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.