By Maxym M. Martineau
There’s been a lot in the news lately surrounding the casting choice of Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming, live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Let me be clear: this article is NOT about that. (For the record, I’m 1,000% in support of Halle playing Ariel. I’m also here for either Lizzo or Tituss as Ursula.) I was asked to write a guest post picking an old fairy tale that I’d love to rewrite, and truthfully, that has always been The Little Mermaid for me.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid
I’ll be honest, my desire to rewrite this tale stemmed from the 1989 animated Disney version I first saw as a child. I can’t remember if I loved it or not as a kid (I probably did, given I was a competitive swimmer for 15 years and constantly in the pool, dreaming of having fins). I know I didn’t have an Ariel doll. I know I didn’t identify with her (I always felt more like a Belle). And as I grew up and rewatched the film, I disliked it more and more. It wasn’t the hidden phalluses dotting the landscape (I’m a romance writer, if anything, I find that funny). It was the way Ariel found love.
I have a whole slew of FEELINGS about Ariel having to give up her home, her life, in order to fully accommodate that of her lover’s. There’s never a moment where she wonders if Prince Eric would come to her. There’s never a thought of compromise, of the potential where he could grow a sparkly tail and join her world. The immediate, knee-jerk solution is for her to give up everything that made her, her, and abandon the uniqueness of her identity to fit into the mold of Eric’s society.
But let’s pretend for a moment that that’s okay. That yeah, she’s a freaking mermaid, and she physically can’t live on land and he can’t grow gills, so the only option for her to experience true love (which, bigger issue, she’s never even talked to the guy at this point and is willing to throw EVERYTHING away for him) is to become a human via a spell from the sea witch. As a romance author/reader, I can understand the central theme to sacrifice for love (it should be from both parties, but I digress).
No, for me, the biggest and most unsettling issue is that Ariel literally gives up her voice in exchange for the chance to fall in love with a man she doesn’t know.
Her ability to speak. To articulate thoughts and feelings. To stand up for herself. (Quick disclaimer: this is not to say that those who are mute are incapable of expressing themselves. They can, and should, be seen/heard and respected. This is simply a breakdown of the events that transpire in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and my interpretation of what Ariel willing gives up for a man.)
By giving up her voice, Ariel is perpetuating the theme that women should be seen, not heard. That our thoughts don’t matter. That we are meant to fall in line behind men and quietly accept their decisions without ever providing our opinions. This. Is. Dangerous. I mean, just listen to Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” when she tries to convince Ariel to give up her voice:
“The men up there don't like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yet on land it's much preferred for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they're not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who's withdrawn
It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man…”
What in the actual flying eff. No less, this convinces Ariel to go through with the exchange. Girl. I don’t even have words.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid
Knowing that Disney’s rendition was loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s work, I decided to read the original for comparative reasons. And yes, in both versions, the mermaid (we’ll call her that since she’s never named) sacrifices her voice for the chance of love. However, I think there is one vital and very important difference that completely and entirely changes the tone of Andersen’s story: the mermaid does so out of a longing to acquire an immortal soul.
Let’s review this passage between the mermaid and her grandmother, who is telling her all about the human soul and immortality:
“‘... We [mermaids] sometimes live to three hundred years, but when we cease to exist here, we only become the foam on the surface of the water, and we have not even a grave down here of those we love. We have not immortal souls, we shall never live again; but, like the green sea-weed, when once it has been cut off, we can never flourish more. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has turned to dust.’”
Grandmother goes on to discuss the kingdom of heaven, and how does the mermaid respond? As one might who just discovered there is nothing for her beyond her limited existence:
“... ‘I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars.’”
So while her initial interest in becoming a human and leaving her kind is certainly sparked by a handsome young prince whom she saved from drowning (that’s the same), it becomes something so much deeper, so much more profound, that I’m less annoyed when she willingly sacrifices her voice to the sea witch for a chance at immortality.
