Updated: Jul 16
By Doly Mallet
Most popular movies in the eighties were starred by men. It was the reign of Spielberg and Lucas, and the heroes in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Stand by Me, Karate Kid, and even The Gremlins were male. You name it, movies for kids were predominantly male-centric, and women were only there as damsels in distress. Even in Smurfs there was only one Smurfette.
Toys were also mostly male, and for girls there were only different types of dolls. Only in the “Barbie world” could women be the protagonists, and not as mothers nurturing babies. Barbie could be so many things; she could travel to space (like the heroes in the movies), be a doctor (or anything else), be a boss, always look stylish, and earn a significant amount—no glass ceiling for her.
Furthermore, all of this had started with those girls’ moms. Barbie has been a businesswoman since 1959, when the sexual revolution and the fight for women’s rights were about to begin. Barbie was probably the first empowered doll, and it remained in fashion for the next generations that found solace in that icon, which could smash the movie stereotypes that existed at that time.
Finally, in 1989, Disney changed things. The Little Mermaid opened in theaters and showed us a rebellious young woman who, for the first time, didn’t use her song to ask for love like previous princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty). In “Part of that World”, Ariel wishes for experiences out on the surface, for knowledge, for the opportunity to ask questions and get answers, even at the risk of getting hurt.
She constantly disobeyed her father’s rules about not going out of the sea, collected human-made instruments, and was not afraid to raise her voice or ask for what she wanted. A true representative of all the women who had fought for their rights over the past decades, the mermaid even wore a bikini. Yes, Ariel has been misjudged by those who say she left the sea for Eric. She had been swimming on the shore long before meeting him, but now had the perfect excuse to explore the world she longed for.
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The Little Mermaid also portrayed a different type of man. Eric, the prince, wants to find Ariel, not because of her looks (like the previous princes had done), but because she is the girl that rescued him. Therefore, he is man enough not to feel his masculinity threatened by a girl who is actually his savior.
When he meets Ariel, without knowing that she is the one, the redhead can’t speak, doesn’t know table manners (she uses the fork to comb her hair), and is clumsy. But he laughs along with her; he is open to discovering a new type of woman, more independent and straightforward. They also fight as a team against a villain, something that had not been done in previous Disney movies. Different couple goals are presented to girls.
It is no coincidence that in 2023, after seeing movements such as the #metoo and the #nastywomen campaigns, in which women asked for their rights once again, Hollywood heard the call and delivered two icons that changed generations. Disney offers a new adaptation of The Little Mermaid, and director Greta Gerwig gives us her version of the story of Barbie. Both know the changes in values after three decades and can now make specific adjustments.
The Little Mermaid presents an Ariel that is more aware of the troubles that being out of the sea can entail (she hasn’t gone out before the shipwreck); she is under a spell that makes her not remember the need for a kiss to survive (therefore, she won’t try to get one), and the lyrics of the songs are changed to make consent more salient, among other things.
Greta Gerwig, a specialist in women’s perspectives and coming-of-age stories such as Little Women (2019) and Ladybird (2017), focuses, of course, on the different stereotypes of men and women we grew up with, how we have questioned them, and how we are now trying to find our way. Her movie Barbie has been one of the most anticipated ones of the year. Curiously, Gerwig is also writing the screenplay for the new version of Disney’s Snow White.
Girls in the eighties knew our time was coming because Ariel and Barbie inspired us. And here it is. Movie heroes are female now. Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention. This year, Indiana Jones is retiring…
Doly Mallet is a bestselling author and a professional movie and TV critic.
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