I’ve written about The Little Mermaid before. I saw it when it came out in theaters. I wore out two VHS tapes rewinding and fast forwarding. (VHS is what we had before DVDs, guys). I daydreamed of having cooking shows with that French chef. I related to Ariel and wanted to be Ursula:
I loved Ariel, I loved how she collected junk and I loved how she had a tail and adventures and a loving family but still didn’t feel normal, still wanted to have a body that made more sense to her. Like Me. I loved Ariel but I secretly loved Ursula more. Ursula was a freaky monster who lived in a cave and was a powerful witch who didn’t care that she was alone and weird because she knew how cool she was.
All of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales contain themes of otherness, social ostracism, isolation and salvation. The cool thing about his stories is that at the end the poor unfortunate protagonists find a place to be themselves. The ugly duckling would never have been happy living with the ducks, but he found a group of swans who accepted him for who he is. The little mermaid knew she would never be happy as a mermaid, and is willing to give up everything she has to find a world that makes sense to her. (The prince is secondary to gaining a soul.)
Of course, in Anderson’s story she gave up too much for too little and ended up not connecting to the humans (due to literally not being able to communicate). It’s not until she dies that she finds her place and purpose. Much like with The Ugly Duckling, the daughters of the air recognize the mermaid as one of their own. The reward isn’t her being accepted by the group she tries so hard to fit into, it is having a different group recognize her for her own merits and celebrating her uniqueness.
Of course three year old me only had the Disney version with the more conventional happy ending, prince and all. Still, I think the creative team behind the movie was able to express Ariel’s yearning to be “where the people are” clearly enough for three year old me to recognize and relate to it. I knew Ariel because I was Ariel: on the outside looking in, wanting to feel comfortable in my skin, wanting to live in a world that made more sense to me than the crazy magical one around me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories sink their claws into you and don’t let go. I’ve also been thinking about how adults don’t often give toddlers enough credit. I taught 4-7 year olds art this summer and I saw how their little brains worked all day. I saw how they played make believe to make sense of the world around them. I saw them reverse engineer origami and pop up cards. One of my favorites (I’m not supposed to have favorites but I do and they can’t read blogs anyway so whatever) taught herself how to make a diorama based on the credits scene of a movie she saw.
And I talked to them about stories all the time because, come on, it’s me. Every one of them loved the Lego Movie, loved how it was about creating wonderful things. We read them a book about Frida Kahlo’s life that focused on her physical ailments and how she made paintings to express how she felt on the inside. The next day, there were a handful of little artists who wanted to grow up to be Frida.
I talked with my mom about it this morning, asked her what was her “Little Mermaid.” First she was all, “we didn’t have home videos back in my day, bla bla bla. But I asked her, “What is the first story in any media that you never wanted to leave?” and I asked her, “Why?” I will let her tell her own story, but I will tell you this: What she told me was the same. It wasn’t the magical elements, but something that connected to her on a personal level, something that reflected on how she felt about herself.
I’m really liking hearing these stories, so I’m going to ask you: What is the first story you never wanted to leave? Why?
OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES