In his viral monologue as a guest on Tom Bilyeu’s Inside Quest, best-selling author Simon Sinek claims that millennials were dealt a bad hand…it’s through no fault of their own.
This seems like one of those claims that every generation’s 20-somethings may stake; things are tougher than they used to be, everything’s getting so expensive, and kids these days are like nothing the world has ever seen. Was some other generation dealt a good hand? Or were previous generations just dealt a less shitty hand?
Is each consecutive generation being dealt a worse and worse hand? Maybe not a worse hand, maybe they’re just receiving less cards… trying to play 5-card stud with a constantly-decreasing number of cards since the 1940s.
Maybe it’s not necessarily true that cards are money (though it may feel like it at times); this bad-hand is entirely relative and open to interpretation. Kind of like the American Dream. For the sake of this discussion, and Sinek’s reasons for the bad hand (parenting, technology, impatience, and environment)let’s say that a bad hand means having a worse chance to live a happy life.
Could there be some truth to Sinek’s statement? I mean, we’re just another generation of a morally-declining society; a 1990s Disney/romantic comedy-watching generation who grew up thinking that life was going to turn out as it did on TV. It’s no wonder that those of us from the United States are the most optimistic despite being the least wealthy generation, going back to the Silent Generation.
One reason for this optimism may be the media we consumed as children. If you ask a millennial what their favorite Disney movie was, there’s a great chance they will be able to tell you right away (Toy Story, definitely). Disney movies often get thrown in the discussion that explains the shortcomings and coddlement of millennials. Disney gave way to the term disneyfication, which according to the dictionary, is the transformation (as of something real or unsettling) into carefully controlled and safe entertainment or an environment with similar qualities.
That said…not all Disney movies are feel-good movies that end happily ever after…
Bambi: Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter and is explained by his absent father how it’s just the way of the world.
Old Yeller: Ends with a boy having to put down his beloved dog after it contracts rabies from a rabid wolf.
Toy Story 3: After nearly being incinerated at a trash dump, Woody and Buzz watch Andy drive away after finding a new home with a young girl.
All contain some tear-jerking elements that demonstrate that life isn’t just roses and rainbows. The Lion King, for example, provides viewers the experience of the death of a beloved family member. One of our Blind Spots as humans when looking back at Disney movies is looking at them how we want to remember them…. safe, innocent, and wholesome messages for children. It takes conscious effort to remember the negative parts.
So how does this media stack up to previous generations? Were we dealt a bad hand with Disney movies?
Let’s look at one example of Disneyfication in action… The Little Mermaid, the movie that launched the Disney Renaissance after years of floundering (excuse the pun) around with mediocrity.
The original version of The Little Mermaid, written by Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, in 1837, was intended as a fairy tale for children.
After saving The Prince from a shipwreck and falling for him, The Little Mermaid wants to know if humans can live forever. Her grandmother explains that mermaids live for around 300 years and then cease to exist, while humans have a soul that can live on in Heaven.
The Prince and an eternal soul? The Little Mermaid is in. She makes a deal with the Sea Witch; she has to make The Prince fall in love with her. Otherwise, if he marries someone else, she will die of a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam.
She returns to the surface, and they begin “hanging out”. She can’t speak, because the Sea Witch cut out her tongue (to take her voice, the sweetest of any who dwell here in the depths of the sea) in exchange for the potion that would grant her two supports (legs). In addition to this harsh punishment, part of the agreement is that although she has human feet and can dance like no other human, it constantly feels like she’s walking on sharp knives.
Despite this hanging out, the Prince agrees to marry another woman as part of an arranged marriage. According to the narrator, he loved her [The Little Mermaid] as he would love a little child.
Yes, you are dear to me; for you have the best heart, The Prince confirms. The Little Mermaid is heartbroken. She endured a lot of pain for him, and for what? The Prince believes another young maiden saved him from the shipwreck (but you are like her… she belongs to the holy temple, and my good fortune has sent you to me instead of her; and we will never part he explains). She was unable to express her feelings for him as a result of her tongue being cut out.
