Not a Fish, Not Yet A Human

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:

[Video description: the scene from Disney animated classic The Little Mermaid in which Ariel sings “Part of Your World,” full lyrics here, relevant bits quoted below. Ariel, our firey-haired mermaid heroine, spends the scene swimming around her huge underwater cave filled with random human artifacts she’s accumulated over the years, accompanied by her cuddly fish friend, Flounder. Who is not, by the way, a flounder, which really confused me as a somewhat rigid-minded child.]

She starts off the song showing off her “treasure untold,” her cavern full of wonders, gadgets and gizmos aplenty, whozits and whatshits galore – and closes the opening with, “But who cares? No big deal. I want more.” She’s tired, in other words, of the childish playthings that satisfied her in the past, these simulacra of real experiences; she “wants to be where the people are.” She wants to see ’em dancing, “walking around on those – what do you call ’em? Oh. Feet!” It’s a cute moment played for laughs, because aw, Ariel is a mermaid, mermaids don’t have feet so she has trouble remembering what they are – but it also encapsulates, I think, that moment in growing up where you want to be considered a full person, you want full access to the adult world in all its splendor and breadth, but you also, actually, have no idea what the fuck that means.

That’s what this song is about: dying to move on to a world you don’t understand in the slightest and not letting your ignorance deter you because the one thing you know as sure as you breathe is: it has to be better than here.

Ariel is so sure about that! She’ll “betcha on land, they understand – bet they don’t reprimand their daughters.” Which… uh, Ariel honey, sorry to disappoint you but I have some bad news. That line works in the song’s favor, though, because yeah, she’s wrong; but that certainty in her totally incorrect assumption is so true to that point in – well, in my life, at least, and I would suspect in the lives of many. And like so many “bright young women,” she longs to be taken seriously, to get her questions answered. Then she sings my favorite line in a Disney movie, ever:

What’s a fire, and why does it – what’s the word – burn?

That line is… brilliant, first off, and also basically my entire existence at the age of fourteen. She wants to know of fire, of passion, which inevitably means of pain; she’s itching for this intensity of feeling, good and bad, even as she (literally in this case, being the sea-dweller she is) can’t possibly have more than the faintest glimmer of the reality of it – the sometimes hard reality her father, like so many parents before him, wants to, but ultimately can’t, protect her from.

And all this? Happens before Eric ever enters her sight.

The song is called “Part of Your World,” but in its first incarnation, there is no you – it’s that world, the land world, the adult world, the real world. Chloe frames the movie as presenting her with the choice between her father’s and her husband’s world, which is a fair reading; but I think it’s equally possible to view it as a choice between childhood and adulthood. Ariel (herself a liminal creature, half human half fish) is caught in between them, and her behavior reflects this: she puts on a cartoonishly sultry voice to coo at the statue of Eric that Flounder brings to her and immediately bursts into giggles; when Scuttle the seagull “helps” her “get dressed” by clumsily wrapping a sail around herself, she struts and preens the way little kids playing dress-up do. And, yeah, she does some stupid-ass things in the name of a ridiculous crush that feels like life-or-death. The movie would be way worse, I think, if we didn’t have that explicit reminder up front of her youth (much like Romeo and Juliet falls apart the second a production lets the audience forget that no, these characters aren’t old enough to know better, so be kind).

The scene right after her soliloquy in the cave is the one where she sees Eric and immediately goes all ♥_♥ for him, and then her world is set aflame. No, but really: lightning strikes the ship and it lights up, falling apart and necessitating Eric’s rescue. It’s terrifying and, when she sees him, beautiful; it burns like hell, painfully, but it’s ultimately worth it, if bittersweet – the last spoken line of the film is Ariel’s whispered, tearful “I love you, Daddy.” It’s like falling in love, or like growing up. It’s something kids start to itch for very young, and desire more intensely and explicitly as they approach adolescence. And it’s something Ariel wants the very first time we meet her, playing hooky, exploring on her own.

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26 Responses to Not a Fish, Not Yet A Human

  1. Elizabeth C. says:

    This is just wonderful. Thank you.

  2. Keri says:

    Yay! Beautifully written! Thanks for rescuing one of my favorite childhood movies =)

  3. groggette says:

    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


    Seriously though, great food for thought. I still hate that damned movie, but not quite as much as before.

  4. Sydney says:

    Great post! An additional thought: her yearning to have legs is also symbolic in that she would have human sexuality that mermaids’ anatomy does not allow, as well as mobility (“flippin’ your fins you don’t get too far…”).

    Also, anyone interested in feminist revisions and revisitations of fairy tales should check out the work of Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber) and Jack Zipes (Don’t Bet On the Prince).

  5. Michelle says:

    Totes with you – there’s a lot of interesting parallels and good lessons in this movie. Where the film falls down is in the fact that she has to get married at the end, just as she’s really gotten her sea legs (so to speak). But, that’s Disney.

