Adults should play tag. I say this not to be cute or funny; this post isn’t meant to be the prose equivalent of a whimsical, chalk-lettered meme that says how we learned everything we need in elementary school. Rather, I propose that we all go out and play tag because it’s going to solve multiple problems, because it’s going to be fun, and because it’s logical to have fun.
In elementary school, you have recess. Run outside, burn off some energy, skin your knees. Watch has in horror as some kid has diarrhea all down the right leg of his jeans, and thank the heavens that it wasn’t you, and that your OCD hadn’t developed yet, otherwise you’d be seeing microscopic bits of diarrhea in every hallway you walked down that Diarrhea Kid also walked down.
In middle school, you have recess. Loiter outside, take a half-hearted ride on the swings, trade the yellow cat Gigapet your brother found on the bus and named Becky for a purple puppy Gigapet your most treacherous friend** found in the restroom and didn’t name.
In high school, you don’t have recess. There is only lunch, which has become more socially terrifying than ever before, and gym class, which now has the effect of making you wish you were back to sitting in French class.
Sitting. That’s what we adapted to as recess disappeared.
It’s not so much that we learned everything we need in elementary school; it’s more that we fell into a rut since then. Movement becomes exercise, and exercise becomes penitence. And penitence leads to the dark side. Or at least it leads to unhappiness.
But maybe THAT leads to the dark side.
People choose exercises that they hate, and turn exercise into a chore. Where’s the good in that? And why is it considered a normal part of being an adult? Adult exercise takes repeated acts of willpower to pull off on a consistent basis, and I don’t believe in willpower. Or rather, I think it’s smart to eliminate the need for it from my life wherever possible.
Have you ever run down a leaf-covered trail for the sheer joy of it, as far as you could, until you could barely breathe, and stood watching the wind blow until it became your own breath again, and you could walk without your knees wobbling? That’s not a chore unless you make it one.
Running is only socially acceptable if you’re engaging in it for the sake of calorie-reducing drudgery. You have to wear the proper clothes; you have to complain. These days, in order to make sure people know you’re serious about drudgery, you need to wear a Fitbit. How do you know you did your penitence if you don’t have a record on your smartphone?
But I actually love running. I run in stores when I’m not supposed to. I run at work when I can find an empty hallway. Sometimes I want to run, to burn off energy, to calm down and exhaust myself enough that I can sit and write for 25 minutes.
Having energy isn’t socially acceptable either. We’re supposed to move the way everyone else does, which isn’t much. That goes for social gatherings, which are all about sitting and food, even if they’re ostensibly about something else like football or patriotism or role-playing games. We’re supposed to sit and talk, as if we haven’t sat enough already. This isn’t only about exercise either; it’s about movement. Does anyone else ever feel resentful of social gatherings because of the additional amount of sedentary time they add to your life? I’ve teased LARPers (live-action role players) in the past, but I kind of get it, even though I love my weekly Dungeons and Dragons and Sitting and Food gathering.
I recently heard a podcast advertisement for a new app that allows you to exercise for just ten minutes, anywhere you want. Guess what? You could always do that.
Forget consumerized institutional exercise. Gyms are cost-prohibitive; tag isn’t.
Which brings me to my case for tag. Here are some problems you might run into as an adult:
You need exercise.
You hate exercise.
You forgot how to have fun sometime in your late twenties, or maybe earlier if you’re one of those lucky folks who got a decent job right out of college.
You’re don’t get outside enough.
You’re awkward in group scenarios and need an icebreaker that isn’t an icebreaker.
Guess what? Tag will help all of those to some extent or another. We are supposed to solve needing and hating exercise with better willpower, with productivity hacks, and with putting on a new exercise outfit to make it seem fun, which works until there’s sweat on the new outfit. We’re supposed to try running in groups, which, if you have turned running into a chore, only means you’re doing that chore with other people, just the same as if you have friends help you move. Why not take the running group, forget target distances and times, and have fun? Instead of finding one solution for each problem, find one that takes down several at once.
The best way to solve a problem is to find the root cause. What if a lot of those problems had the same root cause, and that cause is a lack of movement and outside time? Even if that isn’t the root cause, it’s still preferrable to find one solution that will solve as many problems as possible, rather than generating a new solution for each problem. Outside time and playtime are both beneficial in so many ways, and if that wasn’t obvious, the science is there to back it up. But even if you couldn’t point to health or productivity benefits, would that matter? Shouldn’t feeling better and having fun be enough?
