The 25th Anniversary of The Little Mermaid and The Demise of Mark Driscoll

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I know, how could I possibly pair seemingly unrealistic topics of my childhood favorite Disney movie and Mark Driscoll? Continue reading. It shall all make sense in due time.

My blogging rants have previously spanned to the topics of Mark Driscoll and Disney (e.g., here, here, and here).

In the last few months, a lot has gone on in the world of Mark Driscoll (MD) and Mars Hill, Driscoll’s Seattle-base mega-church. While the purpose of this blog post is not to summarize what all has transpired, I will catch you up to speed here:

The quick summary: Shit went down. MD resigned and Mars Hill has disbanded.

The longer summary: The trouble started when MD got into some trouble regarding posts he made 14 years ago under the pseudonym of William Wallace II to attack “emerging-church-type feminists and liberals.” Why this happened to resurface after 14 years I have no idea, as Driscoll’s last year has hardly been clean, including controversies with possible plagiarism and allegations of paying off NYT best-sellers list. Somehow, the conglomeration of controversy spiraled in the last few months and resulted in the following: Acts 29, the church-planting organization Driscoll himself started, kicked out Mars Hill from its organization (major burn to MD) –> MD resigned from Mars Hill, saying he didn’t want to take away from the church mission, yada yada –> Mars Hill chose to disband.

This is HUGE in evangelicalism.

HUGE.

MD has been (with some exceptions) America’s evangelical, manly-man, neo-Reformed, social-media-savvy sweetheart. He captured the lives and hearts of thousands of Mars Hill goers. I myself, as I admitted in previous MD posts, used to listen to his podcasts. He is a captive speaker, quick with words, quick-witted, and relevant. Churches were planted. Good things happened. I do not want to negate the good things.

Do I believe that MD loves Jesus? I think that he does.

Do I think that MD bettered the city of Seattle and beyond? I think he did.

Now onto why I’m really writing about this story.

I am going to try really hard not to kick MD when he’s down. MD has long been controversial, and specifically what gets me going, are his homophobic and sexist comments that have been plentiful and sadly influential. Anyone who mocks effeminate worship leaders on Twitter is going to get a mouthful from me.

I saw the way this impacted others. Attending a Mars Hill campus in person in 2011, I was horrified to find every other woman pregnant and blonde and gorgeous. Every guy was ripped and strangely Driscoll-like in physical appearance. Everyone was white.

My own church when I lived in California preached out of MD’s book Real Marriage, a book filled with questionable antidotes such as one regarding a woman’s haircut pleasing her husband. This was the book also associated with a  plagiarism/ NYT best-sellers list scandal.

When MD resigned, Mars Hill leadership wrote the following: “Pastor Mark has never been charged with any immorality, illegality or heresy. Most of the charges involved attitudes and behaviors reflected by a domineering style of leadership.”

Uh…….?

How exactly are we defining immorality?

What is to be said for so many previous MD followers in therapy from attending Mars Hill and being subjected to degrading “church discipline” for being, for instance, a stay at home dad!!!! (GASP)?

What is to be said for the numerous controversial, hurtful comments that MD has said via Twitter or in personal conversations?

Those are moral because… MD believes that Jesus is God? And his doctrine is in line with certain standards?

Rachel Held Evans, in a typically eloquent post on Facebook yesterday, wrote the following:

It surprises me sometimes how people who are cruel and unkind get a pass on rude behavior from Christians because “at least their theology is sound.” But your theology is only as sound as the fruit of the Spirit it produces. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control – both Jesus and the apostle Paul taught that THESE are the things to look for when assessing whether someone is preaching the true gospel or a false one. I am so much more inclined to listen and learn from a teacher who exhibits these traits than those who may be highly credentialed whose fruit is bitter.

I think we as the church need to take a long, hard look at what fruit we are producing and the ramifications it has on others. There is this archaic idea that heresy means what you believe or cheating on your wife. I think this blog gets it. At the end of it, the writer, Kristen Howerton, says:

“It’s time we examine the negative ramifications to long-standing microaggressions, misogyny, and verbal abuse as seriously as we would embezzling or sexual misconduct from a church leader.”

Exactly.

More later but first…

NOW ONTO THE LITTLE MERMAID. 

The 25th anniversary of everyone’s favorite classic was this week. Growing up, I was obsessed with Ariel, as was every late 80s-90s girl. I had my Ariel Halloween costume and Ariel dolls and barbies and Ariel EVERYTHING.

I LOVED THE LITTLE MERMAID. Who didn’t? Cute, clever, catchy, adorable. A success for Disney, a success for mankind.

It wasn’t until I saw this Second City clip several years ago that I got to thinking:

What messages was this movie really teaching me?

