In the year that brought us the orca uprising and the disappearance of a submarine carrying tourists to the wreck of the Titanic, Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid starred an African American woman. Not entirely unlike the orcas’ antics, Halle Bailey’s selection was met with boos from conservatives and cheers from liberals. #NotMyMermaid, some tweeted. #YesMyAriel. Depending on which side you were on, the facts that director Rob Marshall’s $250 million remake of the 1989 animation was nearly an hour longer, and gave the eponymous maid a headful of waist-length dreadlocks, were matters to be deplored or applauded in equal measure. What all the Sturm und Drang obscured, however, was the extent to which both movies sanitize the gory, gay, and antisocial themes of Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1837 fairytale, while preserving the colonialist freight that has long weighed down western mermaid mythology.
Andersen’s Den Lille Havfrue was itself something of an adaptation — of an earlier German novella called Undine, which the Dane saw as a fitting vehicle for his own tale of thwarted queer longing. When Disney in turn adapted it, first as the feature Splash in 1984 and then as an animated musical in 1989, both of which include mermaids debuting naked human legs as they walk ashore in pursuit of dark-haired hunks, the studio only partially expurgated the source texts’ queer resonances. It is actually the newest Mermaid, the one that commits itself so conspicuously to a Bridgerton-style liberal representational politics, that goes the furthest in tamping down the wet subversions latent in the source material, serving up a fully reformed amphibian who skips right past her own wedding party in her eagerness to ascend out of the work-shy ocean, board a ship, and aid and abet imperial exploration. The formula for the 2023 live-action remake of the beloved classic is the same one that gave us Cruella (2021, starring Emma Stone) and Mulan (2020, starring Liu Yifei): making girlbosses out of puppy-skinning villains, soldiers, and teenage aquatic mammals alike. The reality that “Up on the shore they work all day / Out in the sun they slave away” (instead of devotin’ their hours to floatin’ down where it’s wetter, and clearly much better) seems to be precisely the appeal for this comprador mermaid. Far from a comrade of the killer whales who destroyed all those boats in 2023, the black Ariel is a beaming apologist for empire and capital — far more so, ironically, than either of her counterparts from the age of Reagan, by which I mean Daryl Hannah in Splash and the animated redhead voiced by Jodi Benson.
Since at least the age of pioneer seafaring, the figure of the mermaid has stood in as a mute other who forgives the dominant culture that has wronged her. Undine used her to express ambivalence about the increasingly secularized era of industrial modernity that was emerging in the kingdom of Prussia in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The now-canonical Danish retelling for children twisted the tale into an allegory for gay or trans working-class exclusion from high society. The 1980s mermaid movies retained both valences — the undertow of faggotry and the anxiety about colonial “progress.” But in the context of waning U.S. imperial hegemony and resurgent moral panic over “family values,” the 2023 remake seeks to subsume any lingering queerness of the mermaid under the signs of diversity and nationalism. Ariel is now a self-made citizen in a heteronormative, multiracial family business, no longer (as before) just a plucky bride. She receives a blessing from a white king and a black queen, not so much to win a man as to lead a research trip “reaching out to new cultures so we don’t fall behind.”
“Mermaids have always been black,” sighed the writer and Caribbean folklore scholar Tracey Baptiste in the summer of 2019, as racist mobs protested Disney’s announcement that it was casting Bailey. Tales of mermaids with ties to the African continent are, as Baptiste explained, ancient, but they took on new shapes in the context of chattel slavery. Various versions of the mythic sireniform female feature in the oral literatures of the Caribbean because she traveled over with the enslaved transplants and mutated along the Middle Passage. Such mermaids are the kin of the West African water spirit Mami Wata. Mermaids also feature in assorted scriptures and medieval legends of Korea, India, China, Japan, and Indonesia. In Britain, the earliest known mermaid image is engraved in stone in an eleventh-century Norman chapel in Durham. And in Irish, Scottish, Norse, and Icelandic lore, selkies, havfruer, ondines, rusalki, and mereminne were dooming men long before then.
When Cristoforo Colombo set out to sea in 1493, wouldn’t you know, he sighted a mermaid. His correspondence about this experience is thought to be the earliest known written record of manatees in North America. Manatees, of course, are still among us, just about — which cannot be said for many of the terrestrial human populations Columbus encountered. Chances are that if you’re a pinniped, cetacean, or indigenous sirenian, a random meeting with a settler-adventurer of European heritage might spell death, no less today than half a millennium ago. In Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (2020), the queer philosopher Alexis Pauline Gumbs weaves together the histories of humans and nonhumans decimated by European merchants, sketching a politics of multispecies decolonial solidarity animated by the figure of the mermaid. “Oh you rough mermaid,” mourns Gumbs in Undrowned, remembering her extinct “kin,” Hydrodamalis gigas. Around the time fur traders wiped out the newly “discovered” sea cow in question, thrice as big as the contemporary manatee, scientists were also busy “discovering” mermaids, often imagining them with racialized features.
One specimen was displayed in Paris in 1758. As the historian Onni Gust writes, it was called “hideously ugly” at the time, but seventeen years later would be described as bearing “the countenance of a Negro” in marked contrast to another newly sighted mermaid which had “the features and complexion of a European”: blue-eyed, small-nosed, and pretty. A British engraving from 1817 depicts the two mermaids side by side, one dark, one light, the latter a heraldic blonde with baroque fins, the former sporting gigantic, distended ears, big nipples, webbed fingers, and a bald head, while holding what appears to be an apple, as though pulled by colonization to eat from the tree of knowledge and quit the Edenic paradise of the noble savage. If the first mermaid can be read as a colonial conquest, fixing in place a moment in biological evolution up the great chain of being from beast to man, the second mermaid might be understood as Europe’s answer to Mami Wata: a fantasy of white indigeneity, morally justifying incursions by her “kind” across the waves even as she spells danger for them. There are, it seems, often two mermaids in the Western imagination.
