The Little Engine That Could is female! And so is the red engine who breaks down on her way to bring toys and food to children. I didn’t remember this book well, so I was surprised to find this out when I started reading it to my toddler.
Incidentally, all three engines who refuse to help are self-important dudes. Well, one of them is actually an old, tired dude. His depression-era exhaustion makes me sad.
It makes me wonder if there is an intentional message hidden in the Dude-Engines’ unwillingness to help with the female task of making sure children are taken care of.
Out in the world are others who have experienced the same social annoyances I have, like being asked if I’m sure I don’t want any dessert or being told to smile. The great proliferation of internet blogs almost universally ensures that I can find those people, learn from them, and feel less alone. I can realize why something bothered me, see how someone else solved it, or see how they chose to accept it. But there’s one social problem I’ve never seen anyone else write about.
What do you do when you’re a Kristin who goes by Kris, and others revert your name to Kristin the instant you find yourself in a grouping with a Christopher who goes by the phonetically identical Chris, supposedly to avoid confusion? What do you do when others refuse to use your chosen name the instant someone who ranks higher in the patriarchy shows up?
As a child, I signed all my drawings KRIS, written in capital letters that took up the entire back of the paper. I knew Kris was my name before I knew Kristin was. One day, at either daycare or Sunday school, I drew my picture, flipped it over, and wrote KRIS in my enormous, wavering crayon lines. When I took it home at the end of the day, I noticed the teacher had written “Kristin” in the upper right corner, in tiny, ballpoint penmanship.
Kristin is my full name. Kris is my name. But after that, I knew to go by Kristin at school.
Fifth grade was a year that even now, I remember being one of the best in my life. I had lived an entire decade, made it to the top of the school, and collected enough Lisa Frank stickers to trade with my best friends, who were all in the same class as me that year. High on the power of a ten-year-old, I took a bold stand: I wrote “Kris” at the top of a worksheet. Then I did it again. I didn’t stop.
I asked the friends who didn’t already call me Kris if they could do so.
One of them told me, “I can’t call you Kris. It’s a boy’s name.”
This, of course, is not actually true. It’s not even uncommon for Christines, Christinas, and Kristins* to go by Chris/Kris, although I didn’t meet any others until I was an adult. My grandmother and my aunt, both named Crystal, went by Crys at times. Since I called them “Grandma” and “Aunt Crystal,” the fact that they had the same name as me didn’t sink in until later. So when my friend said Kris was a boy’s name, it felt true.
My name was short and boyish, and I wasn’t supposed to use it. I was like Nancy Drew’s friend George. And we all know that George is the awesome friend because no one remembers the other one.
I was Kris.
I’ve wondered how no one else on this internet has this problem, or at least how no one has written about it. Or if they have written about it, why it’s been so hard for me to find.
There are several conditions that must be in place for the Kris problem to occur. You need:
A female first name with
a gender-neutral nickname, which
is actually used by males as well, and
is common enough that males and females (and those of varying gender identities) will encounter each other.
Which is to say, I thought that loads of people must have experienced this, but it may not be a common problem at all. Most other Kristins I’ve met go by Kristin. Who else has this problem? Jessicas who go by Jess? Danielles who go by Dan? Samanthas who go by Sam? I’ve only known one female Dan and one male Sam. But I’ve known loads of Chrises.
Here’s a scenario I’ve experienced repeatedly in group settings: “I’m Josh.” “I’m Ashley.” “I’m Chris.” “I’m Kris too.” “Uh-oh, there’s another Kris.”
At this point, the meddling Josh or Ashley will propose a solution before a problem even comes up: “Well, you can just go by Kristin.” I don’t know why it falls to the Meddling Ashley to do this, but that’s the pattern. It’s never the other Chris.
This has happened at school, at more than one job, at family gatherings, and with friends. It’s happened even when my presence in a group predates the other Chris. Wherever there are Chrises, this has happened to me. The irony isn’t lost on me: I kept my name when I got married, but I’m constantly giving up my name.
