An Irritated Rant on The Little Mermaid

An Irritated Rant on The Little Mermaid September 20, 2022

I think I may be the only Millennial girl  who never really liked The Little Mermaid.

The film came out when I was in preschool, and I was taken to see it as a treat. I thought the crab and the seagull were hilarious, the music was beautiful, Ursula the sea witch was deliciously evil. But I didn’t like any of the protagonists and the actual plot scared me. I went on to watch The Little Mermaid several times, every time someone pulled the VHS tape out of the library, because I knew I was supposed to like it, but I kept on not liking it. When my family became very conservative and started homeschooling, I discovered that other grown-ups hated The Little Mermaid because Ariel was immodest, and because she was disobedient. But children were supposed to like it, and I didn’t.

When I heard there was going to be a live action re-make of The Little Mermaid, I did what I did when I heard about the live action remakes of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast: I shrugged and said “huh.”

When I saw the teaser for the live action re-make of The Little Mermaid, I liked it better than I thought I would because Halle Bailey is a dead ringer for Ariel. Ariel, like all Disney princesses, was drawn in an idealized way that would be hard for a human face to imitate. Halle Bailey has a beautiful wide smile and big round eyes that look just like the cartoon character; it’s haunting.  I admired their casting choice. I wondered if they’d get someone equally good to be Ursula. And then I went back to not caring about The Little Mermaid once again.

The rest of the internet disagrees with me; they care about The Little Mermaid a great deal and they won’t let me think about something else. I found myself inundated by a thousand and one social media posts about The Little Mermaid, because people are angry Ariel is being played by a Black person. A surprising number of white people who claim to be full grown adults are angry and offended when a fictional character is played by a Black person. This whole controversy is so ridiculous I hardly want to dignify it by refuting it. Of course Ariel could be played by a Black person. Of course mermaids aren’t really Black, but they aren’t really white either because MERMAIDS DON’T EXIST. Of course a mermaid invented by a bisexual Danish fairy tale author working out his own disappointment when his male crush married a woman does not have to be played by a northern European person. The mermaid in the original children’s story was not white but green. Not to mention, the Disney movie is not faithful to the original source material anyway, any more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame followed the plot of the violent and disturbing Victor Hugo novel or Cinderella ended with the stepsisters being blinded by a flock of birds. Disney movies pull several elements from stories by somebody else, put them in a blender, and make a colorful bowdlerized musical for children out of them. That’s what a Disney movie is.

I am continually amazed by how petty and shallow racists are. Halle Bailey will do a beautiful job as the main character of a movie I don’t plan to see because it’s a shameless money grab based on a cartoon I don’t like anyway. I hope little girls who do see The Little Mermaid have a good time. I hope the naysayers are as adamant that in order to be faithful to the original cartoon, Ursula should be played by a drag queen.

There is one take on The Little Mermaid  that’s been concerning me just as much as the racism controversy, though. The usually excellent Trevor Noah sarcastically described the film as “a beautiful story about a young woman changing her core identity to please a man, let’s not forget about that.” He was joking, but that’s the description I’ve heard of that movie most often. It’s what people think the movie is about: a whiny teenager who runs away and changes her entire body to please a man.

In fact, that description might be why I dislike The Little Mermaid so much. Because nobody seems to notice what that movie is really about. They talk about Ariel being disobedient and Ariel being immodest and Ariel changing herself to please a man, but they don’t notice that that’s not the point.

Just speaking about the Disney movie here as if the Andersen fairy tale didn’t exist: The Little Mermaid is about child abuse. It’s a story about an irritating teenage girl with an angry out of control father. Triton is a miserable grouch with an anger management problem for at least 80% of his screen time in the film. He’s awful to everybody. He huffs and puffs and yells constantly. He brandishes his trident as if he’s going to kill someone when Ariel is late for her recital. He grabs and throttles his funny crab assistant who is terrified of him. Yes, I know he’s supposed to be an ancient Greek sea god, but considering what Disney did with Zeus in Hercules they could have given Triton a lovable clueless sitcom dad personality if they wanted. They chose to leave him angry and violent.

Ariel reacts the way teenagers with abusive fathers do, by not being honest with him and by getting obsessed with the people who live very differently than she does. She develops a crush on the first one of those people that she’s able to touch and see up close; this is also to be expected. Then her father escalates to blowing his top and destroying everything she owns, leaving her sobbing in a room full of her trashed possessions– a pretty standard abusive father tactic. Ariel runs away from home and goes to her father’s traditional nemesis for help, and you and I would do the same.

The sea witch pretends to want to help Ariel, but she actually mutilates and exploits her. So Ariel goes to the man she has a crush on for help, which she can only obtain by looking pretty and sexually available and hoping Prince Eric takes the hint because she has no idea about human culture and can’t communicate. But Prince Eric does not take the hint. The witch shows up to collect. Up to that moment the movie is a pretty chilling and authentic fable about what happens to teenagers with abusive parents. But then they slap a Disney ending on the whole thing. Triton, completely out of character, decides to be a father for once and sacrifice himself to help Ariel. Prince Eric realizes he wanted the redhead and not the brunette all along. There is a conveniently placed piece of timber, a sailing ship behaves in a way that I don’t think sailing ships actually behave, the witch is disemboweled, the trident falls down in the exact right place, and the whole conflict is solved in a moment. Ariel gets her legs and goes off to marry a prince. Up until the slapdash ending, it’s a brutal story.

That’s why I don’t like The Little Mermaid, and why I didn’t even when I was little. There are clearly two antagonists in that movie but Triton never gets his comeuppance and is never acknowledged as a bad person. And since the movie doesn’t acknowledge it, people blame Ariel for what went wrong.

Often, when young women try to change themselves to get a man’s attention, there’s a logical reason why. The fault isn’t with the young woman.

And that’s all the thinking I want to do about The Little Mermaid. 


image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.


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