In Undine, a rambling and chaotic tale by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué published six years before the date of the engraving, two mermaid types are set against each other, in competition over a knight, who formed “an unnatural union with a sea-maiden.” Fouqué’s idealized water-spirit, Undine, is anciently ur-German, steadfast, self-sacrificing, and obsessed with salvation. (Mermaids, here, don’t have souls, and can only get them by marrying humans.) Opposite her stands the impetuous and irreligious Bertalda, a duke’s foster daughter who imagines she might be of noble birth, only to find out she was actually born to a local fisherman and his wife. Bertalda isn’t a mermaid per se, but was pulled out of a lake as a child.
The knight marries Undine, who explains to him that she is a mermaid and reveals Bertalda’s true identity. Bertalda throws a tantrum, and as punishment, she becomes destitute and a social pariah, disowned by both her adoptive and birth parents. Unwisely, the forgiving Undine takes pity on Bertalda and invites her into the marital home as a charity case. The odd trio even goes on a trip down the Danube together. But Undine’s otherworldliness starts to embarrass the knight. In a convoluted chain of events, he accuses Undine of being a sorceress and essentially banishes her to the water realm. In her absence, despite Undine’s warnings to stay true to her (or else she will have no choice but to kill him), he marries Bertalda. As promised, Undine dramatically returns, erupting through the well in the marital courtyard, to kill the knight with a kiss that drowns him in her tears. Yet, having “wept him to death,” the ever-selfless Undine turns her whole body into a gift: she becomes a spring that “encircled the mound of the knight’s grave” in an eternal embrace. Undine, then, plays out a fantasy in which an avatar of reformed and uplifted paganism warns, grieves, and then ultimately forgives a man who strode heedless over her body into the secularized future that spelled disaster for him. Undine and Bertalda may not be white and black, but their fair-and-foul duality chimes with scientists’ contemporaneous attempts to codify the forms of femaleness (marriageable and not) noblemen may bump into in a globalizing age.
In a moment when feudalism was being replaced by a capitalist economy that severed peasants’ relationships to the land, the tale hinges entirely on a treacherous duality between modernity’s call, on the one hand, and the appeal of the pagan past, on the other. If Undine represents that past, Bertalda is full of alluringly secular modern potential in the sense that she is from nowhere, a fisherman’s child turned aristocratic foundling, uninterested in a soul and practically proletarianized (owning nothing to sell but her labor and putative future children). She is presented as a bad choice, but also a kind of fateful inevitability. She can’t be stopped. She will take the mermaid’s man and almost instantly outlive him.
Undine’s righteous revenge, in this fairytale, only adds to her poignancy. The legitimacy her self-sacrifice bestows can only be uneasy and guilt-ridden. She remembers what we humans have done, and she loves us all the same. She is a piteous casualty of capitalism’s rise and mediates its guilty conscience for betraying her in order to advance historical progress. The point is: she dies willingly, and without grudge.
When Andersen imagined himself as a mermaid in 1836, a self-abnegating part of him was sincerely striving to transcend his bestial, damned, deviant nature. Andersen was an unhappy “homosexual,” according to his acquaintance Karl Maria Kertbeny, inventor (in 1868) of the term. In a letter to the novelist Bernhard Ingemann, Andersen wrote that, unlike Fouqué, he didn’t want to make his mermaid’s salvation dependent on “an alien creature, the love of a human being.” For “a human being,” here, it is tempting to substitute: “a heterosexual.”
Scholars nowadays overwhelmingly agree: the mermaid allegorizes the author’s inwardly tortured existence among his upper-class patrons. He was both queer and a class outsider, the son of an illiterate washerwoman from the small town of Odense. Following some education at a school for poor children, at the age of fourteen Andersen went to Copenhagen to work as a soprano at the Royal Danish Theater, where his fortunes changed when the aristocratic director, Jonas Collin, took him under his wing and prevailed upon Frederick VI to pay for part of Andersen’s schooling. Before long, he was writing besotted letters to Collin’s son Edvard: “my sentiments for you are those of a woman.” In his memoirs, Edvard notes simply that “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” The writing of The Little Mermaid coincides, as several academics have pointed out, with Edvard’s marriage. Andersen writes himself as the sea maiden, a tongue-tied secret monster unrequitedly obsessed with the son of his real-life economic savior.
Queer meanings are, frankly, hard not to find in a tale of a girl melancholically “at sea” in society and desirous of cutting off her, er, tongue and tail to be with a man. The lille havfrue’s choices are ones that only a truly desperate teen, a teen who can’t bear anymore to live in her present configuration of bodily organs, would make. If you’re only familiar with the daddy-dominated merkingdom of the Disney movies, it may surprise you to learn that Andersen’s nameless mermaid lives in a predominantly female community — a mersorority, if you will. She defies a grandmother, not the Sea King (who barely features), when she flees to the human world after developing a crush on a human prince. Consistent between Disney’s The Little Mermaids (both of them) and Andersen’s Fairy Tales is the place of contractuality in the drama. The Dane did imagine a contract drawn up between one (1) restive un-ensouled merteen and one (1) unscrupulous merbroker, recording the exchange of one (1) tongue (or, less gruesomely, voice) for two (2) human legs, though the terms are a bit different: the penalty for the mermaid’s failure, in the original contract, is not enslavement but instant death. Fretful questions seem deeply encoded in the little mermaid artifact’s DNA. Are all contracts binding? Can love be forced? Is a queer marriage real? Can a person be bought? What will happen to society if [insert subaltern group here] becomes fully human? Are we ever allowed to escape our actions’ consequences?
