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50 Shades of Disney: Learning from the Ambiguous Boner - By - November 25, 2014 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

50 Shades of Disney: Learning from the Ambiguous Boner

“I don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad,” says Ariel as she gazes at her trove of treasures from the human world. Books, paintings, tea sets, and tobacco pipes — Ariel has fallen in love with the world of land and men that lies above, though she knows it is forbidden for her to be a part of it.

The Little Mermaid was Disney's triumphant 1989 return to feature-length animated cinema, and 25 years later it is still bewitching hearts around the world. The Little Mermaid is perfect in the way that classic films are. From the opening credits where the score builds to a climax as a handsome merman's fins are revealed, to the finale when the sea witch becomes a skyscraper-sized drag queen and harnesses the power of the winds and waves to torture our teenage mermaid heroine, it is epic.

Of course, there's plenty of feminist critique to lob at the film: Ariel only speaks a few words to her prince before they are wed, and her father is intensely controlling. Many would call this film “problematic,” but there is something about it that has stayed with me. And I'm not alone. I do not know a single female under the age of 35 who doesn't know almost all the words to “Part of Your World.”

But the film is not without controversy. Disney gets a lot of flak for allegedly putting subliminal messages about sex in the animation, and The Little Mermaid is one of the most popular examples. I remember the first time a friend paused the film to reveal that, sure enough, the priest has what looks like, maybe, the beginnings of a boner beneath his robes. The animators designed the underwater palace of Atlantis to include a supremely phallic tower at its center.

Disney has fielded allegations of sexual messaging in The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and other films, too. And while there's perhaps a possibility that this era of Disney animators was just a little bit pervy, I think the more likely explanation is that fairy tales of any kind work on our sexual subconscious in far more subtle and potent ways than a two-second shot of an ambiguous boner ever could — resulting in viewers overlaying their own pervy interpretations onto the narrative.

Freudian psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales are a crucial educational vehicle in sexual development. He has said that Cinderella functions as a story that subconsciously teaches the importance of finding the “correct” partner, and valuing female sexuality as precious and breakable — like the glass slipper. He asserts that fairy tales inform our fantasies, and shape the way we see the world.

So what did The Little Mermaid teach me (and perhaps an entire generation of my peers)?

As a little girl, I only knew that I loved the film because I loved the ocean. As a chubby adolescent queer, I understood Ariel's desire to get out of her own skin and live in a forbidden world. Now, as an adult sex worker, I identify with Ariel's decision to barter her body (in this case, her voice) for a shot at her dreams.

I've watched Cinderella dozens of times, and I still don't buy the theory of glass-slipper sexuality, so I'm not saying that The Little Mermaid subconsciously encouraged me to become a whore.

It did, however, give me impossibly unrealistic expectations of what my waistline and bangs were capable of. But it also functioned as an It Gets Better-esqe love letter to my subconscious. Ariel encouraged those of us who grew up feeling like we didn't belong in our skin to believe that one day, no matter how impossible it might seem, our dreams could come true and we could find a world that we belonged in.

For me, I've found that world in San Francisco among the queers, freaks, and whores like myself who believe in mermaids and attend Disney sing-alongs at the Castro Theatre. This world that seems dangerous and forbidden has become my home.

Watching Ariel now as she sings to her treasures and yearns for the forbidden world of humans reminds me of my first days of stripping when I was navigating my new position, along with the strange stigma that came with it. I would come home to my tiny San Francisco apartment, revel in the mess of Lucite heels, glitter, sequins, and pearls, and think the same thing as Ariel about a world that makes such wonderful things.