In this piece, writer Sydney Bucksbaum explores the impact that The Little Mermaid had on her growing up and how the Disney classic's best lessons still resonate today.
The question "what do you want to be when you grow up" is one we're all familiar with. Common replies from little kids are usually some form of real-world superheroes like astronauts, firefighters or doctors. But my answer was always even more unattainable than most: I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a mermaid when I grew up. The Little Mermaid was my main source of inspiration. It was the movie I was obsessed with as a child, playing over and over again on VHS until parts of the tape wore through to become white and black static. The Disney film about a young, headstrong mermaid striving for more out of life first hit theaters in November 1989, just a few months before I was born. I don't even remember the first time I watched it because I was so young, but I always knew I wanted to be exactly like Ariel. I even had the red hair and bangs, of which I combed with a fork, to prove it. The Little Mermaid began shaping my entire life before I could even fully understand what was happening.
In the 30 years since The Little Mermaid first splashed onto the scene, the conversations around Ariel and her story have shifted. Critiques began to emerge, arguing that Ariel gave up her voice, tail, and life underwater all to marry a man she hardly knew, a horrible message to send to kids (especially young girls). As times have changed, so has the lens through which society views entertainment, and classics like The Little Mermaid, along with other Disney Princess films, have come under fire for what’s seen as sexist themes. These critiques are all extremely valid, and it’s important to point out that some of Disney’s older messages are reductive and harmful towards women. But there’s plenty of other magic in the classic Disney movies that can have a positive impact on kids and young girls in their formative years. That’s why 30 years later, The Little Mermaid still matters.
Ask Ariel herself. Jodi Benson voiced Ariel in the original film as well as animated TV series, games, video shorts, and even reprised the role in other Disney films like the recent Ralph Breaks the Internet. "Her desire is actually to go outside of the box so to speak; her desire to actually become part of the human world," Benson tells Teen Vogue about the common misconception that Ariel gives up her voice for a man. "That's her primary focus. When she's singing 'Part of Your World,' this is a fascination she's had her whole life, to see what's up above the surface, something outside."
It's a drive that Benson knew all too well when she originally recorded The Little Mermaid. The actor-singer grew up on a small town in Illinois and always knew she wanted to be a Broadway performer — even though she had never even been afforded the opportunity to see a Broadway show in person. So from as young as she can remember, Benson related to everything Ariel struggles with in the movie, and she brought that connection to her portrayal of the young mermaid.
Just like Ariel, Benson didn't let any obstacles get in the way of her dream: starring on Broadway. After making her debut in Marilyn: An American Fable, she went on to star in Smile, Crazy For You, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and more Broadway musicals. So despite the criticisms of the film, Benson has always been "proud" of Ariel for "her strength, her integrity, and her tenacity," because the character inspired not only her but also countless others to shoot for the stars.
"In 1989, she was pushing the envelope for Disney as far as taking those chances with those wonderful qualities about her," Benson says. "We see the progression of our princesses starting with [1937's] Snow White all the way to 2019. We see such great growth. I'm thrilled that Ariel gets to be part of that legacy where she's laying that foundation for growth."
Ariel absolutely is a great role model for kids to see. Even though she was a princess who seemingly had the perfect life with everything handed to her on a silver seashell platter, she still strived for more. She wanted to fearlessly explore beyond her home in the ocean and dive into a whole new world up above, despite it being outside of her comfort zone. While Ursula chose Ariel’s voice as the bargaining chip for their deal, it was Ariel who ultimately made the decision to sacrifice it to achieve her dreams; she paid that price all on her own. She also saved Prince Erik – twice – so let's not get it twisted: Ariel is no damsel in distress, giving away her agency for a man; she's fully in charge of her own life.
Even the late Roger Ebert once wrote in his initial review of The Little Mermaid, "Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny … she’s smart and thinks for herself.” Both today and 30 years ago, that analysis rings true. But that's not to say that Ariel is perfect – this character was created three decades ago, so some aspects are bound to be dated in some regard.