Andersen’s mermaid doesn’t want to live her kind’s natural lifespan of 300 years and then turn into sea foam; rather, she wants to enjoy a short but salvific human life and then, with a human’s immortal soul, live forever. Should our protagonist marry the prince, part of his soul will leak into her and transmute her into a being who (unlike mermaids) can go to heaven. As such, he is, in some sense, not an end in himself so much as a ticket to personhood, humanity, straightness, and perhaps even whiteness. She accepts the price, losing her tongue and suffering unbearable agony with every step she takes. In Andersen everything is fairly gothic: her legs feel like fresh wounds when she walks on them, but she tries, for many days, while silently wracked with physical pain, to make His Highness fall in love with her. Her sojourn on shore is alarmingly kinky in a nonconsensual, martyred, religious sort of way: “She climbed with the prince to the tops of high mountains; and although her tender feet bled so that even her steps were marked, she only laughed, and followed him.” When the prince tells her he likes her dancing, “she danced again quite readily, to please him.” Yet it is all for nought. Andersen writes of his mermaid that, “As the days passed, she loved the prince more fondly, and he loved her as he would love a little child, but it never came into his head to make her his wife.” Ouch. He walks down the aisle with another person.
Promptly — would you believe — at the emotional peak of this children’s story, the now-married prince goes to bed with his bride in a tent on a honeymoon-bound ship, but handily, our heartbroken, still-leggy mermaid is also on board. With only minutes left to live, she suddenly receives a weapon and a very tempting out. Her sisters have all sold their hair to the witch in exchange for a revision of her deal. (Women here are transacting with women to secure a woman’s well-being.) Stab him in the heart, they urge, popping up from the depths and bobbing alongside, and you will get to live! The suspense is awesome. Yes, the little mermaid definitely considers it. After all, she has “suffered unheard-of pain daily,” for his sake. She has forsaken her voice, her home, her kin. She’s lost her chance even to get an immortal soul — something he of course has, so he’s pretty much taken care of, as far as being able to count on eternal spiritual life in the event of getting murdered goes. She kisses his “fair brow,” eyeing the “fair bride with her head resting on the prince’s breast.” She looks at the knife, the rising sun, the prince, and back at the knife again. It trembles.
No, girl. She mustn’t. Unlike Undine, she hurls the dagger away and throws herself into the water, choosing not to save herself but rather to accede, Christlike, to the consequences of her original bargain. This — surprise! — is what saves her. Andersen, somewhat pathetically, places the final power in divine hands. In a half-assed Hail Mary, the mermaid morphs into a probationary air sprite, and we learn that “the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves” over a 300-year period. All in all, the tale can easily be read as one long apologia for conversion therapy. Andersen effectively consigns his mermaid avatar to three centuries in an un-enfleshed prayer camp, dressing it up as a second chance at ensoulment. (While he wasn’t a conventionally pious man, the literary critic Rhoda Zuk notes, Andersen “ascribed his own tortuous transformation — from impoverished child to literary lion — to innate genius and the fortuitous workings of Providence.”) Even though Andersen seems to have forgotten to present marriage as an appealing possibility, the moral of the story is that hard work pays off, not, repeat, not, that only hardcore masochists and sad trans girls go to heaven.
On its face, Andersen’s transformation of the Undine source text seems to deprioritize Fouqué’s preoccupations with secularization and modernity. Where Fouqué feared, and even opposed, modern values, Andersen embraced them. Andersen himself, after all, was in some sense a Bertalda, a peasant who had risen and yearned for the love of an aristocratic man. And his emphasis on hard work as the road to salvation chimes with the “Protestant ethic” that Max Weber theorized, in 1904, as the “spirit of capitalism.” It might also be relevant that, at the high point of Danish colonialism, with Denmark’s forts and trading stations dotting West Africa, Den Lille Havfrue propagated a missionary line whose object was subhuman ocean-dwellers: strive, strive, and you may one day acquire full humanity.
Why has colonizer Christianity so consistently assumed that the white figure of the “human” will so easily serve as the ultimate aspiration for aboriginal persons the world over? It is hard not to notice, in Andersen, that — as the mermaid undergoes her metamorphoses from sea creature to land creature to air sprite, “raising her lovely white arms,” lifting “her glorified eyes towards the sun” — she grows steadily less wet, less obscured by dark brine, and progressively higher, drier, lighter, whiter, even quasi-immaterial in her final exaltation. “She is figuratively and literally,” as the scholar Laura Sells quips, “an upwardly mobile mermaid.” We might note here that the vertical imagery also chimes with the eugenicist theory that sat at the heart of nineteenth-century scientific white supremacism.
Mermaids distill the fantasy that a human might roam underwater, of course, but also that the creaturely domain desires (to be) us. As such, the sirens’ repeated heartbreaks — and offers to self-mutilate! — for our sake encrypt frontier capitalism’s disregard for boundaries, geographic and otherwise. Externalities have a funny way of looping back to bite us, or so climate scientists have insisted ever since they first sounded the alarm on the capitalist mode of exploitation over two decades before the first The Little Mermaid was in development. Nonetheless, as Gumbs lays out in Undrowned, so-called civilization has refused to change course. That Andersen’s mermaid cannot speak, for instance, clearly does not bother the prince. Her muteness resonates in a maritime, aristocratic, early-nineteenth-century scene as more than just subjugated femaleness: it evokes animality, illegibility, non-whiteness. And how convenient it would be, for the prince and his kind, if the subaltern couldn’t speak. Who knows what testimony would flow from that tongue stump otherwise?