The Prince gets married in an elaborate ceremony aboard a large ship. The Little Mermaid painfully attends. However, during the night of the celebration, The Little Mermaid’s sisters rise to the surface with a proposition.
They present to The Little Mermaid a dagger; she may return to the water as a Mermaid; all she has to do is plunge it into the heart of the Prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once more a mermaid, so she can live out her three-hundred-year mermaid destiny.
When given the opportunity to kill the sleeping Prince as he sleeps peacefully next to his new bride, in exchange for the opportunity to return to life as a mermaid, she can’t do it. She flings the knife into the water and throws herself in.
Instead of dissolving into sea foam, the Little Mermaid saw the bright sun and finds herself floating among hundreds of transparent beautiful beings.
Where am I? she asks.
Among the daughters of the air, one of them responds.
She finds out that she has become a Daughter of the Air. Other Daughters explain to her that she became one of them thanks to her selflessness, and she has the chance to earn her own soul in Heaven by doing good deeds for mankind for the next 300 years.
The story does not end happily ever after; it ends quite literally up in the air .
The Disney version, in 1989, was also intended for children, but upon review, is more Hollywood. Ariel, a 16-year-old, highly-sexualized (impossibly-tiny waist, shapely ass (or whatever mermaids have), wearing only a clam-shell bra) teenager, falls for Prince Eric after seeing him on his ship. She saves him, and soon after, claims her love for him to King Triton… But Daddy, I love him! At this point, the two have never met (the same can be said for the book version).
Ursula the evil Sea Witch offers to help her…. allowing her the possibility to turn into a human and to be with Eric forever and to never see her family ever again. While presenting her the contract that allows her to become a human if she can have a true-love kiss with Eric within 3 three days or else be trapped with Ursula for eternity, she sings…
The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yet 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
Sebastian, King Triton’s Crab assistant, suggests that Ariel might just be miserable for the rest of her life with her family, so he agrees to help her.
There is no reference to the human soul living forever in Heaven, as in the book version. Her only motivation for changing into a human is for Prince Eric. After thwarting Ursula’s plot to prevent Ariel and Eric from marrying (by transforming into the beautiful Vanessa and casting a spell on Eric), they eventually get married and live happily ever after. The end .
I feel myself turning into a helicopter dad as I examine the messages that The Little Mermaid reinforces. Come on, Nathan, live a little! It’s just fun, no need to be a stick in the mud. Are the kids really paying attention to the messages in the movie, or are they too busy singing Under the Sea?
The entertainment value of The Little Mermaid is unquestionable; the critical reviews of The Little Mermaid received 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and received scores of positive reviews from critics. Under the Sea is a catchy and entertaining tune, and I found myself entertained by the creativity of the music-producing undersea creatures.
It’s a fun story, no doubt. But after showing this to a five-year-old, what are they going to learn from it?
Why wouldn’t they grow up thinking that changing everything about yourself to be with a romantic partner is normal? Why wouldn’t they learn that marriage is the key conclusion to achieve a happily ever after? And what about teaching compromise and how real relationships work?
In real-life, The Little Mermaid wouldn’t change everything about herself without harboring resentment towards Eric. You can imagine, around one year later… Eric, I changed my whole life for you, and this is how you treat me?
The Little Mermaid is junk food. It is a heaping, dripping pile of double-patty, American-cheese, bacon, fried onion crispies and barbeque sauce, with a side of fries and a large, refreshing Coke. Ok, in moderation, of course, but a steady diet of this kind of material is a recipe for inflated expectations and life disappointment.
I hesitate to even consider this Disneyfying since the original version was (objectively) quite acceptable for children. The Little Mermaid’s tongue was cut out with a knife and she was given a dagger with which to stab the Prince in the heart; these are the most graphic representations in the original work, which to children in 1837, were likely nothing extraordinary.
