Comparison of the representation of gender in The Little Mermaid and Aliens

In film there are many ways to look at the representation of gender in particular the way we look at the female characters. By looking at iconography, the characters and roles that are portrayed by women and how these characters are positioned in the narrative, how these female characters are a product of the male gaze and also looking at the monstrous female. When focusing on the Little Mermaid obviously it is important that the character of Ariel is examined closely as she is our protagonist and our heroine, however Ursula is also a significant female character to analyse as she is a direct contrast to how Ariel is represented. By studying the film Aliens, in particular the representation of the characters of Ripley and the Alien Queen, this will provide a comparison of how gender can be represented in a different genre however still convey some of the same characteristics when it comes to illustrating the role of women.

Disney, in general has certain codes and conventions often used when constructing their female characters, the heroine of depicted as innocent and virginal often comes up against a female villain which is more often than not some sort of monstrous maternal figure, for example with Snow White and Cinderella where they are in a constant battle with their evil step mothers ‘The teenage heroine at the idealized height of puberty’s graceful promenade…Female wickedness…is rendered as middle aged, beauty at its peak of sexuality and authority’(1995, Bell:108). Whereas father figures, if present are seen as controlling but not always completely in control and overall seen as quite loving, ‘this is an argument meant to resonate with fathers and daughters on the other side of the screen – and it does.’ (2004, Pinsky:139), and this is certainly the case in the Little Mermaid.

The forging of rigid gender roles in The Little Mermaid does not represent an isolated moment in Disney’s filmic universe; on the contrary, the power that informs Disney’s reproduction of negative stereotypes about women and girls gains force, in part, through the consistent way in which similar messages are circulated and reproduced, in varying degrees, in all of Disney’s animated films.’ (1995,Giroux:13)

The character of Ariel is very contradictory in many ways from her looks and character to the role her character plays in the narrative. She is presented as innocent yet sexual and rebellious yet completely controlled by someone else whether that other person is her father or the sea witch. Ariel’s appearance is that of a young girl coming of age, ‘embedded within the classic narrative about an adolescent girls coming of age is a very contemporary story about the costs, pleasures, and dangers of women’s access to the ‘human world’ (1995, Sells:176), therefore she is beautiful, with a slim body but still curvy, with long flowing fiery red hair, and this is important because without her voice this beauty is what she must use to make her way into the human world. This is an idea that is intertwined with feminist movement because before women had the same rights as men they were also seen to not have a voice in society and their looks and sexuality were very important tools into making themselves heard, therefore Ariel can be seen as a symbol of the struggles women have had to go through in the past, ‘When the sea-witch Ursula tells Ariel that taking away her voice is not so bad because men don’t like women who talk, the message is dramatized when the Prince attempts to bestow the kiss of true love on Ariel even though she has never spoken to him.’ (1995, Giroux:13).

Ariel’s sexuality is heightened by what she is wearing, as a mermaid she is wearing less clothing than what is expected of a Disney princess ‘the first frame of Ariel finds her peering over the broken mast of a shipwreck, her breasts covered by a horizontal mast, this coquettish striptease pose, both postponing the discovery and heightening the audiences curiosity’ (1995, Bell:114). Her image is a combination of what appears to be a ‘typical rebellious teenager and a Southern California fashion model’ (1995, Giroux:10). While it appears that Ariel is rebelling against parental control by making a pact with the sea witch in order to engage in the human world, this is the extent of her rebellion because in the end she conforms to what is expected of women, Ariel’s strength is shown by her success in wedding the handsome prince, ‘While children might be delighted by Ariel’s teenage rebelliousness, they are strongly positioned to believe in the end that desire, choice, and empowerment are closely linked to catching and loving handsome men’ (1995, Giroux:12).