In defense of the sea witch, it’s the necessary price to pay because of who the mermaid is—the mermaid’s greatest gift, her voice, in exchange for the greatest possible outcome, an immortal soul. When you’re the loveliest singer in the sea, I suppose that’s a fair asking price. Oh, and for kicks, every time the mermaid moves on land—i.e., walks, runs, dances, basically does anything on her feet—she’ll feel intense pain like knives or swords. Because what childhood fairy tale isn’t terrifying in one way or another?
All that aside, she still needs to “win” her immortality, so to speak. It’s only granted to a mermaid who can get a human to love her with his “whole soul” so that she in turn will gain a soul of her own (without stealing the man’s soul, so little risk for the man in this situation, go figure). And while it’s not crystal clear, I believe the only reason she is forced to give up her voice is because of its power (i.e., a terrible singer would sacrifice something else in exchange for this opportunity, because her voice isn’t as valuable). Either way, a voice is still inherently powerful, in my opinion. Oh, and no lovely spell, either—the witch literally cut out the mermaid’s tongue.
Now, spoiler alert: I’m going to tell you the end of the book. There’s no way around it. I apologize in advance.
The prince doesn’t fall in love with her. Instead, he falls in love with the maiden who “rescued” him from his near-drowning experience (which should be the mermaid, but as she can’t tell him this, she’s SOL). To him, it’s the first woman he saw when he awoke, who later turns out to be a princess. (Of course. Good for him.) And while he permits the mermaid to live in his castle and dotes on her, he never loves her that way. (Even though he kisses her. Jerk.)
Anyway, cut to the morning after the prince marries, the mermaid is about to die (since she couldn’t get him to fall in love with her) and she’s facing a life of nothingness. She has the opportunity, through the sacrifice of her sisters (who only had to give up their hair while bargaining with the sea witch to fashion a special blade), to kill the prince and cause her legs to change back to fins, at least granting her remaining years as a mermaid with her family. Of course, because she’s selfless and still loves him, she tosses the blade aside and dives into the ocean to die.
And she does. Sort of. She becomes this last-minute daughter of air being that apparently, after 300 years of good deeds, can gain an immortal soul and go to the heavens. So she’s happy and the story ends.
So, how does that make me feel? Well. Better than the Disney version, but also still mildly peeved her voice was sacrificed for a chance at love (though again, slightly less irritated because of the immortal soul factor). And yet… I love that she finds her own happiness, despite the fact it requires her to die, that isn’t dependent on a man who treated her like a child, never returned her affections, and basically cast her aside the moment he found his true love.
I also can’t help but think Ariel from Disney’s version would’ve been SO much more relatable to me if this other, more important factor (immortality) was woven into the plotline. Who wants to turn into sea foam and cease to exist when there’s an opportunity for forever somewhere else?
If it were me rewriting the piece, I’d steer clear of the voice sacrifice all around. I just think that we, as women, have had our voices squandered so much that re-popularizing this idea with a remake, one we know children will flock to, is potentially harmful. The act of the mermaid sacrificing her voice is much more meaningful and powerful in Andersen’s version, so I guess if it’s “needed” for the sake of the story, then honor the original.
To put it plainly, I’d hone in on the mermaid herself and why she’s sacrificing her voice (i.e., the notion of equal payment in exchange for the wish granting) and amp up the costs for anyone else who deals with the witch to reiterate that fact (i.e., maybe her sisters could’ve lost something MORE significant than their hair when attempting to save her life). Hopefully, that would alleviate some of my distaste for the story.
About the Guest Author: Maxym M. Martineau
Maxym M. Martineau is a staff writer and editor by day, and a fantasy romance author by night. When she’s not getting heated over broken hearts, she enjoys playing video games, sipping a well-made margarita, binge-watching television shows, competing in just about any sport, and of course, reading.
Following her passion, Maxym earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. She is represented by Cate Hart of Harvey Klinger Literary Agency. Her debut, Kingdom of Exiles, is out now.