Part of That World, Part I–In Which I Critique Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)

Dear Lily June,

If you ever have a child, you will someday learn the true meaning of Marcel Proust’s words:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

And through these new eyes–eyes lit up by love for your newly adored son or daughter–you’ll have to re-see the whole world you’ve grown up and lived in, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

One of the excruciating new ways you’ll need to be critical of your surroundings is in terms of what you expose your child to. It’s one thing to sing crappy pop songs on a lark at the top of your lungs, watch enough trashy daytime TV to kill more brain cells than hard liquor, and delve into plates of fried foods that even rats at a carnival might be wary of when you have only your own soul, brain and body to be responsible for.

But when you suddenly have to look at your guilty pleasures through the eyes of your progeny and the lessons they might–intentionally or unconsciously–receive from them, you may find what you once treasured ends up in the trash heap, while cartoons and toys and books you might otherwise never have given a second glance towards get elevated to the status of life preservers.


One of the first movies (if not the first) I ever saw in the theater, The Little Mermaid came out when I was five years old. I remember watching, entranced, as a magical undersea kingdom shone before my eyes, replete with a whole host of mermen and -maids, one of which is crazy enough to want to leave these enchanting waves full of singing fish, conducting crabs, and even seahorses who carry the merfolk around in seashell carriages for the boring, upright, above-water world of humanity. As Princess Ariel, the foolish mermaid in question, sang “Wish I could be / Part of that world” in deference to the human landscape, I could have mouthed the same words back in reference to the mermaid’s own mythical seascape. It always was, and has remained, one of my favorite Disney fantasies.

But in watching it yet again to sing each memorized song and share each heart-worn scene with you while you, precious two-month-old that you are, fell asleep without a hint of care at the flickering colors on the screen, I found myself evaluating whether the film remains charming, or alarming, in its approach to navigating cultural boundaries and displaying gendered possibilities. By no means a scholar of popular culture, I’ve been on this ball of dirt of ours long enough to get that most American feminists might find the lessons inherent in The Little Mermaid at best extremely limiting, and at worst, grotesquely offensive, to what women can achieve today.

But to honor the child in me who wants to believe I wouldn’t have embraced a movie that belittled or demeaned who I could be (and for that kindergartener who cared enough to own a stuffed Sebastian and a plastic Flounder bath time toy that squirted water), I’m willing to spend a little time defending the Disney classic, so that when it comes time for us to dialogue about what you’ve learned from the movie, you get a greater sense of its merits than “Mermaids are pretty.”

Of course, looking this closely at a cartoon movie does remind me a bit of E. B. White’s quote on critiquing humor:

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Here’s hoping we don’t give Ariel the axe in the process.


In Part I, I’ll Offer Up Some Things I’m Willing to Concede.

For one thing, the film most certainly fails The Bechdel Test.

Established by comic creator Alison Bechdel in 1985, the criteria for a feminist film worth watching are found in the comic, Dykes to Watch Out For:

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin) (2)
If you can read this, Lily, you have better eyes than me.

Because the print is so small, I’ll recap: The woman in these panels is recounting how she’ll only see a film if it satisfies three basic requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it…
  2. …who talk to each other about…
  3. ..something besides a man.

It’s depressing how few Hollywood gems fit the bill, but consider for this film that Ariel surrounds herself with mostly male friends: Sebastian, a “Jamaican” crab composer/conductor/voice instructor; Flounder, a ‘fraidy fish who accompanies her on her collecting adventures; and Scuttle, a seagull who believes he knows more than most about the artifacts of humanity. That Ariel is naive enough to believe his “mansplaining” about snarfblats and dinglehoppers does not bode well for her intellectual capacity and/or self-esteem.

MagrittePipe (2)
Clearly Scuttle was a big fan of Magritte. Ceci n’est pas une snarfblat, indeed.

In typical Disney fashion, the mother is dead (oh, no, Little Lily! Please do not internalize the lesson that mothers serve no purpose in the lives of their daughters), and Ariel barely (if at all) has a single conversation with any of her half a dozen sisters, though they are all named (Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella and Alana). They certainly talk about Ariel, though, gossiping over her feelings for the human Prince Eric and sending their father into an almost incestuous rage (another definite down-point of the film, as it portrays fathers as overbearing and domineering agents of destruction, instead of, as they can be–as is the case with your father, Lily–incredibly kind caretakers with exceptional nurturing abilities).

So the only conversation Ariel has in any kind of sustained way is with the seawitch, Ursula, and even then, they’re only scheming about how Ariel can get her prince with such horrific depictions of men as this: “They’re not all that impressed with conversation / True gentlemen avoid it when they can / But they dote and swoon and fawn / On a lady who’s withdrawn / and it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.” This sets up the witch, though, as having an evil and jaded view of hu- and mer- manity, and also allows for the terms of the bargain–Ariel can have legs if Ursula gets her voice.