 In a completely opposite direction is the representation of gender through the character of Ursula, as she takes on the role of the strong, power hungry female villain and is ‘the most grotesque characterisation that Disney writers and animators have created for a female villain up to now.’ (2004, Pinsky:140), she is the monstrous female in this narrative.  In the past Disney’s female villains have been mainly very thin skeleton like figures with a fading beauty but a beauty that was there none the less, however Ursula is different, she is large an curvy and is constantly adorning thick make up, beauty is clearly absent from her character ‘The octopus sea witch, Ursula, unlike her earlier villainess counter parts, is steadfast and hyper sexualized’ (2009, Silverman:19). Even though a curvy figure is considered typically feminine, Ursula’s figure seems to be over exaggerated and this coupled with her quite deep gravelly voice ultimately takes away her femininity.  It was reported that ‘the official Disney explanation is that she is based on the Norma Desmond character in the classic film Sunset Boulevard. In fact she was modelled on the modern drag queen Devine’ (2004, Pinsky:140) and the drag element is ever present throughout the film.  Ursula defies the definition of what gender is supposed to be and how you are supposed to represent gender in society, typically ‘Gender is composed of repeated, publicly performed, regulated acts that are ‘dramatic’ and therefore ‘contingent’ embodiments of meaning’ (1995, Sells:183) however the image of the sea witch does not conform to this as ‘Drag denaturalizes gender by showing us its imitative structure, it operates on the contradiction between anatomical sex and gender identity, a contradiction that is interrupted by the performance itself.’ (ibid).

Ursula performs gender, her femininity is not natural in the way that Ariel’s is. ‘Ursula is a multiple cross dresser; she destabilizes gender.’ (1995, Sells:182), she is able to change form at will as proven when she transforms into Vanessa with Ariel’s voice, she uses disguises to attract attention much like the way drag artists do, her character is defeminised by the way she performs being a woman. Through this performance she gains power and she tries to teach Ariel that this is the way gender is, ‘In Ursula’s drag scene, Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize women, she performs women.’ (1995, Sells:183) and Ariel does take on this advice in the scene where she first lands on the beach with her new legs, she models and performs what she believes is feminine sexuality. This is just another way that Ursula has hold over Ariel and another way she is abusing the power that she has, making her the villain ‘Ursula is the female symbolic encoded in patriarchal language as grotesque and monstrous; she represents the monstrosity of feminine power.’ (1995, Sells:184).

Little Mermaid represents gender in order to define characters, Ariel is very feminine and Ursula’s gender is portrayed as ambiguous, in comparison to this Aliens uses gender in an interesting way in order to establish its characters in their roles. By looking closely at the character of Ripley as our heroine and the Queen as our monstrous female similarities and differences can be identified in how these female archetypes are portrayed in two completely different genres.

Ripley is established in the first film Alien as the heroine although not completely until the end of the film however in Aliens ‘she is the centre of our attention from the beginning’ (2005, Kaveney:150). Ripley is defeminised in the films, her appearance is androgynous which in some ways makes her a stronger female character because it draws focus to what she does and what she says rather than what she looks like she is ‘the androgynous female without vices who will always make it through to the last scene’ (2005, Kaveney:131).  However, even though she adopts this androgynous style she is still shown to be female, the way the camera is used when she is a constant reminder of her femininity ‘The filming of her body emphasizes that she is female even if she is carrying out the function of the masculine role on the screen, this is a vital ingredient in the textual equation between film and spectatorship.’ (1995, Wilton:196). She inserts herself into the same role that would typically be taken up by a male character, she is completely immersed in her job and often comes across as emotionally cut off when it comes to her crew members ‘We are told that she is sensible, but not that she is deeply likeable’ (2005, Kaveney:137). She is placed as a character that would have been taken by a male in previous action films of a similar nature, therefore it is important for her to have masculine characteristics in order for to be taken seriously as the hero ‘it is Ripley who has all the power in the narrative In the narrative, and that it is Ripley who is usurping the male role of the hero in the film.’ (1995, Wilton:201). She is placed as an equal among the male characters however as a strong woman in this position she ‘will always be at risk of being betrayed or threatened’ (2005, Kaveney:138) and this is demonstrated risk becomes a reality in both films.