Remember how fun it was to play tag? Remember the life and death importance of running, of not being tagged? Remember how the tagger would be a finger-width away from getting you, but you’d stumble into a tree just in time, and the tree was goo so you were safe. You could breathe.
Goo. What did goo mean? What’s the etymology of the word goo? Was it supposed to be “goal?” Remember feeling awkward that you didn’t understand these things, but running anyway? In theory, you could run to goo and stay there for the entire game. But that didn’t occur to anyone because it was fun to move. You’d stumble across the yellow-painted lines on the blacktop, safe again, and stay only long enough to catch a little breath.
And if you went outside your normal social circles, you learned about different types of tag, like freeze tag. If tagged, you turned yourself to a human ice sculpture until someone else came to rescue you. And then there was TV tag, which never seemed to have clear rules, but involved shouting out names of TV shows. TV tags seems like an especially good one to pick up as an adult. I know a lot more TV shows now than I did when I was eight.
When I was a kid, I figured that one of the advantages to being an adult was that you could do fun stuff whenever you wanted because no one could stop you. Granted, I didn’t see too many adults actually playing tag, or eating ice cream for breakfast, or throwing rocks at larger rocks to break them in pieces**. But I knew they had the power, whether or not they chose to use it.
People always say how the kids these days don’t go outside anymore. They don’t play tag. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that kids don’t have to play tag for adults to do it, and I know that no one toiling away at a treadmill has to approve either.
Let’s break everything. Let’s break the consumerized exercise and run like wild creatures. Let’s break our social gatherings and let them burst forth in a supernova from the kitchen tables they have centered around. Let’s break the idea that excerise is drudgery.
Take your ibuprofen first, if that’s what you’ve got to do.
*It was the 90s. We didn’t have the word “frenemy” yet. My assumptions about who does and doesn’t have recess also come from the 90s.
I spent thirty-two years as a person before adding diaper changes, wrap carriers, and checks to see if the baby is still breathing since five minutes ago to my life. In those thirty-two years, I accumulated a cluttered attic’s worth of the thoughts and idiosyncrasies that make up any life. Parenthood is a particularly intense addition to the list of things I am, which is a mom who is also an entire person. At least, that’s my view of it. Socially, I now exist in the narrow construct of The Mom Box, where my entire identity is filtered through a set of assumptions about mothers and motherhood.
It’s not a huge revelation that we have certain cultural ideas about what a mother is, or that those ideas aren’t awesomely inclusive. But encountering how those ideas manifest out in the wilds of social interaction has been a revelation for me. I encounter an unusual degree of surprise at things that I would think are fairly benign, such as having a job, writing, keeping my birth name, and enjoying hamburgers.
“I understand now what you meant about starting to feel like a person again,” said my cousin’s partner at a cookout a few months ago. I had no memory of saying this when I brought my four-month-old daughter to their baby shower, but it sounds about right.
Most parents agree that the bootcamp stage wears off. Some told me it would be at one month—the time when my own breastfeeding difficulties peaked with stress-inducing feeding schedules meant to help an off-the-charts underweight baby. Some said it would wear off at three months or six.
During my three-month parental leave, baby demands took up entire mornings and pushed my morning coffee to one in the afternoon. I’d be lucky if I got a ten-minute break. And no, I don’t consider watching Doctor Who during an hour-and-a-half breastfeeding session to be a break: my muscles hated it.
My toddler, fresh out of babyhood, still needs a lot of love, care, and smartphone pictures of owls. Toddlerhood has proven to also be an intensive time. Already, I know it ends too. But I now have more breathing room than the ten-minute coffee breaks of my maternity leave. That’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this currently-2,000-word blog post.
As the months passed, I found the other pieces of my personhood again. I’ve had this blog for five years—you can click through and see my identity as a person independent from my role as someone’s mother. I am well past the stage when entire days and all my thoughts are subsumed by childcare duties. Unless you ask anyone else.
Then the entire rest of my existence is negated.
Don’t have complaints. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions.
“Here is a thing I’m bitter about,” I might tell you.
“But at least you have a kid,” you say.
