No, Meghan Markle — you are not the Little Mermaid. Whether we are talking about Hans Christian Andersens’ very-Christian fairy tale or the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, we can fully and undeniably attest: you are not her. While the general cattiness of my title opines well enough, it should be noted that I am not entirely talking about the Duchess herself — but using her as a stand-in for all the would-be-infantilized, bourgeois or psuedo-bourgeois women of the world. My message? Grow up.
In the uproar over Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle was quoted as saying:
“‘I was sitting in Nottingham cottage and The Little Mermaid came on,’ Meghan said.
‘And who as an adult really watches The Little Mermaid but it came on and I was like, ‘Well… I might as well watch this.’
‘And I went, ‘Oh my God she falls in love with the prince and because of that she loses her voice.’
‘But in the end she gets her voice back,’ she added.”
Let me get the petty, obvious point out of the way that stirred me to ponder on this. Disney’s Ariel did not lose her voice because she fell in love with the prince. This was not the cause of her reticence — she willfully submitted her own speech, her own ability to project her ideas through speech, in the pursuit of her goals. She made a Faustian deal, giving up some part of herself to pursue her dreams. And she never complained.
This old story of sacrifice and suffering seems ancient to us now, as so many foster a mainstream culture that blips and bleeps in some kind of code-breakdown whenever someone fails to make a correct circumlocution in a public or social setting. Political correctness has become social propriety. It is no wonder that people clutch their pearls at the idea of someone asking Prince Harry “how dark skin” his future child may be or that the Duchess could not go out to lunch with her friends to avoid further media exposure. Implicit racism, much? Controlling the woman, much? Many people who watch old Disney movies, particularly ones like The Little Mermaid, come away from it feeling uncomfortable that someone had to give up something to get something. I imagine a few believe that Ariel had to give up her voice or that she was coerced.
In Disney, Ursula isn’t evil, per se, she is only presenting Ariel with a choice (and later King Triton). How is Ariel a victim? How is Meghan Markle? The suffocating world of British royalty sounds dreadfully imposing and constricting. I compare it to the life of a CEO, with their 70-90 hour work week and singular-driven mindsets. I would not want it. Did she? Obviously, in the end, no — she did not because she left it behind. She could not suffer it. I respect her choice to abandon the station and titles she married into but not her incredulous and naïve complaints about it after the fact.
I see Meghan Markle’s personal struggle as representative of a much larger mindset: modern, middle and upper class women who look to institutional intervention when personal resilience and Amazonian strength-of-character would do just fine. Camille Paglia, the famous and obnoxious feminist author of Sexual Personae, often cites an experience she had in the 60s where male students were permitted outside of their dorms all hours of the night while women were expected to remain locked in at 11pm — a strict curfew. The University, an institution, cordially and kindly responded to the double standard with a typical totalitarian answer: “We’re trying to protect you from rape and harm!” How benevolent.
Give me your freedom and we will give you safety — another Faustian deal that countless others have made with Stalinist-type regimes for comfort, safety, and resources. It is rarely, if ever, worth it.
What was Paglia and her peers’ response? “Give us the freedom to risk rape!” The world was a harsh, cruel place. There were psychopathic men out there that would take advantage of their roaming and, they decided, they would suffer for it for the choice to roam. That response seems eerie in today’s world of “teach men not to rape” and the hyper determinism of constructing a societal world view that we exist in a “rape culture”. But it shows us there is another way to view things. In Paglia’s response, a bleak, but perhaps honest, perspective is given to us: the world is dangerous and we know it — let us live in it with liberty in the face of those dangers.
Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, echoes the Old-Protestant argument that the pain and suffering of hard work endears one to a greater power and should be, ultimately, rewarded. The Little Mermaid in the story does not “lose” her voice, instead she willingly gives it to the Sea Witch for a potion to turn her into a human. She has to win the love and affection of a man, that is he has to marry her, in order for her to gain a soul and live in Heaven. Mermaids, it appears, are not human enough to get into Heaven.
The Prince in this fairy tale is more of a means than an end for the Little Mermaid; her love for him is her chance at a soul to get her into Heaven. But it is not handed to her like a divine rite. In bold self-determination, the mermaid goes off into the dark part of the ocean to visit the Sea Witch and, for what she wants, she has to have her tongue cut off. She gets her legs, but as she uses her new feet, each stride and step is like walking on knives. She bleeds, agonizes — but remains resolute and undeterred, even dancing with grace and beauty. She never makes an excuse to the prince, never hints that he should take pity on such a suffering creature: her suffering is not something to help her gain an advantage, but work to be done. Her supernatural resilience in the face of such surmounting odds is, to me, inspiring.
What is the suffering of Meghan Markle? The interview highlights her grievances well: she was seemingly denied mental health help from “the system”, implications of racism by an extended family member, the struggle navigating a personal life while maintaining the public persona she and the palace would like, her son being denied security, and her son not given a title. The ramifications of these grievances, she says, drove her to contemplate suicide.
This revelation contrasts, and thus darkens further, against Andersen’s Little Mermaid who, at the end of the story, is given a choice to kill the prince and return to life as a mermaid. Instead, she chooses to die. Many of my students rise up and demand she slay him — “stab him!” they say. Others: “I’d stab him and then kill her!” Her being the woman the prince married, the one he falsely believes rescued him in the ship crash, similar to the Disney version. Yet, he loves his new wife none the less — not only is the Little Mermaid denied a husband and soul, but she must see the one she loves marry another and be happy. What is more important is that the Little Mermaid realizes it. Given the choice to turn back into a mermaid by slaying him, she spares him pain and lets him live his life. She suffers for herself and now for him.