In Aliens, James Cameron ‘Draws on the iconic imagery of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley – at once deeply vulnerable and an efficient and effective agent – the first film gradually builds it to the point where she becomes almost a demi-goddess.’ (2005, Kaveney:151). The narrative in Aliens allows us to see a maternal quality in Ripley that is absent in the first film; this demonstrates a more feminine side to her character who comes across as rather masculine most of the time, she becomes a mother figure to Newt in a way filling a void that was created when she abandoned her own daughter to fulfil her duty. However this demonstration of a softer side to the character does not diminish her strength and power although this power seems to take away some of her humanity she does ‘the right thing in terms of good sense, at the expense of a certain humanity’ (2005, Kaveny:137). For example even though we know as an audience that the Queen must be destroyed in order to ‘save the day’, we also expect Ripley to have some sort of emotional connection and sympathy for the creature, a idea that is hinted at, as the Queen is only trying to protect her children much in the same way that Ripley is trying to protect Newt. However Ripley goes back on her word and destroys the Queens nest and transcends to almost goddess status, in the final battle ‘Ripley is revealed in her transcended glory, with the light behind her, and utters the line ‘Get away from her, you bitch’, the sheer blissful power of the moment has been worked hard for much of the film.’ (2005, Kaveney:173), also showing that she is a true warrior.

The role of the monstrous female in this case is taken by the Queen and she is literally a monster. Even though she a terrifying creature she is still represented as a female, her main goal is to protect her children in the only way she knows how and that is by eliminating anyone who tries to harm them therefore making her the enemy. ‘The queen is uncanny of her essential nature – she is a monster, but she is also a reasoning creature’ (2005, Kaveney:151) she is an intelligent as she is ‘capable of altering her nature for a greater purpose’ (ibid) and is ‘capable of using tools’ (ibid), she is also shown to be superior to her male counterparts as the other aliens do not seem to possess the same reasoning and intelligence that she does, another example of female strength and power in the film. The Queen’s actions are driven by an innate maternal instinct and she ‘feels emotions that are vaguely parse able – she displays rage and spite’ (ibid), rage when her children are under attack and spite when she tries to take revenge on Ripley after her children are destroyed, however she does not go after Ripley directly but after Newt, this demonstrates that she understands emotions and knows how to manipulate them.

In conclusion the way gender in particular women are represented in film can have similarities across genres, one element that arises in many genres is the image of the monstrous female such as the two discussed in this analysis, Ursula in The Little Mermaid and the Queen in Aliens. Also it is not uncommon to see heroines such as the ones discussed, Ariel is feminine, beautiful and willing to do anything to get the man she loves, qualities that can be found in most other Disney films and many romantic comedies. Ripley is an example of the emergence of the strong female action hero which is now prominent in many films such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and Sarah Conner in Terminator. Iconography is used to establish gender roles within a text and therefore determine where the character stand in the narrative, without this gender representation there would not be the diversity that make the characters unique and interesting. Not only do these representations establish links across texts and across genres, it is also important that they from links between the characters within a text, Ariel and Ursula are linked by their longing for something they can’t have whereas Ripley and the Queen are linked by their maternal nature, these bonds also contribute to giving the narrative more depth and meaning.


 Bell, E (1995): Soma Texts at the Disney shop – Constructing the Pimientos of Women’s Animated Bodies. In From Mouse To Mermaid. Indiana University Press

Byrne, E and McQuillan, M (1999): Deconstructing Disney. Pluto Press

Giroux, H (1995): Animating Youth: The Densification of Children’s Culture. European Media Culture

Kaveney, R (2005): From Alien to the Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film. IB Tauris and CO LTD

Pinsky, M (2004): The Gospel According To Disney – Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust. Westminster John Knox Press

Sells, L (1995): “Where Do The Mermaids Stand?” – Voice and the Body in the Little Mermaid. In From Mouse To Mermaid. Indiana University Press

Silverman, R (2009): New Dreams, Old Endings: Searching for “A Whole New World” in Disney Second-Wave Animated Romance Films. Wesleyan University

Ward, A (2002): Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film. University of Texas Press, Austin

Wilton, T (1995): Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image. Routledge

Audio and Visual

Clements, R and Musker, J (1989) Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures

Cameron, J (1986): Aliens. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


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