It’s 2021, and millennials just can’t have nice things. From form-fitting jeans that taper at the ankle to parting our hair off-center to the show Friends, the things we once loved are just not it in 2021. Which is why it brings me absolutely no joy to report that I am about to ruin a childhood fav: The Little Mermaid. “But how could a Disney movie be problematic?” you ask, hopefully ironically. In short, the Disney movie that you tried to emulate at the pool every summer as a child is filled with patriarchal tropes and, for having a female protagonist, sends a pretty not-great message about women. And before you accuse me of being a hater, this is coming from Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers, including Tipping Point and Outliers, and host of the Revisionist History podcast, now in its second season. Gladwell appeared on the Afternoon Tea podcast with Sami Sage to talk about the newest season of Revisionist History, his writing process, and more, and he had some choice things to say about one of our favorite Disney Princess movies.
Now, to be fair, the Disney love story we get about the mermaid who wanted to be where the people are is quite… well, Disney-fied, and nothing like the original fairytale on which the movie is based. The movie about Ariel and Prince Eric is based on a fairytale of the same name by the Danish author Hans Christian Anderson and was first published in 1837 (so, I mean, that could be one reason female empowerment was not exactly front and center). It starts off kind of the same as the Disney movie, with a little mermaid falling in love with a prince and visiting a sea witch for legs in exchange for her beautiful singing voice. However, in exchange for getting legs, Anderson’s mermaid feel like she’s walking on knives with every step. Ouch. And, in the original fairytale, the little mermaid basically gets friend zoned by the prince, and he marries someone else. Then, she’s given the opportunity to return to the sea if she stabs the prince and kills him. What?? But the little mermaid can’t bring herself to do it (the things we do for a toxic ex), and instead she sacrifices herself. Her benevolence is rewarded by her being turned into an earthbound spirit, instead of just dissolving into sea foam and her soul evaporating. Happy ending! I guess???
That said, the template we are working with is kind of dark, but there are still a few ways this Disney classic doesn’t exactly hold up in 2021.
Ariel Goes From Being Independent To Dependent On A Man
In the beginning of the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is a pretty independent lady. She likes doing her own thing, exploring, and doesn’t care about what her dad wants. (In fact, she resents having to listen to her father.) She’s “adventurous and full of life and wants to explore the world and doesn’t want to be trapped in all the kind of stereotypical roles that young women get trapped into,” Gladwell elaborates, “and she has this desire to become a princess.” So then she makes a deal with Ursula and gets herself in a bind—and who has to rescue her? You know the answer: Prince Eric.
“There’s your problem number one,” Gladwell says. “A young woman full of life and adventure and intelligence and verve, and the only way out of her dilemma is a man to come along and bail her out?”
There’s also the problem of Ariel literally having to give up her voice—and for the only way to get her voice back being for a man to get it for her. “Which is nuts!” Gladwell exclaims. “What kind of message is that!”
The movie creates this fantasy for young girls, where if you just casually give up your ability to communicate you’ll be rewarded by marrying a handsome prince. One reasons why that’s problematic is because “it sends this incredibly retrograde message to young girls about where they can find their freedom and who’s in control of their destiny.”
Sebastian Is Kinda Problematic
How did we not see it before? Sebastian is the only character in the entire movie who doesn’t have the same accent as all the rest of the sea creatures and Prince Eric. Why is that? Even more suspect is his specific role in the movie, which is to basically be Ariel’s lackey. Gladwell says, “The world that Disney creates within these movies is a world of princes and princesses and then a whole cast of characters who serve them.” Sebastian is one such character, much like Abu, or the seven dwarves, or Cinderella’s mice, or even Flounder. But in The Little Mermaid, for some reason, one of the princess’s sidekicks is a crab with a Jamaican accent—and “not a good one,” Gladwell adds. “This is a movie that has this subservient character, a Black guy from the West Indies… all of this is the kind of thing you would tell your kids if you were in 1860 if you were in a country house in England”, but in 21st century America, maybe we should examine with a critical eye.
Prince Eric Straight-Up Commits A Murder
I mean, I know Ursula is the villain and everything, but have we ever talked about how Eric legit kills her? Not so kid-friendly, is it? I mean, sure, Ursula tries to steal Ariel’s man, but still, ending a movie on a murder is kinda dark. So not only can Ariel not save herself, and has to get rescued by Prince Eric (which, to me fair, is kind of the theme of all these movies), but how exactly does he do that? “By committing a murder in cold blood,” Gladwell recounts.
