The Price [The villainess series]

* * *

“But, then again, what if they were role models?”
–Sarah Gailey, In Defense of Villainesses

* * *


The Price

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.)]

Be sure to stop by Feminist and a Blank Page, playing now at a Facebook near you!

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[via Revenge Dioramas]

34 thoughts on “The Price [The villainess series]

  1. Another fantastic addition to this series, Alice.
    The sea witch has my favorite voice in the Disney version. Deep, rich, haughty — Pooooor unfortunate souls. I’m not a fan of the movie overall, but I don’t hate it. A lot of people, dare I say, most people, have never read ORIGINAL versions of fairy tales, be they Grimm or Andersen, or even Old English. My MIL is one of those people who thinks those original tales are poison, but I contend they’re no more scary than her religious text. *achem* Of course, I haven’t raised my daughters to be pretty and nice and accommodating, either. *achem*

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read several HCA stories as a kidlet, but Mermaid never made it to my booklist for some reason. Didn’t see the Disney story either, which is also weird, because I’m a sucker for animated stories. Now I’m torn – I sure don’t like the sound of razor blades against my tootsies! For love or money!

    Either way, I’m lovin’ the series. Keep ’em comin’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ariel is probably my least favorite of the modern Disney princesses, but I’d still recommend the movie — the interpretation of Ursula the Sea Witch is absolutely FAAAAAABULOUS!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ever heard of the Loreley? Not Loreley Gilmore of course 🙂

    There is an old German tale of a girl with golden hair sitting on a rock above the Rhine distracting the men on the boats and causing death and destruction.

    No clue about the motives of that siren but she is obviously super-villainous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup — tho I don’t know too many details about ’em. Sure do seem to be lots of underwater maidens out there, all apparently just aching to lure men to their deaths…


      1. Just a thought… Water typically symbolizes emotion. So these are cautionary tales to men — don’t let your lust for a woman become love, because then you’ll be pulled into the lethal world of emotion.


        1. I was obsessed with horse books, myself. Black Stallion, Island Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague… I knew lots of Greek myths too (my mom had been a classics major and would tell me kid-friendly versions as bedtime stories). But I still managed to know all the Grimm stories — not quite sure how that happened, cuz they hadn’t all been Disneyfied yet!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I preferred the Bobsy twin mysteries myself, to either Nancy Drew or the Hardy brothers. But not by much. Not enough horses (OR DRAGONS) in any of ’em!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Can these get any better… why yes, yes they can. Each one of these little tales continues to blow me out of the water- oops 😉 no pun intended on the sea creature theme here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am finding it a fascinating and enriching process, all this taking on of other characters’ personas. Imagining how they think of themselves, and what all the princess-ingenues look like through these older women’s eyes…


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