Feminist Veganism in The Little Mermaid
A tale of the voiceless merprincess and her harpooning, fish-eater prince
Down here all the fish is happy
As off through the waves they roll
The fish on the land ain't happy
They sad 'cause they in their bowl
But fish in the bowl is lucky
They in for a worser fate
One day when the boss get hungry
Guess who's gon' be on the plate?
Under the sea
Under the sea
Nobody beat us
Fry us and eat us
We what the land folks loves to cook
Under the sea we off the hook
We got no troubles
Life is the bubbles
Under the sea (Under the sea)
Under the sea (Under the sea)
These lyrics (which are pretty disturbing when you linger on them) are sung by The Little Mermaid’s (1989) Sebastian the crab as he does his best to compel Princess Ariel to accept her place in the Merkingdom, but to no avail. Instead, Ariel breaks the surface in an iconic story that (more subtly, less iconically) challenges masculinist narratives of meat and power.
The theory of feminist veganism, which I’ll draw on throughout this post, was thought up by Carol Adams (1990) in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Adams links conversations of carnism (meat-eating) and patriarchy for the way they oppress both women and animals, and she looks at how they often conflate the oppression of the two, or contextualize one in reference to the other. She offers up feminist vegetarian theory as an alternative method of critical analysis, one that incorporates and recognizes both of these power structures.
Though there is a lot of existing work on feminism in Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid, little has been noted on themes of vegetarianism and the way these cues may further (or limit) the feminism in the film, so as a reference point for further exploration into feminist veganism and children’s films, The Little Mermaid proves interesting. And it's a fun way to see how an unfamiliar theory can be put into action for analysis. Seemed blog worthy to me, at least.
So, if you're interested, we’ll begin where the film does: on deck.
Spiraling down with a seagull, the audience descends into the first scene of the film; sailors sing aboard the ship and toss fish as they speak of the legendary merfolk below. Even the first scene is premised upon fishing as human’s primary contact with the sea, the other point of contact being, eventually, Ariel herself. Though Grimsby, advisor to the prince, dismisses the existence of merpeople as incredulous, a fish---escaping from the hands of a sailor---slaps him across the face and escapes into the water. After the fish breathes an enormous sigh of relief, they take the audience further down again, this time into a confirmation of the Merkingdom itself, where they are, presumably, safe.
The audience’s encounter with the escaped fish is the first of many in The Little Mermaid where the distinction between character and consumable flesh is blurred. The seafood pictured throughout the film (fish, crab, shrimp, etc.) all have the same name, and often form, when they are alive as when they are killed, assuring that audiences are automatically more connected with them. This fact of naming and seeing matters. According to Adams (1990), changing the language of animals to the words of meat enables consumers to break the connection between a living entity and the remnant on their plate: “We do not see our meat eating as contact with animals because it has been renamed as contact with food” (Adams 1990, p. 48). Yet in The Little Mermaid, we meet the meat, the absent referent is made present, and dinnertime expectations are interrupted. The act of flesh eating is thus made not only strange but savage.
“Spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling!”---That’s how King Triton describes humans to his youngest daughter. He is enraged and disgusted by the human practice of fishing, rendering him incapable of imagining them as people who have anything to offer, and he condemns Ariel’s infatuation with them. Indeed, the Merkingdom offers a compelling alternative to human society, another form of civilization that may scorn human practices and even prove superior (for what child can help but idealize a dolphin-pulled chariot and symphonies under shell chandeliers?). The spires of the Merkingdom paint it as an obvious pinnacle of Western civilization, validating its challenge to its counterpart on land in the mind of the audience.
The Merkingdom is by no means a feminist-vegan utopia, though. It’s patriarchal, and King Triton is prone to violent outbursts of anger. Triton obviously values the lives of fish, but he doesn’t allow much agency to his daughter. This dissonance drives the film, for “Honoring animals but not women is like separating theory from practice, the word from the flesh” (Adams 1990, p. xxxviii). It’s why Ariel leaves. Humans may harpoon the innocent, but, she speculates: “Betcha on land / They understand / Bet they don't reprimand their daughters / Bright young women / Sick o' swimmin' / Ready to stand.” Ariel is ready to take a stand, and she does so not only for a crush on a prince but also because of the crushing oppression of her father’s anger, which destroys her private space and constricts her freedoms.
