This spring, the world of fantasy movies has been invaded by a new kind of creature: the Girlboss. From ‘The Super Mario Bros Movie.‘ to ‘The Little Mermaid’, the interview buzz around its leading ladies has been all about how the writers and actresses have empowered these classic female characters. On paper, the concept sounds oh-so-feminist and progressive. However, if you actually look at Princess Peach and Ariel, are these new versions actually empowered at all? Or are these “power-ups” causing more harm than good?
Related: The Super Mario Bros. Movie Review: Hooked on the Brothers
The Little Mermaid– A Story of Longing
In Halle Bailey’s interview about her upcoming role in ‘The Little Mermaid’, she critiques Disney’s original 1989 adaptation of the classic fairy tale, saying, “she gave up everything for the guy. But I don’t think that reflects modern women today… it’s about Ariel finding freedom for herself.” She goes on to say Prince Eric will have a less prominent role in the story, stating he’s just the “cherry on top” of a much larger story.
If you look at Disney’s Renaissance film, though, the Ariel that Halle describes isn’t the Ariel that’s there. If anything, her description of the new 2023 “empowered” Ariel fits exactly who Disney wrote her to be in 1989.
Need examples? When Ariel expresses her desire to join the human world in her “I Want” song, ‘Part of Your World,’ it’s before she meets Prince Eric. At first, Prince Eric isn’t even factored into the equation. And yes, while Ariel does fall in love with him at first sight, Prince Eric isn’t what inspires her to leave the ocean. Her original plan was to swim up to the surface and get his attention. Ultimately, it’s her father’s rejection and destruction of everything she loves that sends her looking for the sea witch.
Her father and the sea witch, Ursula, reduce her love of the surface world down to some fickle, young romance with a boy. Ariel just sees her love for Eric as a means to escape to a place she’s always wanted to go. Once on land, Ariel even spends most of her time with Prince Eric marveling at the human world, not him. So as far as the 1989 version is concerned, Eric always was “the cherry on top.”
A Queer Beginning
Even looking back at the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, ‘The Little Mermaid’s’ story is so much more complicated than “mermaid falls for boy, abandons her life, dies anyway and has to spend a hundred years in purgatory to earn a place in heaven.” As time has gone on, historians and book lovers alike discovered that Anderson’s inspiration for the story came from his own struggles with his bisexuality.
At one point, he wrote romantic letters to a man, Edvard Collin. When his affections were unrequited, he wrote ‘The Little Mermaid.’ This story expressed Andersen’s feelings of lost love and an inability to belong in “normal” 1800s society. The ending of the original tale—where the Little Mermaid chooses death over killing the Prince but then is still able to go to heaven—likely has a lot more to do with Andersen trying to reconcile the differences between his identity and his religious culture.
If you strip the story of that context, yes, ‘The Little Mermaid’ can feel helpless. Powerless. But given Andersen’s personal story, it’s a fairy tale about him understanding he may not get his prince. However, he self-affirms that he will not abandon what he feels for women and men, nor will he abandon who he is, just because he might not belong. He will find his own path while sticking to his ideals, just as his Little Mermaid did. It may not be “Girlboss,” but it’s still powerful in its own right.
Super Mario Bros.– A Princess, a Politician
Similarly to Bailey, Anna-Taylor Joy, the voice for Princess Peach, has described in interviews that her movie version of the character is “an empowered woman.” At first glance, Joy seems to have a better case for Princess Peach’s liberation than Bailey’s with Ariel.
It is a very common theme of the Super Mario games that Peach gets kidnapped or is trapped somewhere against her will, be it because of Bowser, King Boo, or a variety of other enemies. Though her personality has always been a bit of a mix of stubborn and cute, she’s often shoved into the damsel in distress role. Joy said that as a ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, she wouldn’t be all that good at her job if she was constantly captured.
However, when Princess Peach describes to Mario in the ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ why she might get captured, she makes the exact point on why she’s always the one getting kidnapped—because she’s the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom. Without her, her people are lost, so if Bowser is going around conquering, it’s the most effective way to destabilize her kingdom.
She may not be the action hero, but she’s a well-beloved leader. Whenever she is seen governing her people, she’s effective and benevolent. Shouldn’t that be enough to be considered a powerful woman?
Also, contrary to the notion she’s not been empowered before, Peach has been in a handful of Nintendo games where she takes action, like Super Mario 3D World, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Super Mario Bros. 2, Paper Mario, and Super Princess Peach. Her stories aren’t all about being a damsel. There are also many cases where she either joins in on the fight or delegates, just like a good ruler should.
Related: Critics have mixed opinions on The Super Mario Bros. Movie
The Problems Aren’t Peachy
A major plot point in this new ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ is Princess Peach getting coerced into a marriage. Just because Peach was pressured into giving consent to the kidnapping doesn’t make it any less of a kidnapping. So yeah, in this one, Bowser captures her, too. Girlboss and all.
Ultimately, the complication with Princess Peach is that it’s strange to assume that a woman can’t be empowered without having flashy, “can-do-it-all” skills. Princess Peach of the ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ doesn’t need to be some obstacle-course athlete. She can just be a good leader. That’s already more than most people can do.
A strong female character doesn’t have to be good at everything. In fact, regardless of gender, a character is often more compelling if they have shortcomings. But there’s this strange Hollywood writer compulsion to think female characters, especially classic ones, need to be “fixed” and “empowered”, even if they were perfectly complex as is.
When a Movement Mutates
And that hits at the heart of the problem with this wave of “empowered Girlboss” rhetoric about rebooting classic characters. A boss, great. A girl, even better. But the definition of “Girlboss” started as a business term for a woman whose “success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world from which she swims upstream”.
Now it’s devolved into some catch-all sentiment where female leads all need to fight the patriarchy and abandon their “weaker” selves. It’s got similar problems as the restrictive body positivity mantra that sprung from the wonderful body positivity movement. It’s this ideological mutation that evolves out of a well-intentioned social movement. The original movement encourages a change in cultural perspective, but somehow parts of that message has transformed into a socially enforced dogma that suffocates all other viewpoints.
Disability activist and YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard recently discussed this phenomenon in her honest and open video, “I hate my body today.” This mutated body positivity creed insists we must be positive about our bodies. This rigid “empowerment” ideology demands we must be fighting the patriarchy. We must be beautiful, we must be Girlbosses. Any other option is somehow twisted into an automatic moral failing. But it’s not.
To be or Not to be a Girlboss
It’s not bad to have a new angle on a female character. It can even be a lot of fun to make them more battle-ready for an entertaining, action-packed flick. Or to write stories without love interests. It’s 2023 and writers can and should create complex female characters and take their stories in new directions.
However, writers, marketers, and actors shouldn’t diminish already fun and bold female characters. They shouldn’t act like giving them a sword or a fire flower or a shell of a boyfriend “fixed” them. It’s regressive to insult older versions of Ariel and Peach just to raise up the new ones.
Write a good Peach and write a good Ariel. Write an axe-wielding female hero, write a trickster woman magician, write a steadfast, feminine caretaker. Just don’t write a Girlboss.