Ever since I first watched Disney's The Little Mermaid in theaters when I was eight, I have strongly connected to Ariel's story. A girl who longs for a connection to people who walk, and for legs that work like everyone else's, not a tail / walker / wheelchair / crutches? I totally related. I felt bonded to Ariel from the first moment I saw her:
|[This is me, at eight years old, the year The Little Mermaid was released in theaters. I was in awe.]|
Ariel: Flounder! Come on!
Flounder: You know I can't swim fast!
As I have not seen the movie for about four years, and many many before that, this line stood out to me. Flounder is not a fast swimmer (and Ariel is not a patient mermaid...)
In a later scene, where Sebastian is charged with supervising Ariel, he, too, struggles to keep up with her. This makes it clear that in the sea, where having a tail is an advantage, Ariel is able to navigate her environment really well, which goes to show that with proper accommodations, she excels.
Part of Your World remains the song, and the sentiment that speaks to me the most. I remember being moved by it as a child. Connecting so strongly to Ariel wanting to be "where the people are", wanting to be a part of that world, but feeling separated because she moves differently. So all she has are these "wonderful things" from their world. But their "stuff" is not enough. Because Ariel wants real connection, real acceptance. It's clear that she feels a pull to the human world. Feels inferior because she uses a tail instead of legs to move around. This was me as a kid.
Ariel: Is he dead?
Scuttle: I can't find a heartbeat.
Ariel: No. He's breathing.
I'd forgotten that Ariel actually rescues Eric from drowning in a hurricane. Because she's adapted to the water and she is a fast swimmer, she has strengths that humans don't. But like Ariel, as a child, I did not see Ariel's strengths as strengths at all. Because all of her (and my) focus was on being "part of that world."
Ursula: The only way to get what you want is to become human yourself.
Ariel: Can you do that?
Ursula: My dear sweet child. That's what I do. It's what I live for. To help unfortunate merfolk like yourself, poor souls with no one else to turn to. ...Now here's the deal: I will make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days...
Ariel: If I become human, I'll never be with my father or sisters again.
Ursula: That's right. Life's full of tough choices, isn't it? Oh, and there is one more thing: we haven't discussed the subject of payment. You can't get something for nothing, you know?
Ariel: But I don't have any--
Ursula: I'm not asking much. Just a token, really, a trifle. You'll never even miss it. What I want from you is...your voice.
Ariel: But without my voice, how will I--?
Ursula: You'll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don't forget the importance of body language!
The very first nightmare I remember having as a child was when I was nine years old, the year after The Little Mermaid was released. I identified so strongly with Ariel that I dreamed I was being chased through waterless streets by octopus villain Ursula, who was closing in on me. Even on land, it was inevitable that she would catch me. I was not fast with my walker. And I knew that once she did, she would take my voice, just like she did Ariel's.
This scene also very much brings to mind my experiences in church. So many people claiming to have the power to heal me. To make me nondisabled. But these attempts did not come without a price. They didn't listen to my objections, to my questions, they did not honor my hesitance. And they were nowhere around when the attempts to transform me failed.
At the end of this scene, after Ariel signs her name. In a truly terrifying series of moments, Ursula makes her sing, and takes her voice from her. This tiny shining light, that Ursula traps in seashell necklace she herself will wear.
Ariel's transformation is brutal as her tail splits, and she is suddenly human, suddenly unable to breathe underwater. She (such an adept swimmer with her tail) now needs Flounder and Sebastian's help to reach the surface so she can breathe.
Ursula is nowhere around for this, and does not even care whether Ariel survives this transformation.
Sebastian: She traded her voice to the sea witch and got legs!
Flounder: Ariel's been turned into a human! She's gotta make the prince fall in love with her - and he's gotta kiss her!
Sebastian: And she's only got three days!
Though it happens quickly, we see that Ariel, Sebastian and Flounder spend late into the night swimming until they can find a place to rest. Even the next morning, all three are exhausted. Ariel is now voiceless, but not uncommunicative, as we can see she is excited to have her new legs. She tries to stand and is very unsteady.
I also wanted to talk about the notion that in order to remain human, Ariel must make Eric fall in love with her. She is not only crossing cultures here, she is doing it in a place where she doesn't have a voice that matters. She must adapt after she has experienced a traumatic silencing. She must also make Eric love her. She must prove she is worthy of human love if she is to remain a human in the human world. And all of this, she must do, without a way to ask questions in a way humans can understand, without a way to advocate for herself that humans understand.