  6. Rose says:

    It’s still a shitty “moral” tale about how one culture is superior to the other and how if you want to move on you should embrace all aspects of the “superior” culture and forget your own. Ariel is a mermaid with mermaid sexuality and mermaid mobility. Why does she need human sexuality and human mobility? (@Sydney)

    And FFS, I have had enough of flouncy emo princesses. I saw Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind for the first time ever recently and it is amazing. Working princess growing up to be a leader of her nation, not some pointless doll.

  7. Christy says:

    I love your reading of this movie and commentary on “Part of Your World.” And I loved loved loved this movie when I was young and saw it in the theater and then over and over again at home on video. This song and its yearning is a huge part of what I loved about it then.

    On a related note, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? deals with this same kind of yearning and liminality in the lives of young women. Oates does a fantastic job of showing the promise and the danger of that transition. Highly recommended.

  8. Beth says:

    I think you’ve pretty much encapsulated why this movie was so special to me growing up. I had a VERY authoritarian mother and I’ve always identified with Ariel’s struggle to grasp a hold of her adult identity. I don’t think I fully realized that’s why I love the movie until now though.

  9. Ami says:

    I liked reading this interpretation…while I do much more read it was Chloe did, it’s been interesting to me to hear other thoughts, including Jos’ interpretation of it as a “trans fairy tale.”

    While I would say there’s definitely something to the childhood/adult, reading, I’m not convinced that the role of the men still isn’t still problematic even within this scenario; sort of that the husband vs. father world can work in tandem w/ adult vs. child.

  10. Isabel says:

    @Elizabeth C, Keri, & groggette – thank you for the kind words!

    @Sydney – I am kind of uncomfortable with the mobility/sexuality = freedom idea, because while I think I agree that within the context of the film you can say that it’s presented that way, I feel like it relies on an image of what mobility and sexuality look like for able-bodied people.

    @Michelle: – lol yup, totally; the film certainly has loads of problems (like ask me sometime how I feel about love at first sight stories, but only if you have about four hours to spare).

    @Rose – I think that’s a fair reading, too. I guess I don’t really consider it a moral tale? Question mark there because that is not a thing I am certain I actually agree with (lol one of the reasons I don’t have a proper blog is because like 60% of anything I write is riddled with me being all BUT ACTUALLY I AM NOT SURE IF I AGREE WITH MYSELF). I dunno, it’s complicated because – I do think it’s always important to talk about what values, morals, etc. aspects of culture and entertainment are promoting, especially to children. But at the same time, I don’t really consider it the place of art to provide moral instruction, including art directed at children (see also why I am not as a whole bothered by the question of whether or not any individual pop star is a “good role model”). This is a set of beliefs I have not totally reconciled for myself, yet.

    I guess I think, in this reading of the movie (which is certainly not the only possible one, and not even the only one I believe in) the human/mermaid dichotomy is more about different realms of existence than different cultures (a distinction that maybe makes no sense outside of my own head? that’s totally possible). And I think a lot of people do identify with wanting to leave behind one “world” for another – sometimes for problematic reasons or reasons relating to oppression and bias, and sometimes for neutral or quite frankly good reasons. Like I feel like the flip side of your reading is that Ariel feels oppressed by her own culture, and she feels she is going towards one where she will personally be allowed to be more liberated – that is also a thing that happens, and who are we to tell her she’s wrong, especially when it’s not like she personally has been getting messages that humans are superior – quite the contrary! That’s stated more definitively than I feel it, because I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t think that the possibility of this reading means your interpretation is wrong – I guess I think that both, and many others, can coexist.

    I mean, no lie: I like Disney movies A LOT, like embarrassingly much, quite possibly at some point here I will wind up doing another post about my many feelings about some Disney movie, in which I will run into the same problem of being like “but I could write about 20 pages of this but no one wants to read that on Feministe, and possibly ever.” Which I mention certainly not to defend them, but to explain that frankly, if I put my mind to it, I could probably write a book about Disney movies, even limiting it to only a handful, and in that book, the chapter on The Little Mermaid would be LONG, because I do think that despite or because of the simplicity of its story it’s a surprisingly complex thing to get one’s mind around, specifically because I really do think it is possible to read all these things into it, for equally valid reasons.

    I agree that our cultural ratio of flouncy emo princesses to kick-ass princesses/heroines is terrible and needs to be rectified, and actually in general I hate princess stories, a lot (which this also is, and I hate that aspect of it, even as I love the aspects I identified in my post! SERIOUSLY, MY FEELINGS TOWARDS DISNEY MOVIES ARE FAR TOO COMPLICATED), just like, straight-up. And there are a bunch of kick-ass female heroines I adore! Buuut while I want more kick-ass female heroines and maybe on the whole fewer flouncy ones, me personally I will probably never reeeeally get over digging flouncy ones at least some of the time, because… I am not always the most rational person? Sometimes I get very emo and flouncy about things? Maybe, possibly, it is not inaccurate to describe me as tending towards the melodramatic (and oh LORD does that describe every moment of my waking life in my teen years, which is part of why the mention of Ariel’s age sticks out so clearly to me now)? And not that I’m proud of these things, or would recommend them to anyone, but… I like fictional company, I guess. Ha.