Maybe not the 1st… or 100th… or 1000th… time that I saw that movie at age 4 would I think differently, but I wonder… what kinds of things did I implicitly learn?

I wonder… what we would find if we did a study on young girls before and after watching The Little Mermaid? Specifically, I wonder whether we would find that little girls are less likely to want to be a woman president or the effect a movie such as that would have on their ambitions and views of womanhood.

And as someone who has had an eating disorder for 13 years and is sensitive to weight-based discrimination, this movie is SO FRUSTRATING! Ariel is practically a mass-disseminated cartoon pro-ana figure, so much so that this PERFECT “Realistic Movie Trailer” renames the movie, The Little Waistline. And how fitting that the villain is a fat old woman. Perpetuating decades of stigma against older women and showing young girls that FAT IS BAD.

I read the host of perky articles that come out on the day that The Little Mermaid turned 25, and I tried to relive my childhood love of this movie. It didn’t work.

I know too much. I’ve been through too many years of therapy. I’ve battled too many companies selling pro-ana shirts, and we still haven’t had a woman president, and eating disorders are existing in unprecedented numbers. I have battled my entire life the voice that tells me to sell myself for society.

That started in childhood. THESE are the messages young girls get!!!!!

It’s not The Little Mermaid‘s fault, but does this movie perpetuate these messages, in my opinion? A resounding YES!

BRINGING IT TOGETHER

I told you I would bring it together. Now what could a middle-aged pastor from Seattle have to do with a movie about a mermaid?

Turns out, a lot (in my opinion).

Media, my friends, is an important thing. We are not untouched by what we fill our minds with; we are not untouched by what we watch or see or listen to or by the venues and organizations we attend.

Media is powerful, sometimes so subtle, you don’t realize how it’s slowly seeping into your consciousness, changing the way you see the world.

Both to Mark Driscoll and The Little Mermaid perpetuate some ugly stereotypes about the objectification of those who are different, whether it is those of different genders, sexual orientations, physical appearance, or anyone who you label as “the other.”

Sadly for evangelicals, Disney is stepping it up. Movies like Frozen and Brave are FAR (X 1000) better than movies like The Little Mermaid. I think Disney is learning their lesson. I am hopeful for today’s young girls, that they will be empowered to do WHATEVER it is they want to do, including achieving equal pay and other problematic society ills. I am hopeful that the movie Miss Representation and The Representation Project exist. I am hopeful because activist movie clips like THIS are going viral.

For evangelicals, I am not so sure. The oppression and discrimination of women and LGBTQ people is still prevalent is so many churches. And while The Little Mermaid turns 25 this year, MD JUST resigned. Apparently mocking stay-at-home dads and effeminate male worship leaders is still kosher in evangelicalism. So I guess the evangelical church is at least 25 years behind the rest of culture. Probably more than that.

I am not trying to be a hater, or promote a boycott of Disney/ Mark Driscoll. Like I admitted, I listened to Mark Driscoll. I loved (LOVED!!!!!!!!!) The Little Mermaid. If you like MD or old-school Disney movies, you know what, have fun. I will probably show my future daughter The Little Mermaid.

However, I think it’s well within my rights as a human to be critical of culture. I am in the field of mental health as a career, and I am an activist regarding body image, eating disorders, and gender-related concerns. And some of these things don’t sit well with me.

I am all too familiar with the scars that life leaves, and I am a fan of changing things so that people in the future can have a few less scars in life. So I’m going to leave you with the following thoughts:

For Disney lovers who show their little girls The Little Mermaid: If you must show your little girl this iconic movie, please have a discussion about it with her. She is SO much more than her body and selling and starving herself to please some hot dude (per the realistic movie trailer “white Aladdin”).

For evangelicals: Think before you preach, attend church, talk to others, and use the Bible to condemn. We need a movement based on love and acceptance, a movement that honors differences, and minimizes support groups needed for people in church. I mean GUYS how crazy is it that people should need to be in therapy or band together because of an oppressive church experience that leaves them feeling like scum. How much do you think Jesus is weeping because of that? MD’s popularity shows me how much we evangelicals are under the sea-– and many people don’t even know it.

Lessons Disney Taught Me

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I was not born silent, but I came to be that way.

When I was young, my favorite movie was The Little Mermaid. I insisted on being Ariel for Halloween, played mermaids with friends, and watched the movie over and over again (probably to the point of nauseum). I never questioned the subliminal messages that perculated into my subconscious as a result of my role model.