Aside from my partner, no one is really aware that this happens. It’s a textbook example of a micro-aggression.
And aside from my boldness in fifth grade, it took me years to get to the point at which I decided to casually, if the moment was right, ask for people to call me Kris after they had already been calling me Kristin for quite some time.
I’m introverted and non-confrontational, so even something like “Hey, can you call me Kris? I’d really prefer it.” felt like a huge stand.
But my own personal, inner victory, the fact that I had asked at all, has most often been swept away by the responses I get. The typical response is for my request to be ignored.
Second place goes to: “Oh, but I’m so used to calling you Kristin.”
I don’t hate the name Kristin. Sometimes, in a particular mood, or when I’m at the DMV, it’s how I refer to myself. My parents call me by both names.
But the more I’m called Kristin after requesting Kris, the more the name irritates me. That’s because it’s not about the name itself; it’s about the blatant disregard, sometimes after repeated requests, that this is not what I want to be called. It’s someone talking to me while looking into another’s eyes. It’s being smeared like so much dry erase marker across a board.
That’s a Chris problem, Kris.
It’s much rarer for anyone to put in the effort to change what they had been calling me. But when someone does make the effort, even if I’m still Kristin about half the time, the feeling of being smeared disappears, replaced by the warmth and knowledge that I have been seen and heard.
When I worked occasional Thursday mornings at my old security job, I would come in as the sun rose. An hour later, a short, slim woman with sharp eyebrows would come in to help patients. A former librarian, she stored baggies of peanut butter sandwiches in her glove compartment the way others do granola bars.
Her name was Chris.
A few hours after that, another woman would come in. She was also small, with glasses and bobbed hair, and a sort of jovial matter-of-factness about her.
Her name? Also Chris. Now there were three of us.
We compared root names: two Christines and a Kristin. No one said, “Maybe you should go by Kristin,” or “You should go by Christine.” We made cheesy jokes about being a club, and laughed when someone said “Chris,” and three people turned around.
Never, in any situation with multiple female Krises and Chrises, has a Meddling Josh proposed that someone stop going by Kris.
We simply deal with any small confusions that arise because they aren’t actually a big deal.
I’ve observed in groups with two males of the same name that it isn’t an issue there either. Everyone gets used to Mike and Mike, or adds extra information to the contentious name. Then you have John One and John Two, Big Steve and Little Steve, Alex K. And Alex F., or Proper Dave and Medium Dave in Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather. It’s possible that John Two, Little Steve, and Alex F. have some simmering resentment over their names. But I’d rather be Kris Two, Little Kris, or Kris F. because that would mean someone listened to me. Even though my last initial isn’t F.
Here are some measures I’ve learned to take:
Introduce myself as Kris. Not even, “Hi, I’m Kristin. I go by Kris.” People who don’t know the name Kristin don’t call me by it.
Have my partner be a spotter, pointedly refer to me as Kris, and correct people.
Don’t assume that anything is a big enough hint. Don’t assume that using my preferred name online is a big enough hint. When I finally joined Facebook, I thought that using the handle “Kris Bowser” would be a hint. I thought that owning krisbowser.com would be a hint. But I’m sensitive to this, and apparently, it’s not a big enough hint.
Don’t even assume that setting your chosen name in 64-point Garamond on your wedding invitations–normally a full name kind of space–will be a big enough hint.
But I’ve learned to turn those outwards too:
Pay attention. Call people by the name they introduce themselves as.
Take a hint. Don’t assume that someone is typing their name a certain way for no real reason–assume it was a choice.
If someone asks to be called another name, give it a shot. Try. Don’t say I’m too used to the first name, as if I’ve never had to adapt to something in your life before.
Don’t assume a name is someone’s preference just because I hear others using it. Ask.
And don’t assume it’s not a big deal. You don’t know how strongly someone else holds their name preference, what it signifies, or how it empowers them.
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.
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.