Not much of a Children’s fairy tale, mhm? Her death, though, is not described in a horrific way. Instead, she falls into the ocean, turning into bubbles and foam — rising into the air as a spirit and given the chance of an afterlife. Andersen refuses to just hand out paradise and requests that little children in homes all over the world may have the spirit of the Little Mermaid floating around in their house. If they disobey their parents, she cannot get into Heaven but if they obey, she has hope. Even the children must suffer their parents if the Little Mermaid is to succeed in her goals.
So what are we to take away from this? A Duchess sat down with a billionaire woman
for millions of dollars to complain about how she has been aggrieved by a powerful, centuries-old institution. And there it is. Words like “the system” and “the institution” were thrown about to acutely assert the system is bad! [Edit: It was clarified to me there was no payment for the interview.]
Radicalism has infiltrated mainstream, bourgeois mindsets in America. Radicalism is the idea that societal problems are the result of inherent systemic and institutional problems. Further, it demands that we subvert these systems by dramatically changing or replacing them.
What could the Duchess have done instead, as a strong woman? She could have hired her own security for her son, with the millions of dollars she married into. She could have not cared about a damn title (something that has been reasonably explained by historical precedent). She could have hired her own mental health professional, American if she insisted! She could have impolitely chastised whoever told her she could not have lunch with her friends, “Fuck off — I’m going”. She could have privately confronted the person who, I suspect intimately, revealed their trepidation about a “dark skinned” royal to understand intent and what they were suggesting, perhaps even educating the person regardless of malintent, utter racism, or the questions stemming from ignorant innocence. In other words, as an individual, she could have done whatever the hell she wanted and suffered none of this.
But no — she is a victim. These awful, harsh forces surrounded her and all she wanted was to be a princess and be with her man. The Duchess would have been better prepared if her media exposure to royalty was not Disney’s version of a princess but Andersen’s. In Disney, we have the “patriarchy”, I say cheekily, rescue her with King Triton waving his magical trident in the end to make everything better — no sacrifice, no pain, only unpleasant struggle that is all undone. In Andersen, rewards are through suffering, not in avoidance of it.
It is no wonder she would compare herself to Ariel. She’s waiting for someone to wave that trident — someone in charge to make things right. Is it any wonder that she turned to American sympathies? It truly was a brilliant and keenly aware decision. Well done, Duchess. This powerful, liberal and feelings-oriented mainstream media will inevitably embrace the blight of her situation and pour out anguishing outrage — because they are just as bourgeois as she. After all, that is who institutions serve: the ruling class. Markle, who seems to come from quite humble backgrounds, failed to realize this as she simultaneously failed to assimilate to their ways.
Make no mistake; Oprah Winfrey’s “What?” face is matching the privileged incredulity of the Duchess’ own mire-born turmoil; “can you believe someone had to endure this?” is written on their faces as they sit under a beautiful regalia-wreathed lanai, a “friend” of Oprah’s lent them that venue, while the Duchess sits in a ~$5,000 dress. How lovely appearing while simultaneously shocking to hear her struggles. These poor women. We must help them! is the message I hear. When the Markle turned into the Duchess, she had to give over her passport and keys. I speculate this Would-Be-Princess suffers from a lack of perspective and preparation, and not grievances that should hold the monarchy to the flame of outrage. Her struggle is she failed to self-actualize — get what she wants. I see a woefully unprepared woman entering and exiting a taxing, grueling entity of duty, family, and nobility. Was the institution at fault? Or was she not strong enough? These are pressing questions, not rhetorical ones.
I see implicit racism or bias, subtle or overt jackassery as inevitable parts of reality. I see freedom lost in the exchange of fame and power. I see psychopaths who roam the streets. I see the world as dangerous, and it’s risky to walk about it. In one of the college courses I teach, I gave students the opportunity to ask anonymous questions to me about sexuality and homophobia from the point of view of a gay person. I knew full well what I was risking, knowing I could filter out absurdity before anyone sees it. When vulgar and malicious things were posted, for whatever reason, it only confirmed what I already knew: there are wolves among every group. In liberals, conservatives, gay men, princesses, priests — in every group there are wolves. No amount of civilization, no Apollonian sensibility, no political correctness, removes the wolf.
Of course someone in the royal family pondered on the skin color of a baby from the newly married couple. People of color and other minorities nearly everyday face experiences that could easily be signs of prejudice. A strong person would not tolerate such a hint — such an implication. It must be confronted! Wolves wear sheep clothing and the aristocracy is no different. Oprah’s dramatic, incredulous “What?” is the sign of her insularity from the working-class people of color everywhere in America and, likely, the UK. It’s laughably naïve. You should welcome the conversation about skin color of a baby from someone who would even think it! It’s like peeling back the “wool” to discover what we must know: wolf or sheep?
Do you know how many straight, drunk women have offered to be my surrogate? How many random people have asked me about my sexual positions? Have mocked, ridiculed, threatened me? The tokenism of a minority is nothing new. I am no victim from these experiences. These poor, ignorant straight people try to grapple with my monumental mystery. My minority-status, my exoticism, is a privilege. I rebuke the social propriety of political correctness and stand proud, defiantly myself.
You see, my strength comes from my suffering, from the trials of fighting wolves, from the malevolence of others: the battles I have won, and the defeats I have endured. I am grateful for my past suffering for I have made meaning from them — and have been rewarded with a fortitude I would never exchange for more previously comfortable social interactions. I fear our efforts to make everyone more comfortable, more unoffended, more at ease, makes us weak. What should not make us weak? Wolves. Prejudices. The suffering. Andersen’s the Little Mermaid taught me this and so did Disney’s Ariel. The only thing the Duchess of Sussex is teaching me is that bourgeois women might just never stop with their complaints of the “system” and their suffering, while eating cake on the lanai.