So one time, Chloe at Feministing posted about Disney’s The Little Mermaid, calling it “a feminist’s worst nightmare,” because it’s literally the story of a woman who gives up her voice to get a man, which: sort of true, but also no, because in a universe where you can VERY EASILY read the moral of Beauty and the Beast as being “if you love your abusive boyfriend enough, he will change for you,” The Little Mermaid is second-worst, at best.
Then Feministe’s own Sady posted about this at her now-defunct Tumblr, but her contribution to the conversation is still up at mine; the two points she made most salient to this post were 1) Ariel’s giving up her voice is clearly framed by the movie as a bad thing, as her voice is her most desirable characteristic, the thing Eric fell in love with to begin with, the thing Ursula the sea witch uses to lure him away, and the thing she needs to regain before they can finally be together; and 2) that Ariel always wanted to go to the shore and Eric was more than anything a catalyst for that transition. A catalyst in the shape of a dude, yes, but a thing Sady and I, apparently, along with people I have met and possibly other people, also, have in common is that sometimes things just happen like that. Are dude-catalysts overrepresented in our stories, reinforcing the notion that for a girl, a dude is the bestest catalyst of them all? Yes. But it is, in fact, a story that sometimes plays out that way in the real world.
Possibly it mostly plays out in the world of the very young, which led me to the babbling over there that eventually in my head became what will hopefully be less babbling-y over here (…off to a GREAT START, I am), which is that in my reading, The Little Mermaid is fundamentally a story of childhood and adolescence.
Now: I am not interested, here, in trying to reclaim The Little Mermaid as a feminist classic, because I… am never interested, really, in trying to stamp something definitively with Feminist or Not Feminist. There are fucked-up things going on in every Disney movie ever, and The Little Mermaid is no exception. There is (as Chloe points to) the good-sweet-young-pretty-girl vs. evil-vicious-old-ugly-woman dichotomy, played out pretty blatantly, which I can recognize as fucked up even if I also delight in Ursula’s gleefully malicious machinations and that marvelous cackle. There’s Sebastian the helper crab’s accent, which to most people I’ve met reads most closely to Jamaican and is at the least pretty clearly supposed to be Of The Exotic Hot Lands Of The Caribbean, which is… gross, and kiiiinda racist. There’s the fact that Eric, who frankly has the personality of a Ken doll, saves Ariel from her distress at the end in a disappointingly mundane way (he rams a ship into Ursula. really? REALLY? She’s become this like giant ball of evil magic fury and all it takes is a little poke with some wood? …oh, I get it now). All of these things are worth discussion; I have discussed them myself in various situations in the past!
But right now, I want to focus on The Little Mermaid as a – still poignant to me – story of the painful liminal zone between childhood an adulthood.
Ariel is, to my knowledge, the only Disney heroine for whom we are ever given an explicit age; as she tells her father, defiantly, in one of the most accurate representations of teenager-parent quarreling I have ever seen, “I’m sixteen years old, I’m not a child!” He responds with the classically parental, “Don’t you take that tone of voice with me,” followed by “As long as you live under my ocean, you obey my rules.” which, FULL DISCLOSURE: that line is, by a wiiiide margin, the most frequently quoted line in my house as I was growing up, which QUITE POSSIBLY colors my own relationship to the movie, because: my teenage self was shut down many a time with it. Like, minimum once a month.
My response to hearing it from my mother was, usually, pretty much along the lines of Ariel’s: pout angrily and storm off in a huff to my
cool undersea cave room to cry on my rock bed and complain to my charming animal companions friends about how unfair everything was, and also how “I just don’t see things the way [s]he does.” Then she sings one of the best things ever written about being a young girl:
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