How The Little Mermaid Inspires Disney's New Princess Culture
Looking back at the Disney Renaissance, princess culture, and feminism in a classic animated film
The year 1989 was a big one for me. Taylor Swift was born! But…wait. That wouldn’t matter to me for quite some time. No, I’m talking about another pop culture princess: Ariel of Atlantica 🧜♀️, mermaid daughter of King Triton, friend to Flounder, and (spoiler alert) future wife to Prince Eric. The Little Mermaid was released in theaters and eight-year-old me was having a moment. I was discovering a key part of fandom: experiencing excitement for a movie 🎞with my peers.
Was I a fan of other stuff at age eight? Sure: I was a BIG FAN of Full House and Kids Incorporated (IYKNYK). But any time I went to the movies 🍿, it was with my family. The film was always an agreed-upon flick that my parents had deemed worthy of both their time and mine and my younger brother’s age-appropriate attention. But the release of The Little Mermaid was different. For both the Disney company (which I couldn’t comprehend then), and the development of my individual tastes.
The thing I remember most about the fall of 1989 when the movie came out in theaters is that I wasn’t going to go with my parents to see it. Instead, a friend’s mom was taking me and a bunch of my female school friends. I remember sitting in my friend’s kitchen, her pointing to the calendar 🗓 on her family’s refrigerator with the circled date: the day we were going to see The Little Mermaid. It was a pretty big deal, and I remember the feeling of anticipation like it was last week. It was a specific kind of bonding experience that I hadn’t yet experienced: seeing a movie about a young girl with my young girlfriends.
What unfolded on screen was even more other-worldly than that big feeling of anticipation. Ariel’s grotto of collections from the human world was a giant cavernous museum I felt like I was inside; Sebastian’s 🦀crustacean band made me want to dance as if I were at a live performance; Ursula and her eels, Flotsom and Jetsam, absolutely terrified me. The music was instantly iconic: “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Kiss the Girl”…these songs were so unique to me; they told a story and had me looking up words I didn’t understand, desperate not to miss any part of the meaning. To this day, I remember it as one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences of my life, and it’s so much part of my generation’s DNA that I can rarely get through a karaoke night now without someone singing “Part of Your World.” Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian are a few of pop culture’s comfort characters, and they’ve served fans of all ages for over thirty years. As the new live-action film starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs, and Awkwafina is set to release in May 2023, I’m feeling that familiar tingle in anticipation of returning to the theater.
The Disney Renaissance
The release of the original The Little Mermaid was a huge success as the film won two Oscar awards for Best Song 🎵 and Best Score 🎼. It is credited with what is called the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, where Disney returned to using fairytales as source material for feature animated films. An array of blockbuster animated movies followed: Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Pocahontas (1995), just to name a few. The early successes of Disney’s “Golden Age” with hits like Snow White (1937), Fantasia (1940), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were groundbreaking for the company. But after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the company struggled creatively in what’s known as its “Bronze” era (though it was during this time that they released hits like The Aristocats, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Robin Hood). Everything changed with The Little Mermaid which was a serious commercial and critical hit. Because of its success, the next films were met with a ton of enthusiasm. Disney fandom absolutely exploded, and you could say that these movies were so successful that we wouldn’t be getting live action remakes–Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019) and now The Little Mermaid (2023)–if they weren’t such a huge part of popular culture. Even The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin were adapted into incredibly successful Broadway musicals, two of which are still currently running. But also importantly, the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid set off a chain of events that would modernize and reinvigorate Disney princess culture within the current zeitgeist.
“Princess” 👸culture has probably always been a thing for young girls, but Disney Princess is its own brand, with its own subculture within the Disney franchise including official Princess merchandise, Disney Parks experiences, Fairy Tale Wedding gowns, and more. The Disney Princess brand features characters across films that Disney has officially deemed “Princesses” while maintaining their separate mythologies and stories. The Princess line was created in 2000 by then-president of Disney Consumer Products, Andy Mooney, who saw little girls arriving to Disney on Ice shows in non-branded princess dresses and seized a merchandising opportunity. Veteran characters Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959) are included with post-Disney Renaissance characters Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and Moana in the official Princess canon. The exclusive list specifically pulls together female characters that aim to inspire young girls on all fronts. It’s worth noting that both Merida and Moana exist in stories completely devoid of romance; the plots do not include Prince Charmings at all. Despite this, there is criticism of how princess culture, specifically perpetrated by Disney, manifests in our society: can girls and women look to these characters as powerful, determined, independent role models? Or is upholding the trappings of princess culture (the pretty dress, the Prince on her arm) somewhat at odds with female independence? And how does it all affect young girls at different ages?