Yes, that is nice. We have fun, the kid and I. But that doesn’t make me not bitter about The Thing, or invalidate any unhappiness. A toddler isn’t a panacea for everything else wrong in someone’s life. Bitter regrets and mental illnesses don’t pop like soap bubbles touched by tiny, chubby fingers.
“You cut your hair! That haircut must be a lot easier with a toddler,” you say.
No, it really isn’t.
A pixie cut demands more maintenance, whether that comes in the form of at-home haircuts (my choice) or extra trips to a professional. Motherhood is also not why I have this haircut; I’ve had a pixie for the better part of the last nine years because I like it. I like how it’s short and spiky. I like how it compels people to compliment my cheekbones, a part of my skeleton that I can honestly say I’d never thought about once, until I went short.
I gave my toddler the same haircut. Is that because she’s a mom?
No, it is not.
I’m calling it The Mom Box because it’s a sequel to The Female Box. I’m somewhat socially obtuse, and so it took me until my mid-twenties to even begin to understand the extent to which others define me by my femaleness, and filter all other aspects of my personality through this. I started calling it “The Female Box,” in my head, and I’ve noticed others have used this term as well. The fact that so many of us thought of it independently speaks volumes about the experience.
Here are some features of The Female Box:
Doubt that I can lift fifty pounds.
Suggestions that I might as well have a man lift something for me rather than bother doing it myself.
Suggestions that a man, who like me, is not a mechanic, will be able to repair my car when I can’t.
Questions about whether I plugged in the electronic device I’m having a problem with
Assertions that I do certain things because “girls always do this,” even when the thing in question isn’t something I do.
Being referred to as a “girl” past the age of thirty.
Surprise that I know how hand sanitizer works.
Questions about whether the typically-male job I am performing is actually my job, including when I was a security guard and wore a uniform.
The amount of gendered baggage that goes with motherhood was a huge deterrent to me becoming a mother, and one of the biggest reasons that having a child was such a difficult decision for me. How could it not be, when I had spent so long rebelling against every gender expectation I could? I told a friend of mine that I had to rebel against my own rebellion in order to figure out what I, myself, wanted for my own reasons.
Even knowing I would have to face The Mom Box, and even knowing what The Female Box felt like, I wasn’t prepared for quite how confining a space it is. When I talk about The Mom Box, think about The Female Box, and add an advertising line to it:
All that, and more!
Here’s my definition: The Mom Box is a social construct in which motives, choices, actions, opinions, lack of opinions, personality, emotions, identity, and gender identity are assumed to derive from motherhood alone rather than other aspects of personhood, and are also externally circumscribed by one’s role as a mother, or perception of one’s role as mother.
One day, some acquaintances–a young guy and an older one–were talking about fast food. “Are you a McDonalds or a Burger King or a Wendy’s person?” kind of thing. Five Guys came up. I mentioned that I like Five Guys because they make a lettuce wrap, and wheat spring-clamps my digestion.
Cue the older dude, with the absolute surprise of learning that someone has been making a time machine in their garage: “You like hamburgers?”
This isn’t someone who knew that I tend to be a healthy eater, and was a vegetarian over ten years ago. This is someone who didn’t know the first thing about me, including at that point, my name. Why would it be a huge surprise that I like one of the most popular foods in America?
I assume that in the Mom Box, the only foods I eat are sad little foil-covered cups of low-fat Yoplait yogurt and chicken breast with some kind of obligatory vegetable side dish, which I can tell you amazing trivia about, such as its Weight Watchers points value, and how it’s flavored with bottled salad dressing and celery salt, and how the vegetables are a pretty good price at Stop and Shop right now.
Further, I assume that the walks I’ve replaced my lunch breaks with at work are a dutiful substitution I have made because “they” told me to–not because walking fulfills about a dozen functions in my life.
In The Mom Box, I probably don’t talk about the recent workers’ strikes at Stop and Shop, and whether or not they were resolved. Or the creepy robot with the glowing eyes that patrols the aisles looking for spills of meatbag blood that it made itself milk to clean.
Obviously, that’s silly. Those robots don’t slice people open. They vaporize them with their glowing blue eyes! I saw it on the Today Show! Or whatever I’m supposed to be watching.
I didn’t think it was so surprising that I write–I’m a rather quiet person with a decent vocabulary and I’m told that I have competent, if occasionally awkward, communications skills marred by only a slight Massachusetts accent. But writing assumes expressing independent thought, putting something OUT into the world when I am only supposed to be taking in what others have told me.
