De-Programming Feminism: Feminist Propaganda in Disney Films Part 1, “The Little Mermaid”
The last four generations of Americans have been swimming in a sea of feminist propaganda our whole lives. We don't even notice the feminist themes and messaging bombarding us daily. They feel like universal truths because that's all we've ever known. A fish doesn’t know it has always lived in water until it somehow ends up on dry land. De-programming feminism works much the same way. This analogy is a brilliant segue for me to ruin one of people's favorite childhood movies- Disney's The Little Mermaid. I’m going to show you how feminist messaging has crept into some of the most popular Disney films of the last 40 years, without most people ever noticing. It’s one of those things that you won’t be able to un-see once you see it.
Of course, there were feminists writing and influencing the culture since the nineteenth century. But, it is after the introduction of second wave that we see feminism dominate the narrative. Feminist ideas have become so mainstream in the last half-century that they seem like obvious truths in our present day lives. The sexual revolution gave feminism brand new energy. Before this, feminist ideology was seen as political and uninteresting to the average person. It was first about voting and property rights, and then about reproductive rights. The sexual revolution of the 60’s sought to erase all boundaries for human sexuality. Women had gained equal status with men in pretty much all legal aspects of life. But progressive ideology, by definition, never reaches an end goal. It assumes that progress is never sufficient until all things are equal, fair, and just for every person, always. This is not possible, but it seems to be an insignificant detail in the mind of progressives.
We’ve all heard the old saying “sex sells.” Marketing companies, record labels, and film studios loved feminism because it provided a justification for using female sexuality to make money. Market research also showed that women make the majority of household spending decisions. Men spent much more time working and watching sports while women and children spent far more time watching TV and movies. So, it made sense to create movies and TV shows which appealed to female empowerment. Disney was one of the most successful film companies in the world at that point and was the most popular producer of children’s media. The 1980’s were the beginning of the “Go Girl” era. Stars like Madonna and Oprah Winfrey led the way, and Disney began to incorporate girl power female liberation themes into their movies. Being born in 1980 myself, I understand the incredible power of these movies for so many of us who associate them with treasured childhood memories. Fairy tales exist to teach children morals, wisdom, and life lessons. Generation X was the first to experience all their childhood fables and stories from a feminist perspective.
Starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989, this blockbuster film is credited with spawning “The Disney Renaissance,” a ten-year period from 1989-1999 in which Disney created many globally commercial successes. These films became multi-million-dollar franchises with toys, video games, and billions of dollars in merchandise sales. The Little Mermaid was originally a Danish folk tale which told of a young mermaid who lived under the sea with her widower grandmother and five sisters. She rescues a handsome prince from drowning and falls in love with him. She learns from her grandmother that humans have a much shorter lifespan than the mermaids’ 300 years, but that humans have eternal souls and can enter heaven, while mermaids become seafoam and cease to exist upon death. The longing for an eternal soul is just as much a part of the Little Mermaids’ longing to become human as is her infatuation with the prince in the original story. In the folk tale, The Little Mermaid does gain human legs in exchange for her beautiful voice, but she always feels as if she is walking on knives. She also is only able to gain a human soul through union in marriage to the prince. If not, she will die with a broken heart and turn to sea foam. In this version, the prince does not marry the Little Mermaid, but chooses to marry a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The Little Mermaid despairs, thinking of how much she sacrificed and her imminent demise. She is offered one final chance when her sisters bring her a dagger from the sea witch. If she kills the prince and lets his blood drop onto her feet, she can become a mermaid once more and return to her life in the sea. The Little Mermaid can’t bring herself to do this and instead throws herself and the dagger into the sea. Because of her selflessness, she is granted an afterlife as an earthbound ghost. She can earn an immortal soul by doing 300 years of good works for mankind and watches over the prince and his wife. There was a good TV series in the early 80's called "Faerie Tale Theatre" from the early 1980’s which included an episode telling the original version of the story. This came out a few years before Disney reinvented the tale. I was obsessed with this one as a child, and you can still watch it here if you’re interested Faerie Tale Theatre -The Little Mermaid
Now contrast the original story with the Disney version we all know. In the Disney version, Ariel is a little girl with big dreams. She has a stern patriarchal father who wants to keep her under lock and key for the sake of tradition, societal expectation, and safety. Yes, she falls in love with Prince Eric, but her main motivation for wanting to live on land are her dreams of independence and liberation from her father’s rules. She is a privileged princess who has everything, but only wants the one thing she can’t have- life on land as a human. When she expresses this to her father, he ruins her secret trove of human treasures and forbids her to return to the surface, knowing that it would likely spell her demise. Everyone knows the song “Part of Your World” where Ariel sings:
Betcha on land, they understand
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand and ready to know what the people know
Give ‘em my questions and get some answers
What’s a fire, and why does it- what’s the word- burn?
When's it my turn?
This song was an anthem for rebellion against the patriarchy. In fact, that is the central theme of the Disney version of the story. Ariel disobeys her father, uses witchcraft to do exactly what her father warned her not to, and ends up getting herself kidnapped by the sea witch. Her father, King Triton, then has to intervene and save her by allowing himself to be captured in her place. Because of this, the whole sea kingdom ends up under the dominion of the evil sea witch, spelling certain doom for the merfolk. Eric risks his own life to kill the sea witch and frees King Triton. The king then (absurdly) apologizes for trying to stand in the way of his sixteen-year-old daughter’s foolish dreams. He forgives her disobedience and recklessness which almost got the whole kingdom annihilated. Ariel gets everything she wants, and the message sent to young girls everywhere is that your dad is a big meanie head who just doesn’t want you to be independent and have fun. All the men in your life must sacrifice their very lives and even all of society if that’s what will make their little princess happy. Also, there is no negative consequence for being disobedient, lying, deceiving others, or practicing witchcraft as long as it makes you happy. The “happiness” of young beautiful women is all that really matters. The men will rescue you from all the trouble YOU are responsible for causing because that’s all they’re good for. The End.
In contrast to the original Danish folk story, we see that the Disney version is devoid of any moral teaching whatsoever. The original story teaches that the most moral path possible, the one that leads to eternal salvation, is self-sacrifice for the love of others. It teaches young women that a life of service to those they love and to humankind is what saves them. The original Little Mermaid was willing to sacrifice her own life and even her chance at a soul to prevent harm to the man she loved, even if he married someone else. There was nothing in it for her whatsoever. Her motivation couldn’t be purer, and this is what saved her in the end, even though she did not receive temporal reward in this life. This is in line with Christian morality, which is probably why Disney, run by Jeffrey Katzenberg at the time, completely inverted it. The meaning and moral of the story was turned into the polar opposite of the original.
This is a theme you will see repeated over the course of my next several pieces about Disney’s inversion of classic stories. Rebellion against the father is the most common thread. Anyone familiar with my writing already knows I believe that the reason for rejection of patriarchal order, Christianity, and fathers in general is a rejection of God the Father Himself. I will demonstrate this in more detail as I ruin more of your favorite childhood movies. Sorry in advance!
(Note: this piece first appeared on my Patreon. I am currently in the process of transitioning that content to Substack instead)