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.

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18 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    In reading both peoples’ response, I’m struck by how these pop culture fairy tales resonate so strongly with different people in related, but also very different ways.
    I myself didn’t really see childhood as anything especially idyllic or carefree. But what I will say is it seems like every queer-identified person feels some strong leaning and identification with the opposite sex. As for me, the term genderqueer probably resonates strongest with me because I’ve always felt caught in the middle, indebted to neither and to both at the same time.

  2. Ann
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I think this statement:

    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.

    Is a really useful way of thinking about feminist consumption of pop culture in general. Thanks Jos!

  3. ruthieoo
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Oh goodie! I really appreciate this post and its somewhat redemptive reading of The Little Mermaid. I agree with the gender and race problems posted in the last entry, but I completely agree with Jos, who suggests that individuals active their own reading of every text. For me, in a violent, oppressive home, the idea of a young woman escaping home for a new world without an overbearing authority was the ultimate fantasy. Yes, she loses her voice, and yes, she changes her body for this adventure, but she does actively pursue her dreams. I know Disney films are littered with sexist, heteronormative, racist messages, some subtle and some overt, but I love when we take time to appreciate the way the intended viewing audience actually takes the narrative in. Even at a young age, we all have the power to active a liberatory reading.
    This blog entry seems to be down, which is a shame, but it’s a five year old’s review of the Princess and the Frog. It shows how young people can active a deeply personal reading of mass media that’s empowering to them!
    http://blog.superhussy.com/2009/12/the-princess-and-the-frog-ths-2-cents/

  4. JupiterAmmon
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Jos, your analysis of the little mermaid is too profound for this short of an article.
    For example, what does it mean for Ursula to be the agent who enables this trans liberation process, but is them effectively scapegoated and killed off while Triton, the initial oppressor, is merrily accepted back into Ariel’s heart?
    How would you describe Ariel’s interaction with her new legs after the transformation?
    Is it significant that its a mermaid princess desiring to be a human rather than a human princess desiring to be a mermaid?
    Please expand it! its brilliant! I want more!

  5. Toongrrl
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    This is too good for just a blog entry

  6. LLLyns
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Favourite Lyric from the song that always inspired me:
    “Bright young women/sick of swimming/ready to stand”

  7. cheyanneaura
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jos! I really appreciate this post. You are awesome!

  8. vegkitty
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never looked at “The Little Mermaid” through this lens (haaay cis-privilege), but it makes a lot of sense. I’d actually love to watch the movie again with that point of view.
    As a girl who never really “fit in” as a kid, I, also, related to Ariel. I always wondered, though, why Triton couldn’t make Eric a merman at the end. It seemed a perfect compromise.

  9. Wren
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I had never seen this film through that particular lens before. With that in mind, watching that clip, I genuinely teared up.
    Thank you for a beautiful, personal analysis.

  10. Russell
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Queer indie folk god Dave End does an amazing rendition of the above song.

  11. Alice
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the cover by Nick Pitera, personally.

  12. Rebecca K.
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I wrote about the idea of viewing The Little Mermaid through a trans lense and this seems like a place to share some of those thoughts. Specifically, does Ariel worry about passing, post-transition?

    Does she worry about putting on makeup and having it look good? Even if she had makeup as a mermaid, the application of makeup in and out of the water must be different. I’d imagine the limited selection of outfits she had as a mermaid didn’t really carry over into fashion sense as a human – how could she understand color matching and outfit selection when she’s only worn a seashell bikini her whole life?
    Does Prince Eric worry about his friends and family reading Ariel as a post-op mermaid? Do his parents know he’s married to someone who isn’t a woman-born-woman? (And are they accepting if they do know?)

    I included some of these ideas in a performance piece I did recently, and they’re questions I still think about.

  13. Tamago
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    As a trans man, I had a similar experience identifying with Avatar’s Jake Sully who acquired his ideal form and found the community where he fit in with the Navi. There is so little pop culture out there that directly speaks to trans people, but occasionally you can find refuge through certain media that wasn’t even made for you.
    …Still feels kinda lonely, though.

  14. Anne
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    This was an absolutely beautiful post. I somehow missed out on “The Little Mermaid” growing up (perhaps because I was being raised as male), but reading this post makes me want to go out and find a copy (which I think I’ll do tomorrow once the library opens).
    I don’t know if anyone else has seen “Ponyo” — it’s a Japanese film (by Hayao Miyazaki, if you’re familiar with his work) that’s sort of an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”. I saw it this past weekend and, about halfway through, started thinking, “this is a trans story!” The desire of the main (female) character to be human is strongly stated (as here), and I saw so much of myself in her. It amazes me sometimes how much of ourselves we (trans people specifically and people in general) can find of ourselves in fiction, even if it wasn’t necessarily intended that way. Thank you so much for your post and your story!

  15. Sloppy Sandwich
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    This post and the other Little Mermaid post have both said the “kiss the girl” song is anti-consent. What’s so bad about this song? Is it wrong to try to kiss someone without explicit verbal consent?

  16. GalFawkes
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps, but Ariel wanted to go off to the land, that’s the thing. It wasn’t really about Eric. She wanted legs.

  17. mightydoll
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s a really enlightening perspective, thanks for sharing.
    About a year and a half ago, I was acquainted with a family whose 8 year old identified as trans (well, the male-assigned child requested that we call her by a feminine name and use feminine pronouns…I’m not sure if she knew the word “transgender”)
    Fortunately for her, at least in the environment in which I saw her, people were rather accepting of the request, but I’m certain school, grandparents, etc were less accepting. She had a beautiful singing voice, and most often could be heard singing “part of your world” it never occurred to me that it might resonate with her in that particular way. Thanks for the perspective!

  18. Vexing
    Posted March 13, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Sadly films like this were completely out of my reach, growing up in rural New Zealand, where men are Men and the sheep are scared.
    The rural NZ culture effectively firewalled boys from ever seeing films like The Little Mermaid; you would be instantly labeled ‘Queer’ if you were caught so much as glancing at a Little Mermaid colouring book and then persecuted mercilessly by your peers – often to the point of violence.
    As such, I only have the vaguest inkling of what The Little Mermaid is about. I still haven’t seen it. My only valid Disney experiences were Aladdin (about a boy), The Sword in the Stone (boy), Jungle Book (feral boy), The Black Cauldron (you guessed it), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (with two male leads and an overly sexualised female character) and the Lion King (anthro lion boy).
    In fact, the only possible trans-identifiable role model I had growing up was Lt. Commander Data, from Star Trek: TNG – and Star Trek was still considered ‘Weird’ by the rurals; who preferred watching shows about dogs and/or tractors.

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