Saying little because they contain contradiction, mermaids embody a unity of opposites. Their morphology expresses the experience of limits both anatomical and terrestrial: limits on one’s “race” in a racist world; on one’s sex in a cisheteropatriarchy; on one’s spiritual longevity as a heathen; or on one’s mobility as a part of nature that can’t circulate widely (i.e., walk) without incurring injury. Likewise, from the transfixed sailor’s perspective, the merbody suggests tantalizing limits — negotiable, surely? — on his ability to conquer the known universe. That body’s transformation into wife material is risky, sure; however, unlike the Haitians, who waged triumphant revolution against Europe for many years during Fouqué’s career, the mermaids these Europeans write are pointedly unarmed, un-angry. Not to mention, they are troublingly sexy. Their hotness seeps out of our pores laced with fears about miscegenation, gayness, transsexuality, and assorted threats to national futurity. Rage on their part would, actually, feel less uncanny and more welcome. We worry what dread curses might befall our culture when a man forms an unnatural union with a sea maiden.
If, at the apogee of naval pioneering, mermaids were often posed to assuage the guilty conscience of colonialists, in the translation from Denmark to Disney — first in 1984, then in 1989, and then again in 2023 — the stubborn traces of the anxiety that these fishy dames might refuse to comply were scrubbed away, by degrees. The live-action romance Splash came from Touchstone, which was, in ’84, a newly minted Disney label for adults. Splash is the tale of an impossible marriage supernaturally ordained from childhood between a prince, or rather fruit import executive (Tom Hanks), and an aquatic nonhuman (Daryl Hannah). The backstory goes like this: Hanks fell overboard a boat near Cape Cod at the age of eight, and a mergirl (who turns out to have been a juvenile Hannah) saved his life. Twenty years later, depressed and unmarried, he returns to the same place, only to hit his head while boating and almost drown all over again. This time, he loses his wallet, providing the mermaid with his address in New York City. Stark naked and unable to speak human language, she comes ashore at the Statue of Liberty to several tourists’ delight, having presumably prevailed upon the merauthorities to lend her legs so that she can woo Hanks for “six fun-filled days until the moon is full.” The gorgeous, ultra-horny underwater alien learns how to speak English from watching TV. Still, her utterances remain sparing, not least because the sound of her saying her own name is a piercing eldritch horror that shatters human eardrums and windowpanes. Realizing that Hanks’s character won’t be able to pronounce it, she instantly, hyper-obligingly, renames herself “Madison” after a street sign for the avenue they happen to be passing by. What a great girlfriend!
Though a little less self-abnegating than Andersen’s little mermaid, Madison buys a whole public fountain as a gift for Hanks, even installing it in his apartment, among other faux pas. Hanks — charmed — proposes marriage circa day three, but subsequently gets turned off when he discovers by accident that his fiancée is half beast. Scientists capture and torture Hannah at this point, until one undergoes a change of heart and helps Hanks spring her free. Pursued by the U.S. military all the way to the ocean’s edge, the star-crossed couple is forced to decide their fate. After some hesitation, as with the dagger-hovering, the fruit trader opts to forsake land. Kissing him, Hannah turns him into a sea breather. It’s a classic happy ending, yet the image of Hanks, still clothed, still wearing shoes on his still-human feet, limply drifting into the deep hand in hand with his finned bride, doesn’t inspire much confidence in the future of the union. They will presumably no longer be having some types of sex, since their anatomies no longer match. It also seems Hanks can’t swim. So while Splash’s ending is superficially the opposite of Den Lille Havfrue’s (a blissful relationship rather than solo ascendance), it doesn’t feel entirely dissimilar.
The good old-fashioned white wedding at the end of 1989’s The Little Mermaid is much more straightforward. This time, audiences are introduced to a prince called Eric, who sails above an underwater, tropical kingdom — a paradise marred only by the existence of a grotto containing the lilac-skinned villainess Ursula the Sea Witch. Her enemy, the mermonarch, King Triton, has seven daughters, the youngest of whom falls in love with Eric and makes a deal with Ursula to go ashore: this gutsy young crypto-feminist, who yearns to be around “bright young women, sick of swimmin’, ready to stand,” is the eponymous merprincess, Ariel. This, of course, just so happens to be the name of the “good” — compliant — native inhabitant of the Mediterranean island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the airy sprite who earns their freedom through virtue, and whom we meet side-by-side with the menacing, recriminating savage, Caliban. Like that Ariel, this Ariel is, in the end, an obedient subject who wishes to ascend to a higher order only if Prospero/Triton is OK with it. Her contract provides only three days on land, sans voice, and stipulates that she must get “the kiss of true love” within that time, or else become Ursula’s property. The best outcome is, officially, staying “up there.”