This is the catch-22 I know I feel living in the nondisabled world as a disabled person. I have to constantly prove my worth in a world not built for people like me. "Make them love you," rings very true. "Make them love you, to prove you deserve to be here, while knowing all the time that your voice doesn't matter."
(And do it on a time limit. Or you must go back to living completely separated from the rest of the world.)
Sebastian: We could get the sea witch to give you back your voice! Then you could go home and live with all the normal fish, and just be...just be...just be miserable the rest of your life.
For so many of us, there is no going back. Going back is not an option. So it very much is "be isolated, disabled and miserable" or "be among nondisabled people and try to assimilate." (Until you find "your people" at least...
8 MINUTES MISSING HERE
I'm trying to reach back in my memory for these missing minutes and I know Eric finds Ariel on the beach, and takes her to his castle. I know he doesn't have any idea it was her who saved him, and she has no way to tell him that he'd understand. I feel like he instantly pities her when he finds she can't speak and takes care of her because he feels bad for her. But if I remember right, there is an attraction there on his part, for her, too.
I know he takes her to his castle, because the movie picked up with Sebastian trying to escape from Grimsby's plate over to Ariel's, after Grimsby suggests Eric take Ariel on a tour tomorrow. I remember that Sebastian was almost cooked during Les Poissons.
Sebastian: That was, without a doubt, the single most humiliating day of my life! I hope you appreciate what I go through for you, young lady.
Sebastian might as well be embodying Super-Crab right now, where the very heroic crab has to put up with "so much" to help Ariel adapt to human life.
Sebastian: Now, we have to make a plan to get that boy to kiss you. Tomorrow, when he takes you for that ride, you gotta look your best. You gotta bat your eyes like this. You gotta pucker up your lips like this...
He also says that they have to come up with a plan to get Eric to kiss her. Implying - not so subtlely - that not only would Eric not kiss her if she were a mermaid but he will not kiss her without a voice unless they trick him into it. The false belief that disabled people cannot be loved by nondisabled people is a common one. Sebastian talks about "getting that boy to kiss her." Meaning he would not want to on his own, because, as the trope claims "disabled people are undesirable."
These lines by Sebastian also speak to the intense planning that goes into even the most basic situation. There are barriers everywhere. Adaptations to be made everywhere Ariel must go. She will encounter unfamiliar obstacles, and it's impossible to prepare for everything. But as Ariel is learning, you still try your hardest to plan ahead, because being spontaneous is not an option.
Sebastian: You are hopeless, child. You know that? Completely hopeless.
At this point, Sebastian realizes Ariel has fallen asleep, while he has been planning for her to look her best when she tries to woo him. While Sebastian says the above lines in an affectionate manner, it doesn't escape me that Ariel would be totally exhausted after a day spent adapting to a completely new place, with human legs and without a voice.
But it might escape Sebastian. In fact, it did. Because he dismisses her exhaustion in this moment and calls her hopeless twice. Because she does not have the energy at this point to stay awake and plot with him how to best make herself lovable.
It takes a lot of work being disabled in a nondisabled world. And fatigue is reasonable reaction after a day spent expending energy you are not used to expending. Especially when disability is new.
Flounder: Have they kissed yet?
Sebastian: Not yet!
Ariel spends day two as a human dressed in a fancy dress and going around town with Eric. She hangs upside down in the carriage, watching the horse's feet, and runs and points to things she wants to draw Eric's attention to. Eric's reaction to these moments is still feels very pitying. Like he is indulging the poor girl without a voice by taking her around town.
The moment it starts to change is when Ariel hands Eric what she had been holding in the carriage and takes the reins from him. She urges the horses to speed up and jump a mini-gorge. Eric is terrified at her lack of experience here. But when they make it safely across and ride into the sunset, he relaxes, and even puts his hands behind his head. It's a big moment. He trusts that she is capable.
Sebastian: She ain't got a lot to say but there's something about her... Possible she want you, too. There is one way to ask her. It don't take a word, not a single word, go on and kiss the girl... Look like the boy too shy. He ain't gonna kiss the girl.