And it goes on and on. I must be so busy! I mean, I don’t have as much alone time as I’d like, but I’m hardly swamped. I must have a part-time job because I have a child, not because I want to leave time for writing and freelancing. Sure, it could be both, but finding a part-time job I could pay my bills on and leaving that time for other pursuits was a plan that pre-dated the kid by three years.
As I’ve written this post, I kept asking myself, “Does this even matter if it amounts to a social annoyance? Or even social exhaustion?” In my life, this is my strongest experience with The Mom Box. I’m still in the early days, and have years ahead of me.
What opportunities aren’t mothers told about because of others’ assumptions? What conversations are we kept out of because we wouldn’t be interested? To take these questions slightly too far, what if moms are the people sitting in the cave in Plato’s Republic?
I can try to break the box; I can eat a hamburger and write and yell and punch through the cardboard. But I can’t control other people’s thoughts, or read them. Even though I should be able to do that. Fuck you, patriarchy!
People always ask, now that I have a child, could I ever imagine life without her?
Seeing as I had a life for thirty-two years before she came on the scene, yes, I can. Seeing as I have friends without children, yes, I can.
Seeing as I write fiction and therefore inhabit the lives of people who are not myself, yes, I can. That last one makes the implications of the question a tiny bit insulting. Or it would, if the question were literal.
But I’m not supposed to imagine a life without her—that’s the point. “Could you ever imagine a life without her?” isn’t a real question about my imaginative faculties; it’s a litmus test of how thoroughly I have left behind everything else that I was. Have I been properly dip-dyed in motherhood? Did I bleach out my residual personality first?
I’m not supposed to answer that I could imagine a life without her.
I’m not supposed to answer that sometimes I relate more to women who are childless by choice.
I’m not supposed to be writing this post.
Or, if I do write it, I’m supposed to add like three paragraphs of qualifiers in case you misinterpret and think I don’t really love my kid, when I already went a bridge too far by imagining a life without her. I’m going to note here that my toddler doesn’t Mom-Box me; she knows me by my words and actions, not by a set of stereotypes.
Back when I was in The Female Box, I thought I knew what The Mom Box was all about. But I’m still the same socially obtuse person who took all those years to recognize The Female Box. I needed almost a year to realize that people were acting weird because I had been put in The Mom Box. And I needed the entire thinking process of this post to realize I had the whole thing wrong. This one had a long thinking process, too. I wrote the first notes almost seven months ago.
My toddler loves a book called Not a Box. It’s about the imaginative possibilities of a plain cardboard box to be a robot suit, a pirate ship, or anything else. In the end, the rabbit-protagonist decides that it isn’t a box, but a Not-a-Box. It can be anything.
The Mom Box is also not-a-box, but in the opposite way.
A box is used to hold a three-dimensional item.
The Mom Box doesn’t permit three-dimensional items or people, which means it’s more of a folder. And you can only shove so many papers into a folder before the seams start fraying.
There is a particular set of irritations that happen to people with a predilection for healthy food, a giant love of nature, and a tendency to approach their health with a minimalist, prevention-first mindset. In a word, hippies. Here are some that have plagued me over the years.
There are chia seeds glued onto my canines!
Like so much gelatinous goo on the bald head of a Garfield Chia Pet. Remember how spreading seeds on a chia planter works? If you’re the type of person who adds chia seeds to snack bars and yogurt, a bit of saliva is enough to get some chia-glue going and stick chia seeds to your teeth.
And when I say canines, I mean teeth, but I can only assume that chia-eating dog owners find them on their dogs’ coats, the same way I find them on my toddler, and also everything I own. Because that’s how toddlers work.
My coconut oil deodorant melted!
Coconut oil melts at 76 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re the type of person who deodorizes with a mixture of coconut oil, baking soda, cornstarch, and a bit of lavender oil mixed up with a fork in an old salsa jar, your finely-tuned cream mixture will turn to goo.
On the bright side, the more liquidy your mixture gets, the more you know you need it. A handy visual indicator.
And now I can’t make experimental fermented beverages. Plus, I’m a sad person because I had kind of come to think of it as an inert, bacterial pet, and no one understands because they have normal pets like cats.Y
I have barefoot angst!
Because I’m on a barefoot kick, but I need to go to Sears, and I don’t have the braided thong of cloth that makes it look as though I’m wearing flip-flops.
