The Little Mermaid is one of the most beloved kid’s movies of all time and is widely credited with kicking off the Disney Renaissance, which includes The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. But just because a film is universally loved, doesn’t mean it’s perfect, as Mindy Kaling pointed out when she offered a hilarious and accurate takedown of Ariel’s journey to find true love. So the question is, does this movie actually suck? How should we feel about all of this?
Kaling, a writer, and actor is best known her work on The Office and The Mindy Project shared her feelings during an interview with journalist Elaine Welteroth at the Smart Girls Win panel.
“The Little Mermaid is a little problematic to me. I love the songs, I love the crab, Ursula the Sea Witch is a great character, but it bums me out looking back on it because she gave up her voice and left her family and friends in pursuit of a man. And she’s 16 years old. When my daughter and I watch it together and she gets older, I’ll still let her watch it but I’ll have to do the running commentary of like, ‘You don’t have to be mute to attract a man and get all your dreams to come true, It’s fine! The people in your life who are your enemies are not just an older woman who’s jealous of your beauty. The ultimate dream in life is not to become married to a white prince,'” Mindy said.
While Kaling’s take on The Little Mermaid is unquestionably hilarious, it should also be noted that it’s pretty damn accurate, too. While we all love the classic songs, upon deeper examination, the movie definitely has some weird subliminal messages happening. This is not the first time the film has been accused of sexism, as the Washington Post previously pointed out that despite being labeled as a female-centric movie, the numbers paint a different picture. But, perhaps most interestingly, in terms of contemporary concerns about the underlying messages of popular fairy tales, Kaling’s screed is the tip of the intellectual iceberg.
Since 1979, folklorist Jack Zipes has been writing about the dangers of mainstream fairy tales in regard to how they condition generations of young people to accept patriarchal values. In his first book, Breaking the Magic Spell, Zipes demonstrates that the commodification of fairy tales (which started with the Grimms back in 1812) introduced a capitalistic element into these stories. Fast-forward to the Disney empire, in which selling the story is more important than what the story is about. In other words, in the ’80s Little Mermaid era of Disney films, the people behind the movie believed the “marrying a white prince” theme would probably sell to their audience. And, if we consider that the Hans Christian Andersen version of this story ends with the mermaid not getting married and also killing herself because of it, it’s possible the existing Disney version is a problematic compromise with some even more screwed-up source material.
None of this is to say The Little Mermaid is a terrible film per se or that will turn kids into monsters (or mermaids). But next time a parent sits down to watch it with their kids, it might be smart to remember the story itself has some less-than-generous roots. Maybe we could all take some of Kaling’s parenting advice and remind kids that “[t]he ultimate dream in life is not to become married to a white prince.”