My favorite movie as a kid was Disney’s "The Little Mermaid." I grew up watching the VHS endlessly, enthralled by Ariel’s beautiful red hair, bold personality, and powerful singing voice. When we’d go to the lake, I loved to act out the iconic scene of Ariel emerging from the water to perch on a rock, hair flowing behind her, waves majestically splashing, dreamily singing, “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something’s starting right now.” 

The film opens with Ariel’s desire to explore the world beyond the corner of the ocean that she knows. She longs to break free of the oppression of her current situation. She fights bad guys (a shark), saves lives as a hero (Prince Eric), stands up to a bully (her dad), and generally makes choices to control her destiny.

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After Ariel falls in “love at first sight,” the entire plot shifts. Her goal—once broadly defined as wanting a life lived on her terms—focuses intensely on the romantic. Looking back on it as an adult, it occurs to me that she sees him as her entryway into the human world, a way to break out of her current situation. Because women have been conditioned by society to believe that the only way we can have power is through our proximity to white male privilege, so, at times, we inadvertently perpetuate the system of patriarchy through our husbands’ power. 

In the movie, Ariel visits Ursula, the sea witch, who says that she can turn Ariel into a human if she trades her voice. Understandably, Ariel balks. Ursula cuts her off singing, “You'll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don't underestimate the importance of body language!...The men up there don't like a lot of blabber...They dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” 

As a kid, I took this part of the movie in stride. As an adult and a parent of a daughter, I am horrified. I wonder how it never once occurred to me that Ariel’s decision to trade her voice wouldn’t have ever been worth it. None of the adults around me at the time questioned the narrative out loud.

It’s just a movie, sure. But what does it do to a child’s subconscious to marinate in insidious ideas packaged up with catchy songs and captivating animation? And how will kids know to question a narrative unless the adults in their lives help them to think critically about what they’re ingesting? 

Why the original version of "The Little Mermaid" is problematic

The more I think about the original "Little Mermaid", the more issues I find. Ariel is 16, and a quick Google search reveals that Prince Eric is 18. As a child, I was enthralled with her beauty. Now, I find her impossible body proportions troubling on various levels, as I feel it promotes the sexualization and fetishization of a minor.

I could go on. King Triton embodies toxic masculinity and abusive, coercive parenting, yet by the end of the film all is forgiven because he “allows” Ariel to marry her prince. Ursula is a personification of internalized misogyny, perpetuating the idea that women must compete for a limited amount of power. Most disappointing to me is seeing Eric defeat Ursula by spearing her with his boat at the end of the movie. And our once-bold princess completely fades away.

I don’t think anyone at Disney had nefarious intentions, I just think that we know more now than we did then. Our collective consciousness has been raised. This leads me to wonder what Disney is going to do about the plot in the upcoming live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid."

Related: Dear daughter—here’s the truth about Disney princesses and fairy tales

A few months ago I watched my four-year-old daughter walk across the stage at her preschool graduation. We both beamed with pride as the teacher remarked, “This girl is fearless. She knows what she wants.”

There’s not much more that I want for my daughter besides for her to know her desires and be able to advocate for herself, trusting that she can show her true self and people will meet her with acceptance. It’s something that I am still working on for myself, at age 35.

I’ve been encouraged in recent years because the writers at Disney have started telling stories that truly center on women and girls. While still not perfect, "Frozen" and "Moana" make huge strides in comparison to the old Disney princesses. Neither Elsa nor Moana have a love interest. In fact, "Frozen" intentionally debunks the idea of love at first sight, and, while Anna does have a romantic storyline, her willingness to sacrifice her life for her sister—not a romantic partner—is what ultimately saves her.

Moana’s story is a heroine’s journey, down to the feminist symbol of the spiral in the heart of Te Fiti. I can’t help but cry every time I watch Moana declare powerful truths over her own identity and the identity of Te Kā; the Lava Monster. To herself she even affirms, “And the call isn't out there at all, it's inside me... come what may, I know the way. I am Moana.”

Halle Bailey, lead actress for the new live-action "The Little Mermaid", said in an interview, “We keep a lot of the meat of the film that made us all fall in love with this film. It’s really her, and her gumption... but it’s also updated with the current times. She really goes for what she wants. She’s not scared, and it’s not all about a boy. It’s all about what she wants for herself, and her life.”

The new "The Little Mermaid" comes out in May of 2023, and I have reason to hope that Disney has the awareness to let Halle Bailey’s Ariel join the ranks of Moana, Anna and Elsa as princesses that I am happy to let my fierce, opinionated daughter emulate.