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When the Religious Right Attacked ‘The Little Mermaid’

Liberal sex propaganda or just something that sort of looked like an erection?

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Little Mermaid, the beloved G-rated Disney movie-musical about a mermaid finding true love outside of her hybrid sea-creature species. “What The Little Mermaid Taught Us About Being Grown-Ups,” Vanity Fair commemorated in a GIF-laden post. Time magazine credits the movie for launching Disney’s animation renaissance. Billboard and Entertainment Weekly similarly praised it upon the anniversary.

The 1989 picture is remembered for the acclaimed (and sort-of-creepy, to be real for a moment) Disney family film that it is.

The Little Mermaid was also a target of the Christian right in the 1990s.

You may recall that there are two popular penis-related rumors circulating about The Little Mermaid. On the original home-video release, the cover art features a giant, golden tower in the background that looks an awful lot like a giant, golden erect dick. (It has long been rumored that this was intentional because, you know, disgruntled, horny cartoonists.) The other schlong-related charge against The Little Mermaid centers around the wedding scene at the end. Princess Ariel and Prince Eric walk down the aisle, and are greeted by a stout clergyman who is allegedly too happy to see them.

He supposedly pops an erection while officiating:

That purported erection (which is really just the guy’s knee) was enough to set off members of American Life League, a Catholic pro-life organization. In 1995, the group railed against Disney for (allegedly!) injecting their animated films with subliminal sex messages targeting the fragile innocence of small children. (The League went after Aladdin and The Lion King, too.)

The conservative Christian group mailed out nearly one million cards to supporters calling on them to boycott Disney products. Judie Brown, president of American Life League, penned an op-ed blasting the “obvious erection.”

“Suddenly we were dealing with a company that not only attacked God but, we found out, has been attacking our children,” she wrote. “To be pro-life begins with respect for the God-given gift of our human sexuality. If we cannot protect and defend the very basic reverence due this gift, how can we ever expect to stop the wanton killing of children by abortion?”

Well, Walt Disney Pictures and the Walt Disney Company still exist, so their mid-’90s anti-abortion/anti-erection boycott wasn’t a resounding success. All the talk of sex propaganda in kids’ movies did, however, lead one Arkansas resident named Janet Gilmer to actually file a lawsuit against Disney in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

Because who else would think of the children?

The 1996 filing (which you can check out here) was, naturally, as silly and frivolous as the boycott push that came before it. Just a couple months after it was filed, Gilmer dropped the lawsuit. Probably for the best—Disney is known for getting into legal battles for the long haul.