As Ariel’s vacancy of the sea serves as a source of resistance, so does her presence on land. Ariel constantly interrupts the cultural assumptions of humans. Simply by being, she blurs the boundary of human and non-human by embodying sea life, while walking the land with that embodiment internal--not seen by human characters, only projected by the audience. She is unable to communicate vocally, yet she is still able to render simple practices bizarre and to challenge those around her. Her feminism and vegetarianism are intertwined. As Adams (1990) writes:
A phenomenology of vegetarianism recapitulates the phenomenology of writing: of seizing language, of identifying gaps and silences. This vegetarian phenomenology includes identification with animals or animals’ fate; questions of articulation, of when to speak up or accept silence; of control of food choices; and of challenging patriarchal myths that approve of meat-eating. (Adams 1990, p. 173)
Though in the process of creating Ariel’s legs, Ursula implies that she is a consumable body whose voice is inconsequential, Ariel uses her silence and navigates within it. Take, for example, the scene of her first meal with Prince Eric and Grimsby wherein she renders utensils of consumption arbitrary and rescues her friend from being eaten. Ariel has learned from Scuttle the seagull that “forks” are dinglehoppers, and that they are used for brushing hair. When she sees one set by her plate, then, she picks it up delightedly and begins running it through her hair. Both men appear startled. What seemed to have obvious use was less obvious than expected, destabilizing the “naturalness” of the process of eating even before the meal is served. Ariel is unable to explain her behavior, demanding more introspection and consideration on the part of the humans. Thus Ariel is able to subvert expectations as an outsider and draw attention to what has been naturalized. She can do this even though she technically has no voice and no standing.
Voiceless, though, does not mean mute: Ariel speaks with her actions, one of the most resounding statements being her rescue of Sebastian off of Grimsby’s plate. As the meal begins, Grimsby lifts the lid from his platter distractedly, and Ariel sees Sebastian on his plate. Sebastian (ironically) makes a shushing gesture, and Ariel---quick thinking---beckons him onto her own plate. This situation makes literal Adams’ (1990) description of how vegetarianism disrupts eating by facing flesh that is already on the table. Adams writes that “Vegetarianism announces that it will destroy the pleasure of meals as they are now experienced” (Adams 1990, p. 75). How appropriate, then, is Grimsby’s comedic disappointment when he jokes: “Now let’s eat, before this crab wanders off my plate!” only to find that the crab has already done exactly that. Ariel, in her actions, thus quietly defies the violence of flesh eating, positioning her as an admirable heroine. Her evil antagonist, however, embodies the opposite values.
The obvious villain of The Little Mermaid is Ursula the Seawitch, an unnatural carnist who has a nefarious plot to overthrow Triton and rule the seas. To contemporary viewers, Ursula’s presentation may at first seem a surprise, for she’s not the standard campy male villain of Disney’s subsequent 1990’s reel (Sturgeon 2009, p. 111). Or is she? In fact, the character design for Ursula was “inspired, in both appearance and demeanor, by drag legend and John Waters muse Divine” (Dart 2016, n.p.). Her queerness is reinforced on several levels. Ursula’s bold makeup and mannerisms are both reminiscent of drag performances, and her color could allude to the 1970’s lesbian activist movement the Lavender Menace. Her unmarried status places her on the outskirts of society, and she is an overtly sexual character.
Beyond ambiguous sexual orientation and gender presentation, Ursula also has a non-normalized body. Ursula is a merperson, but instead of a tail, her lower half resembles that of an octopus. She is the only merperson depicted this way, and the only active underwater character drawn as obese (Chef Louis, another villain, is also fat). Ursula is made to be comedically, and almost grotesquely, opulent. In her first appearance, the audience watches Ursula declare that she is “famished” as she rolls out of her bed area, fat rolls roiling. Her eating habits are therefore embedded into the queer coding of her character. If the audience considers other aspects of her character unnatural, they will be compelled to associate meat-eating with the unnatural, for Ursula is the only carnist merperson. As such, she enters what writer Noel Sturgeon (2009) terms an “ecovillain” because “racialized, sexualized, and ableist identities inhabit the depiction of environmental villainy” (Sturgeon 2009, p. 111).
Ursula’s flesh eating adds to the horror of her character and to other characters’ discomfort around her. Several examples of her carnism follow. Firstly, as she speaks with Ariel for the first time (impressions are important), Ursula picks one shrimp from a dish of cowering others and tosses it live into her mouth, swallowing in a gulp. Later she squeezes what looks like bright red blood from a mussel onto her mouth as lipstick and bares on her face the stains of another’s death. In another instance, while absorbing Ariel’s voice, Ursula licks her lips, ravenously. Additionally, Ursula utilizes, throughout the film, the violent power imagery of fishing metaphors, such as “I want to see him wriggle like a worm on a hook” and “bigger fish to fry.” One specific instance, though, directly and obviously binds her carnism to her supernatural disruption of order: Ursula uses meat to conduct her dark magic.
