nine. I learned to draw Ariel too by pausing the VHS tape and tracing her onto the paper I held up against the frozen screen.
I sang her songs, drew her image, and rewatched the tape. And then, as with most childhood obsessions, it faded somewhere along the way for the usual reasons. My family moved to a different state. I found new friends at my new school. Puberty. And with puberty came the dawning realization that I was more than a little interested in breasts and women.
When I was a kid, Ariel gave me a way to think about independence and exploration and curiosity. She had her own private space where she hoarded the things that she loved and didn’t have to explain her treasures to anyone. When her overbearing father yelled at her, she yelled back. She spoke up, she acted, she went after what she wanted.
As an adult, I can see the problems with The Little Mermaid. The romance angle has so many red flags that it’s just one big red flag. The parental relationship is deeply flawed. Xenophobia and an unsubtle misogyny flavor many of the storylines. The chef scene veers suddenly into marine horror territory.
But I can still see the Ariel that my young self looked up to. The fearless mermaid who said what she wanted and went after it. Who stood up to her father. Who wore purple shells on her boobs and bared her belly and no one tried to cover her up. For all these reasons, Ariel is still special to me.