But the camp exuberance of the animators and choreographers who made The Little Mermaid (1989) thoroughly undermines this message. There is nothing at all going on, aesthetically, in the “dry” portions of the cartoon to rival the wonderful art of Ursula’s vulval boudoir, the coral reefs, the shipwrecks, concert halls, caverns, lairs, and multispecies choreographies of the marine scenes. Animator Ron Clements likes to recount how, in 1985, he picked up a copy of Andersen’s Tales in a bookstore, daydreamed about the visual potential of the tragic underwater story, and worked up a two-page treatment that fit the magical formula CEO Michael Eisner insisted upon — a fight of good versus evil, the overcoming of obstacles, and a happy ending. Still, initially, both Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg rejected the pitch, concerned that it was too similar to Disney’s own Splash, and merely of interest to girls. Clements and his partner John Musker were nevertheless cleared to make further explorations in the mermaid direction, and before long, they’d roped in the gay exuberance and vast theatrical knowledge of Howard Ashman, New York off-Broadway lyricist extraordinaire.
Ashman had just collaborated with composer Alan Menken on the gruesome 1982 musical Little Shop of Horrors. Faced with Ashman’s physical presence in California, Katzenberg was reportedly so blown away by his effervescent virtuosity that the deal was soon sealed. Originally marketed as “The Cinderella of the Sea,” the underwater extravaganza, with its plucky heroine and Busby Berkeley-esque musical numbers, turned out, aptly enough, to be a rags-to-riches ticket for the cartoon division. It grossed an enchanting $111 million at the box office in the United States, and The New York Times critic Janet Maslin spared no superlative: “show-stopping,” “a marvel,” “bull’s-eye,” “glorious,” “the best animated Disney film in at least thirty years.” Its reception single-handedly launched the prince- and princess-centric era — think: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Aladdin, Mulan, Hercules — widely hailed as the Disney animation “renaissance.”
At Disney, in the eighties, the mermaids who make gifts of themselves to the land-dwelling culture (either as guides, as servants, or as brides) — Daryl Hannah, and Ariel ’89 — were Caucasian in appearance. But the racists frothing at the mouth about the black mermaid in 2023 might want to consider that the whiteness of Disney mermaids, no less than the whiteness of “small-nosed” specimens of a prior century, was always a bit of a sham. Just as the “fair” mermaid seemed to legitimate colonizers’ extractive approach to the “savage” mermaid, these leading ladies still propped up a guilty fantasy of grateful, non-hostile, New World Indigeneity. The animated scenes near water featuring Ariel and Eric, on the one hand, and the seventeenth-century Powhatan woman Pocahontas and her invading suitor Captain John Smith in Pocahontas (1995), on the other, are surely reminiscent of one another for a reason. (In each case, the couple comes together in a watery context with a boat; the woman is meaningfully quiet.) When Ariel #1 combs her hair using a fork from the dinner table, and immediately realizes her mistake, she is signaling a wish to be schooled in optimal colonizer-colonized relations.
The plot begins with her, conversely, not accepting the authority of her benevolent white and white-haired father, Triton, ruler of a calypso-playing, Third World-coded, native patriarchy, whose black-sounding island culture is introduced to us by the apparently Trinidadian crustacean Sebastian. When Triton seeks to limit her intercourse with the First World-coded society above the waves, where there are uninspiringly drawn wooden carriage paths, cobblestones, medieval castles, and stone fountains, she rebels. Stamping her not-yet-existent foot, Ariel bristles, “I’m sixteen years old. I’m not a child any more.” This statement functions within the film to say, “I can kiss a man. I can marry.” (In California, where this version of the fairytale was written and animated, Ariel is correct. California is one of only five states to have no minimum age for marriage as long as a parent or guardian consents; however, the age of majority for sexual purposes was then, and remains today, eighteen. Assuming (from Sebastian the crab’s accent) a Caribbean location for her statement, sixteen has indeed been the typical cut-off in the legislatures of that archipelago for some time. But if, as some of the clothing in the European-looking land scenes vaguely implies, we’re meant to be in the eighteenth century, all bets are off — “childhood” barely exists yet.) Masterfully, The Little Mermaid ’89 made us root for Ariel to go, unescorted, to see an unwholesomely lecherous octopus, sign a contract, and become titillatingly naked-with-legs for a moment, prior to getting scrubbed in a bath by palace matrons and kitted out in some pretty gowns. We sat on the edge of our seats urging her to offer herself, mutely, to a grown man, as the minutes ticked down. The movie codes all this as female empowerment: she’s a Reaganite individualist, not a follower!
Were it not for Ursula, we might have concluded that the little mermaid’s early-nineteenth-century queerness had successfully been sanded away. And yet, the introduction of a walking alternative to heterosexuality — in the form of a fat, shameless deep-sea cephalopod-woman whose otherwise mauve anatomy, by pure coincidence I’m sure, is mostly black — is also where the animated movie differs most significantly from the source material. Ursula’s critique of straight culture, in her effort to convince Ariel to give up her voice, is brutal:
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber,
They think a girl who gossips is a bore.
Yes, on land, it’s much preferred
For ladies not to say a word,
And after all, dear, what is idle babble for?
They’re not all that impressed with conversation.
True gentlemen avoid it when they can.
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn:
It is she who holds her tongue who gets the man!
Ursula, in other words, reads heterosexuality for filth. She is often thought of as living alone, but in reality, she lives with her two “babies,” moray eels named Flotsam and Jetsam, and they all seem to have a ball. Her evil motivation amounts to usurping the throne currently occupied by Triton. To this end, she spies on his favorite daughter, Ariel, picks her moment, and seduces her into a rigged contract. If a now-voiceless Ariel fails to get “the kiss of true love,” she will become one more worm-like polyp on Ursula’s garden plantation of trapped souls.
