When I was a little girl, I loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I mean, I loved it. I used to sit in front of the TV screen for hours at a time, rewinding the video as soon as the movie ended, to watch it all over again from the start. I used to – and I can’t believe I’m about to reveal this publicly – sit in the bathtub wearing swimming flippers, combing my hair and singing like Ariel. So I mean it when I say that I loved The Little Mermaid.
When I was about seven or eight, Ariel and I parted ways, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I had a roommate who was particularly partial to Disney movies, that I sat down and watched The Little Mermaid again. In the years since I had stopped watching the movie religiously, I had, obviously, grown up a lot. I had had my feminist “click” moment, and had started seeing the world through a feminist lens. I had started thinking about how women are depicted in advertising and movies and pop music lyrics and videos. I had been especially shocked and disappointed to learn, courtesy of a particularly fierce feminist English teacher, the origins of the fairy tales we tell young girls. The central message of the original Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is that curious young ladies who venture too far from home and get raped in the woods deserve what they get. But for some reason, it had never occurred to me to think about The Little Mermaid from a feminist perspective. When I sat down with my roommates at 19 and watched it again, The Little Mermaid just about broke my heart.
The Little Mermaid is, quite simply, a feminist’s worst nightmare. This movie is about, as a very wise friend of mine once put it, a young woman who gives up her voice to get a pair of legs so that she can snare a man. It’s about the triumph of “good” women – young, slender, silent and lovesick – over “bad” women – old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual. It’s about a young woman forced to choose between her father’s world and her husband’s world, and there is nothing in between. And there’s the unsettling fact that the song “Kiss the Girl” tells us that the “one way to ask” if a woman wants you to kiss her, is to just kiss her.
Of course, when it comes to Disney movies, the problems I’ve pointed out here are only the tip of the iceberg. Disney movies, and the full-length animated features in particular, are almost all problematic. Whether it’s how they deal with race, class, gender, ability or colonialism, all the Disney Princess movies have their problems. And of course, each of them is a product of their time. But knowing this makes me perhaps even more disappointed in The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, when feminism was alive and well and making its way into popular discourse. I can’t help but wonder if the movie is indicative of resistance and backlash to the changing role of women in America at the time. The thought makes me feel, if possible, even more disappointed.
The lessons we learn as children are incredibly powerful ones – they inform the way we view the world for years to come, and because we learn them at such a young age, because we just know them, we often never think to question them. When we do, it can be uncomfortable and scary, as though a person you’ve known forever has in fact been lying to you all this time. For me, my first adult viewing of The Little Mermaid felt like a betrayal. I had loved this movie, idolized its heroine, believing that her thirst for knowledge and adventure made her a wonderful heroine, and even dressed up as her for my year-end dance recital (yes, that really is me in that photo). And for all those years, it had been lying to me, selling me a harmful sexist message in a brightly colored package, complete with witty lyrics and a happy ending.
Watching The Little Mermaid as an adult made me realize the importance of being open to questioning everything, even the things you know – or think you know – to be true. Watching this once-beloved Disney classic post-”click” moment made me realize that once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, it’s very hard to stop. Once you begin to view the world with a feminist lens, everything you know – or think you know – begins to look different. That’s what makes feminism so powerful.