* * *
“But, then again, what if they were role models?”
–Sarah Gailey, In Defense of Villainesses
* * *
Older than the ocean floor she slithers across,
the sea-witch rummages between her cartilaginous breasts
for the shell that stores the latest tongue
and voice in her collection.
Not the first fish I taught to waddle onto land,
she snorts to the anemones.
Not likely to be the last, neither—
and every damn one of ’em convinced
evolution’s just a party trick.
A ploy to meet cute boys.
She’d outdone herself on this one, too:
No talking. No singing. No dancing
without the girl feeling like there are razors
in her shoes.
Absolutely NO take-backs.
Settling her head into the wattles of her throat,
the sea-witch peers, sightless, into the cold ocean night.
Can’t nobody say as I didn’t warn her,
she harrumphs quietly, before pulling the tongue
from its shell and taking
a first bite.
END-NOTE: I have long thought of The Little Mermaid as one of the more cruel and telling fairy tales Patriarchy has gifted us with yet: a young girl gives up her ability to speak, and agrees to excruciating physical pain, simply as the price of seeking love? It ain’t no mere ensorcelling that nabs her voice, either. The sea-witch literally cuts her tongue out. And then our mermaid princess can’t even score the love she sought! Not only does she not get the “happily ever after” Disney grants its Ariel and her thrilling-as-wet-toast prince; in Hans Christian Andersen’s original, her “happy ending” consists of turning into a vacuous “Spirit of the Air” and finding herself tasked with blowing cooling breezes at humans for the next 300 years, in order to earn herself a soul.
(Maybe it’s just me, but by year 75, I figure I’ve turned my back on the whole “gonna get me a soul” dream and am just praying to be turned back into sea foam. Even the most self-abnegating emotional laborer’s gotta find three centuries a bit long, no?)
Anyhoo, that’s been my read on this little ditty about a fish and her prince since forever…until I recently came across a compellingly different take.
In this Twitter thread, Jos Truitt spins out a well-sourced alternative interpretation: the Little Mermaid as a stand-in for Hans Christian’s own pain and unrequited longing for a man. Turns out Andersen began writing his fishy fairy tale at the same time he was writing love letters to Edvard Collin, his benefactor’s son—and all of this, during the month’s leading up to Collin’s marriage.
Rereading the original fable with an eye towards this background, certain details stand out that I skimmed over a few months ago. The painful costuming our princess must endure, even while still in the ocean among her family:
And the old queen let eight big oysters fasten themselves to the princess’s tail, as a sign of her high rank.
“But that hurts!” said the little mermaid.
“You must put up with a good deal to keep up appearances,” her grandmother told her.
Or the fact that the prince dresses his new, mute little friend up like a boy so that she can accompany him on horseback rides without impropriety. (I’m a little fuzzier on the “etiquette” behind his other gift to her: a velvet cushion on the floor outside his bedroom door for her to sleep on every night. Y’know, like a dog.)
Oh. Oh dear. Hans Christian, sweetie, I’m sorry. Getting shot down by your best friend who you’ve fallen in love with suuuuucks.
I’m still calling foul.
You see, bad as I now feel for poor rebuffed Hans Christian—and as much as knowing these facts might change the story for me from a prescriptive nightmare about women needing to just STFU into a cri-de-coeur by an author denied social acknowledgement for their deepest self . . . yeah, I’m still pissed about this story. Because telling someone “I love you so much, I would suffer like a woman for you” doesn’t in any way subvert the whole “women suffer for men by choice“ bullhockey that’s been pissing me off about mermaid-girl since the beginning.
So . . . I’ll still be throwing in my lot with the sea-witch, is what I’m saying.
Butchered tongues, crippling pain, slimy tentacles, and all.
THE VILLAINESS SERIES is part of an ongoing collaborative project between a playwright friend and me, in which we explore how to use myths & fairy tales as tools to interrogate gender norms and to critique, resist, and heal from the impact of gender & sexual violence.
More from my half of the project.
[Image: Kelp forest, NOAA’s National Ocean Service. (CC BY 2.0.)]
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