On Friday at 1PM, the “Mythology in Popular Culture” panel took place in the Hilton Galleria 6 and aired on DC Digital Media’s Twitch channel. Right at the start, M.C. Williams of the Myths Your Teacher Hated podcast promised that the panel would stay kid-safe. (He also emphasized that the podcast, though a similar type of show, was very much not.)
In less than an hour, Williams gave a full analysis of the stories and folklore from around the world that inspired The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, and that went on to inform the creative choices made in both the Disney animated movie and the live-action remake from 2023. He explored the themes and the plot holes created over different versions. As it turns out, the original fairytale was not the family-friendly inspirational story that it has become in popular media, and was instead an overly flowery cautionary tale, complete with blood magic and attempted “unaliving,” as today’s kids would call it.
Williams said that the original fairytale covers themes like loss of innocence, explores the suggestion that pain is a virtue, and includes many religious motifs to reinforce the ever-present authority that drives the story. It is instead, he suggests, a brutal cautionary tale about kids growing up too soon, and the heavy consequences of being unhappy and restless with the social expectations around them.
Williams suggested that the story wasn’t really dealing with the “love at first sight” trope that the modern retellings adopted, and that instead, the Prince that the nameless mermaid sacrificed herself for was really a stand-in for what she really wanted: a soul that would allow her to live life on land. He is just someone that she follows around, with little “true love” to be seen, which ultimately dooms her because of the magic she had used to live with him on land.
In the end, the fairytale is a story about mistakes and the consequences of poor, impulsive, childish choices. The adults around the young mermaid encourage practical, sensible things; even the sea witch isn’t an evil character. The protagonist instead chooses to challenge their advice and makes her own decisions with full agency. Rather than achieve her freedom, the rebellious girl goes through many trials before she becomes an air spirit. In a way, she is left no choice but to conform to the rules she didn’t want to settle for.
As described by Williams, it is also something of a redemption story, because only after prolonged and miserable suffering, the main character was allowed something she wanted. By sacrificing herself, the girl gained a soul, something the story had promised wasn’t possible. “She changed everything about herself to try to fit in, which doesn’t work because it never does. Only by relying on who she’s always been does she get her actual reward of being a Daughter of the Air,” Williams said. It wasn’t really a modern happy ending, instead just the best one possible under the weight of the fairytale’s themes.
The Disney Era
During the panel, Williams offered comparisons and contrasts between the three versions of the story. In the original tale, Ariel’s underwater world is described in great detail, including the animals. But she doesn’t have the singing guidance of a bright red lobster named Sebastian or the friendship of Flounder, the fish who isn’t a flounder.
While the movies kept the rebelliousness and the ‘otherness’ of Ariel compared to the other mermaids under the sea, she became a more passive character. Similarly, Prince Eric is one-dimensional, with little agency in the story’s events. “Eric has big Kenergy,” Williams joked.
The 2023 remake explored both characters more and gave them more independence, but their backgrounds still reflected each other. The animated story took liberties for the sake of making it a kid-friendly, fun movie, removing the darker, weightier themes and messages entirely.
The Historical Bits
In this panel, Williams pointed out that the children’s fairytale as originally written was really an allegory and the use of gendered and religious conformity motifs was intentional. Andersen, as a bisexual man, wrote Ariel’s story when the man he loved instead married a woman. It was a “subversive story, intended as an explicit rejection of the typical fairytale tropes” said Williams.
The use of allegory didn’t remove the historical context of the myths that mermaids were lifted from, however, and Williams outlined that the concept comes from a more worldwide myth. “Mermaids are not and never have been a European thing,” he said. Andersen’s story was influenced by old tales of Melusine, fairies, sirens, selkies, and other water spirits. These myths also existed in places like the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Africa, and even Eastern myths from Asia and many others.
Of course, as with the myths themselves, even this family-friendly panel described the stories in more graphic detail than this summary will replicate in print. For the more colorful, unsanitized versions and historical contexts for even more myths and legends, check out
Find episodes of M.C. Williams’ podcast at https://www.mythsyourteacherhated.com