Eyeing Ariel’s progress with Eric, Ursula realizes that the mermaid is going to succeed against all odds. Curses! She intervenes — which is cheating, surely — by taking on the appearance of the size-zero human “Vanessa” and hypnotizing Eric into a wedding with her. Ariel’s animal friends sabotage this zombie wedding, and Eric comes to his senses, but it is too late. Ariel’s legs switch back to a tail, and Ursula grabs her. Combat ensues! It’s Ursula against Eric and Triton, with Ariel sort of participating a bit. The contract the witch brandishes is, to Triton’s consternation, bulletproof, but, she says, she will accept a prisoner trade: the king in exchange for his daughter. It is done. The kids are on their own now. This has been her plan all along. Wielding the triton, she swells to titanic proportions and churns the ocean, wreathed with lightning, splendid. Is the ocean biome ruled by Ursula now? No: at the crucial instant, the prince steers a ship, a wrecked one she herself has churned up from the seabed, squarely into her vast belly, and so she dies, a malignant drag queen, impaled on the royal bowsprit.
She really is a drag queen, by the way. Ursula was explicitly modeled after Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, the iconic filth-femme who was already well known, when Howard Ashman and Disney started rubbing heads in 1985, for her appearances in John Waters movies such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester. (Hairspray, in which Divine also starred, came out in ’88.) There’s no getting around the basic facts: in its portrayal of Ursula as a creepy, leering, power-hungry, anti-family, slutty, cross-dressing slime-spinster, the 1989 Mermaid bears copious marks of the Reagan-era queerphobia that flourished during America’s last round of “grooming” paranoia. (This was, recall, both the height of AIDS and of a sex panic over a supposed cabal of Satanic pedophiles operating in day-care centers). Ursula is a louche procuress, a day-care worker from hell, a member of a new invading class of economically independent single women. It’s hardly subtle. She sends up hetero-romance in her lyrics; she exploits parents’ weakness; she touches Ariel, disregarding her flinches, and forces her chin up with her finger. Accordingly, we get a suitably phallic witch-slaying, and a pro-dads public service announcement in the form of King Triton’s salutary intervention to rectify teen female recklessness: he transacts with Eric as a reward for banishing the perv. He concedes, and bestows perma-legs on Ariel, but only so she can go ashore and tie the knot.
Obviously, Ursula is The Little Mermaid’s villain. Yet, in a squint-eyed interpretation of the kind I personally was inclined to extract as a newly pubescent viewer, one can still locate pro-Ursula, Ursula-curious, or at least non-heterosexual undertones. One might entertain, for instance, the notion that Ariel is not entirely repelled by the idea of Ursula as her mistress, perhaps viewing her as a kind of fallback, should courting the land-lubber fail. No? Fine. But let me tell you: I adored Ursula. Every time I watched her bind Ariel’s arms to her sides with her supple pink boa, and pull the mermaid up against her hips, my lips parted involuntarily. How many people do you think can say that their “queer root” was Ursula? Can you? We are legion, judging by the quantity of lesbian-zoophilic Ariel-Ursula porn and fan-fictional erotica on the internet. Let me tell you, Ariel looks great as a mini-Urs, with quiffed white hair, sprawling tentacles, and mauve cleavage. Or, say, she gets legs, but keeps the voice, and stays right where she is, naked, stretched across the soft, sucking prodigiousness of mommy’s lap.
With her heterotopic lair full of vaginal furniture, lewd innuendoes, potions, lotions, and unsentimental critiques of the social, Ursula is a Weimar burlesque act; an unsparing drag mother; a high-femme “queen” in the ’80s sense of the term. As the British writer Fiona Glen wrote in her superb love letter to the sea witch, “In your vampy purples, your nightlife-neon pinks popping from sucker cups, your soft and shameless bigness, a subcultural sexuality sits roundly.” Frankly, the “bad” influence of those, like Ursula, who take in refugees from the private nuclear household — waifs and strays — and hook them up with escape routes, needs bolstering, not villainizing.
Which brings us to Rob Marshall’s unedifying update of the intellectual property in question, and the brouhaha about its supposed wokeness. Rather than take the kinds of aesthetic risks in 2023 that Eisner and Katzenberg allowed Ashman, Menken, Clements, and Musker in 1989 with their girl-forward plot and complex teal-and-fuchsia color palette (deemed innovative at the time), Bob Iger, today’s would-be strike-breaker general and CEO of Disney, appears to have wished simply to push a safe-seeming button marked “repeat.” Rebooting The Little Mermaid as a bloated, CGI-addled confection with a single #BlackLivesMatter selling point (i.e., the casting) was a bet on the likelihood that at least some of the brand’s inaugural lucrativeness would have persisted — that Gen X and millennial fans of the first flick would take their Gen Z and Gen Alpha kids to see its flesh-and-blood reincarnation. Walt Disney Animation Studios and Dreamworks Animation are currently struggling creatively, albeit not financially. Other than Encanto (2021), it is hard to bring to mind a huge hit in recent memory that wasn’t a sequel. (Frozen III or Kung Fu Panda 4, anyone?)
For more than a decade, a producer called Sean Bailey has run Disney’s animated film “reimagining” factory, pumping out profitable live-action updates like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Aladdin (2019), CGI-only efforts like Lion King (2019), and celebrity spinoffs like Maleficent (2014). A puff piece about Bailey in the paper of record, in June 2023, emphasized that he is a longtime friend of Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, while making it sound like his whole vocation consists of feminist reinterpretation. “Disney’s animated classics are treasured by fans,” noted the Times solemnly, “but most showcase ideas from another era, especially when it comes to gender roles: be pretty, girls, and things might work out.” Luckily, Bailey has come to the rescue, tirelessly finding “ways to make Disney stories less retrograde.” Behold: Princess Jasmine becomes Sultan. Belle teaches girls to read. Cruella is a fashion designer. Sleeping Beauty’s femicidally jealous fairy godmother becomes, well, Angelina Jolie… and Halle Bailey as Ariel is no man’s woman; rather, she is passionately interested not just in mass-produced commodities from up there (e.g., cutlery) but in tools for explorers, like maps.
