Consuming pop culture while trans: Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Chloe’s post earlier this week about The Little Mermaid got me thinking about my own experience with this film. I definitely identify with the experience of looking back at something from childhood through a feminist lens and seeing it very differently. I agree with Chloe’s critiques, as well as many of the critical and positive interpretations in the comments to the post – the film does have a lot of problematic elements, but there are also some positive messages in the story.

The post got me thinking about what I personally brought to this film, though, what I read in the story that connected with my own experience. This sort of read of pop culture is a staple for members of marginalized communities who see ourselves so rarely at the center of mainstream art that we read our own experiences into those stories. It’s a favorite game in the queer community, something seemingly all my friends learned to play before we found out anyone else was doing the same. I think children and grown ups alike are susceptible to the messages we get from pop culture and able to read something liberatory into the media we consume.

The Little Mermaid is unquestionably racist and sexist, and contains one of the most disturbing anti-consent songs I’ve ever heard. It is also, for me, a trans fairy tale.

As a child I remember connecting with Ariel. I certainly didn’t watch the movie as often as Chloe or dress up as the character. I didn’t watch Disney movies when I was dressing up as a girl, so my costumes were Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene and Santa Lucia. By the time I saw The Little Mermaid I’d been pushed toward swords and pirates. I often outwardly mocked the fiction that gave me that funny feeling inside – related to the first tinglings of sexuality, but so much bigger, deeper – and I remember making a disparaging comment or two about Ariel. But I identified with her instantly. Her problems made so much sense. Her whole world was wrong – she knew where she belonged, but no one could understand. And she didn’t care, she went for it anyway, became the person she knew she should be in the world where she knew she belonged. When I heard she turned into foam at the end of the Hans Christian Andersen story that tragedy made more sense to me – the fantasy was far too good to be true.

When I learned words and concepts for what I’d felt about myself for years I also gained a vocabulary to understand my version of The Little Mermaid. Ariel was a trans girl. Her toys were a secret collection of human artifacts, similar to me playing with my sister’s Barbies, a way to access the identity I belonged in. She tried to explain herself, but her father couldn’t understand – he had a picture of who his daughter should be, and she was saying she belonged in a whole other world! Ursula was only half a villain for me – she was also the twisted drag queen fairy godmother who could give Ariel the body she knew she belonged in (Ursula made that funny feeling shoot sparks). Ariel’s happy ending was far too good for my young self, who’d been pushed towards being a person I just wasn’t, to believe – Triton accepts Ariel as a human and lets her be herself! And, as commenter zes points out, Eric still loves Ariel after she’s outed as trans.

Some of the themes that I connected with are definitely in the film – not fitting in, parents not understanding you – but took on new meanings connected to my own personal experience. Then there’s the broader theme of mermaids, who speak to a lot of trans children. It’s not that my version of the story is there, overtly, but, just as social critique of media matters, so does our personal experience. And for me, Disney’s The Little Mermaid was the rare fairy tale I strongly identified with.

Trans themes can be read into other Disney films as well – Mulan, for example. And there are other ways of reading The Little Mermaid – The comments on Chloe’s post include discussion of the film as a fable of interracial romance. This doesn’t undo the problematic and offensive elements of the film, but it does speak to our ability to see ourselves reflected in pop culture and build our own personal mythology using the tools available to us.

When I was little, hearing themes I was struggling with in “Part of Your World” did me a lot of good. If the Disney princess was singing about what I was feeling maybe I wasn’t so alone, so weird and wrong, after all:

Lyrics here.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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