How to Watch a Film from a Feminist Gaze

December 11th, 2018

We’ve now explored the meaning of FEMINISM and, in broad terms, what does and doesn’t constitute a FEMINIST-FRIENDLY FILM. However, when it comes to active film viewing, applying these concepts can prove mighty tricky. How does each spectator determine for herself (or himself) if a film is or is not “feminist-friendly?”

I recommend initiating the investigation with one simple question:

“What is this movie about?”

In most cases it should yield two principal answers. The first should relay the premise, that is, what, in a nutshell, happens in the story. If we were talking about, say, JAWS for example, the answer might be something like:

A human-eating shark terrorizes a coastal tourist town.

The second should delve into theme—that is, the underlying meaning of the events that occur, also known as the subtext. In the case of JAWS, one might say, it’s about the dangers of capitalistic greed. After all, if Mayor Vaughn weren’t concerned about the loss of tourist revenue that would result from closing down the beach, there would be no conflict. The killer shark is not the true threat. Rather, it’s the attempt to hide that threat from tourists that leads to all the deaths. In short, greed kills.

Now let’s try the same approach with another popular sea-themed film that raises more evident overtures in regards to the feminist gaze.

Remember this one?

A young female mermaid gives up her voice (and her family) for a pair of legs in order to win the heart of a prince.

That, of course, is the premise of THE LITTLE MERMAID.

Right off the bat, the storyline does not exactly scream feminist-friendly, but our work here is far from done. To be thorough, we must consider the overall take-away message of the movie by examining the actions and reactions of the principal characters and what the culmination of said actions suggest.

So, let’s break the story down into its most essential points:

  • In ACT I we meet Ariel, a teenage mermaid who, after missing multiple rehearsals for her big singing debut, likewise fails to appear for the show, thus letting down her backup singer sisters, embarrassing her father, King Triton, and threatening the career of her friend, Sebastian the crab.
  • We next learn the reason Ariel misses this event is because—oops!—she forgot all about it, too wrapped up in one of her many “shopping” expeditions in pursuit of human souvenirs to add to her vast collection—a predilection that puts herself and her fish friends at mortal risk, exposing them to sharks, fishermen who hunt and eat members of their community, not to mention a vengeful, power-hungry witch.
  • Despite a warning from her father that she’s not only imperiling herself but her entire community, Ariel continues to take risks around the fishermen among whom she spots Prince Eric and decides, based solely on his physical beauty, that she is hopelessly in love with him.
  • Against the advice of her friends, Ariel then willingly gives up her voice, friends and family for a pair of legs to entice the prince, knowing full well if he fails to kiss her within two days, she will lose her soul to Ursula, the evil witch, for all eternity (and she does so in the presence of numerous other lost souls, offering considerable evidence the odds are not stacked in her favor.)
  • Unable to speak, Ariel smiles and brushes her hair a lot to try to win the affections of the prince, even after her friend Sebastian is served to her on a platter at his family’s dinner table.
  • The mute, and thus ineffective, Ariel relies on the sea friends she’s repeatedly betrayed to help her get the prince to kiss her, and failing that, again relies on their help for a ride to his ship in attempts to stop him from marrying Ursula.
  • At this point, Ariel’s sea friends initiate a sequence of happy accidents that result in Ariel, by pure happenstance, regaining her voice and thus regaining the affections of the prince by singing to him. Alas, it’s too late. Ariel’s soul is claimed by Ursula—that is until the King offers to take Ariel’s place, essentially signing over the entire kingdom to Ursula’s control in order to save his daughter.
  • Ariel stands by, helpless, as her father’s reduced to a shriveled lost soul. She makes a few meager efforts to fight back but to no avail. Lucky for her, the Prince manages to impale, and thus kill Ursula with the phallic mast of his boat, thus restoring King Triton to power.
  • Thereafter, Ariel merrily waves goodbye to her family and goes off with the prince, the fishermen and the sadistic chef who will undoubtedly continue to prey and feast upon her friends and family members.

Clearly, there is much to morally condemn in this storyline: the protagonist’s reckless behavior in her pursuit of purely selfish desires, her disregard for the well-being of her friends and family, and her overt materialism and shallow priorities to name but a few. And while many, myself included, would argue one can’t be a proper feminist without also striving for universal social justice, let’s momentarily limit our focus to strictly feminist-specific details, which brings us to Ariel’s two main anti-feminist offenses:

1) Ariel’s utter dependence on others to rescue her from the consequences of her own bad choices—and the fact that she never grows and learns from them. She shifts from her father’s care to that of the prince’s with no accountability or agency whatsoever.

2) Ariel’s willingness to believe and accept that it is her beauty and not her voice (and I refer not just to her singing ability) that will win the heart of a man and that such a man would ever be worth risking everything she holds dear.

And thus we arrive at the consistent over-riding message of the entire film: the single most important outcome for a young woman is to marry and marry ”well.”

From her first song in which she declares, “I want more,” to the first time she lays her eyes on Prince Eric, Ariel is unwavering in this single-minded objective. She will risk anything to marry this man and live as he does, and in doing so, she is duly rewarded, smiling blissfully, as she waves goodbye to the family and friends she has chosen to leave behind (save, of course, for those she may eventually encounter on her dinner plate).

That said, our work here still isn’t done. By now I hope we can agree that this movie is not one we should qualify as feminist-friendly. Nevertheless, it’s still worthwhile to consider whether it contains any feminist-friendly moments whatsoever. As I see it, one might be tempted to argue there were one or two, though my personal conclusion is “almost, but not quite.”

In one scene, Ariel stands up to her dad, accusing him of an unfair prejudice against humans, insisting they are not all a danger to their people as he’d have her believe. For a split second, I dared to believe she might just prove herself a social justice advocate by story’s end. Alas, in the context of this particular film, the King’s assertions prove to be correct. All of the humans we meet, including the one Ariel marries, are indeed guilty of killing and eating members of their community. As such, rather than coming across as a justice-minded hero fighting for what she believes, Ariel appears selfish and destructive in her single-minded quest to land a prince despite the threat he poses to her people.

One might also argue that Ursula has her feminist-friendly moments in that she artfully exploits negative gender stereotypes to serve her own ambitions. In “POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS” she sings of men:

Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation

True, gentlemen avoid it when they can

But they dote and swoon and fawn

On a lady who’s withdrawn

It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man

A smooth talker herself, Ursula employs this playful irony to confuse Ariel, thus leading Ursula to achieve her ambitious goal: she gains control of Triton’s Kingdom. As such she nearly qualifies as a savvy, independent and accomplished villain.

But, alas, she too loses her agency by perpetuating several patriarchal, not to mention racist and ageist, stereotypes. For one, she is held back by her appearance: both darker skinned and girthsome, which generally amounts to evil and buffoonish in classic Disney fare (thankfully contemporary Disney is growing more enlightened.) As such, in order to win the prince, rather than rely on her wits, Ursula employs magic to make herself appear skinny, light-skinned and young – i.e. beautiful—having ostensibly concluded Ariel’s voice was not enough to win the prince after all.

Also, despite her impressive initial shrewdness, Ursula is easily taken down by the prince via simple brute force—i.e. impaling via the mast of a ship he helms. So, in the end she is nothing but another easily foiled, ugly, old shrew.


Talk about missed opportunities. How cool would it have been to see Prince Eric fawn all over Ursula in her true form, enraptured by her clever conversation that came straight from Ariel’s voicebox? An updated feminist Cyrano! And likewise, why couldn’t Ariel have used that same voice to take Ursula down, to use her own savvy, rather than rely on the brute force of a man to save her?

Now, confessedly, I cheated a little using THE LITTLE MERMAID as a case study for this topic. It’s absurdly easy to condemn under a critical feminist gaze. Sadly, I can say the same of many mainstream films. Then again, you may disagree. Such is your right, privilege and duty as a thoughtful film spectator. So, it’s imperative we take the time to challenge our initial reactions to films and determine what they say to us and how they shape our perceptions of ourselves and the people around us. That is all I ask—what we should all, in fact, demand. Otherwise, like poor, foolish Ariel, we all lose our voices.

Next up: a film that passes the Bechdel Test but fails feminism…




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