Does the Princess say ‘yes’? Portraying consent in Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Curator's Note

Fairy tale romances, far-away places and true love’s kisses, that’s what Disney is made of.

In this scene from the 1989 Disney film, The Little Mermaid, Princess Ariel has taken human form and is in a rowboat with Prince Eric, with whom she has “fallen in love”. Ariel cannot speak - the cost of her (temporary) transition - and Eric is trying (poorly) to elicit details about her identity. Audiences are aware that the terms of Ariel’s transition require that Ariel receive ‘the kiss of true love’ within three days, if she is to have her ‘happily ever after’. It is in this context that we hear the anthropomorphic animals sing ‘Kiss the Girl’. The lyrics narrate Eric’s internal emotions, and ‘you want to kiss the girl’ in the first verse becomes a directive (‘Kiss the girl!’) as the song progresses.

The question is, however, should he? On the one hand, the body language shows them both inching towards a kiss. On the other, the scene is explicitly in the context of Ariel's literal lack of voice - and Ariel is not part of the verbalised conversation about the possible kiss. What norms regarding securing consent are being modeled in this scene? We, as the audience, know what she wants, but does the body language suffice to provide affirmative consent (and will children appreciate the subtleties involved)?

Equally, should Ariel be treated as 'vulnerable' and without agency, merely because she is unable to engage in oral communication? Is there a tension between our dual responsibilities to respect agency and protect the vulnerable?

“The Little Mermaid” fits into Disney's long history of female characters who must be passive and wait for a kiss, ready to accept one when offered. What is the cumulative impact of this ideological framing on audiences, in particular on girls?

If we look at more recent Disney titles, we see a shift towards explicitly seeking consent, as when Kristoff tells Anna, in 2013’s Frozen, “I could kiss you … I mean, may we?” However, its extensive library of legacy content is of significant economic importance to Disney, and so older content continues to be marketed by the corporation alongside more recent titles. While this interaction mirrors cultural and normative shifts, how should we evaluate, and handle, the continued availability of legacy content that does not meet contemporary standards? The use of disclaimers seems inadequate in the case of content aimed at young children. On the other hand, we are often (as in this example) dealing with subtle deviations from contemporary ‘best practice’ that do not merit wholesale excision. How, too, should remakes, such as the live-action remake currently in production, handle original source material? 

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