I need to buy yogurt at the supermarket!
But all the low-fat, high-sugar, nutrionally-bankrupt options sitting in fluorescent-lit yogurt prison remind me of the three things I hate most–disempowerment, brainwashing, and patriarchy—and I end up leaving the store in a steaming rage-spiral.
I need to get food at a gas station, but I don’t really consider any of this stuff food.
I accidentally revealed how infrequently I shower!
Because I mentioned taking a cold shower on Sunday when the hot water didn’t work, but I’m talking about this on Wednesday, haven’t taken a shower since, and didn’t think anything of it when I mentioned the Sunday shower. If you disagree with the idea of daily showers as necessary, know that soap advertising played a big role in the concept of the daily shower, and don’t want to open those particular cans of worms, it’s easiest to say that you get dry skin.
I self-identify as a hippie, but I don’t want you to confuse me with those hippies.
You know the ones, with the fluffiness and the moon crystals, the anti-vaxxing and the unquestioned conflation of “natural” and “good,” and the idea that people give themselves cancer with negative thoughts. Or the ones who give bad advice about essential oil use, and recommend coconut oil for ALL problems.
Or the ones who turn “natural living” into a consumer activity with surface-level gestures toward healthy eating, like buying almond milk because it’s almond milk, without looking at the ingredients or questioning whether 2.5 grams of fat is the correct amount of fat for a beverage purportedly made from nuts.
My partner spent an agonized Facebook post asking his friends for better terms than “hippie” to get away from those associations, and came up with nothing. The best I had was to add the word “pragmatic” in front of it. And that describes me fairly well: I’m a pragmatic hippie.
To be honest, I’m not sure how many of these problems are still considered hippie things since some of them, like chia seeds, have gone mainstream. It’s been years since I had to explain to someone what chia seeds are, or since I had to go to a special store to buy them. But whether these behaviors have gone mainstream or not, I know their roots.
This is hippie stuff, and these are hippie problems, and I have them.
Every time I hear a musician complain about the huge percentage of modern music created using only three chords, they expect it to elicit shock. Only three chords! Our modern music is such a travesty! Gone are the days of true talent! Something something Mozart mumble mumble time signatures.
I would like to submit that this is, actually, fucking amazing.
Or maybe it’s flurbing amazing. Now that I have a toddler with a knack for expanding her vocabulary, “fuck” is “flurb” and “shit” is “snap,” even when it doesn’t make sense, as in “Modern music is a steaming pile of snap.”
Look at how many songs use only three chords, and probably also have snare drum on two and four with eighth-notes on the high hat. Look at how many things musicians can express using even that small number of tools.
Four colors of CMYK ink can generate thousands of colors that create thousands of images. Twenty-six characters create the whole English language of thousands of words and thousands of works. Three chords with a snare on two and four isn’t on that same level, but it still amazes me.
Constraint is an artistic tool, but we’re only supposed to see the results as legitimate in certain cases, by certain artists who have been validated and are intentionally slicing away options in an ascetic prison of their own work. And yes, it’s awesome when rock bands use weird time signatures. And yes, all artists who love their craft should work to improve it.
But maybe “I’m a pissed-off punk, and no one told me how to play this guitar so I’m figuring snap out myself” is only another form of constraint, just without the self-awareness. Maybe you’re only allowed to use constraint as an artistic tool if you say things like “Constraint is an artistic tool.”
I believe everything I wrote above, and yet I would also append “in theory” to much of it. Even after years of chilling the fuck out, I hate the music I hate. Let me get a few things out:
Nirvana grates on me, as does anything much influenced by Nirvana.
I think the Beatles are overrated, and I don’t care if The Jam stole their bass line because “Town Called Malice” is an awesome song, and I think that U2 is a watered-down version of better bands from the same time and place.
I continually forget that people actually listen to Top 40 pop music, and that’s how it became the Top 40 in the first place.
Because you can rely on an event DJ to have no other good music besides David Bowie, the part of my own wedding I anticipated the most was picking the music. I can admit that along with a love of music was a petty desire to exact revenge upon those who had musically wronged me at weddings and other events in the past with all their YMCAs and their cotton-eyed joes and various 1:20 dilutions of misogynistic hip hop with the aforementioned Top 40.
