I know every word to every song in The Little Mermaid by heart. To. This. Day. The film came out in 1989, the fall I turned eight, and all my friends and I sung until our voices cracked along with Ariel and Sebastien and Ursula. We probably drove our teachers crazy on every field trip and every stint of recess. Two years later we switched gears when Beauty and the Beast came out. It was the most gorgeous cartoon film our girlchild eyes had ever seen. Our voices lifted again and we danced with Belle in her yellow gown and her newly groomed beast, sharing her triumph as she waltzed her way into the ranks of Disney female protagonists who’d conquered all her relationship troubles through the courage to love a man (or beast of a man).
By the time films came out that focused a little more (not much) on young women being self-empowered, such as, Pocahontas and Mulan, it was too late. The narrative of women who wanted the charming prince (or beast) at whatever the personal cost was too deeply ingrained at that point for us to notice or care as we moved from prepubescence into adolescence and approached high school graduation. Fast forward ten-fifteen years and many of us got married, had children of our own, and if they’re like me, can claim at least one divorce under their belt.
No one can deny that Disney takes liberties with the retellings of popular fairy tales and mythology. They’ve been doing that since the beginning, but I take particular issue with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast since those films modeled, more than my parents (who were splitting up anyway), what it meant to have happily ever after: Women sacrifice their identity for the men they (think they) love.
I bring this up to say that while women know all of this in theory as we march on Washington and wear pink pussy hats, in the last spring alone, I’ve spoken with maybe four dozen women around my age (during a stretch of tarot readings) who all had questions about their significant others, many of whom were sociopaths, narcissists, and basically horrible people. Over and over again, women asked, “What can I do to fix this relationship?” “Is he ready to contribute to our marriage?” “Why doesn’t he love me like I love him?”
Women my age are still looking for that beautiful idiot of a Prince Eric we were promised in their current partners. We were promised a white wedding. We were promised happily ever after. We were programmed with exactly what that looked like and we had such high, high hopes for our own partnerships in adult life. The notion of being unable to see the man in front of us and not what we hope he will be once we tailor ourselves to his expectations is still holding women hostage in their own lives. I fell for it too. I got married at twenty-five in a naive attempt to create the perfect marriage—the marriage my parents didn’t have. Which means I inevitably created almost exactly the marriage my parents had. There are women now who I meet between their mid-twenties to mid-forties obsessing about being paired off. These are self-identified feminists. Independent women who are lettered and learned and have worked hard for that good credit score. And the struggle to endure solo or electing not to get married if partnered is a true struggle because of cultural expectations. Women’s voices can (creatively and professionally) become literally blocked, not unlike poor Ariel, who did everything she could to adapt to Prince Eric’s world, dinglehopper and all. And if and when these unions are achieved, they are categorically more celebrated by their families than their degrees, judging if by nothing else, the $55 billion dollar wedding racket. I mean, industry.
I can hear some people now with some version of, “Bianca, just have some Raisinets and enjoy the movie. It’s a cartoon. It’s nostalgic—we grew up with Ariel. So long as we show the kids Moana too…” Oh, you mean the film that while on the one hand represents a brown girl princess saving her people, she can’t do it without being a member of an infantilized exoticized culture singing happily in the sun on an island with their standard issue grass skirts and coconuts? Mkay. So we exchange depicting one variety of oppression for another.
