I truly forgot how much I loved watching The Little Mermaid (though as a kid I was actually a bigger fan of the sequel with Melody)! I didn’t remember much of the introduction, but as soon as Ariel burst out singing “Part of Your World”, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. I remember every time my parents and I would visit some family friends about an hour away in New York, while the adults would chat about “adult things” I would watch The Little Mermaid on videotape in the den upstairs. It’s fascinating something like the first few lines of a song can instantly transport you to a past experience.
Anyways, watching the movie for the first time in many years, I picked up on several new things. For one, the presence of stereotypes. Sebastian clearly has a Jamaican accent. Though a loyal and hardworking subject of the King, Sebastian loves music (as seen by his role as court composer and his production of “Under the Sea”) and attempts to persuade Ariel to remain in the ocean where life is good and easy. In doing so, Sebastian often uses improper grammar, substituting “is” for “are” such as in the line: “What more is you lookin’ for?” Furthermore, in the Caribbean-sounding tune “Under the Sea”, Sebastian spotlights musical sea creatures, such as the “Duke of Soul” playing the sax and the “Blackfish” belting out singing, both animals obviously resembling the “typical” black jazz musician. In these illustrations, I don’t think Disney meant to be racist or offensive in the slightest bit, although I do recognize its clear references to black culture sprinkled throughout. Other stereotypes are also evident in the film, such as the overly-dramatic French chef and Scuttle, the foolish New York-sounding seagull with a curiosity for valuing treasures/antiques.
Another stereotype is what it means to be a man. While King Triton is the epitome of power and brawn, with his abnormally buff figure (how does his merman tail even support so much upper body weight….?) and his huge beard, he still exhibits signs of a tender-hearted man. For example, the King fawns in private over who “the lucky merman” (a.k.a. Prince Eric) who has captivated Ariel is. When he sees Sebastian, the King immediately stops and pretends he wasn’t so happy and curious over his daughter’s possible love interest. Similarly, Sebastian, afraid of getting in trouble, sounds like a scared little girl when asked by King Triton about Ariel’s whereabouts.
Ursula also contributes to gender stereotypes in the film. In her grand song “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” she describes typical cases of people who seek her help in “fixing” themselves — often scrawny men and chubby women whose looks don’t correspond with gender ideals. In a successful attempt to steal Ariel’s beautiful singing voice, Ursula also tells Ariel that she doesn’t need a voice at all to get Eric to fall in love with her, since all a woman needs is her physical beauty. In fact, she adds that men actually like it when women “hold their tongues.”
As a kid, I didn’t pick up on any of these stereotypes in the film. However, now as a much more observant adult watching it, I realize that stereotypes abound in “The Little Mermaid”, from race to gender.