In the 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich introduces the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, essentially the societal assumption and therefore enforcement of heterosexual behavior and norms. She goes on to expose how various contemporaneous feminist writings unwittingly fall prey to those norms. While many of the assumptions she makes about lesbianism and gender in general seem quite generalistic today, she did help to reveal a key flaw in what was then known as the women’s liberation movement, but is now referred to as second wave feminism: it accounted mainly for heterosexual white middle class biologically female sexed and female gendered individuals. Nonetheless, the movement had very real and rapid social impact. Nine years later, Peggy McIntosh published the now famous “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which contains a cogent metaphor for the invisibility of privilege to those who have it, and helped to explain why oppression can be so difficult to perceive from the outside. The same year, Walt Disney Pictures released The Little Mermaid, loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same title. I argue that, as written and directed by a pair of white men, The Little Mermaid very much reflects the level of heterosexual feminist thinking that had by then permeated society at large, but an examination through the lenses of privilege and compulsory heteronormativity exposes an apparently innocent “forbidden love” movie as an education in social roles for the children of the 90s.
One of the key problems the screenwriters must have faced in trying to adapt the original story is one which plagued many previous attempts at so-called “princess movies:” the lack of a relatable protagonist, with both prince and princess looking foolish at best by the end. While I can only guess, it would make sense that their strategy in further developing Ariel as a character was to give her what they imagined to be the personality and aspirations of a contemporary woman in a similar situation. Thus they wrote a story about a teenage girl who yearns to be free of the obligations that come with her social status and rebels against her father’s controlling ways. She is obsessed with the culture of land people, and then “falls in love” with a land prince named Eric. Her father’s disapproval of this obsession leads her to take the same actions she takes unprompted in the original story, selling her voice to a witch for legs and taking to the land.
What is not emphasised in the film is that Ariel is working from “a base of unacknowledged privilege” (McIntosh 1). Since all humanoid characters in the film are white, it would be difficult to analyze purely in terms of white privilege, but as the daughter of King Triton, ruler of the entire sea, Ariel is able to complain about things which the average merfolk most likely never have time to consider because they are working too hard. When she ditches an important stage performance, incurring her father’s embarrassment and wrath, she faces virtually no consequences, most likely because she is his daughter. Once she makes it to land and is tasked with convincing Eric to kiss her without the use of her voice, she benefits from the so-called invisible knapsack with its many “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” (McIntosh 1). She has these because of her class, which she shares with Eric. She may not know how to use a fork, but she intrinsically knows how to behave around royalty and not completely alienate them, which arguably helps lead Eric’s older sidekick Grimsby to suggest almost immediately that she will make a perfect bride in terms couched with gender, calling her “warm and caring” although she never significantly demonstrates such qualities. She also benefits from the help and loyalty of her original subjects, such as court composer Sebastien, who works tirelessly to see that she achieves her ends and is not harmed.
Part of the reason Rich places emphasis on lesbianism rather than homosexuality in general in her examination of compulsory heterosexuality is that in her mind biologically male homosexuals, while perhaps not accepted, are at least acknowledged as existing and continue to benefit from male privilege in many circumstances (13, 35). She claims part of the reason for a blanket denial of lesbian existence is a male “locus of sexual power” (24) which women fall subject to. “The adolescent male sex drive… as both young women and men are taught, once triggered cannot take responsibility for itself or take no for an answer” (Rich 25). Young women are told that it is their responsibility both to find a man to “love” as quickly as possible, and that she must accept that this man will be controlled by lust rather than love. In the case of The Little Mermaid, both Ariel and antagonist Ursula bank on Eric being lusty and ready to follow any woman coming his way, because they both need his kiss by the third night, which truly symbolizes “the ideology of heterosexual romance, beamed at [girls] from childhood” (Rich 24). The idea of a hetero man journeying to another kingdom to seduce someone and then silently hoping they kiss him would elicit skepticism from audiences.
King Triton concedes to allow merperson-human marriage in the future, so Ariel finally achieves her goal of being with a land prince, but once again it is thanks to privilege: the king changed the rules of society just for his daughter. Combined with the latent compulsory heterosexuality, this works to water down the main theme of the movie: love conquers all. There was no love, nothing was conquered, and Ariel, an upper class white woman who just wanted some freedom, ends up with a man who may or may not be just like her father. Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) largely suffered from the same issues, but Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1997) show the beginning of an inflexion. The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013), take different approaches to privilege and gender, although as Adrienne Rich would have pointed out, they have yet to acknowledge lesbian existence or the LGBTQ+ community at all. Thus, the issues highlighted by feminist activists and academics eventually transform the culture, leading to new princess stories reflecting those changes. The persistent popularity of princess stories is a question for another time, of course.