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Trans Allegories in Film: 'The Little Mermaid' (1989)

Films can alleviate alienation by presenting realities where the viewers feelings are shared by onscreen characters. 'The Little Mermaid" film can be interpreted as a transgender story.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

4 / 5
4 / 5


The world seems to be getting more and more unsafe for transgender people. Varying legislation in the USA and the UK are having negative impacts on the mental health of trans people. From making gender-affirming healthcare less accessible to not acknowledging pronouns, the world seems to be hyperfocused on attacking people who aren’t cisgender. Though adults are unfortunately often the victims of hate crimes, the toll isn’t less on children. They aren’t allowed to claim different identities from what they’re assigned at birth, and often even lack the resources required to understand how they’re feeling. There are severe efforts being made to hide awareness that some people are transgender, feeling a different gender identity that does not align with their expected gender and birth sex. This causes children with trans identity to grow up with a lot of resentment for themselves. Films can often alleviate this alienation by presenting realities where these feelings are shared by characters. These film can be interpreted as transgender stories. Animation as a storytelling medium crosses all ages and backgrounds, making them prime vehicles to explore complicated themes.

‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) dir. John Musker, Ron Clements

Jodi Benson voices Ariel as she sings “Part of Your World.”

Based on the story written by Hans Christian Andersen, who happened to be a queer man, Disney’s The Little Mermaid has been read as an allegory for queerness for as long as it has existed. It tells the story of the mermaid, Ariel, who yearns to be a part of the human world. Her father, Triton, forbids her from ever going to the “Surface World,” but she keeps approaching the surface of the ocean anyway because of her love for all things human. She even collects and stores human artifacts from shipwrecks. On one of her ventures to the surface world, she meets and falls in love with a prince, Eric. When her father finds out, he punishes her by destroying her lair with all the artifacts she has collected. Helpless and misguided, Ariel then takes the help of the sea witch, Ursula, to transform into a human being, at the cost of her voice, and under the condition that if she fails to get Eric to kiss her by the sunset of the third day, she’ll be a slave to Ursula. Obstacles come in their way, even in the form of Ursula as a human being, and before the fated sunset, they fail to kiss. When Triton sacrifices his position as the King of the Seas to save his daughter, Ursula turns into a gigantic monster. Eric manages to kill her though, and after the entire ordeal, Triton finally understands that his daughter should be allowed to live with Eric. Using the magical powers he had consciously held himself back from using, he turns Ariel into a human and finally sets her free.

The forbidden nature of Ariel’s love for Eric draws parallels to queer romance in disapproving world. Ursula is literally based on prolific drag queen actress Divine, and her help with getting Ariel to her forbidden love can be read as the mermaid finding her found family. The queer allegories and references are integral to the film. But the allegory extends beyond forbidden romance for some viewers. Part of Ariel yearning to be part of the surface world comes with a desire to be human. She literally wants to lose her fins and instead have feet. This wish to be in a different body naturally resonates with the transgender community. Many trans people suffer from body dysmorphia on top of gender dysphoria. Body dysmorphia, very loosely speaking, is the feeling that you’re trapped in a body which isn’t necessarily yours. It often comes with the urge to change one’s appearance to hopefully match with the body one feels they belong in. Ariel longs for a different body, but her father doesn’t just forbid her from contacting those with the other kind of body, but claims everyone with a human body is dangerous. That sounds very similar to transphobic parents forbidding their children from having contact with transgender people and teaching them that transgender people are dangerous!

Ariel’s story lends itself well as a trans allegory, especially if you’re looking. She feels like a misfit in her own body. Even though she doesn’t have her voice, Ariel seems to be in her element as a human. She barely takes any time adjusting to having feet on the ground after having spent sixteen years with fins underwater. This new body feels almost better suited for her than her mermaid body. She dances gracefully and is quite agile on her feet. Moreover, she appears genuinely happier in a human body, and when at the end, King Triton changes her into a human, she glows up at the prospect of being able to live as a human, no strings attached. The allegory extends even further when you consider Ursula’s role in the story. Triton’s trident could have given Ariel what she had been looking for, but he had held back, and as a result, Ariel found herself agreeing to a shady deal with a witch. This is similar to the experience of transitioning transgender people who end up relying on untrustworthy sources of therapy and surgery when they’re denied gender-affirming healthcare. Also, Ariel’s transformation back into a mermaid makes every human being around her react with a shocked gasp. She would never fit in with them in her mermaid state. This reminds me of the stigma many transgender individuals face from their own community when they don’t choose to transition.

Ariel feels at home in the body that aligns with her heart, not the one that aligns with her birth. She isn’t human because it’s better than being a mermaid, she’s human because it is who she is meant to be, and her happiness is all that ultimately matters.

Hounorable Mention

Along with the film I analysed here in depth, there’s are countless more animated features which come to mind when I think of trans allegories. The first has to be Disney’s Mulan (1998) dir. Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook. It has a legacy for the transgender community and is probably Disney’s most obviously trans story.