Author’s note: My primary works cited, in increasingly tangled order, are the 1989 Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid; Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 Studio Ghibli film Ponyo; and the ur-terror that is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a story that, not insignificantly, both movies claim as their inspiration. All Sylvia Plath lines are from Crossing the Water. Shark Tank airs on CNBC, among other channels.
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The movie starts: men singing, arm-in-arm; a sloppy dog that everyone happily tolerates; the grumpiest among the crew is only a bit seasick and otherwise fine. It is a feminine overture full of vulnerable in-betweenness: everything soft and positively emotional, the land dwellers still established as a kind of island, defined in close proximity with the difference surrounding them. Literally at sea. Just some wooden planks and superstitions separating them from the ocean below. Then the camera pans downward and everything continues to yield: fish blowing bubbles, seaweed as if windblown. The world is entirely enmeshed with itself above and below, spineless: jellyfish and coral and men performing weightless joy.
Nineteen years later, in a different movie, a fish-girl gets her head stuck in a glass jar. A fish-girl is also reprimanded for visiting forbidden territory. A fish-girl is named after a “soft, squishy softness,” but more sound than feeling.1 Within the first 15 minutes, it is established that pesticides are bad, that humans are destroying the ocean through lack of care, and that a proper resolution, one that a not-so-bad-guy can voice in a film made for children, may require nothing short of human extinction.
A list of things Ariel is curious about:
Things in boxes
Things found aplenty
Everything else in addition to what obviously is.
The girl (which girl?) is a fish who wants more than anything to become a girl, a real one (which one?). But it’s the fishy parts that allow her to see real life – land, humanity, cross-species collaboration – through all its complex refractions, treasures, and flaws. While up on land, humans can only interact with the beautiful world of the ocean below as corpses.2
Enter King Triton: the nice guy with Power who simply wants everything to go exactly according to plan. His plan. He is a familiar character. He is with but not of the fish, under but still – and always – over. Especially his daughter, and the things that make her her.
So that she must, in both films, double: sea self, land self. Sometimes her feet are above the ground, sometimes below, but always she is trying so hard to be flat on the, “what’s that word again? Street.” To be taken seriously, believed when she promises that she’s trying her hardest, running as fast as her flippers allow, or loving in the direction that her heart needs to go.
Why must desire automatically split us in two? Two bodies, two brains, two hearts: ample space for our defunct treasures.
“As long as you live under my ocean, you’ll obey my rules,” commands the father to his daughter.
The house, the rules, the expectations form the clamshell out of which she rises, voice like a bell and her world, the sea, presented as the bell jar around her.
In fact, from the middle of the ocean the sky itself resounds “like a great bell jar,” and even when rendered adorably, she ends up nearly suffocated after a close call with a fishing trawler, her cute face pressed up against glass like she were a museum’s artifact.
Sometimes I wish I could turn one of my hearts in to a museum, relinquish some of this responsibility of attention so that I don’t always have to pay it in spades.
Instead, I consume things (chomp chomp) and, swimming through 21st-century Shark Tank capitalism as if against my will and all that sparks from deep inside me, I turn my heart into a museum. It fills up, up, up. Tridents of consumption: everything swims into me.
Time goes by, but the metaphors wash up exactly the same. Bell jars, drowning, objectification (“legs are required”).3 She is sick of swimming. She wants muscle, curiosity, things that don’t pollute; she wants to invent new kinds of love. “The heart is a red-bell-bloom, in distress.”4 Like Ponyo loving Sosuke: Is she his girlfriend? His sister? His hero? His pet? The movie calls for true love, but we cannot think of True Love without reverting to the prized Western version: heterosexual, monogamous, co-dependent. Against America’s canonized normalcy, any other kind of love seems strange, especially in the movies, even embarrassing. Pointless for sure. Born of hard, ongoing work and collaborative motivations rather than the slim and immediate appeal of first sight, best sight.
Ponyo is a movie about protecting the environment, which requires a completely new and mildly inconvenient type of love. It admits humans as part of the animal kingdom, no different than the sea foam that birds and fish and boys alike will eventually return to.
Q: Which ecosystems are directly our own?
A: All of them.
It is a thin layer of water, nearly imperceptible in a certain kind of lighting, that separates the steward from the capitalist.
The Little Mermaid is a movie about protecting the voices of young girls, and the danger of growing up into women who view each other as competition.
“The Little Mermaid,” the original tale, pits human soul against mermaid longevity and connectedness. We may live short, silly lives, but we get to go to heaven forever. So what of the sea’s dignity and humility, the floating prospects of an interdependent life cycle? The love required to give the little mermaid what she desires (in this version, a soul) has greater mass appeal: it is not just romantic, not just committed and True, but it asks that the lover relinquish all thoughts of any other he has ever loved, “so that he forgets his father and mother” for her, flattening various kinds into a monolithic One. It consumes the unit entirely, bubbles it off from the rest of the world. Who would refuse such an extremity of love, a love so strong you feel constantly defined by the air around you, encapsulated?
His ocean, his rules. But those of us living up here tell a different story, one of plastics and mass convenience and the complete and total separation between each and every new day. What rules? On land, we’ve got our own He’s to deal with. There’s no monetary incentive up here to help care for other people’s babies, or become a steward of ecosystems not directly your own; not even to clean up the things spilling all over us, right in front of us.
