The Little Mermaid
Like so many parents over the past month, we just took our kids to see the live action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. We loved it on many levels. I thought the acting was fantastic, new songs that were added made the movie feel fresh and liked that they kept a lot of what made it special.
And I definitely caught that they were trying to bring a troubled story into 2023 storytelling sensibilities.
Why do I say a “troubled story”? Although I watched the animated version many times while I was young, it never sat well with me that this mermaid gave up her gifts, her voice, everything that she knew to chase after this guy that she met for 2 seconds, then had to use her feminine mystique to get him to fall in love with her body but he had no idea what she thought.
For all of those who know me, you already know that this grates against my very being and I can’t roll my eyes back far enough thinking about what these messages insinuated to generations of children.
But I digress…
They did add a line at the end of the movie when Ariel’s father King Triton says, “You should never have had to give up your voice to be heard”. I think that was a decent nod to an overall disempowering premise that your voice is something that can or should be silenced to be with some guy.
Wish they almost had this on a ticker at the bottom of the screen so that throughout the movie there would be no mistake that this was a terrible idea to start with.
But let’s face it, most of the fairytales that we’ve all grown up with are troublesome and require the girls in those tales to give up their own agency (Aladdin), be comatose (Sleeping Beauty), imprisoned (Beauty and the Beast), made to become an unpaid domestic worker in their own home (Cinderella). There are problems abound in all of them.
And yet, they remain the worldwide children stories that hold fast and are hard to shake. In any country, you can see a kid’s face light up with recognition when they see another kid dressed in a Cinderella dress or Little Mermaid costume. These stories endure.
Yesterday, I was able to see the sparkle in my daughter’s eye when she realized that the main character looked like her. To see how dazzled she was to see her type of hair reflected back in this larger than life way. That she didn’t just get to see herself in stories that were written specifically for a black girl but that she saw a black girl in a story that’s meant for everyone.
This is not a small thing. It’s a very powerful message. It says you don’t just belong in this small part that only you can play anyway. It says you belong in ALL of the places you want to be. You belong on the main stage. You belong. Period. End of story.
I guess that’s why there is so much backlash in reviews, because this is saying that there isn’t just one way to write this fairytale. And not just one type of person that deserves the spotlight.
You would think that after we’ve seen the incredible popularity of Broadway’s Hamilton and Netflix’s Bridgerton, (which are both loosely based on real historical figures — not a fictitious mermaid) that there would have been a much smaller reaction here.
But unlike those popular shows these Disney films still have a wider reach across more ideologies and wider age ranges. More people under the tent wondering why their fairytale looks different. Never considering how it’s always looked different for others.
And then just turn on the news. It is soul crushing to see how much the forces of power are pushing back on the ideas of including or allowing full rights to under represented people, including women, LGBTQ people, as well as black and brown people with less opportunities.
Conformity in a world that doesn’t look like you
When you grow up in a world that doesn’t reflect you, you subconsciously take in that message. You understand quite early what’s different about you and whether those differences are celebrated or seen as less than others.
Then something starts to happen. Maybe you start trying to make yourself look like everyone else that you see highlighted. How can I make my curly hair straight? Ok, not working…how about just long? Still not doing the trick. What if I just wear it in a braid so you can’t tell how curly it really is?
And I actually had a pretty healthy sense of self, but the pressure to fit in when you are little (and sometimes when you are fully grown) is insidious.
It took way too long to start loving the way I look. The way the bridge of my nose was flat instead of slim and “pointu”, my darker complexion, my curly hair that refused to be tamed by the many relaxers or my curves that refused to conform to fashion norms.
I know that every girl goes through her own issues but now that I have a daughter, I think about these more. Do you remember that Amy Schumer movie, “I Feel Pretty”? Her character recalls that when she was little she was confident and felt beautiful until beauty standards that are reinforced with our dolls, magazines, models, actresses, told her the opposite.
I think we’ve collectively understood that there are so many different ways to be beautiful but we still have not collectively absorbed the message that we all deserve our time in the spotlight.