So unfortunately, if Ariel ever collected any books in that secret grotto of hers, she has no real female pals to pour over their contents with. Total Bechdel Fail.

For another thing, the film, like most Disney stories, makes a mockery of the original by softening the edges of an intentionally violent folktale.

I don’t mean to scare you, Lily, so you need only read this section when you’re older. But in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” (the model for the animated remake), the witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue in exchange for a potion that provides those handsome gams. After she imbibes the potion, the L.M. will never be permitted to return to sea, and while she’ll be granted dancing skills to replace her prior vocal abilities, her feet will be made to feel as if they’re forever stepping on sharpened knives. Oh, and if the prince doesn’t marry her so that she can subsume a portion of his soul, she’ll die and disintegrate into sea foam.

The penalty, then, for attempting to be something other than you are is more like that of real-life plastic surgery, without the eventual recovery. In a world where “pain is beauty,” I’m more inclined to appreciate Anderson’s punitive take on females’ functioning as changeling succubi.

The lesson (to me at least), Lily, is that no one who truly loves you should make you change who you are. You can grow as a person through the compromises of adult relationships, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your identity to secure affections.

Wait a minute. That mergirl getting married’s only 16?!

Enough said, Lily. If you attempt to eternally bond yourself to the fellow you’re infatuated with before you’ve finished the process of puberty, I will hunt him down with a harpoon by land or by sea. That’s merely proof that I love you.

The film’s take on other cultures is problematic at best.

It starts with Sebastian the crab, whose moderately Jamaican- style accent is, I can only assume not being Jamaican or a linguist, horribly inaccurate.

It gets worse when Ariel is coveting, and collecting the trappings of, the lifestyle of those who are clearly part of another culture. The humans and the merfolk aren’t exactly races; they’re possibly species(?). And yet, the story unfolds, especially through the father’s anger, like a cautionary tale about miscegenation discrimination.

Lily, I’m of the wholehearted opinion that love is love, and if you want to marry outside of your race (as long as you’re far older than sixteen at the time), you not only have my blessing, you shouldn’t have to ask me or anyone else for that matter for it. Who you love goes so far beyond skin color or the trivial differences between all members of the same humanity.

So it’s not that Ariel loves someone outside of her culture, but that she attempts to appropriate that culture’s trinkets, tokens, artifacts and even actions (walking, dancing) that bothers me. When Ariel sings, “Part of that world,” some part of me can’t help but think of the recent debacle with Rachel Dolezal, a woman who rode to fame on pretending to be an African-American so successfully, she spearheaded Spokane’s NAACP. Claiming to be transracial or biracial or postracial, what she really was, ultimately, was a fradulent caucasian, a white woman who could’ve been an ally, but who chose instead to appropriate the hairstyles and skin tone and diction and history of an oppressed peoples for her own fame and (however slight it might be) fortune.
Wandering free, she wished she could be part of that world.

And even today, just because we live in a global society does not give white people the right to pick and choose which parts of a culture they want to adopt like they’re filling a plate at an all-you-can-steal buffet. Lily, I hope you’ll see beyond race, but to deny it exists denies your inherent privilege in a system I hope you’ll be strong enough to critique.

I’m getting into “uncomfortable waters” here as a white woman who does not know what it’s like to experience life behind another skin tone, but I am ashamed to live in American society today with the violence being inflicted against those who don’t share my race. For any ways I’ve been complicit in that system, I am truly sorry.

It’s in the theft of a culture’s products that violence becomes institutionalized and systematically dangerous. You can respect another culture without thinking it belongs to you. But Ariel, the collector, doesn’t seem to get that. In the best of worlds, I’d like to think of her as an archeologist, studying fire and feet with honor and respect. But in the worst of worlds, she seems a borderline post-colonial oppressor, which, if it demonstrates a woman’s power, doesn’t demonstrate the kind of power I want you to aspire towards or try to have, Lily.

All that being said, in Part II, I promise to offer something in the way of the film’s defense!

Picture Credits:

8 thoughts on “Part of That World, Part I–In Which I Critique Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989)

  1. originaltitle says:

    The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie growing up. I had a little “Ariel” shaped pillow that I would stuff inside a little wooden crate in which I sat my tiny behind and read for hours. I shudder to think what messages I received while watching this movie, however, I look forward to your defense so that I can hope my favorite childhood movie wasn’t a total disaster. A great post and critical-watching of The Little Mermaid. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. musingsbym says:

    Beautifully written! You have touched upon some very pertinent cultural and social aspects that demand attention. Lily is very lucky to have a mother like you, giving her such unbiased advice about life.
    I look forward to reading the ‘other’ side of the story as well. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

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