It’s a question that our society asks itself all the time in all kinds of media. You can buy a Barbie doll from their Career Dolls line or any princess from the line of Barbie Princess movies (as well as official Disney Princess Barbie dolls). A recent episode of the ABC sitcom “Not Dead Yet” starring Gina Rodriguez has two of the main characters throwing warring birthday parties for their daughters: a “career woman” party and a “princess” party. Of course, other Disney movies like The Princess Diaries show audiences that maybe being a princess isn’t just a fairytale: it’s actually hard work. (Certainly our cultural obsession with the British Royal Family has brought that to light.) And interestingly, a recent study profiled by Time Magazine found that 10 and 11 year old girls who were very interested in princess culture at 4 and 5 actually had more progressive views on gender roles at age 11.
I’ve often questioned my own love of princess culture as maybe selling out my own female independence in some way. On family Walt Disney World vacations as a kid, I begged my parents to buy me a character princess dress (Cinderella was my favorite) but they always said no (too expensive 💰). It didn’t stop an adult me from dressing up as Belle for Halloween one year in a dress I altered myself, complete with tiara and a single red rose 🥀 as a prop. But as I grew up, I looked back on my love of The Little Mermaid with a bit of disillusionment. I admired the beautiful, red-haired mermaid who looked outward from her life and wanted something more than the world around her: she wanted to learn things, discover places outside of her home, meet new friends. Her positive outlook, sweet personality, and sense of loyalty to her friends and family were qualities I wanted to emulate. Even eight-year-old me understood that Ursula was taking advantage of a naive teen by taking her voice in exchange for legs so she could meet the adorable Prince Eric, and I cheered when Ariel got her beautiful voice back. I truly felt a sense of “Wow! She really CAN have it all: Beauty, voice, legs, and true love!” But later, I reframed it as the story about a female character who gives up everything–including her actual voice–for a man she just met, which seemed less romantic, not to mention uninspiring. Ariel wins her voice back, but she still gives up her entire world under the sea–her family, her friends, her grotto–for a life with Prince Eric. Compromise isn’t really possible in a world where inhabiting the sea 🌊 or land 🏖are mutually exclusive options.
A fresh take on The Little Mermaid: More feminist than we thought
My peers and I faced a reckoning with our princess-obsessed past selves as we aged and realized that while we were promised princes and happily-ever-afters, being a woman in the world was a bit more complicated in real life. Looking back on it, though, maybe we still didn’t have it quite right.
Upon further feminist investigation, Ariel is indeed given a choice at the end, and chooses her own destiny. From a female-forward perspective, the story can be redeeming when you look at it that way. The new live-action film of The Little Mermaid promises to be more specific about young Ariel’s independent spirit and dive deeper into the spectrum of womanhood, which some argue the original film set up perfectly. A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Michael Landis revealed that the original film is more subversive than we think: Ariel is coerced to perform on demand with her beautiful singing voice, is held hostage by her overbearing father (who even has her followed when he doesn’t like that she visits the shore) and her sisters don’t understand her. Ursula, the witch, is her only real female role model and was actually based on the drag queen, Divine. For the new live-action film, actress Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls, Bridesmaids) said she channeled the drag queen performers that she loves to inspire her performance as Ursula. In Smithsonian, Landis quotes scholar Laura Sells who wrote of Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” number that it’s essentially a drag song where Ariel learns how to perform being a woman: she learns about femininity 💄 and how to use it to get what she wants. Giving up her voice isn’t an unfeminist sacrifice; it’s a choice between performing on demand or choosing what those around her get to see, and hear, of her. I certainly didn’t absorb that message at age eight, but over three decades later, it resonates with me.
It’s definitely a better fate for the character than how the little mermaid fared in the source material, a fairytale written by Hans Christian Anderson. In the fairytale, she didn’t get the guy, AND she died. Pretty bleak.
Updating The Little Mermaid for a modern audience
The new film aims to satisfy a new generation of audiences while honoring the fans who have loved this story for the past three decades. Lin-Manuel Miranda, responsible for writing incredibly inspiring music and lyrics for female-heroine-centered Disney animated films like Moana and Encanto, and self-described superfan of the original movie, contributed not only four fresh songs to the live-action film, but a few updated lyrics to the original film’s songs, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl.” Alan Menken, famed composer of the original film, said that thirty-four years later, it was necessary to update some lyrics in these songs to include consent and also rethink how some of the words sent an insensitive message to girls. While the change was met with some backlash, many fans are thrilled that the filmmakers listened to criticism of the original and were thoughtful about how these beloved songs would be introduced to a new generation.
In addition, the film features colorblind casting, prompting racist backlash to the announcement that Black singer-songwriter and actress Halle Bailey would be playing the iconic character of Ariel. The animated Disney Princess line strives for diversity with the inclusion of Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Moana alongside the lighter skinned Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Rapunzel, Merida, and of course, Ariel. But this casting delighted fans who wanted to see someone who looked like them playing a character they already loved. It’s certainly exciting to see the character reimagined not only as a living, breathing person, but as a new version of a heroine we’ve known for so long.
The eight-year-old girl in me who was so excited to see the original animated movie with her female friends in the theater and sat on the edge of her seat throughout the experience is just as thrilled now to see this new film. With decades of experience and knowledge about what young Ariel faces, I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit this story.
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