A Feminist Tail

Then your tail will divide and shrink until it becomes what the people on earth call a pair of shapely legs.  But it will hurt; it will feel as if a sharp sword slashed through you.  Everyone who sees you will say that you are the most graceful creature they have ever laid eyes on … But every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow … are you willing to suffer all this?

The Sea Witch in Hans Christian Andersen’s  The Little Mermaid

She is much smaller than one imagines.

She has simple, graceful lines and is perched perfectly on a rounded rock that rises out of the shallow water close to the shore. She has a deep green patina on her slippery black marble body. She is smooth, seal-like and shiny wet. The Danes don’t really like her.  She’s been beheaded and had her arms cut off several times in random acts of vandalism.

A lot of fuss over nothing they think.

But the tourists flock to Denmark to see her – she is the most visited site in the entire world.

And I love her. She is an enigma, a study, even a symbol perhaps. But whatever else, she is haunting. Her story is so mythical and enduring that her power cannot be overlooked. The power of a story. A feminist story, maybe?

There are always people who want to write off fairy tales as too dark or dysfunctional in their approach to the human experience. Not me. The fact that we are still enchanted by these old tales is a testament to the fact that they are not simply outdated politically incorrect texts.

They are works of art that reveal universally difficult truths. I believe that H.C. Andersen and others were geniuses at excavating the human psyche and painting stories with ambiguous moral themes.They contain deep emotions and desires that are difficult and unsettling.

Their dream-like qualities mirror aspects of the social, psychological and ethical dimensions of human dilemmas. And children get this, they appreciate the deeper meaning on some level.

My daughter was infatuated with Ariel in the Disney movie. She could watch that video every day when she was 2 and she was fascinated with the idea of swimming with a tail and playing with her friend Flounder and of course singing her plaintive siren song (naturally Katherine could sing it better than the soundtrack).

I had friends who worried about the anti-feminist message for their girls. But all I saw was that she was more into the flounder than the prince. And that ocean life was where the fun was at as far as she was concerned. I just felt there were more positives in the tale than negatives.

The Disney ending is obviously not the same as Andersen’s more heartbreakingly complex one and contains much less blood and violence. But all of the elements are there – female agency, power, sex and longing, and of course, the freedom of choice. The fairytale is loaded with feminist talking points.

It’s been a lot of years since my Women’s Studies college courses and I don’t want to get in too deep here except to reflect on the emotional aspect of the sculpture.

Looking at her in the water, with her head lowered and lithe body seemingly defeated, shoulders sagging and the tail splayed listlessly against the rock, the feeling of longing and loss is powerful.

And my heart feels protective of that young feminine form in a way I’m sure I wasn’t when I read the story as a child.

Like a lot of pre-adolescent girls, I remember my sisters and I playing mermaid at the local pool, pretending our legs were fused together into one muscular tail. We were convinced we swam better and stronger that way. We were creatures that only females could be, adventurous, curious and strangely sexy, in a weird fish/girl/woman scaly way. We were a different species all our own, for sure.

Of course now I am a full-grown feminist. My generation rested our backs against the heavy-duty feminists before us. And they made things easier for us, and not.

We owe much to them but it’s been a mixed inheritance.The ideal of womanhood they held up to us seemed as fantastical as a unicorn: we were supposed to be entitled to an education, a job of our choice, sex/contraception, marriage or not, family, leisure, comfortable shoes/clothes, happiness and, oh yeah, love?

Yet I never felt that the women’s movement did a great job of recognizing my choice – the choice not to work outside the home. But my point is that every choice is a compromise, every choice closes a door.

So I feel a bit wistful when I think about our daughters. Because they are as bombarded with the same “have it all” nonsense that I was. Yet Andersen’s moral actually reveals to us the ambiguity of all choice and shows us that the compromises and trade-offs are an unavoidably cruel part of real life.

Isn’t that what growing up means?

Women today are a weird hybrid of all of the past decades of feminism, but one thing looks the same to my eyes. We are still perpetuating the myth of “having it all” – the tail and the legs. To me that kind of creature doesn’t exist and if she did it would be horrific.

When I chose to stay at home with my children, I chose nearly 20 years of no income, not fair. But if I hadn’t stayed home I would be writing a different kind of piece today, maybe about lost family time or the effects of stress or some other thing, also not fair. Some of my friends stayed home like me, some didn’t. Some have regrets, some never looked back.

But we’re all different fishes in the sea, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But to me The Little Mermaid illustrates the painful cost of being human – male and female. And it asks questions about the nature of identity and self-sacrifice. While pointing out that some desires are irreconcilable and that emotions can take you to deep, dark places.

And that love is never guaranteed but can actually be a reward in itself.

And so the moral of the story might be that none of us get to have it all, whatever the hell that is. But what we do have is a beautiful story that begins:

Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass.  But it is very deep too.  It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go …

A story of our own childhood and growing up. Being forced to choose between living with our family in our magical homes while developing our talents and embracing our strengths, or living in a foreign land and being loved by a man for all eternity (or divorce).

I don’t know what you think, but that sure doesn’t sound like much of a choice to me.


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