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.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.