    @Christy – yeah this song has been 100% imprinted on my mind since I was about two. I enjoy stories about yearning – which is why it saddens me that your HTML is broken to that link! Do you mind trying again? I’d love to check it out.

  11. Christy says:

    Ack, sorry about the broken link. Let me try again. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”:

  12. Deltabob says:

    Thank you! I hold the same view that an entire work shouldn’t get an arbitrary label of feminist or not. We are complex beings with multiple experiences – so the same scene can have oodles of interpretations.

  13. Camie says:

    I’ve felt a little ashamed of my deep and abiding childhood love for The Little Mermaid because it was always condemned as an anti-feminist tale, but this reminded me of how it was actually hugely important to me growing up— exactly for the reasons you list. Thanks for writing this!

  14. renniejoy says:

    I would totally LOVE to read your book about Disney movies! :)

  15. Eneya says:

    I want to reccoment “Kissing the witch”. It’s a marvelous book with 13 stories, each of them, re-telling of classics like Cinerella, Henzel abd Gretel and the like.
    Pure awesomeness and very, very delightful for my feministish self… especialy when you have heard/read/watched all the Disney versions, stumbled upon the originals and know that The Sleeping Beauty wasn’t awaken with a kiss, but more… directly, to say at least.

    Any way, excellent text, I loved it. :)

  16. Lauren says:

    Great post.

    I’ll submit that this is a both/and blog, not an either/or blog, so that we can say that Little Mermaid is both a good coming-of-age metaphor because it so aptly represents universally understood feelings of puberty and angst, and is also being a problematic text for feminist and anti-colonialist readings.

  17. jenlillith says:

    Thank you for assuaging my Disney guilt with this wonderful post. I just so love the movies, and The Little Mermaid has been my favorite since it came out.

  18. Laggania says:

    “in that she would have human sexuality that mermaids’ anatomy does not allow”
    I still say mermaids work like dolphins, and everything’s just not visible externally most of the time…

  19. stonebiscuit says:

    Piloting a shipwreck through a maelstrom so that the masthead stabs through an enormous evil octopus witch who is by the way able to control the entire ocean is mundane?

    I liked that Ariel wanted to explore the world beyond what she was allowed, and eventually got her wish. She was a little prototypical Belle in that respect. She’s also the only daughter not to participate in the Musical Glorification Of Our Great Father King Concert, and though she supposedly just forgot, I always thought she did it on purpose…at least a little bit.

  20. Bitter Scribe says:

    IIRC, The Little Mermaid was originally a Hans Christian Andersen tale. There was another one I remember as a kid, I think it might have been Grimm Brothers, about a young woman who must keep silent because a witch turned her brothers into swans. (Don’t ask me.) Anyway, she gets swept up by a handsome prince, who marries her while she still can’t or won’t talk.

    Not to be all perversely literal or anything, but I always thought of the enforced muteness, in both fairy tales, as just a plot point: The heroine can’t tell the love object who she is and what’s really going on.

  21. Medea says:

    @ Bitter Scribe

    Her brothers were turned into swans, and to free them she had to keep silent for seven years while sewing them little shirts. This almost got her burned at the stake when she was accused of murdering her children, but the seven years expired just in time.

  22. Natalia says:

    Beautiful post, darling. I also just noticed that Ariel’s collection includes the repentant Magdalene – who is looking, of course, at a burning candle, right as Ariel is singing about fire. The skull in the painting seems to be obscured. It’s SUCH a wonderful contrast between the teenage longing of the song and the tragic wisdom of the painting.

  23. The Little Mermaid always reminds me of my mother’s indoor cat, who’s always trying to get outside to explore.

    Bright young kittens, sick of sittin’, ready to stand…
    I’m ready to know what the stray cats know
    Ask them my questions and get some answers
    What’s a bulldog and why does it – what’s the word? – bite?


    Loved this post, and I think it’s an analysis that could be extended to other Disney films. I remember as a teenager relating quite strongly to one of Belle’s songs in Beauty and the Beast, for similar reasons:

    Madame Gaston, can’t you just see it?
    Madame Gaston, his little wife
    No sir, not me, I guarantee it
    I want much more than this provinicial life

    I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
    I want it more than I can tell
    And for once it might be grand
    To have someone understand
    I want so much more than they’ve got planned

  24. Miles says:

    I love your Big Serious Capitalised And Punctuated Posts even better than your Tumblr stuff. <3

  25. PrettyAmiable says:

    There was a follow up post on feministing about how The Little Mermaid can be read as the story of a transgendered individual becoming themselves. I absolutely love that interpretation to this day, and if I grow up and have kids, I’m going to make sure they see it in that lens.

  26. Summer says:

    This is really fascinating and well-thought out. In the interest of nitpicking, though, I think Sleeping Beauty is also sixteen.

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