For those who care about the fortunes of the intellectual property behemoth that a hugely anti-Semitic right-winger founded one hundred years ago, the question would seem to be, as one headline puts it: “‘The Little Mermaid’ Saved Disney Once, Can It Do It Again?” A more interesting question, for my money, is: what can we infer from the differences between the Mermaids, about the evolution of those particular antagonisms that we commonly dub “culture wars”? In the first instance, Splash’s strangely melancholy, star-crossed animal-liberation vibe, to my eyes, refracted the pain of the early-’80s AIDS pandemic onto a “straight” plot, and cleared the way for Tom Hanks’s casting as the protagonist who has AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993). By the late ’80s, with the end of the Cold War in sight even as America fretted internally about Satanic folk devils, what had before been Madison the mermaid’s own crypto-queerness now morphed into not Ariel’s but the villain Ursula’s threat to the family order. Yet if the nineteenth century’s attempts to cleanly bifurcate good and bad water spirits taught us anything, it’s that Ursula/Vanessa and Ariel will bleed into one another: both defy Triton, both try to marry Eric, both have two sidekicks. Lastly, amid an all-out national freakout about juvenile fertility (articulated via bans on puberty blockers, pro-trans infrastructures, abortions, and, increasingly, even contraceptives), Halle Bailey’s Mermaid managed to starve out the queer light in Andersen’s fairytale altogether. This one really is all empire, with no unruly, campy countercurrents. It unspools nothing so much as the essence of the 2021 “Humans of CIA” recruitment video, in which a Latina CIA agent says, “I am a woman of color, I am a mom, I am a cisgender millennial… I am intersectional.”
Reader, I paid extra to attend a 3D screening, all by myself, on the release date. I even turned around to scowl at people in the theater who weren’t granting “Kiss the Girl” the benefit of their full attention. Great, I had initially thought upon hearing of Bailey’s role; maybe this means they’re dismantling the racist portrayal of the tacitly Third World marine society as inferior because of its musical, anti-work values, in contrast to the “developed,” aspirational, and productive commodity culture that Ariel so admires. (“I don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things can be bad,” she simpers to Flounder, as though attempting to ace a green card interview.) Upon exiting the multiplex, tossing my single-use plastic glasses into the bin provided, whence I fancy they migrated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I was forlorn. Pray tell, ran my bitter internal monologue: where exactly in this long, wretched, aspirationally liberal advertisement for the Protestant Work Ethic’s benefits in the Caribbean archipelago was the mermaid I’d been hearing so much about in terms of her indigestibility on the religious right? I was clearly a fool to expect that the logic of Cruella or Maleficent — the anti-hero’s tale — could be applied to the divine monster modeled on the Pink Flamingos icon who famously ate dog shit.
Striking in The Little Mermaid (2023) is the quantity of shot-for-shot replications of the original. All in all, the differences I counted are remarkably few, especially given how much longer the newer one is. This time, Ariel impales Ursula herself. We meet Eric’s adoptive mom (played by Noma Dumezweni), another parents’ rights extremist who tries to limit her child’s movements just as Triton limits Ariel’s. Sebastian no longer enjoins Eric to “go on and kiss the girl” without asking for consent first. Post-#MeToo, he instead croons, “Use your words, boy, and ask her.” Ariel has been aged up to eighteen. The location, both above land and below water, is now definitely the antebellum Caribbean, complete with anachronistic steel pans and the Trinidadian actress Martina Laird as palace housekeeper. There is still a conspicuous absence of chattel slavery. Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) sings the godawful “Wild Uncharted Waters,” in his posh English accent, in what seems to have been an effort to give his character some interiority, in the form of colonialist appetites. Ariel sings another, entitled “For the First Time,” where she admonishes herself — “Those sacrifices you made were a choice / That you can’t undo” — albeit, obviously, only in her head. The less said about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap, “The Scuttlebutt,” performed by Awkwafina and Daveed Diggs (as Scuttle and Sebastian), the better.
It is genuinely moving, in some sense, to watch Bailey perform a mischievous black girl in the act of living in the prince’s palace, stealing stuff that has fallen off ships, flirting with older men, offing her enemy herself, and getting what she wants. Would a non-white, colonized havfrue, let alone a black girl in contemporary America, get away with these things, without incurring at least some level of censure, pathologization, or criminalization? One can but snort at the end, however, when Sean Bailey’s “empowered” Ariel, having unexpectedly regained human form courtesy of a deeply uncomfortable-looking, damp Javier Bardem, now supposedly thrills at the prospect of exploring “uncharted waters” with her colonialist husband. Bright young women sick of swimmin’ and ready to stand, indeed. It would seem that gender progress has been interpreted by Bailey and Marshall as a dictate that Ariel crave a career, rather than derive motivation merely from lust for a sexy sailor.