The original title of this post was “Thoughts on music from a recovering pretentious snob,” and I went on so many tangents as I tried to write it that I had to split it into two separate documents, one entirely about hating country music in New England.*
One hit wonders usually aren’t. There’s this attitude that the band made one song and then fell off the face of the earth**, or that they made one song, and it alone rose above the festering trash heap of the rest of their work. What it actually means is that one song fit mainstream taste, not that the rest of the band’s work isn’t solid or true to their artistic vision, and possibly not even that the band sold out.
Everyone knows A-ha’s “Take on Me,” but they have an even more amazing song called “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” Everyone knows Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” and it came from their album After the Snow, a chill post-punk landscape that gives rise to the new wave pop of “I Melt With You.”
I think it’s totally legit for taste in music to be a deal-breaker in a romantic relationship. Not because I’m a recovering judgmental music snob, but because music is about emotional connection.
Like, if I’m being hit in my emotional punching bag with nihilistic shit about dying 1000 times and disconnection and meaninglessness, am I compatible with your emotional hit of fighting the man and protesting corporate bullshit and corrupt politicians? Or of meeting someone in a library but they dump you because they’re having an affair with the grocery store clerk? Or driving a tractor because you’re a guy whose girl left him?
I had a high school boyfriend who, when he dumped me, said that we didn’t communicate well. I didn’t understand that at all; I thought we’d had a ton of great conversations. We both loved epic fantasy novels! We had The Belgariad! He said he meant that, on a soul level, we did not communicate well. And that sounded like such wishy washy bullshit, but whatever, we were broken up and I was seventeen, so I went and wrote some angsty poetry and posted that shit on my Deadjournal.
While I didn’t understand what he meant about soul-level communication until I started dating my current partner, I did understand that he didn’t like The Durutti Column. I played him Otis, and he thought it was ugly and weird–I thought it was beautiful.
And that was the only way I had to understand that we didn’t have soul level communication.
That’s why, in the end, it’s not about someone on the outside dictating how many chords it takes to make a song that Mozart would give a fatherly pat on the shoulder. The question isn’t “How many chords does it take to play a worthy song?” It’s “How many chords does it take to express something true?”
Don’t ask me–I’m a percussionist.
*Coming soon. Y’all?
**If you’re a flat earther, is this a concern you might have? Does it provoke anxiety in the same way boarding an airplane or hearing about someone else’s stomach virus does for me?
When I re-watched The Little Mermaid for the first time in many years, I expected a feminist nightmare with catchy songs, boring characters, and a cookie cutter love story. As I wrote in part one “The Little Badass Mermaid Anthropologist: Why Ariel is Actually Awesome,” I didn’t expect to find Indiana Jones in mermaid form. I loved the rebellious curiosity of Ariel’s character. But the second half of the movie gave me everything bad I had been expecting.
If I were to write a summary sentence, it would be: “When a teenaged mermaid anthropologist seeks to join the human culture she studies against her father’s wishes, a vengeful squid-octopus witch makes her a deal that puts the entire ocean at risk.”
One interesting thing I realized about this movie is that, while Ursula the sea witch is definitely the villain, I’m not sure she’s the antagonist. That honor goes to her father, who works more directly against Ariel’s aims, especially in the early movie. Ariel is basically an anthropologist who wants to join the culture she studies, and Triton is the greatest barrier to this.
As for Ursula herself…
Finally, we have the only other character competent enough to be sharing a movie with Ariel, at least the Ariel we meet at first. If there’s one thing Disney never failed to bring, it was damn good villains. Of either gender. She’s a powerful character. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the name Ursula without thinking of her.
Not only is she a witch of the first order (look at her chuck potion ingredients into her cauldron!), she has what is probably one of the better surveillance systems in the ocean: Flotsam and Jetsam, whose eyes allow the sea witch to see what they see. Can you imagine if Triton had those? 1984 with mermaids.
Also, remember that thing where she’s impaled AND struck by lightning? When I write that out, it sounds like it should be overkill, but somehow it isn’t. She has the presence to make it work.
This is a worthy adversary for Early Movie Ariel, but once Early Movie Ariel encounters Ursula, she becomes Later Movie Ariel. Except, the transformation starts earlier. Things start going downhill for Ariel, and the movie, the instant she lays eyes on Prince Eric.