My ocean, my rules. We expect a reinforcing system based on familiarity, based on the ever-increasing value of what we’re already doing or are definitively good at. There’s no reason to get better at new things, or enter a space full of previously absent skills, or to spend one’s time being curious about anything that’s unfamiliar. Unless, of course, you are blessed with a brain-body that by nature pushes back against the social economy: you are young, or you are Other, or you are sick of the things you were supposedly born to do, your fins no longer fitting into skinny jeans because they never did to begin with.
She pollutes the world with her questions and her inconsistencies and her voice.
What is the mark of Knowledge, of the fulfilled attempt to achieve comprehensive knowing?
Is it the trident, glowing as if ready to brandish its own proof of power?
Is it the crown, the throne? The golden submarine? The symbolic extent of one’s political reach?
Or is it the questions, untethered and entirely excessive, falling like air bubbles out of the curious mouths of youth? They shake their heads easily at the world. No, and . . . .
To become a girl involves pain and constant Knowing, shells repeatedly pierced onto your outsides and changing your insides, the feeling of swords sticking you with the tiniest movement or breath. So that even when you’re holding still, it is too much. “What’s the word?” Bloody.
“A mermaid has no tears and so she had to suffer all the more.” But her brain, and her heart, and her bones, eyes . . . too often, she is all function and no release, all presentation without a single detail of inner expression. “I am so small / In comparison to these organs!”5 What’s the word? Drowning. “I worm and hack in a purple wilderness.”6
Movies and stories are little mirrors that either reflect or refract our lives.
In the one, desire is always an act of punishing replacement. “Hurry! Either he or you must die before the sun rises!”
In another, desire may splinter, and stretch, and will eventually foam, but not before apprehending the disparate world, snatching it up and giving it a good squeeze.
In one, she loves a man who loves a dog. In another, she is the dog, sleeping outside his bedroom door on a cushion. She is sewn a gendered costume so that she may accompany his side at all times.
Is she his pet?
Movies and stories teach me all kinds of things, but Shark Tank has taught me that even capitalists, especially capitalists, are vulnerable to the excesses of sentimentality, production gone rogue in the face of near absent demand. Why is your business worth such a high valuation? Because I believe it is.
Because I said so. My money, my rules.
Rule #1: A product must look expensive in order to warrant its expensive desire.
Rule #2: The sheer fact of knowing about a product’s expense is enough to assign social value.
So which comes first: appearance or fact? The world that seems meaningful, or the meaning it produces in tangible form, before anyone has bothered to look?
Girl who tadpoled out from the sea, or the one trying to crawl back in?
“Betcha on land / They understand / Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters.”
The circumstances of living force us to take bets that split our betchas right in half sometimes.
In one version, it’s nothing but coincidence that the true love belongs to a boy and a girl. In the end, she must be willing to give up her fluidity, while he must be willing to love her as is, fluid and powerful. In this way, true love can be as much about the sacrifices we do make as the ones that, in the end, we get to keep.
I keep so many of my sacrifices, small pets lined up in my lady cove.
“Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has everything?”
The emotional geography of living through division, a self split in two but refusing to let go: just limbs and feelings scattered across time and space.
“Who cares? No big deal, I want more.”
A method: To see the good strange things of the world and assume the world they came from to be good and strange too. To assume a connection and to seek – make – that kind of world tangible.
To fall for the world suggested by its best relics. To seek the world that corresponds with such things.
The current social world is much more appealing when you misunderstand it a little, when you see it through the gauzy filter of sea foam.7 There, harsh things become golden and witches are also mothers and split things are only bent a little at the knee, like two legs, eventually attached somewhere.
“Maybe there is something the matter with me,” she says. But the truth of the matter is that all girls want more, not less, of the mattering. Some of them – Ariel, Ponyo, Esther – wear their weirdnesses like ornamental conches. I mean they’re not afraid to dress up in their strange desire and demand a world that mirrors it, all that goodness that resides beyond monetary value but still matters.
She is “as light as a soap bubble.” She loves meat, and tiny things made bigger, and her sisters, all five and six and hundreds of them. She experiences her own death. As he stares on in horror, she dips her whole young self into the ocean’s oven.
There are certain kinds of extinctions daughters are fully equipped to long for.
In the end, naughty children and victim-blaming and even a prince left searching for her, sad despite the piles of treasure and attainment surrounding him.
Is she his memory? His trigger? His ghost?
In the end, when she finally gains the ability to cry, the act of using her tears only further punishes by extending her “time of probation,” the period in which she is left waiting for the immortal soul she has learned to never stop wanting.
What’s the word? Criminal.
“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do,” said Moliere.
Like picking up trash (not) or withholding chemicals (not). Like voicing our ideas (infrequent). Like the willingness to confront alternative versions of love or of oneself (nope, neither).
Urchins. Seaweed. Jellyfish. No brains, no bones, no heart, no eyes.
Sometimes I wish . . . .
How to escape the world of “bright young women” being reprimanded for their curiosity and their curious loves? What to do with the facts of erosion and the great imbalance between soil loss and renewal? How to ensure that we stop once and for all cold turkey with all our littering and filling up the great bellies of sea life with bags and tarps and trashes?
Become more like fish. “We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.”8
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All images are screenshots from the films or TV show (Bewitched) under discussion.
- Hayao Miyazaki, from a 2009 Comic-Con interview. [↩]
- https://andersen.sdu.dk/moocfiles/littlemermaid.pdf [↩]
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXKlJuO07eM [↩]
- Plath, “The Surgeon at 2 a.m.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- In the original, sea foam = death. My point stands. [↩]
- Plath, “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” [↩]