mermaids, lies, and extra-wides
This is a post about Halle Bailey and the new Little Mermaid.
But it’s also a post about my feet.
OMG CLICKBAIT AM I RIGHT???
Read on if you even CAN with the anticipatory drool that’s actually flowing up your face and into your eyes because that atomic bombshell of a teaser literally knocked you off your ass and upside down against the wall!
Vacation houses have the weirdest books.
The grown-up book shelf has a tattered Grisham, a random law textbook, a couple of Debbie Macomber bodice-rippers (is it a bodice-ripper if it takes place on Nantucket in the early 00’s? Maybe we should call them Juicy Couture velour sweat suit-rippers), and some fucking copy of Inifinite Jest that’s dog-eared at page 18. The grown-up book shelf MUST contain at least one Dan Brown book. It is written.
The children’s bookshelves are similarly hodgepodge. Looking for a vintage Taco Bell printing of Jack and the Beanstalk? How about a hardback picture book about orcas that looks like it’s for young children, but once you open it up you see, just, like, a totally unreasonable number of words on each page. You wish the children’s book editor had been a little more hardcore on that one.
Jesus Christ, Frank, dial down the verbiage. This orca book has 17 pages and a word count of 8,000. It’s a no from me. It’s a no from EVERYBODY. This book will be a gift from grandparents who will never, ever, ever have to read it to a child, and who will then wonder why they’re not invited to Christmas anymore. They’ll die alone, Frank. This book will destroy families. Is that what you want to do, Frank? You want to destroy families?
Anyway, that random rental house kids bookshelf is how I found myself reading “Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella” no fewer than 6 times per day, every day, for the duration of our beach vacation.
As I read the familiar story of the hen who sleeps under the stove (which honestly sounds like super fucking dangerous for a chicken, I’m just saying. I’m pretty sure there’s a cajun chicken fricassee recipe that starts with “Stuff chicken under stove”) and waits on her bossy top-bitch hen and the other two slightly-less-top-but-just-as-bitchy sub-bitch hens, I found my mind wandering back to my own childhood, to a day when I lay on my parents’ enormous corduroy couch, my legs akimbo over the endless cushions, and watched Disney’s Cinderella.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it and it wouldn’t be the last. Disney’s Cinderella is one of those cultural touchstones, like the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody or the Mentos commercial jingle, that bonds to a certain demographic’s bones and teeth in childhood like the isotopes from our drinking water.
But I’ll never forget the day that I watched one of the big-nosed, screechy-voiced, sloppy as hell stepsisters try to stuff her clumsy boat foot into Cinderella’s delicate glass slipper.
I’ll never forget it because that was the day I looked at my own foot on that corduroy couch and realized: Holy shit. You’ve got stepsister feet.
I’m not going to tell you that was the moment that I realized I’d never be a pretty girl. Truth is, I already knew I’d never be a pretty girl. I already knew I was big-nosed, screechy-voiced, and sloppy as hell, but that was the moment that I realized I’d never have pretty girl feet, and more importantly, that was the moment I realized that my big feet were something that people would find gross, or ugly, or funny.
I already knew that I would never be dainty, delicate, soft-voiced. I already knew that my hands didn’t fold or flutter, that my arms didn’t float balletically as I danced in the woods. Not that I did much woodland ballet. I was more of a lumberer, truth be told. Been one since birth. Sparrows would never have thought to drape a scarf around my shoulders. They probably would have tried to nest in my hair.
I already knew all of those things about myself, even at, what, 7? 8 years old? I already knew that I deeply desired to be something that I was not and would never naturally be. I already felt the yearning when I watched Cinderella, Snow White, fuck, even Lady was more of a lady than me. I felt the yearning to be profoundly different from the instincts I had to be wild, loud, messy, and mean. But I also already felt like it was hopeless to try to change. How does a girl acquire sweetness? How does she learn grace? And for God’s sake, how does a girl get prettier feet?
(Oh my god, I am going to get so much spam from writing that line.)
The worst part is that it’s not really about the feet: it’s about everything that pretty feet GOT for Cinderella. She didn’t have to do anything but show up with tiny little pink baby feet, and her prince whisked her away from her abusive home, to a life of true love and wealth and pampering and chandeliers in every room of the house. She was pretty and delicate, and her pretty, delicate self fit neatly into a case of glass, which made her worthy, which made her irresistible, which made her something a man went mad for, went door to door to search for, so he could rescue her from her life and give her everything in the whole world, far, far away from that plain, grasping, ambitious stepsister with her greedy eyes and bulbous, overspilling boat feet.
I wasn’t a kid when I sat on the couch in the vacation rental, reading the page in Chicken Cinderella about a big-footed hen trying to stuff her enormous claw into Cinders’ sweet, tiny slipper. I hadn’t been a kid for decades. The yearning remained: Cinders had a super cute little chicken shoe that my bigass bitch chicken foot would never fit into. Oh, but if it would… wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to wear such pretty little shoes? Wouldn’t everyone whisper about me at the ball? Wouldn’t someone knock on my door and say, “It’s you… the one I’ve been searching for… only you will do.”
