I will never forget sitting in the front row of that movie theater watching The Little Mermaid, wide-eyed, wondering what happened to that discarded mermaid tail. Did the witch store it in the same seashell necklace where she kept the mermaid’s voice? Since there was so little space in there, did they merge? On cold, lonely nights, would that lonely little fish tail sing to itself?
When Pat Carroll, who voiced Ursula the sea witch in the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, first saw her own performance she felt frightened, recognizing in it shades of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. When my father read me the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and later when I saw the movie, though, I wasn’t spooked by the glorious sea witch; I was riveted. What horrified me was the mermaid mutilating herself, giving up her tail and voice to get the prince.
The message was clear: if I wanted love, I had to somehow figure out how to mermaid myself. This was truly terrifying to my little girl self, not least because I loved to talk all day long and then sometimes into the night. Perhaps due to my mother’s generous recording of my childhood “poems,” I fancied myself a writer at a young age. The notion of giving up what even then I saw as my voice, as my art, struck me as a tragedy.
I didn’t understand why the mermaid couldn’t find a prince who was willing to come live in the ocean with her, give up his feet, see a witch about acquiring a fish tail. That way she could keep her self and he could hear her sing underwater.
Singing is the little mermaid’s art. In the film we see her missing her starring role in Sebastian’s concert in the first scene. In the fairy tale she “sang more sweetly than them all. The whole court applauded her with hands and tails; and for a moment her heart felt quite gay, for she knew she had the loveliest voice of any on earth or in the sea. But she soon thought again of the world above her, for she could not forget the charming prince.” She asks the witch, “But if you take away my voice…what is left for me?” The witch answers, “Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.” Even as a kid I could see how things were carved out for me: I would have to choose to be the artist or the work of art, and I wanted to be the artist so very badly.
I simply couldn’t wrap my youthful understanding around how the little mermaid’s talent wasn’t enough for her. She was the sweetest singer in the land. Her songs filled her with glee and caused the other mer-folk to clap with both their human and fish halves when they heard her. How could she still need a prince after that? How could she give it all up for him?
The Disney version of a desirable woman appeared to involve being a painting, beautiful and silent, so that men could imagine whatever they wanted upon you. My view of what the males of my species wanted was of course limited and flat, but what can you expect of a girl brought up on fairy tales and princess movies? More importantly, it seemed what I needed to do to be desirable was in direct contrast to what I needed to do to be an author. As any introductory writing teacher will tell you, it’s all about finding your voice, so to agree to have it taken away is sort of step one in the what not to do department.
I wanted to turn and say to somebody in the theater, “but wouldn’t any sane prince eventually get bored of a quiet mermaid who laughed soundlessly at all his jokes but never had a say in any matter?”