Listen. I work with women who have lost the ability to speak up for themselves as a profession. But when I look at my surroundings in an affluent neighborhood, within the space of three houses across from one another, I see a man who screams drunken profanities at his wife in the middle of the night heard down the street and the wife won’t leave him because of the lifestyle, a man whose wife walks meekly behind him as he scream-curses out another woman who accidentally parked too close to his driveway, and the shade-tree cult leader sexual predator neighbor of mine who terrorizes women to the point that they move away, I THINK IT’S TIME TO REVISIT THE ROLE THESE NARRATIVES PLAY IN OUR LIVES BECAUSE WOMEN PERPETUALLY THINK THEY’RE THE PROBLEM. In the same way we talk about taking down racist monuments that glorify the oppression of people of color, these narratives that we share with our kids are artifacts of the same ilk. Cultures share traditions through heritable memory—in other words, through artifacts that contain the narratives of how we engage with one another and the world around us through relationships and how we identify who is safe, who is familiar, who is family, who is a threat, through what we sing, read, and watch.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is sooooooooo far gone from the 1836 Andersen story, Disney should be embarrassed (Andersen himself who was never married, revised fairy tales he’d heard growing up and there is speculation about homoerotic themes in his work because of his sexual orientation).. Spoiler alert. The end is HEARTBREAKING. The “real” little mermaid ends up throwing herself overboard to dissolve into seafoam because she can’t bring herself to stab the object of her affection in the heart which would have granted her back her tail. She realizes that he is never going to love her the way she wants (mostly because he marries someone else). And all that sacrifice, including walking around with the sensation of constantly walking on BROKEN. GLASS which was the price she paid for those feet—did nothing to change his perception of their relationship. So she abandons ship and immediately evolves into an air spirit who was supposed to become of service to all humanity until she earns herself a spot in heaven.
Excerpt from “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen (1836):
The sun rose above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of the little mermaid, who did not feel as if she were dying. She saw the bright sun, and all around her floated hundreds of transparent beautiful beings; she could see through them the white sails of the ship, and the red clouds in the sky; their speech was melodious, but too ethereal to be heard by mortal ears, as they were also unseen by mortal eyes. The little mermaid perceived that she had a body like theirs, and that she continued to rise higher and higher out of the foam. “Where am I?” asked she, and her voice sounded ethereal, as the voice of those who were with her; no earthly music could imitate it.
“Among the daughters of the air,” answered one of them. “A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.”
And don’t EEEEEEVEN get me started on Beauty and the Beast which was recently relaunched in a live version starring Emma Watson as Belle. We all know Watson best as the actress who played Hermione Granger. The bookish Belle seems at first glance like a suitable role for Watson who is college-educated and a UN goodwill ambassador. But let’s break this down for a minute. Disney doesn’t exactly re-route the live version of these films to be updated with current themes of women’s liberation. It actually reinforces the struggles of a young woman who is obliged to choose between her local misogynist bully and bestiality. Doesn’t help that the beast is pretty psychologically abusive as well. Thus, the girl who reads transforms herself into the girl who waltzes.
In general, I keep a finger on the pulse of what we watch in terms of films and TV because they are symptomatic of the cultural and systemic psychosis that we endure in the U.S. Within months of the Women’s March on Washington, and on the heels of Clinton’s campaign, at least three films come out where women are depicted as sorceresses, enchantresses, darkly magical, mysterious, and somebody like Tom Cruise has to come and save of us all from their wiles. Thanks, Tom! Good lookin’ out. But men don’t entirely get off the hook with these narratives either. Too many men think they they're not supposed to express their emotions because they were raised on characters in films who taught them to suck it up. These films also reinforce the notion that successful relationships shouldn't take too much work on their part. They're taught they don't have to evolve unless it’s for personal gain (a spell is lifted, for instance, lol). Abuse, however seemingly benign at the surface, is permissible if deep down you have a good heart. It’s up to the woman to bring it out in you though. And at all costs, men will defend what’s ethical…to them.
I’m just saying. This is starting to sound like some of the domestic horror stories I hear from women all the time. There is still the expectation of women, that we have to give something up of ourselves to be in a partnership, not the least of which is often hard won independence. It’s not a matter of if a woman will give up, but WHAT she will give up to conform to societal and cultural expectations of a partnership. This is not new news. And of course, in theory this concept may makes sense when it's read, but when I see these imbalanced relationships played out again and again among my friends and acquaintances, how many, many, many women suffer in silence in abusive partnerships, and I note how I have participated in ill-matched partnerships myself trying to "fix" them, listen. I have to consider the source. A lifetime of reinforced narratives means the premise of personal evolution beyond these hardwired concepts promises certain social suicide. I also know PUH-LENTY of middle-aged women ten and twenty years older than I who are dealing with their own version of the Ariel Effect which sometimes actually keeps women from exploring potentially very positive relationships with men because they’re not (and never will be) the movie version of Prince Charming.
....TBC with a few thoughts about the effects of shows such as, 13 Reasons Why and Big Little Lies.