“Look at her, you know you do
It's possible she wants you too
There's one way to ask her
It don't take a word, not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl”
- Lyrics from “Kiss the Girl” (The Little Mermaid)
Disney’s The Little Mermaid has been captivating audiences for the past thirty years. At first glance, this film is a magical tale of a mermaid intrigued by land and the humans who walk over it. But, if you give The Little Mermaid a more critical look, you may find some troubling ideas lurking under its surface.
Take the film’s (arguably) most-popular song, “Kiss the Girl.” At first listen, “Kiss the Girl” is a lighthearted tune sung to encourage a boy to make a move on the girl he likes. If you give the lyrics a closer listen, however, one thing is noticeably absent from this calypso ballad. Sebastian never implores Eric to ask Ariel for her consent, and instead encourages Eric to make a physical advance without checking in to see if Ariel wants to kiss him. Removed from its whimsical context of mermaids and romance, “Kiss the Girl” sends a dangerous message about consent: that it is not necessary.
People have not hesitated to call attention to The Little Mermaid for its backward depiction of consent and misogynistic messages. The Princeton Tigertones, a male a capella group at Princeton University, recently decided to pull “Kiss the Girl” from their repertoire after a student columnist asserted that the song helped “promote toxic masculinity.” Celebrities such as Mindy Kaling and Kiera Knightley have said in interviews that they will not allow their daughters to watch The Little Mermaid because they believe it does not send positive messages to young girls. There have also been more disturbing instances of criticism. Jodi Benson, the actress who voiced Ariel, recently told the Huffington Post that she has received death threats from people who believe that she is anti-women.
Dialogue surrounding The Little Mermaid’s portrayal of consent is part of a wider cultural shift, as our society has become increasingly cognizant of the salience of problematic ideas in many aspects of popular culture. This dialogue has worked its way into the mainstream—take the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, which have sparked worldwide conversation on sexual harassment.
The Little Mermaid is not the only Disney movie whose storyline includes dubious depictions of consent. In both Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Aurora are “saved” from their doomed fates by gallant suitors who kiss them when they are unconscious. In our current cultural climate, can we still enjoy these films in good conscience? Or should we abandon them altogether?
There is nothing inherently wrong with our nostalgic attachments to Disney movies. For many, these films were an important part of childhood. They catered to our imaginations and gave our everyday lives a dose of magic. The issue arises when we fail to point out instances of sexism and troubling depictions of consent in Disney movies; our silence is what gives power to these ideas. Interrogating the content we consume and questioning the characters we admire is a useful exercise, but harshly policing those who still enjoy The Little Mermaid or sending Jodi Benson death threats adds nothing to the conversation.
It is important to remember that classic Disney films reflect the culture of the era in which they were created; thus, many of them do not reflect the more progressive values widely held today. To its credit, Disney has made strides to align its new films with cultural trends. Disney-affiliate Pixar Studios has released several films with strong female leads. Take Frozen, whose main focus is Elsa and Anna’s unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Or, Moana affords important representation to native Polynesians and does not even feature a male love interest, but instead chronicles Moana’s journey to save her island. Ultimately, we should push Disney and the entire film industry to continue this trend and create movies that empower female audiences, with an emphasis on sharing a diverse range of stories. Ariel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are vestiges of the past. Moana, Elsa, Anna, and the heroines to come are the future.