There are two types of millennials in the world: those who love The Little Mermaid and those who think Ariel is the entitled embodiment of bad decision making. Whether or not you’ve actually seen the movie is irrelevant. Even if you just have a passing knowledge of the story and have heard Jodi Benson crooning “Part of Your World,” you probably have an opinion on this movie. And that opinion can tell a lot about you.
There’s a longstanding debate over who the millennial patron princess is: is it Mulan, the badass warrior princess? Belle, the quiet, smart one? Jasmine, the powerful free spirit? Or is it Ariel, the follow-your-heart, dream-big-dreams mermaid princess? All of these movies came out during the Disney Renaissance, the period from 1989 to 1999 when the entertainment giant returned to its roots of animated musicals based on known stories. Coincidentally, these movies also came out during the formative childhood years of millennials. Chances are, if you grew up in the 90s, you’ve seen most of these movies. And, if you’re the princess loving type, you had a favorite. A diehard favorite you’d argue on behalf of for days.
We didn’t choose these brightly animated hills to fight and die on… they chose us.
Arguments for each princess are largely dependent on what kind of person you are. Quiet bookish girls tend to like Belle, free-spirited feminists fight for Jasmine. We like what we identify with. Each princess once represented an ideal, something we could be if we were rich and outgoing and, you know, fictional.
As this Peter Pan generation grew up, these fictionalized ideals stuck in the minds of millennials everywhere, and the arguments over which princess was better became arguments over what’s the best way to live life. How do you approach the world? With backbone and bookish charm? Or with unending optimism and mermaid magic?
In a pessimistic, post-truth world, it’s easy to see the appeal of an adventure-seeking princess who stands up for what she believes and can escape to the bottom of the sea whenever she pleases. Mix that upstanding escapism with the fact that mermaids—in all their shimmering magical millennial glory—are trending, and you’ve got a movie just ripe to be picked up and paraded around as the heart of a generation, anti-feminist themes be damned.
Of course, there’s debate over whether the entire movie—and Ariel herself—are the embodiment of feminism or fifteen steps back into the patriarchy, with one side arguing that the strong, confident princess saves the prince, and the other stating that she sold her soul to the devil for a dude, who then fell in love with her while she couldn’t communicate with him. As with most things, the movie is neither wholly feminist nor wholly patriarchal propaganda, but falls somewhere in the middle, probably under the “it’s just a movie, guys” umbrella with everything else designed to make more money than moral stands.
But while the fight for feminism rages on, we all know Disney princesses and their respective stories will always be more than just a movie for the little girls and boys who grew up idolizing these 2D animations with waists smaller than their necks. Ariel is adventure. She’s standing up to your parents. She’s finding yourself. She’s brave choices. She’s true love and a happily ever after.
Most importantly, she’s optimism.
Any search for why Ariel is the best Disney princess provides gif-filled listicles stating compelling reasons such as “she’s a mermaid” and “she has the best hair,” but almost every millennial with a blog agrees that people love Ariel because she’s eternally optimistic. Even when faced with an anthropomorphic octopus that reduces people to sniveling shells of their former selves, she’s gung-ho to get going on an adventure to find both herself and her man. She doesn’t let anything stop her—not her father, not the loss of her voice, not a drag queen sea witch, and definitely not logic or common sense.
It’s this kind of inspiring, illogical optimism that spurs an undying love for Ariel in the hearts of little girls and millennial dreamers everywhere. It’s an ideal. It’s something to aspire to, especially in a world that appears to be headed straight for hell. But it’s this same inspiring, illogical optimism that instills a deep disdain for the film in people who call themselves realists in an attempt to make their pessimism more palatable. It’s a fallacy. It’s a pointless, fantastical argument rooted somewhere far outside of reality. It’s a boon for the easily upsettable, an impractical band-aid to briefly cover our problems. It’s the cause of all these post-truth appeals to emotion.
These are two extremes, obviously, but the fact remains that whether or not you enjoy The Little Mermaid can be traced back to whether you approach with world with bold optimism or bleak resignation. Are you the type to think the world can be fixed with enough plucky spirit? Or is “but Daddy, I love him!” the cry of a spoiled child who’s more trouble than she’s worth? Or are you somewhere in the middle, wondering why in the Disney-loving depths of the sea people care so much about a fictional character?
Whether your glass is half full or half empty, though, the real question remains: How is Ariel not constantly dehydrated? The girl lives in saltwater. And then leaves the saltwater permanently to live on land. That’ll kill even the best of skincare routines. Get your act together, Disney.