Kiss The Girl is an important song because it is Sebastian using his privilege as someone with a voice to communicate Ariel's desires. She confirms this by leaning toward Eric and closing her eyes, clearly ready for a kiss, but he hesitates here.
Eric: I feel really bad not knowing your name. Maybe I could guess?
Sebastian: [after several wrong guesses] Ariel. Her name is Ariel.
Eric: Ariel? It's Ariel?
Ariel: [nods happily]
Eric: That's kind of pretty. Okay. Ariel.
Another notable moment where Sebastian uses his privilege to help Ariel.
Soon after this, they do nearly kiss and Flotsam and Jetsam (Ursula's pet eels) tip the canoe over. Eric is heard saying, "It's okay. I've got you," as he helps Ariel out of the water. Human legs don't work as well as a tail. And when Ariel rescued Eric, it wasn't out of pity, as his tone of voice seems to project for her here. It was because he needed her help and she could give it.
Sebastian: Ariel! Hold onto this! Get her to that wedding ship as quick as you can!
When Scuttle realizes that the mystery girl Eric has decided to marry overnight is, in fact, Ursula and they are getting married on a wedding ship, Ariel is quick to jump in the water. She instantly struggles to even keep her head above the surface. So Sebastian knocks a barrel into the water for her to hold onto, which Flounder pulls to the wedding ship, so Ariel can get there.
Scuttle acts as a diversion and Ursula's necklace with Ariel's voice in it falls off of her neck and shatters. Ariel's voice is hers again.
Eric: You can talk!
Ariel: I wanted to tell you...
It's subtle, but Eric's tone is totally different here. Ariel is now a complete equal. With human legs and a voice, it's clear he is in love with her.
Ariel: Eric, you've got to get out of here!
Eric: No! I won't leave you!
But the sun sets before they can kiss and Ursula takes first Ariel, and then her dad, King Triton, captive. What I had forgotten was that Ariel literally plays no part in saving the sea from Ursula. Instead, this is all Eric, while Ariel is trapped in a whirlpool.
I was sure that with such superior swimming ability - and with her tail restored - Ariel had played at least some part in saving the sea from Ursula.
King Triton: She really does love him?
Sebastian: It's like I always say: children got to be free. Live their own lives.
King Triton: You always say that, huh? Well, I guess there's just one problem left...
Sebastian: What's that?
King Triton: How much I'm going to miss her.
When all the 'poor unfortunate souls' that Ursula captured are restored, and Ursula is gone, King Triton sees Ariel again on a rock, looking at Eric, unconscious on the shore again. He has the above conversation with Sebastian (not with Ariel) and without a word to her, transforms her from mermaid back to human.
It's very impersonal. From a distance. Ariel never sees it coming. There is no consent, or lack thereof. He just changes her.
Ariel and Eric kiss. Then they marry. King Triton, Flounder, Sebastian and all her sisters watch the wedding from the water.
Ariel: I love you, Daddy.
Music: Now we can walk! Now we can run! Now we can stay all day in the sun! Just you and me! And I can be part of your world!
To be honest, I had completely forgotten that at the end, King Triton changes Ariel back to a human. I remembered the wedding and her family being there, and I've been assuming that it happened with Ariel as a mermaid and Eric as a human. That, somehow, they made it work. After all, he did say to her, when she was a mermaid, "I won't leave you."
I can see why this movie resonated with me so much as a child. I wanted nothing more than for my disability to just disappear so I could walk and run like the song suggests. As a little girl, I could not fathom that other people needed to change. Needed to treat me better. So the idea of being changed so I matched everyone else sounded like a dream come true to me. The idea that I was wrong as I was - and Ariel was wrong as she was as a mermaid - made sense to me. That Ariel at least, had the chance to be accepted, was something to celebrate when I was a kid. A happy ending, to be sure. As an adult, though, this ending just makes me feel sad.
Because the movie is called The Little Mermaid, but in order to get the acceptance she craves, Ariel must be changed completely (once via coercion and a second time without her knowing) into a human. Those around Ariel are never forced to confront why they treat her differently with legs but without a voice than they do with a tail.
I wish I had seen a movie where walking and running were not the goal, but where Ariel learned that having a tail was an asset. That it gave her strength she does not possess with working legs. I wish the end of the movie had shown Ariel accepting herself, tail and all.