Even more interesting is the way Ursula is portrayed in the cartoon versus the way she—and other villains—are examined in recent origin story films, such as Cruella and Maleficent. While I can understand why kids movies are given one-dimensional villains who are just evil for sport, it does present some ethical questions. “In the Disney movie we take the troubled, unhappy, exile and we murder them,” Gladwell says. “We ram them with the prow of our ship—very violent.” While a version where Ariel and Ursula have a conversation and hash out their differences doesn’t exactly make for dramatic cinema, it does present a more well-adjusted example of conflict mediation.
The Contract Is Not At All How The Law Works
A perhaps lesser, but still noteworthy, point is that the contract Ariel signs is not at all how contracts work—which is significant because, as Gladwell says, “6-year-olds and 7-year-olds are forming their interpretation on what the law is at that age.” Meanwhile, Ariel literally signs her voice away in this unbreakable agreement, which is totally unrealistic because, Gladwell explains, “There’s no such thing as a contract that can’t be broken!” I mean, this is a good point—Ariel’s dad is literally the king of the sea, and even he can’t get her out of this bind? I know international waters are lawless, but what kind of legal system are they running with under the sea? I have some questions, like should I be making all parties to an agreement sign contracts with an illuminated feather pen?
In Revisionist History, Gladwell reexamines something from the past and inquires whether we got it right the first time. Listen to the second season out now, and check out the full interview with Gladwell below.
Images: Giphy (4); Disney
I would just like to go one day where I don’t want to throat punch someone for sporting the latest dumbass “fashion” trend. But sadly, today is not that day because I just found out that someone
is trying to ruin my life just came out with a Disney princess bikini line.
We’ve already established which bathing suits are best for your summer bod, and trust us, these will not be making the list. Whoever came up with this idea to
personally victimize me capitalize on the Disney Princess trend is going in my personal burn book. Because now this heinous trend is invading a v important aspect of my life: the beach. The beach is a sanctuary, people. Someplace where I can do two very important things: nap and day drink. I need this place so I can forget the fact that we live in a world where people wear flower crowns and drop crotch pants of their own volition. But now, because we can’t have nice things, the beach isn’t even a safe place anymore.
But back to the bikini line. Enchanted Bikinis has taken it upon themselves to create their own line of Disney-themed swimsuits even though no one fucking asked them to. There will be a bikini for each of the major Disney Princesses including Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jasmine, Ariel, and Pocahontas. As if I didn’t have enough of a complex with my summer body, now you want me to squeeze into a bikini that channels my childhood heroes? That’s asking a lot of someone who just spent the last four months binge eating cheese and drinking red wine.
Also, grown women wearing princess costumes at the beach IS NOT OKAY. I mean, I get that we’ve all had that fantasy of being a princess and having Prince Charming come and sweep us off our feet, but like, I left that dream behind after my first jungle-themed frat party. Something about watching a guy shotgun a beer in a leopard print skirt really kills that dream for a girl. Sighs.
My favorite part about this bikini line—if you were to like put a gun to my head, threaten my life, and force me to choose—is probs the mission statement: “…To let the princess in you glow and enchant everyone and everything around, when you wear your Enchanted bikini. We believe that every woman can feel this way without putting on a costume.” Lol k. Let’s just see about this, shall we?
Okay, every girl in this picture is legit wearing a wig to the beach. And that one girl on the end is carrying a braid larger than my body rn. How is this not a costume again? HOW? Seriously. I’ll wait…
Jesus. This girl needs to hi-ho her ass back to the castle because if I see this shit on the beach I’m not sure I can be held responsible for my actions.
It’s like the people at Enchanted Bikinis thought, “have we humiliated the Native American people enough with this false narrative?” and they said, “no, let’s put her in a bikini!”
Tbh I’m surprised they didn’t just use her hair as a substitute for a top. This seems like a brand that would cut corners. Also like a brand that fosters my rage issues.
I think Pocahontas’ face in the saddest group picture ever just about sums up all of my thoughts regarding this bikini line.
The look of someone who’s contemplating how many drinks it will take her to forget that she’s a twentysomething woman wearing a child’s costume in public.
It’s unclear as to how many actual female women will wear such a thing in a public, but then again people sell laxative tea for Instagram followers, so there’s no limit to the amount of desperate shit people will pull. The one thing I know for sure is that Halloween costumes are about to be a whole lot sluttier. People were already wearing bras as tops, so I can only image what my sorority sisters people will be wearing this year now that bikini costumes are a thing. So should I start drinking now to prepare myself or…?