How THE LITTLE MERMAID Set Disney Heroines On A Journey Of Empowerment

For 30 years, The Little Mermaid has endured as one of the most beloved animated Disney films. Much has been unpacked about the movie over time: how its debut in 1989 reinvigorated the structure and storytelling of Disney films, how it kicked off what would become known as the Disney Renaissance period, and how one of its best-known songs almost never made it into the movie at all, thanks to a bad test audience.

I was seven years old when The Little Mermaid came out—just old enough to appreciate and understand the movie, and young enough to latch onto it as a childhood obsession. There are things I vividly remember: buying a plush Flounder at a local toy store and carrying it everywhere, forcing my parents to play the soundtrack on a constant loop during an eight-hour vacation drive, dressing up as Ariel for a camp talent show (complete with a backdrop of “thingamabobs”), and balancing on the armrest of my living room couch singing “Part of Your World” while trying to imitate Ariel’s movements in the scene after she rescues Prince Eric. That particular song would go a long way towards impacting my life, but much like Disney, I wouldn’t even realize it until I was much older.

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While The Little Mermaid was responsible for kicking off the Disney Renaissance period, “Part of Your World” was responsible for kicking off the importance of what is now widely classified as the “I Want” song: a song usually set early on in the film, where the movie’s protagonist professes what they dream of or what they want out of life. Essentially, this song sets up their character arc and reasons behind their resulting actions.

Previous Disney films included these kind of songs, for instance Snow White’s “One Day My Prince Will Come” and Cinderella’s “Once Upon a Dream.” But whether it was due to an evolving mindset of how these characters were portrayed or a growing interest in seeing women less as mild mannered ladies and more as sassy individuals, “Part of Your World” was the first “I Want” song that felt like it was specifically channeling a different type of feeling: empowerment. With lyrics such as “Betcha on land they understand that they don’t reprimand their daughters / bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand,” the song hit in a way that felt more emotionally resonant than previous Disney tunes.

There has been criticism throughout the years about The Little Mermaid not being as “feminist” as it claimed to be when it first debuted, though, as with any popular piece of media, there are also those who believe the opposite. However you view the character, there is no denying what the film did to rebuild the foundation of Disney’s future. By swimming outside the box of fairy tale stereotypes that had populated early films, Ariel was the catalyst for allowing the world to see a woman who had a sense of self-realization.

Ariel, Sebastian and Flounder conspire to help make her dreams come true.

Her “I Want” song paved the way for Belle to sing “Belle” as she yearned for something more exciting than her mundane village; for Jasmine to sing “A Whole New World” as she struggled to break free of the confines of her sheltered life; for Pocahontas to sing “Just Around the River Bend” as she sought a greater purpose for herself and her people, and for Mulan to sing “Reflection” as she considered her loyalty to her heritage and her true feelings.

These four heroines, in return, helped usher in the creation of independent and strong-willed women who became important not only throughout the remainder of the Disney Renaissance period, but beyond. When Elsa sings “Let It Go,” fully embracing powers she’s been told are dangerous, we can trace a direct path back to Ariel singing “Part of Your World,” fully embracing ideas that she’s been told are dangerous.

Without these kinds of songs to ground our heroes, to allow them to explore their autonomy, we don’t understand why Belle is so excited about an enchanted castle, why Jasmine is so intent on exploring life beyond her palace, why Pocahontas doesn’t believe she should settle for marrying an Indian chief, why Simba craves authority so badly, why Mulan cuts off her hair and takes her father’s place in war, why Hercules cares so much about becoming worthy, why Tiana works so hard to open her restaurant, why Merida is so desperate to convince her family to change age-old laws, or why Moana pushes Maui to help her restore the heart of Te Fiti. And while we take for granted the fact that we can now look at animated characters and connect with their goals and dreams, those feelings wouldn’t be possible without “Part of Your World” to lay the groundwork for three generations of the world learning to associate Disney heroes with pride, strength, and a “take no prisoners” attitude.

As a grown woman who now works in the entertainment industry and who constantly looks back at movies and characters that shaped my formative years, it’s not lost on me that, whether I’ve been conscious of it or not, I’ve gone through most of my life taking “Part Of Your World” to heart — from my desire to move to New York when it would have been easy to stay at home, to my determination and drive of always believing there’s more than what I’m shown on the surface. Just like every Disney heroine throughout the years, I can trace my traits of empowerment and tenacity back to a little redheaded mermaid — a legacy that, like the film, I know will continue to endure.

Featured Image: Disney

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