I have a great friend named Stella. She has a plastic penny bank molded into the shape of Ariel, the spunky heroine from Disney’s 1989 blockbuster The Little Mermaid. Anytime I see Stella, I know the battered but beloved Ariel is close by.
“When I was your age, I told my kindergarten teacher I was going to be a mermaid when I grew up,” I told Stella. Stella looked at me with love and not a small amount of pity. “This Ariel is Human Ariel, not Mermaid Ariel,” she explained patiently. “She’s wearing a dress, which means she has feet. Not a fin.”
I picked up the bank and animated it, making it dance around the table as I sang what I could remember of the song Part of Your World, Ariel’s anthem of longing to become human.
“I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a‑plenty,
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore,
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
Blah blah blah,
I want mooooore!”
Stella’s face scrunched up in distaste. She shook her head violently. “Stop Erin. Human Ariel can’t sing!” On this, she was adamant, in that way that only six-year-olds can be.
“Why not?” I was genuinely perplexed.
Stella sighed deeply and said, “Because,” and then her voice dropped to a dramatic whisper, “the ugly Sea Witch stole her beautiful voice.”
I couldn’t remember much more than the fact that the Sea Witch Ursula is portrayed as the movie’s villain. So more than thirty years after my initial The Little Mermaid baptism, I rewatched it from a more mature perspective.
As the story goes, Ursula gives Ariel feet so that she can walk on land and hopefully get the hapless Prince Eric to fall in love with her. In exchange, Ursula takes Ariel’s siren song from her throat. The deal struck is that mute Ariel has three days to get Prince Eric to kiss her, at which point she’ll become permanently human, and Ursula will return her voice. If she fails, she has to return to the ocean and become one of Ursula’s poor unfortunate souls.
On viewing it again as an adult, I realized that I had gotten it all wrong. Ursula doesn’t steal Ariel’s voice. It was a trade, not a theft. Ariel signed the contract of her own free will.
It’s actually King Triton, Ariel’s own father, who silences her.
Triton learns that Ariel has gone to the surface of the ocean to investigate humans and is furious. Triton roars, “As long as you live under my ocean, you’ll obey my rules!” Ariel tries to defend herself, “But if you would just listen…” and Triton cuts her off, “Not another word!”
Not. Another. Word.
His way or the highway is a tale too oft told. Women are silenced by the patriarchy, not each other. But the world attempts to distract our focus, makes us believe that it’s other women of whom we should be scared. Cruella. The Evil Queen. Baba Yaga. The Queen of Hearts. That awful (pretend) mother in Tangled. The horrible stepmother (and stepsisters) in Cinderella. Maleficent. Hansel and Gretel’s witch. These tropes teach us that women want to silence each other, out of jealousy, spite, or insecurity.
And we have totally accepted these pervasive stereotypes as truths. Stella thinks Ursula is the villain. So did I, for at least the last three decades. On my initial viewing, I identified with the plucky Ariel. Now, as an adult, I see this movie with a clearer focus.
The Little Mermaid got me thinking about that even-older tale from Eden. The one that goes like this:
God made Adam and loved him deeply. God made Eve to be in service to Adam. Eve finds this arrangement a bit unfair. She is curious and has her own thoughts, separate from Adam. She has her own voice. And she happens to like fruit.
You know the rest. Suffering is unleashed on all humanity because women cannot be trusted. The moral of the story is that women are the reason everything falls apart.
It’s a lie, but a lie that has been adhered to tightly. Men fear women will usurp their power, so it’s in their best interest to silence us. Or, better yet, pit us against each other as a distraction. If women waste their time and energy fighting with other females (or the female image we see in the mirror), we don’t have the energetic bandwidth to burn the patriarchy to the ground. When men steal our time and energy, they steal our voice.
And that story I was told at church about the Garden of Eden? I know now that it came not from the Bible’s text but from the interpretation of the text by the 4th-century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, yet another old white dude who helped shape our worldview.
An insidious worldview that says, Girls should be small, polite, and, above all else, quiet.
White men are credited with writing almost all of the fairy tales that push this agenda forward. The Little Mermaid fairy tale was originally written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The 1989 animated movie was, unsurprisingly, written, directed, and produced by a team of all white men. In fact, most well-known tales were penned – or pilfered – by Charles Perault, the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, or Walt Disney.
My point is this. When I look around, I don’t want to see a world where women are tearing each other down or apart. Ursula got a bad rap. She was an entrepreneur who knew how to pen an ironclad contract. The patriarchy might describe her as bossy or uppity or even a bitch.
I see a savvy businesswoman who knows how to use her voice in a way that matters.