Epiphaneia Archive: The Little Mermaid and Parental Authority

Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 classic, The Little Mermaid, tells the story of a young and beautiful (but melancholy) mermaid princess who longs for the love of a human prince. Only there is a problem, no matter how attractive a mermaid’s top half might be, humans consider fish tails “quite ugly,” the mermaid’s grandmother explains, making it unlikely any human prince would ever reciprocate the mermaid’s love. Ignoring grandma’s warning and “forsaking…kindred and home,” the little mermaid through the help of the sea witch becomes human but tragically fails to win the prince’s love. Having lost her beautiful voice, her loving family and home, and the prince she adores, the little mermaid turns to sea foam.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid diverges from Andersen’s in a number of telling ways. In the Disney version, Ariel’s (the little mermaid) longing to live among humans is sternly dashed by her father, King Triton, who says, “as long as you live under my ocean, you’ll obey my rules!” Despite Sebastian’s (Ariel’s Jamaican crab chaperone) best musical efforts to keep her “under the sea,” Ariel rejects her father’s command and becomes human. Whereas Andersen presents the little mermaid’s grandmother and family as wise, caring, sacrificial, and, in the end, right, Disney presents Ariel’s father as angry, unreasonable, oppressive, and, in the end, wrong (something King Triton recognizes by the end of the movie). Whereas Andersen portrays the little mermaid’s rebellion against her family and people as misguided and tragically destructive, Disney presents Ariel’s rebellion from her family and people as the pathway to her personal fulfillment and her father’s enlightenment. The Disney version, in sharp contrast to Andersen’s original, casts doubt over the wisdom and motives of parental and familial authority. And Disney’s not alone. A host of contemporary children’s stories, shows, and movies portray parents as (at best) out of touch and irrelevant or (at worst) the antagonists standing in the way of the child’s dreams.

While Disney fails to reflect Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Disney does capture a prevailing sentiment toward parents that has been gaining steam for at least a century. Social Gospel advocate Miriam Van Waters in her 1927 book, Parents on Probation, concluded, “not that parents need education, but that a specialized agency had better take over the whole matter of child rearing.” Amidst the apparent progress and unbridled hope in science that marked the early twentieth century, it made sense to Van Waters and others that parents could be replaced by more scientifically informed institutions. As new modes of labor pulled parents away from the home or farm and into the factory, it seemed increasingly plausible that parents were expendable. More recently, a culture of consumption’s targeted marketing amplifies generational differences, widening the gap between parents and children. Add to the mix what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “expressive individualism” which tends to exalt the child’s autonomy over parental authority and wisdom, and it’s easy to see just how stacked the deck is against parents.

These varied forces typically manifest themselves as a general unease and suspicion towards authority. Authority, after all, is what gains such radical revision in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, for rebellion from authority does not lead to the little mermaid’s undoing (as it does in Andersen’s version), but to her flourishing. Classical Christian education is built on the assumption that good authority is not only key to education, but to life. Freedom always follows submission to authority. Not long after the child enters this world he or she must submit to the rules (or “authority”) of language before the child is free to ask for a snack or drink (or “dink,” as my two year-old says). The jazz pianist plays creatively and freely only after years of submitting herself to the rules of the piano and her instructors. Similarly, an athlete must submit to coaches, the game’s rules and fundamentals, and the team before he thrives. Whether academic or nonacademic, the entire educational endeavor, at every level, is built upon a number of authority structures.

A classical Christian education should honor the authority inherent in education by teaching self-rule (after all, it’s been said that free people rule themselves). Self-rule, of course, does not come naturally but is learned, and learned first through the loving discipline and authority of parents and family, something Hans Christian Andersen seems to have given a nod to in The Little Mermaid, but something all too often lost on contemporary portrayals of parents.

Dr. Casey Shutt is the Pastor at Kings Cross Church in Oklahoma City.