Disney spent the next thirty years thinking long and hard about plot and character development to reach what I call the “playing around with species” era of Disney princessdom, including The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). Disney not only gave leading ladies Ariel and Belle personalities but cross-species interaction—wowee! As for home lives: Ariel is the mermaid daughter of the king of the sea (with a lobster nanny) and Belle’s dad has a few screws missing, as evidenced by his insane (if occasionally brilliant) inventions. Neither have a mother present. Ariel is clearly the favorite of her myriad of sisters, but Disney doesn’t examine that tension too closely, instead focusing on the taking of her rebellion against daddy Triton to a whole new world. Even with ocean life as the backdrop and participants, Ariel’s got a less ridiculously traumatizing childhood than my “once upon a time” princesses. Belle lives with her “papa,” Maurice, in their steaming, clanking, quirky house. Even though her family is small, Belle seems happy and nurtured. They both seem to take care of each other; Belle is willing to trade her freedom for his. Just because it’s not normal (by human standards for Ariel, by “poor provincial town” standards for Belle), doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Friendship doesn’t necessarily run smoother in the “playing around with species” category, but things are certainly more interesting. Ariel has Flounder, Scuttle, and Sebastian as her closest friends when she’s got a tail, which is great… until she leaves them at the bottom of the sea with her entire world and her voice. Whoops. Belle doesn’t seem to have many friends, alienated as she is for her intelligence—at least the librarian seems fond of her? She does make friends with all of the cursed individuals…but they have the suspect motives of wanting to make her fall in love with their lord and master, so there’s that. Ariel and Belle are inversely related in terms of friends: Ariel has friends under the sea but none above it, while Belle has no friends in her village but plenty in the Beast’s castle.
I feel such frustration for the massive marriage plot that is Disney. Ariel falls in love with her land-bound prince while saving his life but her heroics are a little undermined by her acquisition of and cuddling with a life-sized rendition, after she semi-stalks him and knows where he lives (Oh well, give and take). In a fit of juvenile rebellion, she gives up everything to for a guy she can’t even talk to and a world that was explained to her by an insane seagull. The thing is, Eric (HE HAS A NAME) is a pretty great guy. Not knowing that she’s already in love with him, he takes Ariel on dates (see “Kiss the Girl”) and teaches her about his land out of the sea, which is much better than the previously established “meet n’ marry” script. It’s great that they don’t jump into marriage too quickly, even though a quick kiss could have saved everyone a boatload of trouble. Belle takes Ariel’s slower relationship model further by not falling at first sight. Instead, she accidentally finds herself in the middle of Disney’s first love triangle. Unfortunately, both of the suitors that she attracts, Gaston and The Beast, are off-putting (to say the least). While I do appreciate the realistic slowly built relationship of Belle-and-Beast, I am concerned with the possibility of Stockholm syndrome (even more so than his resembling a bear)… but I know that if a guy gave me that library and let me take care of my family I would cave too. Despite the (kind of weird) leaps and bounds Disney takes to develop the Beast and their relationship, they neglect to give him a name. Ariel and Belle tell girls that independence is a good thing, to follow their dreams, and to explore and learn as much as they can. While the romance part isn’t yet what I’d call “recommendable,” Ariel and Belle are worthy role models.