The Little Mermaid: Feminist Horror Story or Trans Hero?
Disney Princess movies have attracted some, albeit understandable, antagonism based on the messages of the stories. These criticisms are playfully reductionist views that are arrived at by boiling down what the hero’s journey was all about. They are probably best represented by a series of pithy memes that are all over the internet:
These criticisms highlight disturbing messages promoted by these princess movies that are so worshiped by impressionable little girls. And for the most part, they are pretty funny and accurate. Beauty and the Beast does feature a woman who falls in love with her abusive kidnapper. Snow White is useless and distressed damsel with no personal agency. But they are wrong about The Little Mermaid. They’ve got it all backwards about Ariel.
The idea is that Ariel trades in her fins and pretty much everything she knows about the world (including how gravity works; fish flop around like morons on land because they don’t understand what the ground is) for a pair of gams to live on dry land all so she can be with a man. Internet “criticsâ€ attribute her motivations somewhat retroactively. They assume the reason she made this change was to achieve what she couldn’t have known she was going to achieve.
Think of it this way, when a guy (let’s call him Joe) sees a woman (let’s call her Sally) in a short skirt and finds her attractive, Joe unconsciously assumes Sally’s reason for wearing the skirt was so that he would be attracted to her. There are a million other reasons why she might be wearing that skirt, none of which might be about Joe. This faulty logic comes from the way in with people constantly confuse cause and effect. Just because Ariel ended up marrying Prince Eric doesn’t mean the choices she made were designed to orchestrate exactly that outcome. So what were her motivations? Luckily there is an entire Oscar winning song dedicated to this very question:
And not a single mention of Prince Eric. Her desire to be human is established long before that pretty boy waltzes his way into her merheart.
Ariel’s journey mirrors that of transgendered individuals in a number of ways. Not just the obvious stuff, like the fact that she identifies more with the culture of land people and doesn’t feel comfortable in her own fin. But take note of her extensive collection of crap. She gets that stuff from grave-robbing shipwrecks that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and sometimes almost gets ripped open and eaten by a shark for the privilege. She blows off trying to blend into a society she feels no connection to in favor of exploring something in which she does feel connected. Her voice in “Part of that World” is heartbreakingly pitched in a way that conveys a deep and total sense of longing. The sheer volume of artifacts suggests that she has been doing this for years, most likely since early puberty. This is not just some passing phase; this a girl figuring out who she really is. She is trying to express her identity the only way she knows how. Ariel is trans; she identifies as a different species than the one she was born into. That makes her a transpecist.
Another area where Ariel’s hero’s journey is reminiscent of the transgender journey is the breakdown that happens between Ariel and her father. Unfortunately, this is a breakdown that is experienced by a lot of trans people when they come out (accidentally or on purpose) to their families. Consider Ariel’s father’s reaction when he rolls up on Ariel’s little treasure trove. He goes berserker and blows the living shit out of the place. He wants to erase, deny and control what’s going on with his daughter. Underneath that reaction is unmitigated fear: fear that she will reject the life he’s envisioned for her, fear of losing his child, and fear of this obsession he doesn’t understand. He represses her with all his rage, but he can’t control this. With the full weight of her father’s disapproval bearing down on her, Ariel still makes a deal with the devil and sells her voice for legs and goes all land or bust. Ariel gives up everything, not for a man, but to be who she really is, on the other side of being desperately unhappy.
Once on land with a body she feels truly reflects who she is on the inside, Ariel can pursue the life that she’s always wanted. It turns out that she wants a boy. She’s a 16 year old girl, for shit’s sake. That’s what they do. The important turn around is that ultimately her father does accept Ariel’s life as a person because he recognizes that his daughter is experiencing the joys of life, something she never could/did under the sea. No longer the mopey loner with no friends (other than fish) she is flourishing and happy. He restores her legs and gives her his blessing.
Say what you want about the motivations and weaknesses of Belle, Aurora, Snow White and Cinderella. Ariel gave up everything to be true to who she is. That’s pretty damn brave.