Ariel taught me important lessons about silence and identity. On some level, I came to see that perhaps who and where I am aren’t good enough. In fact, in a quest for the unknown promises of freedom, I might have to give up my biggest gifts– my passion in life, and most importantly, myself, or at least my state of being and relating in the world. I might be rescued off the beach by my soul mate without having any reciprocal communication. The fact that, “I want more,” could lead me to drastically change my physical state and expunge my previous existence in pursuit of a new self that means giving up who I am. I learned that I would find happiness in silence and sacrifice. I could get anything I wanted… as long as I sold myself in the process.

I never questioned the story, but I learned. Over the years, I started talking less and less. I cannot blame Disney for my silence. I cannot blame my females who chose to defer to powerful men and culturally-accepted social hierarchy rather than their own feelings. However, this culture that socializes every child to the point of gluttony and extreme excess certainly reinforced established patterns or made things worse.

It was not Disney that was the problem in my life. My idolization of Ariel was a symptom of something that became much more profound: I felt like my voice didn’t matter, and there was something wrong with who I was.

After years of struggling with my identity, I came to see how I did not come to exist scared and voiceless out of a vacuum. There were factors– a lot of them– I started addressing that were part of the problem. In order to move forward with my life, I was going to have to start thinking differently.

Disney hadn’t even gone through my mind until a few years ago, a Little Mermaid ride opened up at Disneyland. After going on it for the first time, I was disgusted… or perhaps more like repulsed by Disneyland’s depiction of Ariel. Ariel looked like she was struggling with anorexia, and her ghost-like figure looked all of 10 years old.

I saw Ariel differently that day. She was not just a carefree mermaid who wanted to be free anymore. She was a Disney product– a doll modified to meet standardized cultural ideals. Even in that form, she was small and silenced. I was haunted by her emaciated form. At Disneyland, I had this urge, a) to call whoever created this ride and yell at them and b) to re-consider what I once valued as worthy of idolization. Ariel was not as ambitious, spunky, or musical as I remembered her as a child. She was muted and sad. It was heartbreaking to see the tattered aftermath of a character I once wanted to be; to envision how this character affected me and how my perspective had so drastically changed.

I am reminded of myself when I see children partaking in everything related to Disney princesses (aka Disney crack/ brilliant marketing scheme). A child might light up and ask me, “Which Disney princess is your favorite?” I watch the abundance of princess costumes and know how often kids watch the movies. Then, I think of the haunting figure of Ariel at Disneyland.

How many times does a child need to watch Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or Cinderella or The Little Mermaid to conceptualize women differently? How long until that message of sleeping, submission, and inadequacy without a man penetrates so deeply that they change who they are?

In some ways, I am so encouraged by our culture and even Disney. I saw Frozen this week, and it avoids many of the pitfalls of previous Disney movies. Frozen was controversial and brought up issues that Disney has not yet brought up. A queen was crowned with no discussion of a king needing to take the throne. Characters who knew each other for a day didn’t end up married. The movie Miss Representation (which is on Netflix and worth seeing) is like a breath of fresh air, and I am so encouraged that the public is speaking out about the lack of women in power positions and the effects of the media as it pertains to the sexualization and objectification of women.

However, in other ways, I am so discouraged by things that are displayed in this video. As a culture, we have so much more work to do. Once you begin to identify sexism and advocate for gender-related issues, it is hard to go back. I can’t un-know things I know. I can’t un-feel the disgust I feel about this culture’s predominant views of women.

It is about us. It is about what we value as a culture. It is about what we, as a culture, idealize. There is a lot of discussion in the eating disorder world about making more realistically-sized Barbies. While that is well and good, it is not just about a woman’s body. It is about how children grow up understanding gender. In this era of constant media consumption, it is ignorant to think that these childhood role models and toys don’t have an effect on people. Being saturated with a certain agenda is likely to leave a stain (if not far worse). I want to be a savvy media consumer in my life as an adult, but what about young children, who are too vulnerable to know what messages inundate them?

Disney princesses sell, but at what cost? Who do we have to objectify to sell a product?

At the end of the day, the point of this post is not about Barbie, or Ken, or Disney, or any toy at all. It is not about me complaining about how Ariel was a bad influence on my life (although she was, and she’s a very questionable individual). The whole Disney princess franchise is something deeper and more political. It is about sales and sexuality. It is about media controlling the way a woman comes to understand herself.

I think of my tendency towards silence and my impulse to self-sacrifice, and I wonder if we are raising another generation of girls to struggle with the same problems.

I have no easy answers for parents who want to raise their daughters by empowering them. I am not a parent, so I don’t even want to open that can of worms. There is such a tension for parents between the child’s saturation in our culture and the desire to prevent girls from learning about gender exploitation. My interest is more in the systemic issues present in our culture so that in the future, parents won’t have to be put in such a difficult dilemma.

One female senator said the following in 2013 after being ignored: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand for her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” She got a round of thunderous applause. That’s one step toward our gender having an equal voice.