As Ursula performs the ritual that will give Ariel legs, and will take Ariel’s voice, she throws living creatures into the pot, and while singing “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets the man,” she throws a mutilated tongue into the mix. That line acts as a discomforting intersection of feminist and vegetarian cues, and it represents a recurring theme in the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” While Triton calls humans “barbarians” for fishing, Ursula instead drags human society for their repression of women. “On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word,” Ursula sings, and she reassures Ariel that in place of speaking she can use “body language.” This sexualized reduction of Ariel to flesh is revealing of the contempt Ursula feels toward society. It’s also potentially revealing of Ursula’s core beliefs: she wants to win this bargain, so she hopes, and perhaps counts upon, Ariel’s voice being essential. But she, like Triton, only accepts one set of values, perpetuating power structures by allowing for the oppression of another group; she devours the living. Ursula, though she is one of the most feminist characters in The Little Mermaid, therefore functions as an ecovillain, disturbing the “natural” avoidance of violent consumption, and she is mirrored on land by the villainy of Chef Louis.
Chef Louis is a secondary character who seemingly doesn’t play into the main plot; however, he still leaves the impression of a marked villain. The audience first encounters Louis in a kitchen as he sings “Le Poisson” and graphically dismembers the corpses of fish. These are the circumstances under which Sebastian first encounters Chef Louis, too. The juxtaposition of Louis’s gleeful singing and his violence has the potential to echo the terror of clown horror movies. But it appears Sebastian is the only one taking this threat seriously as the ensuing chase scene acts out as comedy. The chase scene begins when Chef Louis realizes that Sebastian is, in fact, still a living crab. This fact makes Chef Louis disproportionately angry, possibly because Sebastian is the literally present referent--he interrupts the quiet dismemberment of the creature from meat. Louis’s destructive anger rivals King Triton’s displays. He pursues Sebastian single-mindedly, wrecking most of the kitchen in the process and throwing knives that pierce the cupboards.
One reason that Louis stands out as a villain is that Louis’s violent near-militarism is a trend---what the merpeople have come to fear---not an outlying personal trait (like it is for Ursula), so his attack on Sebastian feels more insidious. It’s a display of the darker side of humanity---masculinist killing. Yet just as the chase scene was rendered comedic rather than gruesome, The Little Mermaid overall capitulates to dominant narrative values, featuring a Shakespearian return of reversals to “normalcy,” or the normalized.
Though the human familiar was made strange by Ariel’s presence, with utensils taken from the table and attention paid to internatural communications (Buford and Kalil Schutten 2017)---even Eric heard Sebastian speaking during “Kiss the Girl”---the end of the film reverts to a reaffirmation of existing power structures. Ariel regains her voice and ultimately keeps her legs due to her father’s appropriate blessing; Ursula’s claim to power is the death of her; Chef Louis, despite his repeated attempts at murdering Sebastian, maintains his position as the cook and works the wedding cruise; and Ariel marries her prince, a harpooning fish-eater.
Whereas Ursula and Chef Louis were villains for their violence, Eric, who harpoons Ursula, is excused for his “just” killing. Each instance of fish eating and harpooning is thus made personal and not innately abhorrent. Human society is forgiven when the merpeople and humans on the wedding cruise float beneath a rainbow together. Due to this reversion, Ursula’s, and Louis’s, antagonism distracts from the structural savagery of harpooning humans much as the standard ecovillain in children's media is presented in “homophobic and racist portrayals in ways that distract audiences from remembering that the ecovillains of the real world are corporations, militaries, and governments” (Sturgeon 2009, p. 119).
Yet audiences, though they might not consider fishing industries directly, are left with the sneaking suspicion that flesh eating is, perhaps, truly unnatural. And perhaps that cue for further questioning is a redemptive, if incomplete, theme in The Little Mermaid.
Adams, C. J. (1990). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. Twentieth Anniversary Edition, 2019. New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
Buford, Caitlyn and Julie “Madrone” Kalil Schutten. (2017). “Internatural Activists and the ‘Blackfish Effect’: Contemplating Captive Orcas’ Protest Rhetoric through a Coherence Frame,” Frontiers in Communication. 12 January 2017.
Dart, C. (2016). “Read This: How Divine Inspired Ursula The Sea Witch.” The A.V. Club.
Musker, J., Ashman, H. (Producers), Clements, R., Musker, J. (Directors). (1989). The Little Mermaid [Motion Picture]. United States: Disney.
Sturgeon, N. (2009). Environmentalism in popular culture: Gender, race, sexuality, and the politics of the natural. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.