The Little Mermaid not marrying The Prince may not be a satisfying ending, but that doesn’t mean it was damaging to a child. We’re not talking about the Queen in Snow White being sentenced to death by dancing with red-hot iron slippers, as was the Queen’s fate in the original cut of Snow White.
It is important to know that many original fairy tales were not intended for children. Fairy tales were traditionally rooted in storytelling as a way to communicate values and manners. In the 18th century, writers such as the Brothers Grimm began writing material for children. The stories were intended to preserve traditional German stories in a “more pure, truthful, and just” as not to be “harmful for children’s eyes”. In other words,…. Disneyfication is not a new concept. Even back then, certain aspects of fairy tales were filtered for children’s consumption. Though one could argue that modern Disneyfication is more coddling than 18th century Disneyfication.
Fairy tales reached paper in the late 1800s and were only accessible to the few who could read. These adult fairy tales were filtered to maintain an “ideology of harmlessness” whose purpose was to “reinforce the dominant social codes within home and school.”
Media consumed by children suggests values about gender roles, race, and social status to impressionable 5–10 year-olds (the time at which children are most susceptible to subversive cultural messages). In times before movies, when fairy tales were communicated by word-of-mouth, children had to fill-in-the-blanks with people they knew from their own lives, or what they could create with their imagination. They weren’t shown what was normal or ideal. They took stories, related them to their own lives, and built narratives around those stories to guide them as to how to go about their lives.
Fairy tales meant for children were read to them. With the speed of today’s society, this practice is in danger of going extinct. We now have One-Minute Bedtime Stories, which surprisingly, is a product not from the 2010s, but from the 1980s. How can you expect a child to be able to ask questions and learn about the world if you read stories to them containing life lessons for one minute per day? What children don’t learn from parents, they learn from friends and the internet. In the case of One-Minute Bedtime Stories, the problem here is not over-parenting, as is commonly suggested, but under-parenting.
The original Little Mermaid seems to have some valuable themes to it; sure, she completely changed herself to be with someone, but at least Hans Christian Andersen ensured that her motivation was not solely to be with someone else; she did it to have an eternal soul in Heaven. Andersen was conscious of this; he wrote to a friend in 1837, I have not, like de la Motte Fouqué in “Undine”, allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being. I’m sure that’s wrong! It would depend rather much on chance, wouldn’t it? I won’t accept that sort of thing in this world. I have permitted my mermaid to follow a more natural, more divine path.” Andersen’s original ending ended tragically, with the Little Mermaid dissolving into sea foam. But soon after, he changed his mind.
It’s not perfect by any means; P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, criticized that the story is meant to scare children into good behavior. One could even argue that The Little Mermaid got a participation trophy (ability to become a Daughter of the Air) just for not killing the Prince and his bride, even after all the pain she endured.
That said, at least Hans Christian Anderson tried to teach kids something. Sometimes good behavior leads to unexpected rewards; being a moral person can pay off later.
Compared to the Hans Christian Andersen version, the Disney one seems lazy. It does not communicate any social codes or values. I’m not saying you should throw your Little Mermaid VHS tapes in the trash, you should just be able to explain to a young child who asks, why doesn’t the Little Mermaid just find a Mer-man instead of a human? And why does she change everything about herself to be with him? There is also the point to consider that a young child may not ask these questions. They may accept them as normal without thinking twice about it.
This is one example of what comes to mind when it’s suggested that millennials were dealt a bad hand. Some of our media did not communicate any beneficial social codes, manners, or how to have realistic expectations of a relationship. Whose parents actually sat down with them and explained what it means to have self-esteem, relative to the context of the Little Mermaid?
Millennials were not dealt this bad hand on purpose, but at the mercy of our nature as humans. How we choose to play it is up to us.
This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights, available later in 2020.
 Andersen, H. C., et al. The Little Mermaid: with Original Illustrations. Hythloday Press, 2014.
 Clements, Ron and John Musker, directors. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989.