My Mother Was Also a First Mermaid of Color
Anri Wheeler on the Importance (and Limits) of Representation
There can be a whiplash to being a Disney fan. I came of age during the Disney Renaissance—when they once again began producing commercially successful animated films—kicked off by The Little Mermaid (1989), released when I was eight. I grew up with a deep love for princesses like Ariel but yearned to see my biracial self better represented in Disney’s oeuvre.
I became a parent for the second time the same year Peggy Orenstein published Cinderella Ate My Daughter, illuminating how princess culture can have deleterious effects on children’s mental health, and spent many a playground meetup wondering with fellow parents what to show (and not show) to our kids. Today, thanks in part to its feud with Florida’s governor, Disney is being lauded as a bastion of defending what’s just.
In reality, Disney is neither purely good nor evil. Representation matters—as evidenced most recently by myriad viral videos of Black children getting their first glimpse of Halle Bailey as Ariel—and also, there is always more work to be done. The actors who play and voice many of the characters in the new version are far more racially diverse than those of the original, yet the writer, director, and lead producers for this version are all men. For a movie grounded in the narrative of a woman giving up her voice, this feels like a glaring omission.
I can trace my adolescence from Ariel to Belle to Jasmine to Pocahontas to Mulan. Through their stories, I internalized the ubiquity of the male gaze, the prince-as-savior trope, the racism and misrepresentation of history, the ease with which an onscreen kiss fades to happily ever after. I am grateful for the ways these narratives are being rewritten in the Disney movies my daughters are growing up with—Frozen, Encanto, Turning Red, all written or co-written by women—and hope my own words can play a part. Everything I write is for them.I am still in awe of my mother’s leap of faith into the waters of Weeki Wachee.
My mother rewrote her story as well. At age 27, pivoting away from a career as a professional ballerina, she used most of her savings to fly from Tokyo to Tampa. Her only hope of staying in the US: a successful Weeki Wachee audition. Then, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs were local celebrities, performing eight shows daily to 500,000 annual visitors. My mother arrived speaking little English and became Weeki Wachee’s first mermaid of color—by some accounts, one of only two to date.
Mermaid lore was a part of my childhood long before Disney’s 1989 version. I read the Hans Christian Andersen original in which the Little Mermaid disturbingly fades into sea foam, forgotten and belittled by the prince. I read the Japanese translation, its anime illustrations a welcome foil to the watercolors on the pages of the English translation. More powerful than either of those were my mother’s stories. She escaped from legs into a tail. Water was freedom.
When Halle Bailey was announced as Ariel, the backlash was disappointing but unsurprising. My mother faced her own version. Several mermaid friends (with whom she is still close) helped her acclimate to the culture shock of moving to the US. And then, during an employee strike at the park in July of 1970, just three months into her time as a mermaid, immigration authorities discovered she did not have the proper visa, and she was deported. A Tampa Tribune article from that time says jealous co-workers reported her.
My mother still gives her colleagues the benefit of the doubt, maintaining the other mermaids disclosed she was being paid in cash as part of their efforts to garner fairer wages. Weeki Wachee employees held a benefit performance to raise the funds to bring my mother back. Assisted by Florida House Democrat Bill Chapelle, she secured a work visa and returned in May of 1971.
I have been to Weeki Wachee once. I was 30, visiting with my parents, husband, and our one-year-old. We met fellow Weeki Wachee alumnae who still live in Tampa. We floated and swam in the cold, clear water of the spring. The day we went to the mermaid show, they were performing The Little Mermaid. As we sat with a dozen or so fellow audience members, music piped into the amphitheater and the curtains slowly opened to reveal the underwater world behind large glass panels. Light-skinned mermaids flippered their way across our line of sight, acting out the story being narrated through large speakers flanking our seats.
Perhaps my ultimate wish is that Ariel’s choice—land or sea—need not be so binary.
My mother was quiet. When she spoke, it was to lament the disrepair of the facilities. I could sense it was hard for her to be there, to see a place that had been so formative, so grand when she worked there, reduced to a sleepy novelty attached to a water park. Yet later that night at dinner with her fellow mermaids, swapping stories and easy silences, I could also see how the trip was a return home.
Many believe that the opening of Disney World in 1971 precipitated Weeki Wachee’s decline. As the theme park grew, more and more tourists stayed in Orlando instead of road tripping west. My mother returned to Tokyo in 1974 and continued to perform and model underwater. When my parents had just started dating, my mother—in a pink bathing suit, yellow flippers, and a blue snorkel mask—appeared in an ad for a pool that was opening in Tokyo. My father smiles when he remembers how the poster was plastered all over the subways he rode to work. My mother kept and framed two poster-sized originals of the ad, one of which still hangs on the wall outside my childhood bedroom. The other hangs in the hallway next to my middle daughter’s bedroom.
My girls—even the tweens—were excited for the new Little Mermaid. My seven-year-old donned shorts and a tee with mermaids on them, wore her earrings that evoke iridescent fish scales, and brought along a small Ariel doll. She smiled while reminding me of their “special connection”—they are both the youngest in a family of all sisters. So is my mother. I called her as we drove to the theater and she asked who plays the titular role, clearly not up on the discourse. She wondered aloud if Bailey did her own swimming. She must have been thinking of her mermaid friend Peggy, who doubled for Daryl Hannah in underwater scenes for the movie Splash (1984). I had to break it to her that it’s all CGI.
While I don’t think Disney movies can solve the very real issues plaguing society today, I do believe that rewriting narratives is a piece of the puzzle.
Together in the darkened theater, we anticipated our favorite songs and rated—on a scale of thumbs up and down—new additions. The lyrics of “Kiss the Girl” now include consent, while “Poor Unfortunate Souls” doesn’t lose the fatphobia. This time around, I was struck anew by how being with Eric necessitates Ariel leaving her home and family behind. I thought of all my mother gave up to birth and raise me in the US: the ease of living fully in her first language, countless moments with her sisters and friends, being present at both her parents’ cremation rituals. Straddling two cultures has made me feel, at times, rejected by both, though I have fought to carve out my own sense of wholeness. I want more for my girls, and I also feel part of the collective nostalgia for folklore that comes and cyclically goes, including the stories we carry within our own families. Both/and.
My girls have a vocabulary I didn’t at their age. They are better equipped to talk about their identities and more empowered to articulate what they feel. And while I don’t think Disney movies can solve the very real issues plaguing society today, I do believe that rewriting narratives is a piece of the puzzle—that seeing yourself in a character can be one of the many threads that stitch together a confidence and self-awareness that can fuel change.
I am still in awe of my mother’s leap of faith into the waters of Weeki Wachee. That day over a decade ago, as we watched the mermaid show, was she picturing all the other doors she didn’t walk through? Ariel’s longing to be part of the human world, embodied in one of the most iconic Disney songs ever, is grounded in her insatiable curiosity and the teenage desire to break free from parental control. She is not just pining for a prince. By the time both movie versions fade into their happy endings, she cannot fully know the implications of her choice. Sixteen years into marriage, I’m still learning all I’ve given up and all I’ve gained. Perhaps my ultimate wish is that Ariel’s choice—land or sea—need not be so binary.
Weeki Wachee’s website still boasts, “In the 1960s, girls came from as far away as Tokyo to try out for the privilege of becoming a mermaid.”
Not girls—a girl. A woman. A brave, graceful, little mermaid who became my mother.