Disney’s The Little Mermaid from a Trans Perspective

18 Mar

Jos of the Feministing blog, who identifies as trans, shares memories of watching The Little Mermaid from a perspective with which some of us may not be as familiar:

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.

You really gotta head over there and read the rest of the story, especially if you’re not already well-versed in (or even comfortable with) trans issues. It’s a great blog, and her commentary in this piece is very accessible.

It’s easy to write off The Little Mermaid as problematically anti-feminist, what with Ariel’s willingness to give up her voice and all. And I do have some problems with it. But even that fabled moment can be seen as a cautionary tale; after all, giving up her voice turns out to have been a mistaken, doesn’t it? And ultimately re-gaining her voice is central to the film’s happy ending. (No turning to foam for Ariel, thank goodness.)

And Jos’ essay made me think of so many Disney movies which easily provide comfort and/or inspiration to queer kids, whether that’s Disney’s intentions or not. I’ve written before about High School Musical 2’s message (intended or not) to today’s queer youth: We’re All in This Together. If we keep an open mind, and listen to the voices of those with perspectives different from our own, we can learn a lot.

Jos’ post is an example of something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: Critical thinking as applied to pop culture in general, and to Disney in specific. And by “critical,” I don’t mean “negative,” but rather a more academic definition: “Skilled, active, interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications, information, and argumentation” (from Wikipedia). Applying critical thought to pop culture doesn’t mean one enjoys it less; for some of us, it helps us enjoy it more.

2 Responses to “Disney’s The Little Mermaid from a Trans Perspective”

  1. George Taylor March 19, 2010 at 11:33 am #


    I have often wondered how the gay community responds to Disney’s paean to true love as being heterosexual.

    Especially when a majority of the CM’s in Florida are openly gay and they are portraying these characters?

    Is it just a “fact-of-life” for gay and lesbians that they have to just enjoy a tale that is different from their emotional needs?

    I see it as similar to “The Princess and the Frog.” Since 1937, all Disney Princesses were white. Hey…Jasmine! She is different! Then we got a Chinese Princess and a Native American. What does this mean for young African-American girls? Is Disney finally saying it is ok to have a black princess? That Disney is “blessing”, so to speak, the dreams of young African-American girls everywhere? That it is ok to be a black girl and want to be a princess?

    Don’t even get me started on people with a non-Christian faith (or no faith at all).

    Thanks for offering the space for discourse!

  2. Carlo March 20, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Very good post. When I was down there with the College Program, I came to understand that we were not meant to withhold the Magic from anyone, regardless of race, religion…or sexual orientation.
    Also, on our end, George, I got exposed to what you are talking about – I am definitely straight and a proud (though not overly proud) Catholic, but I have a friend down there from the program who is both bisexual and an agnostic (raised as a Jehovah’s Witness) – but was still as ready as I was to leave it all out there for the guests. At the end of the day, it’s not merely about where we come from, but about what we’ve come to do.

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