The Big Brands are Taking Note
What is so refreshing is seeing how much the beauty brands are taking note of the sea change and welcoming in new faces, fresh looks and cultures that haven’t been highlighted before.
For the past year, as a New Yorker* who hasn’t lived outside of SE Asia or Australia for the past year, I have noticed the changes in Asia. Everything from make-up, clothing and haircare products are getting revamped to be the right fit with the explosion of different hues, textures and tastes, when before there was only 1 or 2 options.
It’s shocking how long it’s taken brands to catch on to this when you look at the amount of money that’s been left on the table by brands telling one story. Even for the people who were supposedly served by this old story, it was limiting. We simply don’t come off a factory line.
I for one finally feel like I am part of the larger story. I see my hair on models for Chanel, Gap and Target. I am able to see how that pink lipstick would actually look on my color lips. And can finally tell what a pair of pants would look like on a model above a size 00.
(*Side note: Americans are the only countrymen that announce what State or City we are from instead of Country first — not sure if that shows extreme local pride, an insulated view of the world or a lack of country cohesion — in any case it’s notable and something that is uniquely American)
Inclusion Turns the World into Technicolor
As happy as I am to be included, we really only at the start of inclusion. There are so many gorgeous cultures and nationalities that are hardly ever featured. The tent needs to open up wider and we will all be better for it.
I’ve always been a believer in getting the bigger tent. Why exclude folks? Just get a bigger tent so we can all fit. It’s way more fun and definitely more interesting that way.
But this works for the way you not only see your personal narrative but also how you see the work world.
Inclusion at Work
My latest read is this very interesting book called “The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World” by Bruce Feiler. It’s a breakdown of how our current work world was constructed and the many ways that it’s being reconstructed to fit the way we now live today.
We know that so much of work hours, buildings and traditional careers were never designed for women or people with care responsibilities in mind. There was one main idea of who works and therefore one design in place. The reconfiguration of the way we work today shows how people have been redesigning their work lives to better account for those realities.
What’s fascinating about this book, unlike so many books on success, business and work, is that the stories are as varied and diverse as the American people. It’s not focused on just one type of career or lateral way to be successful.
By starting from a place of inclusion, you immediately begin to tell a bigger and better story. There are more nuisances, more dips and definitely more ways in which to find happiness.
Past Exclusion Looks Ridiculous Today
I was watching a great documentary on Mary Tyler Moore a couple weeks ago. An actress and show that was before my time but I’ve been so aware of her influence on so many women before me who saw her and for the first time realized that they could be in the work world too. She normalized being a single divorced women in her own power and could stand toe to toe with her male colleagues.
Looking at this today, it seems so antiquated. Yet, it wasn’t that long ago. And these interviewers were practically reprimanding the actress for portraying a divorced working woman who dared to “make it on her own”. It made people uncomfortable. And wasn’t the way they wanted to see women portrayed in media as it could give girls the wrong idea. Then they would all want to work too. Gasp!
Oh, My. God.
It’s 2023 and we are stuck in a time warp.
Sometimes media moves faster than some people are ready for, but it is usually very much in tempo with the culture and our very human appetite for progress, inclusion and moving forward.
I am hopeful that my kids are going to look back and just shake their heads at what’s happening today as things will inevitably march forward.
But just in case, we all need to keep pushing things forward on our ends, if that's not apparent today, I don't know what will convince us.
Widening the lens
The narrow views of story telling that we’ve accepted as a society have given us a limited diet of the same meal each night. It’s made us less adventurous and less imaginative when it comes to new narrative meals.
But we don’t have to settle.
Seeing new stories and unlikely storytellers should not just open up our minds to the thousands of untold stories, it will open up our appetites for more daring and inventive meals.
We have so many people that have been left out of stories and so many cultures to still collectively discover. This shouldn’t scare us. This should excite us and we should embrace the unknown with open minds.
In the case of this fairytale, they’ve simply revamped an old recipe to create something new and just a bit more welcoming.
I, for one, am so ready for an international hawker center of narratives.