I Love “The Little Mermaid.” (Except When I Hate Her)
April 11th, 2017
(Blog readers may think this sounds familiar – I reworked a previous blog post for my newspaper column this week!)
I took my kids to see a ballet production of The Little Mermaid last weekend. I wasn’t entirely wowed, but in fairness, my tepid response may have to do with the fact that I find most ballet pretty boring. There was some cool staging with undulating sheets simulating waves and a fun dance battle between the sea witch’s evil minions (including glowing electric eels and copper-finned sea dragons) and the heroic merfolk’s supporters (including tie-died sea horses and a fleet of clown fish). But on the whole, there were a lot of dancing fish and not a lot of action.
Or perhaps my ennui stemmed from my ongoing existential struggle with the story of The Little Mermaid. As a liberated feminist, I’m pretty much required to hate that narrative and especially the Disney depiction thereof. It’s just so clichéd and awful. Dewey-eyed girl sacrifices her voice – her voice, people! – to nab a man she doesn’t even know and who is only interested in her because she’s foxy and has great pipes. Egad.
As a mother of daughters, I struggle mightily with the princess phenomenon, for lots of reasons. For one, the commercialism is absolutely nauseating. The Disney Princesses as a stand-along brand concept was created explicitly to sell stuff, which is just yucky. In 2000, Roy Disney went to a Disney on Ice event and was horrified to discover little girls wearing home-made princess costumes. Oh no! He recognized a ripe marketing demographic when he saw one and the rest is royal history. Why create your own costume when you can buy an officially branded one? The ladies in pink are now a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, hawking everything from hair products to fresh produce.
Then of course there are all the problems with body image and beauty standards and gender roles that are part and parcel to the whole princess thing. I know all of that, and it bothers me. A lot.
And yet…when The Little Mermaid came out in theaters, I had just turned eight – the age my oldest daughter is now. I didn’t see misogyny and patriarchy and poor life choices. I saw a beautiful, exotic creature and a breathtaking romance. Not to mention awesome music. I wanted nothing more than to be a mermaid, and my friends and I played endless mermaid games. In particular, I vividly remember reenacting the moment when Ariel concludes one of her songs by pushing herself up onto a rock while the waves crash behind her. We relived that moment hundreds of times along the side of the pool, convinced in our hearts that maybe — just maybe — this was the time when we’d magically transform.
Interestingly, they changed the ending of the story for the ballet. The heroic sea creatures drown the nefarious sea-witch, but the storm they create sinks the prince’s ship and both he and Ariel die. The mer-king revives them, but rather than sending his daughter to live on land with her prince, he changes the prince into a merman and they live happily ever after under the sea.
It’s an interesting twist and one I rather enjoyed. After all, why should she leave her family behind forever for this guy? Marriage is supposed to be a two-way street, buster, so you can jolly well get yourself a set of gills after all she’s been through.
My daughter and I had that very conversation as we walked to our car from the theater. How much should you sacrifice for the one you love? Did Ariel make good choices? And maybe that’s the answer to the conundrum. We’ve got to engage with the story rather than just consume it blindly. Perhaps we can love the magic, call out the sexism, and embrace the fact that any story with singing crabs cannot be all bad.