This morning I was rocking to my Disney Pandora station, (I’m a nanny so there’s a reason this station was on, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t listen to it on my own) and”Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid” came through the speakers. “The Little Mermaid” was my favorite Disney movie as a child, so naturally I know all the words to all the songs. A side note: I was also the youngest of six cousins so whenever we played Little Mermaid as kids I always had to be Ursula. Because no one wants to be the villain, right? So, I definitely know all the words to “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. I was singing along, not paying much attention, right up until the part where Ursula starts explaining why Ariel won’t need her voice on land.
Ursula croons: “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber / They think a girl who gossips is a bore / Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word / And after all dear, what is idle babble for? / Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation / True gentlemen avoid it when they can / But they dote and swoon and fawn / On a lady who’s withdrawn / It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man” (Disney – Poor Unfortunate Souls [From The Little Mermaid] Lyrics | MetroLyrics). I stopped, appalled by the lyrics I had so carelessly repeated. I looked at the one year old boy gleefully listening to me sing and said, “Don’t listen to that part! Don’t be that guy!” Then I remembered he was too young to interpret the lyrics and therefore safe from the Disney indoctrination. The problem is, most kids watching “The Little Mermaid” can interpret those lyrics and they are not safe from the message they send. A loud and clear message that men prefer docile women who keep their mouths shut. A loud and clear message that women are much better seen than heard.
This revelation made me wonder what story is really being told by “The Little Mermaid”. So here you have it: a Feminist Retelling of “The Little Mermaid”.
From the very beginning of our story it is made clear that Ariel should stay quiet to stay out of trouble. She is the most outspoken of her sisters, often standing up to her father boldly and vocally, but whenever she does speak up she is told by the men around her that she should just be quiet and follow the rules. Her other sisters seem to have no problem following the rules. Unless they are singing, they are barely shown as having voices. Out of six of them only two others ever speak. They are much more concerned with their hair and makeup, as good young mermaids should be.
But Ariel is a brave and adventurous girl who wants to explore, but these tendencies are shut down by the men around her who tell her that her place is at home. Granted, Ariel is only sixteen and she’s getting in to a fair bit of trouble on her adventures, but if she were on land and alive today she’d have a license and maybe even a car so her escapades are not that far fetched. There’s even a catchy feature song, sung to her by her father’s male assistant, about how she shouldn’t even dream of going anywhere outside of the kingdom; that home is where she belongs.
Feeling repressed by the male figures surrounding her, Ariel seeks out guidance from a woman, apparently the only woman she has access to, because there is no hint that Ariel’s ever had a mother. That woman happens to be a sea witch, the villain of our tale. Unsurprisingly, the villain is a fat. Not only is she fat, she’s unapologetically fat, which only a villain could be. Here a moral judgement has been attached to body sizes. When Ariel is shown next to Ursula she is slender, fragile, innocent, while Ursula is large, imposing, and evil. The message is clear that fat = evil and slender = good.
Ursula is also unapologetically loud. She speaks her mind to whoever will listen and she has attitude in spades. She also used to be queen of Ariel’s kingdom before Ariel’s father Triton took the crown. There’s no explanation as to why Triton felt the need to steal the crown, but it is implied that Ursula was a bad ruler, maybe simply because she was a woman. Ursula, our fat villain, offers to help Ariel in exchange for her voice, which as we have already seen, she insists Ariel will not need in order to win the love of her prince. In reality, Ursula hopes to usurp the prince’s love by using Ariel’s own voice, which says a heck of a lot about the “deviousness” of women. It also suggests that women should be wary of trusting each other lest they be tricked and their man stolen.
So Ursula succeeds in duping Ariel out of her voice, she does some voodoo magic, and Ariel begins to go through the painful transformation in to a woman from a mermaid. This terrifying and trying experience seems to be a direct parallel to the struggles girls face when they enter that confusing and scary time called puberty. When Ariel emerges on land she wonders at her transformed body. Soon she runs in to her prince, Eric, and she begins to see that this new body has power as she clumsily falls in to her prince’s arms and he marvels at her beauty.
For no explainable reason other than her overpowering beauty, the prince takes Ariel, a total stranger, back to his castle and suddenly they’re living together. As Ariel and Eric get to know each other it becomes abundantly clear that she does not, in fact, need a voice to get Eric to fall in love with her. She does some more clumsy falling in to his arms, bats her eyelashes, and makes countless adorable faces and he’s hooked. He almost decides to marry her, but then he hears her voice from down the beach. Oh yeah, he knows Ariel’s voice because she sang to him while saving him from a shipwreck that one time. He’s been totally in love with her voice since then.
Continuing on: But, oh no! The voice is trapped in Ursula! Who has transformed herself in to a skinny, beautiful young woman. The combination of her enchanted voice and her new “hot bod” are too much for Eric to handle. He completely abandons the woman he’s fallen in love with for this woman who just showed up on the beach. Obviously Ursula knew the power of a “hot bod” and made sure to show up as a skinny girl.
Ariel is heartbroken. Her man has left her for another pretty woman who just happens to be the same woman who stole her voice. There goes all hope of stable female friendships for Ariel! She works with her animal friends (all male by the way) to expose Ursula’s evil plot, and coincidentally her true form. Ursula becomes giant and overpowering. Her supreme femaleness is so overwhelming and terrifying that everyone almost dies. Because obviously a woman taking up space and airwaves is so terrifying that the men all cower before her. Eventually Eric has had enough of her shit and kills her with a boat, thus proving that women who get too big for their britches eventually get their due.
Ariel decides that she will abandon her family in order to marry Eric, even though she’s only sixteen. Don’t worry though, her dad’s cool with it. He showed up to give them his blessing. He’s probably just happy Ariel’s finally going to stay in one place, under the protection of a strong man. So in the end, the vocal, adventurous teenager becomes a child bride to a man who fell in love with her while she couldn’t speak.
And they all lived happily ever after… except Ariel who constantly regretted all of her decisions.