On Earth Day 2023, thousands of people around the world took part in protests to draw attention to the threats facing the planet.
While some waved signs and chanted slogans in the street, another group gathered online to take action in a different way, united by two things: their concern for the health of the world’s waters, and their shared love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
A campaign called “Protect Ariel’s Home” centers Ariel the mermaid (and other Disney characters who live close to the water, like Lilo from Lilo & Stitch, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog and the title character from Moana). It emphasizes the importance of keeping rivers, oceans, and drinking water clean for all, especially people in BIPOC communities who are at the frontline of climate change.
The campaign has held three virtual rallies where 79 actions have been taken, ranging from messaging President Joe Biden to shut down Line 5 (an Enbridge oil pipeline that could threaten the fisheries and wild rice harvest relied on by Indigenous people around Lake Superior) to checking an underwater webcam in a river in the Netherlands to alert the lockkeeper if there are fish that need to get through to lay eggs. This work is being done by fans, without Disney’s involvement.
The idea came from Ana-Rikki Wilhelm, an intern at an organization called Fandom Forward, which is working on the campaign with the non-profit GreenLatinos, TikTok viral activist Western Water Girl and award winning Dine journalist from the Navajo Nation Alastair Lee Bitsoi.
Wilhelm noticed how much energy there was around The Little Mermaid after Disney revealed its first teaser trailer. “Disney received backlash on casting Halle Bailey as Ariel, but seeing Black girls on TikTok overjoyed by a Black Ariel was really inspiring,” they said.
This kind of inspiration, Wilhelm believes, is a chance for fans to connect what’s happening in real life – rising sea levels, oil spills and dying coral, or the water crises in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi – to what could happen to our favorite fictional characters.
“Fan organizing allows people to say, oh yeah, I wouldn’t want Ariel or Lilo or Tiana to have toxic water and not be able to swim or not be able to have fun,” Wilhelm said. “It frames the climate crisis in a less intimidating and scary way so people feel more comfortable getting involved.”
Representation in media can often be an important first step for people to understand change that is happening all around them. For Alexis Trotter, a self-proclaimed Disney super fan, when she sees characters that look like her, she’s more intrigued to learn about their world. “When you see yourself represented, it just allows your imagination to easily put yourself into the story,” she said.
Trotter who took part in the Ariel campaign, doesn’t get involved in a lot of climate advocacy – she has a heart defect and puts most of her energy into advocacy around this – but since this campaign involved one of her favorite characters, it was different. “I was proud to have my name on this campaign and went into it with excitement about the new movie,” she said.
Inspiration to make small changes
Trotter, who uses reusable K-cups for her coffee and reminds her friends and family every day to recycle to keep plastic waste out of our waters, says: “Our favorite Disney princesses or Marvel superheroes teach us you can make a pretty significant change by making small changes.”
The Ariel campaign is the latest in a proud tradition. Groups like Fandom Forward, Black Nerds Create and Nerdfighter have been creating activists out of fans online for more than a decade, inspired by our favorite pop culture characters.
Fandom Forward was one of the first organizations to do this kind of activism. Founded in 2005 as The Harry Potter Alliance, it has since expanded to get fans of Disney, DC Comics, Star Trek and other fandoms, involved in environmental and civic engagement.
It’s known as fan activism or fanwork, and it taps into the idea that – as our favorite characters often teach us – there’s no one way to be a hero.
Organizing activism around the fictional characters we love can help activate the public imagination around climate change and environmental injustices while helping fans do advocacy work that is more accessible and less daunting than protesting.
Some are calling the trend critical fandom, which probably makes it sound less fun than it is. I got my own taste of it in 2021 when I attended an online rally that tapped into two of my passions: the hit TV cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender (or ATLA, as it is known by its fiercely dedicated fans), and environmental justice.
It came at the height of the pandemic, at a time when I was looking for some way to help despite not being able to be some place in person. Fandom Forward used ATLA, which features a strong message about protecting nature, to inspire fans to campaign against the expansion of the Line 3 oil pipeline from Canada to Wisconsin. They partnered with Indigenous-led organizations A Tribe Called Geek and Honor the Earth. 424 actions were taken during that campaign, off the back of a 90-minute rally on YouTube Live.
Shortly after that, I held my own ATLA watch party with friends. We reflected on how relevant the show continues to be, how it teaches us to care for people and the environment over objects and money, and how it paints a picture of fascism that feels eerily relevant. I also got my friends to take some of the actions proposed by Fandom Forward.
Fandom Forward’s campaigns director, Sara Mortensen, said campaigns around climate change can be seamlessly introduced, because fans are already doing things together. “Fandoms that have a lot of energy, you’ll see fan leaders organizing birthday messages for their favorite actors, or organizing community spaces in [the messaging app] Discord or elsewhere,” she said.
Fandom Forward and other organizations recognize this potential and push the energy towards climate or social justice issues, Mortensen said. “It helps that so many of our favorite stories have something to say about climate and the environment,” she said.
ATLA is a great example of this. In one storyline, the hero Aang and his friends must help a village impacted by a toxic river polluted by the powerful Fire Nation. In the new live action version of The Little Mermaid, Ariel and her sisters are seen cleaning up a shipwreck under the sea, and lamenting how humans are killing coral reefs.
Fans are digging deeper
Critical fandom has the power to make fans care about environment and climate issues. Maritza Mendoza, a water equity and ocean program advocate for GreenLatinos recognizes this power. She said people who care about The Little Mermaid tend to also care about or have an interest in the ocean. “For people who don’t identify as activists or don’t have a degree in water conservation, fan organizing can help you learn about climate change and show that your community cares about it,” she said.
Robyn Renee Jordan of Black Nerds Create says the way media reflects our real world can inspire critical fandom. “It is great to love something,” she said, “but it is even more powerful to really dig deep and look at media from a critical lens and see how that reflects the world around us.”
Jordan said it’s important to follow your passions when doing activism. It’s how it keeps you going. Fan organizing leans on fans’ passions for pop-culture icons and doesn’t expect fans to have experience doing activism.
“If you’re watching The Little Mermaid and it makes you think, ‘look how beautiful our oceans are’, and makes you want to do something about preserving water, and you ask how do we continue to maintain that, follow that thought process and don’t worry too much about getting it right. Worry about just attempting to do something or to learn more.”
Britny Cordera wrote this article for imagine5.com. Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration