The 80s are for the Ladies

Little girls and sad, single women have a thing in common.  White horses.  That will take them away.  (Cue warm, luscious Portishead song, The Rip. Mmm.  Anyway.)  Things like Disney and female folklore have had a strong hand in planting this idea in the collective female brain for years!  But then!  Then came the 80s.  Ladies everywhere said, F that.  I’m going to rock shoulder pads, I’m gonna listen to Blondie, and I’m going to take your job (but still make less than you until the era of Obama rolls around).

I was born at the butt-end of the 80s, in 1987.  I interpret that as an indication that I’ve got a little bit of that 80s can-do blood in me.  It’s not a coincidence to me that I watched “The Little Mermaid” everyday at age three (Every. Ding dong. Day.), at the cusp of the 90s.  Naturally, with all that watching, I read a tad far into it, even as a wide-eyed wee one.  But it seemed maybe, just maybe, Disney changed its gears a bit.  I liked Ariel, okay, but I liked Ursula, too, in a very, very different way.  Ariel was nice, sweet, and silent for a big chunk of the movie.  She didn’t really know what she wanted, but she knew she wanted to escape the sea life.  (But life is de bubbles under the sea!)  And Ursula, she just wanted to be loved, but she went about it with too big of boobies and too much jealousy, pride, and anger.  Of course now with years of badass education under my belt, I can totally take the movie now and twist it into whatever interpretation I so desire.  So here we go. 

She wishes she could be part of that world.

Let’s go over what happens in the movie. Mean-spirited (understatement!) Ursula cuts a deal with naive Ariel, our little mermaid.  Ursula is itching for King Triton’s Neptunian powers. She doesn’t want to share the sea with him; nay, her plans are far more sinister. She’s got a hunger for all of it. She’s also got the sea potion can-do to turn Ariel into a human, which would get Ariel the one thing she wants, a deliberate move of disobedience against her father’s wishes: a step closer to being with walking, breathing human beings! Namely Prince Eric, the dude she’s been peeping.  But only under one condition: that Ursula gains ownership of Ariel’s voice, which is Ariel’s most redeeming factor other than her rockin’ bod (and also happens to be the key to finding the dreamgirl Eric is looking for who saved him from drowning like, a week before).  Turns out Eric and mute Ariel actually kind of like each other. Ursula can’t have that or she loses her own cruel deal.  So, Ursula uses sea voodoo and a shell necklace to render herself into some chick that looks exactly like Ariel and woos Prince Eric over with her STOLEN voice, except she has dark hair and is pretty much dead and wicked inside.  Ah, but then we see right through that shit and that shell necklace of hers.   Ariel has a heart of gold that Ursula could never fake.  It’s notable that Ariel is still mute at the time of this epiphany, which I cooooould say points to the way men like ’em. 

It’s also notable that Ursula completely loses touch with her original plan, gets way too involved in Eric and Ariel’s situation, and blows herself out of proportion (literally), finally coming to a sordid end. Cause of death? Trident to her overabundant, scantily-clad chest.

Ursula turned into Vanessa. Interesting choice of name for a hottie whos underhandedly naughty.

Ursula turned into "Vanessa." Interesting choice of name for a hottie who's underhandedly naughty.

So that’s what I’ve been tossing around in my head.  Having taken several women’s studies and popular culture courses, and now that I’m currently enrolled in a class on film noir, studying how women are portrayed (so far I’ve watched Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon), I notice how women have been dissected into certain aspects that emanate from a male gaze, or at least revolve around the idea of a man.  The Little Mermaid, whatever pure cinematic gold it will always be to me, is not an exception.  If that’s the way ladies are portrayed by men, that’s okay–that’s an editorial that I just have to respect, even if I don’t agree.  But I can’t let myself or women live their lives in that sort of context, struggling with themselves over power held by a man (King Triton) or over love from a man (Prince Eric).  Ariel and Ursula could be construed as dual facets of the 80s lady: dangerous and docile; loud-mouthed and demure; husky, whooping alto voice and lovely, harmonious soprano; uhhh fat and skinny. I could go on. Ursula is like a woman who’s “been there” and Ariel her clueless protegé.

The climax of the movie (and my argument) is exemplified in the lyrics to “Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”

The only way to get what you want is to become a human yourself.

Horrible Piece of Advice #1: Change yourself! Change everything you are. That’s the ticket.

Can you do that?

My dear, sweet child. That’s what I do. It’s what I live for.
To help unfortunate merfolk like yourself.
Poor souls with no one else to turn to.

I admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty
They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch
But you’ll find that nowadays
I’ve mended all my ways

Lies. Lies, lies, lies. Although I do like that cheeky pause before the word “witch.” I bet if I’d been my age now and not been 3 years out of the womb when I first saw the movie in theatres, I’d have laughed at that.

And I fortunately know a little magic
It’s a talent that I always have possessed
And dear lady, please don’t laugh
I use it on behalf
Of the miserable, the lonely, and depressed (pathetic)

This “magic” she speaks of? I liken it to allowing yourself to become a monster, but not the scary kind. Just the kind that isn’t you, the kind that happens with science (or magic in this case). Like the Jekyll and Hyde thing. Or Steve Urkel and Stefan Urkelle. In relation to the 80s, women were prone to becoming something different–a “bitch” perhaps (again, a male-context thing), power-hungry, a contender in a gender-based rivalry–in order to get what they wanted.

If I become human, I’ll never be with my father or sisters again.

But you’ll have your man, heh heh. Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it? Heh heh.

Ugh. Family > Men. You didn’t even know Eric at this point, Ariel. Check yourself before you wreck yourself, girlfriend. (She… didn’t.)

But I don’t have-

I’m not asking much, just a token really, a trifle!
What I want from you is – your voice.

But without my voice, how can I-

You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

Ahh, there it is. Perfect. Using your looks and your body to get ahead. This is a different facet of the 80s lady. Ariel banks on this one. Look at her! Even little Geena knew Ariel was hot.

Q: Hey, why did she wear seashells? A: Because she couldn’t fit into size A or B! Haha joke. And a tangent.

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yet on land it’s much prefered for ladies not to say a word
And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who’s withdrawn
It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man

That’s such a lie it offends me. And it sucks that I did that in my past relationship, for god knows what reason. I suck. That won’t get you ahead anywhere, and if your man in question is awesome, he won’t want that. See, that’s the thing. The 80s woman needed to find a balance between choosing her silences and her battles. She didn’t need to be all dominatrix or all reticent. The two can co-exist–you don’t have to be one or the other depending on where you are or what you want.

The lesson I’ve learned today? It’s best to just be co-people, to ourselves and to each other. Ta-daaa!

That was a stretch, wasn’t it?

2 comments on “The 80s are for the Ladies”

  1. Thanks for your post. I enjoyed it very much!

  2. geena, darling. while i agree on the whole, i think you missed some fine, fine print.

    ursula: “Now, here’s the deal. I will make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days. Got that? Three days. Now listen, this is important. Before the sun sets on the third day, you’ve got to get dear ol’ princey to fall in love with you. That is, he’s got to kiss you. Not just any kiss – the kiss of true love…”

    ursula DOES give the little princess shitty advice, but of course, her intentions were sour – she does, however, stress the goal is “true love”, and not just catching his eye and turning his head. so…i move that our bitch witch knows what she’s talking about – and to say just the opposite to get what she wants.

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