Ambulatory: How the Little Mermaid Shaped My Self-Image with Cerebral Palsy
CW: Ableism, body horror, death
Like many other little girls born in 1989, the year that The Little Mermaid was released, I was obsessed with Ariel. I never saw the movie in the theater but watched the VHS obsessively starting when I was two or three. At that age, I was far too young to understand the romance between her and human Prince Eric. I identified with her fun-loving curiosity, musicality, and independence. But long before I knew what a metaphor was, I also unconsciously related her desire for legs to my cerebral palsy, which affects my balance, gait, and coordination. "She has feet!" I told my babysitter, thinking hazily of my own goal of one day walking independently.
However, unlike Ariel, I didn't really want to change anything about myself. I imagined that Ariel could stay in the sea with me and be my friend. When my aunt and uncle bought me a Prince Eric doll to go with Ariel, I was inexplicably appalled. My mom understood this implicitly when she said to me, "Ariel's our friend, right?" My view of Ariel had shifted subtly. Instead of relating to her desire for legs, I now wanted to stop the story before Ariel could change herself.
At the time, I had an Ariel doll that I brought everywhere. She had a removable, green tail that I could pull over her legs, transforming her from a mermaid to a human and back. One day, I accidentally knocked Ariel's leg out of its socket. Spooked, I immediately threw the doll and all its accessories into the trash. My mom retrieved it from the trash and explained to me that Ariel was not broken.
In 2009, when I told my college roommate this story, she joked, "You threw away a doll for being disabled!"
In a complicated way, dolls can reflect or reinforce whom society considers attractive or even "normal." All children should have access to dolls and characters that reflect their identities, such as race, disability, and body type. I received catalogs offering to custom-make dolls resembling individual children but found it off-putting and creepy.
I noticed that most characters were white, like me, but almost none were disabled. As an adult, I discovered that disabled authors of color are doubly marginalized, even in the disability community, due to this lack of representation. I think that some of us as disabled children identified primarily with our race or gender but not with our disability. Or we unconsciously found metaphors for disability, like I did with the little mermaid. Although I never thought that anything was "wrong" with me, the eerie feeling that something was wrong with Ariel had been unshakable.
I wasn't the only disabled student in my school, but even in preschool I began to realize that I was different from most of the other children. My desire to stay under the sea with Ariel was inseparable from the idyll of my parents' house and the radical self-acceptance that they helped teach me. Ariel moves from one world to another, which is how I often felt navigating between disabled and non-disabled people.
Today, due partly to countless hours of physical therapy, including therapeutic horseback riding, and exercising at home with my parents as a child, I'm ambulatory. I can walk semi-independently, either with crutches or a walker. My dad used to say that someday I would reach what he called "step three" and be "a community walker." Despite his good intentions, we learned and realized that this wasn't a realistic goal. Although I can get around semi-independently, there are certain places, like the subway, where I'll travel with family and close friends only, never alone. My gait will always be distinctive, and I'll always need some type of assistive device. My family and I never considered total assimilation, or eradicating any trace of my disability, a healthy goal. It's part of my identity and always will be. This is why I find popular narratives of curing or "overcoming" disability both inaccurate and insulting.
Despite my strong sense of self, as an insecure teenager, I sometimes used to wonder what a non-disabled version of myself would look like: more developed muscles, straight posture and gait. Now I realize that there's no ideal version of anyone. This is how I'm supposed to be. Why disavow or wish away the source of my art and some of my most fascinating, unique experiences and relationships?
In high school, I revisited the story of "The Little Mermaid." I read Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy tale and realized that it was much darker and more visceral than the sanitized Disney version. The nameless mermaid not only loses her voice; she also literally has her tongue cut out. Her new feet bleed each time she takes a step. Whether you interpret this as representing the physical pain of menstruation or the way that some people sacrifice and silence parts of themselves for their partners, the symbolism is rich. Imagine: all that for a man who doesn't even like her back! At the time, I vowed I'd never change for a man. I often made pronouncements like this.
When I was nineteen and a sophomore at Stonehill College, I took a creative writing class and used Ariel as a metaphor in my story "Categories," eventually published in Deaf Poets Society. As I've become more involved in the disability community, both in-person and online, I learned that I wasn't the only person to use mermaids as a symbol for disability. Disabled artist and activist Annie Segarra recently used the amphibious nature of mermaids as a metaphor for being an ambulatory wheelchair user, sometimes walking and sometimes needing assistive devices.
The little mermaid's self-abnegation—her attempt to destroy what makes her unique—will always disturb me. In the original story, the mermaid fails: instead of staying human and gaining an immortal soul, she dies and turns into sea foam. The little mermaid briefly succeeded at assimilation—at becoming something she was not. But the cost was her voice and her life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GRACE LAPOINTE is a freelance contributor at Book Riot. Her fiction has been published in Kaleidoscope, Deaf Poets Society, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. Her essays have appeared in Wordgathering, as part of Grub Street's "Why I Write" series, in The Body Is Not An Apology, and elsewhere.