And Benson agrees that if The Little Mermaid had been made today, it would obviously be different. "If we were to bring her to 2019, I'm sure there would be tremendous growth for her personality and her character qualities and the story," she says. "There would have to be; we need to stay present and we need to make things applicable for this day and time and kids. We have to have that growth."
With Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid comes a necessary update. While it’s unclear as of now how the new movie is going to handle the story, the casting of Grammy-nominated Chloe x Halle singer Halle Bailey as Ariel shows that much-needed evolution is happening. Casting a black performer in a historically white role to better reflect today’s world is exactly what we need to see more of in pop culture. It wasn’t until 1992 (a full 55 years after Snow White) that Disney fans young and old got their first non-white Disney Princess in Aladdin’s Jasmine, and it took all the way until 2009 for the first black Disney Princess to debut with Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Kids today will now grow up to see a live-action movie Ariel portrayed by a young black woman, allowing many of them to see themselves in pop culture in ways that adults only dreamed about when they were kids.
Three decades years later, as The Little Mermaid celebrates its milestone 30th anniversary, I've since learned that my dream to become a mermaid is, sadly, impossible. For one, I've already grown up and become a journalist instead of a magical water-dwelling creature. For another, I don't have gills that would allow me to breathe underwater. I'm not even that great of a swimmer – my ideal time in a pool is lounging on an inflatable inner tube, crab-shaped or otherwise. But for one day, I was able to finally achieve the impossible and become a mermaid. Well, sort of.
On one fateful, early February morning, even the unseasonably cold Los Angeles chill couldn't keep the grin off my face as I braved the 50-degree weather in an outdoor hotel pool to enroll in Sheroes Entertainment Mermaid School. As I sat down in makeup artist Shawna Del Real's chair for my mermaid-inspired makeover (spoiler: it takes a lot of setting spray to waterpoof makeup), all I could do – aside from singing along to Ashley Tisdale's "Kiss the Girl" cover blaring on the speakers – was imagine just how beautiful and graceful I would look when I finally got in the water with my black-and-grey mermaid tail on.
Expectation: As a mermaid, I would be ethereal, otherworldly and powerful, flowing through the sea like my bones are made of water, all fluid and elegance and poise with an undercurrent of danger. I would always know how to find my light for the underwater photographer, even if I couldn't see the camera clearly. I was born for this. Reality: Being a mermaid is hard AF. I could barely stay underwater long enough to do a single pose, my lungs felt like they were going to explode, I got water up my nose and in my ears, some of my false lashes fell off during the lesson, my eyes were red and irritated from opening in the chlorinated pool, and having my legs bound together resulted in me floundering about like a beached whale instead of some underwater goddess. I'm not even sure I passed Mermaid School 101, but I did get some cool Instas out of it.
After spending hours achieving my dream of finally becoming a mermaid, goth-inspired tail and all, completely failing at my lifelong goal, I found that I still loved The Little Mermaid. My bubble hadn't been popped even though being a mermaid wasn't at all the fantasy I had built it up to be. I then realized something that never would have occurred to my younger, mermaid-obsessed self: I didn't fall in love with The Little Mermaid because Ariel was a mermaid. I fell in love with Ariel herself. My underdeveloped little kid brain just latched on to the magic and wonder of her glorious tail, fishy friends, and how her bangs always fell into place, even underwater (iconic, I could never). But it was her strength of character and refusal to give up on her dreams just because it seemed impossible or someone told her no that actually helped shape me into the person I am today.
So imperfections and all, The Little Mermaid's significance over the past 30 years can't be denied. This bright young woman was sick of swimming and ready to stand. Or rather, the opposite – I swam, clumsily, with my fin splashing above the water triumphantly. Ariel taught me that dreams sometimes do happen, and I got to be a mermaid for a day. But more importantly, her dedication and ambition to discover something beyond her own world continue to inspire me to never give up no matter how impossible the circumstances may seem. Thanks, Ariel.
Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue