Is Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” Just the Worst? A Father’s RantShawn Burns
My reasons are varied, and of course I will share them with you, but let me first share this particular point of pride: When my daughter met Ariel at Disneyland the exchange went like this:
Erin: “You needed to listen to your daddy.”
Ariel: “But he was trying to keep me from my one true love, Prince Eric.”
Erin: “Yeah, but you needed to listen to your daddy.”
So, why do I so dislike The Little Mermaid? Well, it’s probably because I’m a father.
Let me look at the plot for a moment: The youngest mer-child (Ariel) of a mer-widower (King Triton) develops an obsession with the world of humans, with having the things they have, knowing the things they know, because she finds the world she lives in kind of boring. Traditional wisdom holds that humans are dangerous to mer-people, and her father has forbidden her from going to the surface because of this. Seeing that the humans laugh and dance sometimes, the mer-child decides that the traditional wisdom must be wrong; that human beings aren’t dangerous to mer-people. Further cementing this opinion for her is the fact that during an actual interaction with an actual human being (Prince Eric), the mer-child does not suffer any harm. Of course, the human she interacts with is unconscious the whole time, but she doesn’t die: therefore, humans must be okay.
Her father, discovering that his daughter has disobeyed him and continues to attempt to interact with humans, flies into a rage and destroys all of her souvenirs. This both frightens her, and saddens her, making her feel hopeless in her obsession. A fringe-dwelling magic-wielder takes advantage of the mer-child’s misery to use her in a plot to gain her father’s power. The mer-child, privileging her own knowledge over traditional wisdom, and seeing a way to acquire the symbol of her obsession with the human world (the human male she interacted with, safely, while he was unconscious) agrees to the fringe-dweller’s terms for helping her: dramatic body-modification and a rejection of her unique talent. In the end, the plot works and her father sacrifices himself to save her from her bad decisions. With some spectacular luck, everything turns out okay in the end, and her father is convinced that she is not actually dangerously obsessed, but genuinely in love, so he helps her have the life she wants.
The Little Mermaid is presented as a story about chasing your dreams. Ariel, the rebellious mer-child, is a dreamer, and her dreaming and observation (evidence!) is supposed to provide her with good reasons to go against the traditional wisdom, which is offered without evidence (though it is never suggested that there has never been evidence for it). But what she is actually presented with, before running away, is not evidence that confirms the “Humans Are Nice and Safe” hypothesis, but rather evidence that fails to disconfirm it. Humans make things? They dance? This one unconscious dude didn’t murder her for being a mermaid? None of that proves anything about how human beings would react if they saw a mermaid. She has no good reasons for thinking as she does. But we are supposed to agree that she is right to think as she does because the traditional wisdom has also been offered without evidence, and maybe we should side with the one that makes humans seem nice. So we are supposed to support her in her dreaming, and in her obsession, because she, alone of all the mer-people, thinks humans are nice, and isn’t that nice?
Ariel’s father, King Triton, is presented as a traditionalist patriarch, flying into rages and harping on old, bigoted assumptions about things. So of course anything he says ought to be rejected as needlessly conservative, retrograde. We reject his traditional wisdom because it is offered without evidence (to us or to Ariel), and accompanied by rage. But there is nothing in the film that does anything more than prove that the generalization about humans and how they interact with mer-people does not apply in the event that a mermaid is introduced to a human as a human and they fall in love as humans and then he finds out she is really a mermaid.
What is actually going on here? The grand takeaway seems to be Don’t Give Up On Your Dreams, Because You Might Get Lucky And Not Cause the Ruin of Your World, Your Life, or Your Family. There are other messages here and there, mostly for fathers: Don’t Be a Bigot, Because Maybe This One Guy Isn’t Going To Harpoon You, or, more charitably, Don’t React With Explosive Anger to Willful Disobedience Because That’s How Your Kids End Up Running Away.
It is hard for me, as a father, to condone the practical lesson here for children to disobey their parents because everything works out in the end. Ariel never has to learn from her actions. She never has to face how short-sighted she is, how childish she is, and actually grow up. Her dad makes everything better, first saving her from her reckless entanglement with the sea witch, then also making her life with Eric possible. Ariel, in other words, doesn’t grow. Triton grows, recognizing, in the end, the difference between maddened obsession and true love (though no attempt is made at all to help us see what the difference really looks like), and recognizing that his daughter will be safe living with humans (as long as she is disguised, and as long as the only one who knows she is a mermaid is a human who mostly knew her as a human herself).
If films are for anyone, I think they are for the people who can identify with and learn from the characters who change and grow. If that’s true, then The Little Mermaid isn’t for kids, especially young girls, at all. It’s for fathers. And while it has some things to say to fathers that are worth hearing, it also has many, many more things to say to daughters that don’t seem worth hearing.
And that, dear readers, is why I can’t stand The Little Mermaid.
(P.S. Of course I love everything else Disney has ever done in the history of everything so please don’t fire me, Mickey.)
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