The Problem with Prince Eric
You have to go as far as real life to find someone else as bougie and boring as Prince Eric. His butler gives him an enormous statue of himself while they’re at sea. In front of all the sailors. In contrast to the Mermaid Version of Indiana Jones, Prince Eric is the one babbling on about marriage.
Loves dogs and the ocean, looking for the perfect girl. Way to be a human dating profile, Prince Eric. To give him some credit, he does impale Ursula with his ship at the end of the movie. But it’s too little too late, and she was being struck by lightning at the same time anyway.
Ariel meets Prince Eric and, just like every horror movie, does not realize how godawful boring he is. Enter the feminist nightmare of a plot in which Ariel agrees to drastically change her body for a guy she just met. Even worse (because at least the legs were a trade and will allow her to learn more about the human culture she loves), she gives up her voice.
I’ve been in a relationship for sixteen years, and as I sit here writing this, I’m still not sure I’d willingly give up my voice and my primary mode of locamotion for my partner. I can even hear him in my head saying, “Don’t do that. It’s dumb.”
This goes further downhill into the kissing plot. Ariel has three days to get Prince Boring to kiss her, but she’s apparently lost her moxie along with her fins and her voice. She tries to be pretty and enticing in the hopes that he will kiss her, but she never tries kissing him. Maybe that was against the rules of the deal and I missed it, but even the sea witch said her in song not to underestimate the importance of body language. This would have been the time for heaving bosoms and general sort of Harlequin romance behavior.
The sea witch will own Ariel forever if she doesn’t make the kiss happen. She will become one of the sentient seaweeds at the bottom of Ursula’s cave. Which means she’ll either get put into some kind of soup recipe*, or she’ll have to watch every single other mermaid who wanders into the cave fall for the same thing. This seems as though it would be greatly motivating.
But even with all that’s at stake for Ariel, she does almost nothing.
There’s even an entire song to convince P. Boring to kiss her, a song which she plays no absolutely no part in making. Instead, she leaves everything to her incompetent babysitter, Sebastian the Crab, whose solution to most problems is to have a musical number at them.**
She’s thrown into a classic love story in which she plays a classic, passive role, and she goes along with it. What happened to Early Movie Ariel, who swam back to a dangerous shipwreck for a bag?
She turned into a lady. And ladies can’t do shit.
Ladies give up their power, their agency, their voice. It’s not that Ariel is silent; it’s that she agreed to be silent.
Ladies wait for their prince to impale the sea witch with a ship instead of doing it themselves. It’s not that she’s powerless; it’s that she’s complicit in her own powerlessness.
Ariel’s last act as an empowered character is to given up her power.
Her transformation so overshadows the tough character of Early Movie Ariel that after all these years, I had forgotten the way she starts out. I realized, in Ariel’s first scene, that this was the character my five-year-old self loved. In a way that I have fully internalized and never let go of, my five-year-old self wanted to BE that character. The exciting rebel geek who cuts class to explore and adventure.
I want the story of Early Movie Ariel to be the story. I want her to impale the sea witch herself. I want her to swim back to Ursula’s lair, smash the amulet containing her voice, and use her vast knowledge of human culture to broker some kind of treaty between Prince Boring and her father. And maybe to depose her father and reopen her underwater museum.
But unlike so many stories in which the character grows, changes, and overcomes inner weaknesses, Ariel’s character development simply cuts off. The story beneath the story beneath the ocean is of Ariel giving up all her agency to become a lady. What she used to be is simply…lost.
Pessimistically, the moral of the story? Never give up your agency. You might get back your voice, but so much else might be gone forever.
Alternately, the moral of the story? Teenagers are stupid. Don’t be one. If you are one, stop that. It may take you seven years, but stop that.
Optimistically, the moral of the story? All feminists have bad days. You do something awesome like keep your name when you get married, but then you continue to shave your legs, or to miss experiences because you didn’t. No one is perfect. No one lives by their ideals all of the time.
That’s Ariel’s story, in the end. We all make compromises. Sometimes they hurt. Ariel is awesome, Ariel is terrible, Ariel is flawed.
That might not be the story Disney set out to tell, but it’s the only way I can reconcile the two halves of this character. My brain keeps wanting to find some way for the disconnect to make sense. To make a story out of it.
*Does kale have more protein if it’s made out of a mermaid? Only genetic engineering can tell.
**I think he gets sick of babysitting and wants to go back to something he’s good at. I find Sebastian the Crab relatable in the same hand-wringing way as C-3PO.
