This article was originally published to coincide with The Little Mermaid’s 30th anniversary in 2019.
The Little Mermaid quickly captivated audiences the world over upon its release more than 30 years ago, scooping two Academy Awards and breathing new life into the then-struggling Disney film studio.
In the decades since, the animated adventure has become one of the company’s most beloved and popular films ever. However, it’s also grown quite an unexpected following from within the LGBTQ+ community.
The film centres around Ariel, a 16-year-old mermaid princess, who is more interested in the world above the shore than the pressures and responsibilities put on her by her overpowering – though well-meaning – father, King Triton.
While it probably wasn’t the intention of the film’s crew at the time, for many queer viewers, Ariel’s journey – having to give up a piece of herself and the life she knows in order to be with the person she loves, and to live as her authentic self – is one that hits home.
“Ariel’s longing to know more about the world and go see it for herself, I think that resonates with the queer community,” says Little Mermaid fan Mark Rocks, who says he was “obsessed” with the film growing up.
“Personally, I’m from a tiny village in Ireland, so I didn’t get to be around the sort of exciting queer-centric things I am now, as an adult. I think her desire to see more is a thing a lot of queer people can relate to… When I watch the movie now, I think of how much I must have identified with her as a small child.”
David Baxter, another life-long fan who recalls re-enacting the film’s key scenes underwater as a child “ending with the iconic Ariel hair-flip”, explains: “The core story is about a teenager who feels so out of place by everything society puts on her that she’s willing to bet her own freedom and body integrity to find her place in a world that she’s never even been to.
“From there, there are so many disconnects with her interpersonal relationships, that often mirror our own, as we figure out who we are, while also dealing with coming out. Ariel can’t talk to her father or her other guardian, but can talk to her friend, Flounder, even though she knows he won’t ever fully understand.”
Comedy writer Roann McCloskey also recalls The Little Mermaid “striking a chord” when she first saw it at the age of five, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on why at the time.
“I still watch the film,” she says. “As I am queer and mixed-heritage, straddling two worlds and not feeling like I have a voice in each is something that really resonates.”
Meanwhile, film buff Jennifer Heaton points out that the Disney classic is “especially important to trans and non-binary fans”, explaining: “For many of us, it was the first piece of media that taught us it was OK to be different and fight to be who you truly are, and dramatised a positive depiction of transition, before many of us knew that was a possibility.”
Jennifer – who has previously spoken of how The Little Mermaid relates to the transgender experience as part of her Alternative Lens YouTube series – adds: “It is one of the few examples of that kind of story where the change ends up being permanent and for the better, and that resonated with me for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.
“It’s no coincidence that the UK’s biggest charity for trans kids is called Mermaids. And that’s a testament to how iconic a story it is to gender-variant children.”
Shortly after Ariel’s introduction, we learn more about the character through the film’s critically-acclaimed signature song, Part Of Your World.
Although the directors initially felt it should be a love song aimed towards Prince Eric, it was lyricist Howard Ashman (himself a gay man, who was diagnosed with HIV halfway through production) who suggested Part Of Your World should be an outlet for Ariel to vent her frustrations about her life and her surroundings.
In both its themes and early placement in the film, the song can be compared to Over The Rainbow from The Wizard Of Oz – a point Ashman made when defending the song to Disney bosses, who wanted to cut it. As it turned out, the song speaks to LGBTQ+ viewers in much the same way Judy Garland’s performance did 50 years earlier.
“The lyrics are just brimming with a sense of wonder and yearning that’s somehow hopeful yet absolutely devastating,” says Jennifer. “When you get down to it, Part Of Your World is a song about being unsatisfied with your life despite its advantages, and yearning for one that society tells you is lesser, but is simply a part of you. If that’s not a queer anthem, then I don’t know what is.”
“Something about the song just hits me cleanly in the feels,” agrees Ben Eckersley, another fan who recalls “wearing out three VHS tapes of The Little Mermaid” while growing up.
“You can’t help but wonder how much of Howard Ashman’s own personal experiences became part of the lyrics.”
But there’s one other aspect of The Little Mermaid that LGBTQ +viewers have latched onto for a variety of reasons, and that’s the film’s iconic villain, Ursula.
As a character, Ursula essentially has queer history in her DNA. Modelled on the legendary drag performer Divine, her dialogue was also heavily inspired by Joan Collins’ character in Dynasty, a camp favourite of gay men in the 1980s. But her appeal extends beyond that too.
Drag king and Louche magazine founder Georgeous Michael is another long-time fan of The Little Mermaid, who went as far as organising a “drag-a-long” version as part of the Fringe! Queer Film & Arts festival in honour of its 30th anniversary.
“As an adult, it’s clear to me this film is really all about Ursula,” he says. “A sassy sea-witch with an aesthetic resembling the legendary drag queen Divine – as well as embodying the characterful sexual independence and innuendo of actress Mae West – her bitter grabs at power are highly relatable.
“Witty, cruel and curvaceous, Ursula is a camp power femme who wields some of the most penetrating dialogue of the film.”
Mark says Ursula “is incredibly misunderstood”, describing her as “a character who is unapologetic about taking up too much space in any room, who defies what is expected of her gender regardless of what people say”.
“She’s also camp as fuck,” he continues. “Using Flotsam and Jetsom as a feather boa during Poor Unfortunate Souls is such an underrated moment, and I have to wonder if Howard Ashman incorporated some of his own queer sensibilities into her characterisation.”
Jennifer agrees that if there is anything intentionally gay about the film, it’s “definitely found in the character of Ursula”.
“That visual, combined with Pat Carroll’s performance and Howard Ashman’s lyrics, absolutely speaks to camp culture,” she says. “It’s amazing they got away with it in 1989!”
David also points out that Ursula is sign-posted as an “outcast from the get-go”, adding: “Instead of trying to find a place to fit in, Ursula is more intent on making society reconcile with who she is and what they’ve done to her.”
“Most likely she was banished by the phallically-titled muscle-bod King Triton for the same reasons so many other powerful and skilled witchy women have been marginalised throughout history,” Princess Georgeous suggests. “Because she was deemed a threat to the patriarchy!”
It’s clear that LGBTQ+ fans of The Little Mermaid all have their own reasons for loving the Disney classic – but as Jennifer notes, it can be a good tool for educating those outside of the community too.
“The Little Mermaid is a pop culture touchstone that most people have seen, and so it’s actually a surprisingly efficient way of educating people about gender identity,” says Jennifer.
“It’s perhaps a little sad that easier to explain my womanhood by comparing myself to a cartoon fish lady rather than an actual transgender character, but that’s the world we live in.”
As Georgeous Michael sums up, it makes sense that a story like The Little Mermaid – which tells the story of a “forbidden love which ultimately prevails” – would resonate with LGBTQ+ viewers, but he also jokes it might be more simple than that.
“Ultimately, maybe it’s just the melodrama that lends itself so well to a camp viewing,” he suggests. “And all those aquatic puns.”