The other problem that seems to flummox Marshall is that, in the 21st century, it’s hard to understand why an eighteen-year-old #bossbabe whose freedom literally depends on it cannot simply ask the prince for a kiss or, indeed, initiate a bout of tonsil tennis without undue loss of heterosexual femininity. Marshall’s solution was to give Ariel selective amnesia, via an extra ingredient in Ursula’s potion; a secret clause in her contract. The upshot is that on land, Ariel has no memory of the purpose for her visit. (Scuttle and co. can’t remind her because, when they do, “the thought jumps right from her brain.”) Conceivably, there were antiracist reasons, in production, for African American Ariel not to be a body in pain, a body out of place, a body burning with lust, dysphoria, and anguish, although that’s, you know, literally what the role of “little mermaid” is. Inexplicably, the movie opens with an Andersen quote on an oceanic title card: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” I can only assume that this was some kind of confused, indirect attempt to admit how odd it is that Female Role-Model Ariel suffers not at all.
But the most disturbing, and representative, ‘update’ to the plot has to do with the character that preserved, and transmuted, the subversive sexuality of Andersen’s original. Ursula’s solo has been expurgated, and the loss to the storytelling is irreparable. Even Alan Menken sounded sad about this one. “We have some revisions in ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls,’” he told Vanity Fair, “regarding lines that might make young girls somehow feel that they shouldn’t speak out of turn, even though Ursula is clearly manipulating Ariel to give up her voice.” But that’s exactly it. Remove this, and nothing makes sense. Ursula’s case to Ariel is cynical and disingenuous, after all, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Why, without Ursula’s persuasion, would Ariel acquiesce to the point that she won’t need her voice in order to secure the “kiss of true love” from Eric? It’s because, in the context of this world, she’s right, and Ariel, moreover, very nearly proves it. Human men don’t fall for women’s personalities. “DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF BODY LANGUAGE!” bellows Ursula ’89, thrusting her pelvis from side to side and back and forth. It’s the best line in the whole movie.
Melissa McCarthy’s sea witch neither says the line, nor even once shakes her ass. Yes, there’s a brief adjustment of boobs, and a shimmy or two. But her tentacles are now alight with aseptic fluorescence rather than sticky with suggestion. She is now explicitly Ariel’s aunt. She doesn’t do the thing to Ariel with the “feather” boa that made me overheat as a youth, nor does she touch Ariel’s face with her human (as opposed to octopus) limbs. I don’t in fact remember McCarthy and Halle Bailey touching much. Shortly afterward, Bailey mans the wreck herself and vanquishes the hag forever. Alan, why didn’t you stand your ground? What were the suits afraid of? Was the fear that young people might absorb the idea that straight culture really is rife with misogyny and (cis)sexism, and furthermore, that this realization will depress them rather than inspire them to rise up against it — or seek alternatives, such as transfeminine dyke communes with splendid furniture? Did anyone consider that maybe you can’t make a plot about boy-crazed self-mutilation, a violent desire to be something else, alienation, loss of language, thwarted longing, and homophobia into a tale of empowered women?
By excising the heterosexuality-satirizing lyrics from the sea-witch solo “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and covering up Ursula’s gyrating, rippling body — previously attired in something backless and strapless — with a demure black cardigan, the newest Mermaid positions itself firmly on the wrong side of the culture war over trans life encapsulated in the phrase “Drag Queen Story Hour.” Instead of standing up for queer young people and leaning into the worldwide gay Ursula fandom by casting a drag queen like Latrice Royale or a queer performer like Queen Latifah (who played the sea witch in 2019 in “The Little Mermaid Live!”) — plumping instead for the straight, married Melissa McCarthy — Disney has played it shamefully safe. It was a conservative Little Mermaid, to be sure, that saved the Walt Disney Company from the corporate raiders’ axe following two lackluster decades in the wake of Walt’s death. But its conservatism was also constantly being undercut by the total predominance of femme desire in the narrative (Ursula’s and Ariel’s), by the polymorphously perverse, kinetic splendors of the octopus-lady’s animation, and by the therefore just-about-thinkable concern, foreclosed by killing her off, that Ariel might reasonably choose Ursula (with her delightful wit, her makeup cabinet, and her badass cauldron) over the himbo Eric and his boring boat. The live-action Mermaid, ultimately, is an attempt to shoehorn Andersen’s queer, gothic narrative into a liberal feminist frame it just won’t fit.
If you unsex Ursula, there is no point to her, because her sexuality is an intrinsic part of the anti-familial way of life she dangles in front of Ariel, and of the threat this alternative poses — along with the anti-work realm Sebastian knows is “better” — to the world-conquering capitalist system Ariel ultimately decides to join. That Ursula no longer seduces Ariel vampily nor dykesplains the prevailing male taste in females can only be an indictment of or acquiescence to the right-wing sex panic of our time, which sees a crisis around cross-dressers’ and trans women’s access to the innocent (read: fertile) children of America. As the movie came out, in the summer of 2023, young mermaids whose freedoms are on the chopping block were beginning to flee the states of Texas, Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee in earnest. As Hans Christian Andersen already knew, it is a matter of life or death that Ariel finds her kith and comrades, because there are no other planets, and no alternative habitats, to which a sirenian mammal can flee. Situations like these, historically, have always inspired solidarity networks, surgery fundraisers, autonomous drug-distribution hubs, and fugitive youth undergrounds. That’s certainly the kind of endeavor my trans sisters are taking up right now. Maybe some Ariels who are materially in a position to do so will board the ships of state, figuratively speaking. But for the majoritarian Ariel, collaboration is not an option. And if she can’t access the life or the healthcare she needs without a visa marriage, then, friends, we will have to smuggle her out — and help her make a home in our homes, right here, where her people are.
Sophie Lewis is an Anglo-German writer living in Philadelphia and the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, as well as Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. Sophie’s essays appear in the London Review of Books, The New York Times, Harper’s, and n+1, and her third book, Enemy Feminisms, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books.