I didn’t grow up with Disney dolls. I was one of those lucky kids that grew up surrounded by books with free reign of the outdoors. I didn’t live on the glamorous side of town either—it was government housing and the books were from the library, but I had a rusty slide nearby plus a rope swing. What more could a kid really want?
I didn’t have the types of parents who intentionally meant to shield me from a patriarchal society or the socialization of young girls (keep your faces pretty and their opinions to yourselves, girls!).
I’m sure if my mother could have afforded it, she would have drowned me in princess gear. As it was, she simply took me the park and I swung on the monkey bars until my hands were calloused. Then I stuck a needle through the scabs for funsies. I didn’t even know Disney existed.
I do, however, clearly remember the first time I encountered Disney. My parents were vising the apartment of a friend and she had her nieces and nephews over. For them, she had purchased the then-complete collection of all the Disney movies: Cinderella, Snow White, The Fox and the Hound, Aladdin… They were all there. To keep us annoying kids entertained, the adults popped in a movie and left.
I. Was. Dumbfounded.
What kind of sorcery was this?? The other kids were restless and wandered off to play with toys, but I was glued to the screen. I couldn’t take my eyes off that freaking mermaid.
First of all, I had never seen anything so pretty. Hello? Red hair? I had never in my life seen anyone with red hair (it wasn’t exactly a Caucasian neighborhood), much less with long flowy locks like this fine piece of ass. My fingers were itching to braid her.
Secondly, what a pretty voice! I wanted to hear her. I wanted to sing like her. I wanted to be her.
For the next year or so I would incorporate the mermaid into my imagination time (imagination time = all the time). This basically consisted of me twirling around the house screeching “LOOK AT THIS STUFFFFFFFF…. ISN’T IT NEEEEEEEAT” and trying to brush my hair with a fork.
Some time passed and I forgot all about the Little Mermaid and the rest of her Disney crew. I grew up (that’s debatable), became a writer, and started working on this book about female empowerment in sport (cue Daughters of Distance plug).
As part of my research I read Rebecca C. Haines’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years and was surprised to discover that Disney princesses were not pretty and harmless after all, but actually quite evil and brainwashy.
Whaaaaat?! Even the Little Mermaid? MY Little Mermaid??
As it turns out, the Little Mermaid may actually be the worst offender for screwing up little girls. After all, she literally gives up her voice for a man.
But the thing is… I didn’t get that when I watched The Little Mermaid all those years ago. Could it be that as adults we nitpick and read too deeply into entertainment in a way that kids just don’t? Or did I only narrowly miss having my life ruined by princesses?
I’ll say firstly that I did enjoy this book very much and I agree with many of its points. I think it’s wonderful that parents are concerned about this stuff even though it’s so foreign from the way I grew up: basically send your kids outside and if they don’t die, you’ve done a great job.
I suspect that if a kid has the type of parent who cares enough to read a book about the potential negative influences of the Disney princesses, their own parental influence over that child probably far outweighs any Disney movie. I mean… those parents probably actually spend time with their kids and shit.
That said, although I found the book fascinating, I’m afraid I cannot—no way, no how—think poorly of my little mermaid. She opened up the world for me instead of shutting it down.
I never for one second, as a child watching this, thought that Ariel gave her voice up for a man. If you remember correctly, she wanted to get her ass on land even before she met the prince dude. (First, she had to literally get an ass.)
The way I remember it, Ariel had a dream of traveling and existing outside of the confines of her world. She didn’t want to stay where she had been born. She didn’t want to limit herself to the ocean. And by the way, she’s a fish. If that’s not thinking outside the box (err, fishbowl), I don’t know what is.
And here’s something: THE ENTIRE FREAKING OCEAN WAS TOO SMALL FOR HER. The world is what… only 70% water? That’s a girl with pretty big dreams.
In her sing-song words: “I’m the girl who has everything…. I WANT MORE.”
Although she could have spent the entire movie flicking her fins and singing about the world above, she had the balls (vagina, eventually) to actually go after what she really wanted. She sacrificed EVERYTHING for her dreams. Not for a man. Not to be a housewife. For her goals. Her ambitions. What she wanted out of life. And for a vagina.
“What would I give if I could live out of these waters… Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand… And ready to know what the people know. Ask them my questions and get some answers.”
A light bulb went off in my little brain: Holy shit. I don’t have to stay in this world. I don’t have to live in government housing forever. I don’t have to stay near my family and have more kids and watch them play on the same rusty slide. I can like…. explore a new world. And vaginas are fucking great!
I also knew it wouldn’t be easy to follow my dreams. How did I know? Because it wasn’t easy for the little mermaid. She had her tail split (pretty painful, I imagine) and lost her entire family, pretty much. Then she had to deal with the not having a voice thing.
The prince, in my little mind, was inconsequential. Kind of like a rung in the ladder, easily replaceable, a stepping stool. It could have been any man; he just happened to be in the right place at the right time and girlfriend needs a hot shower and a warm bed. Granted, not the healthiest way to view a relationship, but that was my honest interpretation. The prince was wallpaper, but the dream was hers. The dream was what mattered.
Plus honestly, after all she went through with the octopus, do you really think she was going to stick around and let the prince be a jerk to her for the rest of her life? She didn’t even stay with the people (ok, fish) who were nice to her under the sea.
It’s hard to say what my life might have been like had I:
a) Been exposed to more Disney or
b) Never seen the Little Mermaid
I probably got the perfect Disney dose.
I’d like to think I would have still wobbled out of my kiddie pool and done my share of running, jumping, strolling, dancing where the people are.
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