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The Little Mermaid’s lyric changes are poor and unfortunate

A few weeks ago, I wrote a news story about Alan Menken’s reveal that songs from The Little Mermaid had been edited and updated to be more reflective of modern morality, particularly in relation to consent. Without having heard the new lyrics, I was critical (and maybe even a little snarky) about Disney pushing these changes. I didn’t realize this would be a controversial take until people in the comments started comparing me to Tucker Carlson.

Jack Champion on „Scream VI“ and working with James Cameron

For the record, I’m generally a fan of Menken, Rob Marshall, and Halle Bailey, agnostic on Disney (suspicious of megacorps, nevertheless a nostalgic millennial), and passionate about feminist issues. Ariel has also been my favorite Disney princess since childhood, so I’m sensitive to complaints (some of them reiterated by Bailey) that the original 1989 film is problematic. Deserved criticism is fair enough, but some of it feels like inventing problems where they didn’t exist.

Enter The Little Mermaid’s 2023 soundtrack, which dropped last Friday ahead of the movie’s May 26 premiere. As promised, there are changes to the original lyrics, most notably in “Kiss The Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The update to the former is slight: rather than assuring Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) “it don’t take a word” to “go on and kiss the girl,” in this version Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) encourages him to “Use your words, boy, and ask her/If the time is right and the time is tonight.”

Even my curmudgeonly, supposedly Carlson-esque heart can’t find an issue with this lyric change. Sure, why not, teach the kids watching about explicit verbal consent. I would still argue, though, that the original version of the song does not invoke “the idea that [Prince Eric] would, in any way, force himself on [Ariel],” as Menken explained. As I wrote in the previous post, the context of the song within the movie is that Ariel needs Eric to kiss her to break the curse, and her friends are all helping to communicate her enthusiasm about the idea to the prince. Furthermore, consent isn’t as cut and dry as saying “yes” or “no.” Enthusiastic consent can also be represented by “nonverbal cues, such as positive body language like smiling, maintaining eye contact, and nodding,” as described on RAINN’s website. Asking for an affirmative might be best practice, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the original version within its own context.

Poor Unfortunate Souls” gets the more robust edit, which is to say a large swath of the original lyrics have been cut. Here’s the section (iconically delivered by Ursula voice actor Pat Carroll) missing from Melissa McCarthy’s rendition:

“You’ll have your looks, your pretty face
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!
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?
Come on, 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’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man”

This verse was cut, according to Menken, because it “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.” And there’s the rub: Ursula is the villain, therefore it’s clear to children watching that Ursula is wrong when she sings these lines. If we accept Disney movies as morality plays for kids, cutting this section is actually a missed opportunity to teach young girls a lesson. Her shut-up-and-smile spiel is very clearly not true within the context of her character and the story. (There are examples of this kind of villainous manipulation even in modern Disney canon. You’re not supposed to think mother actually knows best when Mother Gothel sings as much in 2010’s Tangled, for instance.)

No, these changes are not bad or wrong, and unlike a certain ousted Fox News anchor I don’t think there’s really some kind of woke war on our beloved children’s media. What I do think is that the edits are shallow and performative, and come from a place of underestimating the intelligence of the audience. The young target demographic for The Little Mermaid are like sponges soaking up the world around them. Learning to understand and interpret context is a critical skill, and in an age where it feels like media literacy is diminishing, it feels like a dumbing down of the text to put so fine a point on what’s Good and Bad within a fairly inoffensive narrative from the late ’80s.

Worse still are the seemingly cynical motivations from which these changes were born. In her video essay “Woke Disney,” cultural critic Lindsay Ellis argues that the injection of capitalist-friendly feminism into the updated versions of classic Disney fairytales is a way for these movies “to justify their own existence.” The live-action remakes aren’t reinventing the wheel; they’re putting a shiny new spin on something that already exists. “[It’s] that thing you like already. But woke,” Ellis says, noting that these movies don’t usually engage with genuine criticism of the source material, but rather tend to paint over or ignore those issues. (See: the absence of racist caricatures in 2019’s Dumbo.)

Woke Disney

One thing Disney is notorious for is warping copyright law to suit its whims. By refreshing the animated movies with live-action remakes, the company extends its hold on those versions of the characters. It gets to sell new toys and create renewed interest in theme park attractions. It gets to say that the newly sanitized version is not your mother’s Little Mermaid, and this one is actually much better for children than the previous one where Prince Eric was some kind of pervert and Ursula was anti-feminist. And it accomplishes all that without making any substantive changes to the characters, music, or plot. As Ellis points out, “that’s not progress, it’s just marketing.” The Little Mermaid (2023) may be a perfectly enjoyable movie, but I can’t award it any points for these updates. If that puts me on par with Fox News, well, so be it.

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