After telling someone how much Frozen reminded me of the Disney movies I liked as a kid, I decided to watch The Little Mermaid again for the first time in many years. As much as I loved The Little Mermaid and Aladdin when I was younger, I came to retroactively hate the whole Disney Princess thing. I went in expecting that I would hate the music and the love story, and find most of the characters boring, except Ursula the sea witch. One thing I wasn’t expecting from The Little Mermaid? To find the title character herself even remotely interesting, let alone a beacon of competence and badassery in the midst of a literal ocean of incompetent and evil associates.
While I went into the movie fully prepared to snark, I was drawn into the Magical World of the Ocean almost immediately. After the opening scene gets past some stuff with Prince Eric and his sailors dropping hints about the mythological sea creatures to show up in the next minute, there’s a really nice intro that plunges us down into the ocean to a majestic, mystical score. It’s a wonderful opening that makes me want to go to the library, check out a stack of books on jelly fish, and then geek out on marine life for days and learn about crazy, esoteric creatures that glow in the dark and mate with their own tentacles*.
And then we meet Ariel, who is leaning against the side of the convenience store with the dumpster and the hints of danger, smoking and flipping her Manic Panic Pillarbox Red hair while cutting class with her dumpy, inadequately-eyelinered best friend/ tag-a-long, who is drinking root beer out of what looks like a beer bottle if you cover the label with your hand.
Oh, wait, she’s actually skipping a lame musical rehearsal with her goody-goody sisters to explore a dangerous, shark-infested shipwreck** because she’s Indiana Jones in mermaid form? And then a shark eats the ship and she goes back for her bag?
But I’m pretty sure the friend is the same.
I’ll pause to note that this character introduction is awesome, and the movie is definitely setting me up for disappointment. But this isn’t a scene-by-scene recap, so…
Here are some things that make Ariel more awesome than other Disney princesses:
Ariel is not a princess of some tiny, France-like country. Ariel is a princess of the entire ocean.
Ariel is a mythological creature, and a magical one at that. None of the mermaids have gills–how are they breathing underwater? MAGIC. (Or intense Guybrush Threepwood-level breath-holding skills.)
As mentioned above, Ariel is obviously a Manic Panic customer, one who is somehow able to dye her hair while living underwater.
Ariel is a human geek, in the same way that many of us are Star Trek geeks or typography geeks or what have you. Remember how excited she is about the fork she finds in the abandoned ship? Only someone who truly loves a subject geeks out over minutiae like that.
Ariel is a mermaid anthropologist and archaeologist with an enormous, SECRET underwater museum housing her collection of human cultural artifacts. I mean, I know she gets caught, but she still amasses a sizable collection before that happens. I like to think that, in an alternate timeline, Ariel connects with the mermaid anthropological community at large and lets people in if they present secret golden scallop tokens in their palms. Or maybe not a scallop. Maybe some sort of token that shows their sympathy with the human community above the oceans. Like a golden foot that doesn’t have the right number of toes because they aren’t quite straight on that yet.
Speaking of King Triton…
I think the audience is eventually supposed to decide that Triton’s not so bad because he loves his daughter and wants her to be happy. But this guy’s a bigoted asshole. When he finds his daughter’s museum of human cultural artifacts, he blasts that thing to smithereens because he thinks humans are barbarians.
He’s also an irresponsible monarch, putting an entire ecosystem in danger. He sacrifices himself so that Ariel doesn’t become a seaweed-thing, allowing Ursula control of his trident, and therefore, the entire ocean.
Do you think the sea witch cares about the salt marshes, one of the greatest oxygen producers on earth? She does not! Triton should be thinking of things like this.
Anyway, it’s unfair to group Ariel with the other Disney princesses, because she is SO much cooler. It was with some surprise that I found myself not only enjoying the movie, but starting to realize why my five-year-old self loved the character of Ariel so much: it’s not because she’s a princess and wears assorted dresses and finds true love***. It’s because she’s a spirited badass in the vein of Indiana Jones, and until she fell in love with the prince, I actually loved this character in the present day too.
*The ocean is filled with crazy stuff, my friend. **I now realize that the shipwreck is foreshadowing. Thanks, English Degree! “You’re welcome, Kris! Can we chat about postmodernism later?” ***Or whatever you call it when you marry someone you’ve known for three days. Poor judgment.