Protecting Your Voice. Lessons From the Little Mermaid and other fairytales.
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
With so much going on in the world there can be a temptation to remain silent and keep our heads down. Listening is of course an important aspect of communication and we need to listen to each other's stories. However we also need to share our own. In thinking about communication and the need to hear different stories and especially stories that hold difference, the story of The Little Mermaid comes to mind.
The fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” was written in 1837 and was included in the collection “Fairy Tales Told for Children”. The original tale is much darker than the happily ever after Disney version. When you read ‘The Little Mermaid’ as Andersen wrote it, you discover a deeper understanding of the young mermaid and the challenges she faced when trying to gain access to a different world. It is a tale of losing community, losing a voice, denying her pain, rejecting rage and ultimately losing herself. It is a cautionary tale of sacrificing all to a wish to belong.
In Andersen's version The little mermaid has no name, even so, she stands out from her community and her beloved sisters for both her singing and her curiosity. She is much loved by her father the King of the sea. She longs to visit a world different from her own and finally when old enough she is allowed to explore. It is here she sees and rescues the handsome human prince. Having encountered this beautiful man, she becomes motivated to reinvent her life to be with him. In an attempt to do so, she visits the sea witch, who helps the little mermaid get what she wants. However, the sea witch also issues the little mermaid with a caution. In order to be in the world of men, she is told she must sacrifice her voice and more. The potion she must take can indeed split her fin into two legs, but she is warned that it will always feel as though she is walking on knives, and that she will be in constant pain. Her task will be to learn how to connect with others in this new land with no voice and in silent anguish. However she has never really experienced pain, or not having a voice, and so cannot imagine it. Interestingly it is not just an ordinary man that she wishes to marry, but a prince ( a man of privilege). Equally in stepping into this different world, she relinquishes her own privilege /princess status and becomes seen as an ordinary girl.
As the story progresses we see her quest is futile. The prince, whilst fond of her and finds her useful to have around, loves someone else. The final stipulation of the potion was that if the prince married another, then on the night of the wedding the little mermaid would become seafoam and fade into nothing but bubbles on the ocean waves. Her loyal sisters find a way to save her and allow her to come back and join them; all she has to do is kill the prince on his wedding night. However she cannot bring herself to murder him, and instead sacrifices her life.
In later adaptations Andersen changed the ending and left the story more open: the little mermaid does not die, but becomes a kind of ghost - a 'daughter of the air'. It is then told that after three hundred years she can gain a soul and join the humans in the afterlife. This is done by a process of attaching to children, bad children lengthen the time it takes to gain a soul and good children can lessen that time.
It is important context to know that Andersen is thought to have been gay, trapped by the deathly politic, religious dogma and social censorship of his time. The story was written about and to his beloved on discovering his love was to marry a woman.
Whenever I read this story I long for a different ending. One which matches my understanding of the experience of being othered and the necessity of transformation of 'silence into language and action' (Lorde, 1977) - the need to speak from a place of feeling and self-acceptance of our often hidden hurt and rageful parts. This is an understanding I gained from the story of the Princess and the Frog. In this story the version many people know is the adapted one, taken from the Grimm's brothers in which the princess kisses a frog and he transforms into a handsome prince. However in the original versions the transformation came, not from kissing, but flinging the frog in anger - smashing it against a wall and somehow in this acknowledgment of the naturalness of this feeling, the need for body autonomy and also for limit setting - the transformation could occur. This version makes space for the healthiness of rage and claiming personal sovereignty in ‘no’, "even if it meant defaulting on a deal, acting aggressively, and defying patriarchal authority" (Stewart, 2018). As Jungian analyst Deborah Stewart says:
There was, and is, room for protest, even if it’s emotional and messy. This princess – and all our inner princesses – may be rageful, impulsive, and defiant, but they are entitled to no – and to choosing their own bedmates.
These stories also lead me to think about the Black, Lesbian, Feminist Audrey Lorde's 1970 speech 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House'. This speech was given on a panel called "The Personal and The Political" at the Second Sex Conference in New York. In it Lorde criticizes 'white feminism' and says:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.
If only the Little Mermaid could have known to value her feelings, all of them and given them a voice - not just the socially acceptable ones but also those that connected with her rage - I wonder if she could have allowed herself to be sustained by her sisters, to reclaim her voice and for something to be transformed? Most of us either stuff our anger or suddenly find ourselves erupting. Finding ways to have our voice heard is essential to wellbeing. As psychologists we know that we need anger, its energy, its passion – it can be a positive force in our lives. It is no accident that we associate singing with the little mermaid and how loss of voice is a loss of song.
However, is it safe to use our voice just anywhere? An important aspect of Audrey Lorde’s perspective is that there is a necessity to choose where our energy is most effective and to value using this for our own good. Snow White is another fairytale character we associate with singing. If you remember Snow White is forced to flee her home, to keep away from the malice and envy of the evil queen. However, she remains determinedly naïve and trusting and for much of the story insists on speaking with everyone and anything she encounters. She draws attention to herself through singing in the woods, whilst initially useful with the woodsman and the animals and dwarves, her lack of discernment to whom she speaks also places her repeatedly in significant danger from the trickster evil queen until finally she eats the poisoned apple and is put into a deep sleep.
The little mermaid, the princess and snow white all have a similar task in their quest for love and belonging. At some point each of our heroines tries to put themselves blindly into the care of another as a way to belong. In doing so the little mermaid gives up her voice and loses her life; the princess must swallow complaints and share a bed with a frog; and snow white trusts a stranger and eats a poisonous apple, she is then rendered unconscious unable to speak at all. Ultimately they all need to learn how to develop discernment in what care actually looks like, so they can know who is safer to trust and where and with whom to set limits. The use of silence, the avoidance of conflict and maintaining naivety are all insufficient for this task - we need to speak, to value difference and protest and to take up personal accountability.
In clinical psychology culture we often talk of placing high value on the importance of spaces to speak and hear each other's voices (through reflective practice and supervision), but how well are these spaces protected and as such able to give space for difference, expression of pain, loss, protest, conflict and growth from naivety into wisdom? Do we notice those parts who are little mermaids - unable to speak because they have already given up so much of themselves to be here. Little mermaids who are walking on knives and if we just pay attention we can see their pain? Do we make space for those parts of us who need to fling frogs because they need to claim their body autonomy and say no, rather than be yet again submissive to a thoughtless authority? How often do these parts who feel unheard end up venturing into the woods of social media to sing only to be met with poisoned apples? When are we the ones feeding the poisoned apples because making space for something so different, rageful or unfiltered feels too threatening? In truth I think this process of discernment in what love looks like is a very long quest. But I wish we were able to show just some of the discernment necessary to move these stories along and I want to encourage those who are able and have the energy to seek protected spaces out. The stories, all in their own way, offer hope. They tell us transformation whilst uncomfortable and surprising - might be possible if we can take up the challenge to protect our voice and and find places to speak.
References and Links
Audre Lorde. (1984) “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print
Deborah Stewart (2018). Frog Prince – Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts Blog (wordpress.com)