The hopelessness remained: Katie. Look at your feet. You’ve got bona fide bunions. You’ve got a frontierswoman’s feet. No way do your feet belong at some royal ball in your extra wide squishy-soled Sofft brand wedges that you bought in PATENT leather as if SHINY ugly was better than matte.
And my goddamn sense of profound wrongness remained, too. The things you learn about yourself when you’re a child… no matter how long you’ve been trying to unlearn them, you’ve known them in your bones for longer.
I’m not a kid now as I sit on the floor of my sons’ bedroom, back at home, and read alllllll about people who can not get over the idea that the Little Mermaid could be a black woman.
I spent my childhood steeped in the brew of small-footed ingenues and big-footed punchlines, and I learned that:
People with big feet are for laughing at
People with small feet are for loving
It was a class-A bummer when I learned that through no fault of my own, by random chance and the genetic lottery, I’d drawn “point and laugh” instead of “swoon and smooch.”
I also spent my childhood steeped in the brew of white characters made just for me, and I learned that:
White girls can be anything
Black girls... probably used to be enslaved? (I had an American Girls Addy doll.)
I’m writing this to tell you that my thing, the big feet thing, has never cost me a friendship or a job. Ain’t nobody out there calling the cops because “A woman is standing in front of a Subway sandwich shop. She just looks… shifty. Well, she’s at least a size 9.5, and they’re WIDE.”
I learned a harmful lie about myself from the stepsister in Cinderella, and that harmful lie was reinforced by all the portion-controlled, ankle-down flesh filets upon which pranced every Snow White, Jasmine, Belle, Betty, Veronica, Barbie, Fern Gully fairy, and years later, Carrie Bradshaw.
(Later in life, I’d yearn for Carrie Bradshaw’s slender Barbie feet, the anatomical key that unlocked her chic fabulousness and eventually earned her a very rich husband and more importantly a fucking palace of an apartment. I used to try on posh Chanel and YSL heels from the Nordstrom Rack designer rack, and even when I went up a size and a half they were too narrow, too high, too pretty for my sloppy feet. I had to buy my heels from Sofft and Born, shops that made an extra-wide width and Swedish-engineered arch support, the kind of footwear that a modern-day Cinderella would not be fucking caught dead in, at least not before the stroke of midnight. All this to say, yet again, HOO BOY the things you learn in childhood stick with you.)
Maybe the harmful lie you learned about yourself was that your hair would never be thick enough, or your thighs thin enough, or your voice soprano enough, or your waist narrow enough, or your eyes large enough, your makeover WOW enough. We all saw better versions of ourselves up there, de-bugged selves with fixed errors, living the lives we wanted, the lives we could have if we could de-bug ourselves IRL. I truly believe that on some level we all grieved the unbridgeable gap between our flesh and these fantasies.
Now, think about the harmful lies that young black girls learned about themselves from watching the same movies you and I watched at the same age in which we were wide, wide open to the world’s ideas of what we ought to be.
You might be imagining that these young black girls learned that they were afterthoughts, sidekicks, or punchlines. You’re wrong. The truth is worse than that.
The worst, most harmful lie that young black girls learned about themselves from watching the movies I watched?
That they did not even exist.
There are more speaking mice than speaking black people in Disney movies. There is broader, richer representation for FISH than black people in Disney movies.
When I was too young, I internalized a deep desire to be something that I would never naturally be: graceful, delicate, demure. Take that desire to its most devastating degree and realize that when these black girls were too young, they also internalized a deep desire to be something that they were not:
Simply alive, onscreen.
It’s not a lot to fucking ask.
But producers told them that their stories weren’t worthy of telling.
Artists told them that their faces weren’t worthy of ink. Their hair wasn’t flowing enough. They’d never get a kiss from a handsome prince. They’d never wear the breathtaking gown. No friendly animals would come to their aid just when all hope was lost.
Lyricists, composers, and screenwriters told them that their voices weren’t worthy of speaking or singing, not even in the chorus, and certainly not in the “I want” song, the big number that would grace every middle school auditorium during musical auditions for the 5 years after its release.
That’s why it is so fucking great that Halle Bailey is going to be Ariel. Not because seeing her will shift the narrative for young girls, but because seeing her will CREATE a narrative for young girls.
That their stories are important.
Their faces are compelling.
Their hair is as much a character as Rapunzel’s in Tangled, as Ariel’s in the original animation.
Their voices are worthy, and welcome, and needed, and beautiful, and powerful, and interesting, and profoundly lovable. And people will be emulating THEIR VOICES in middle school auditoriums around the country for 5 years after this movie is released.
I simply cannot wait for the day that the new Little Mermaid picture books are released. I can’t wait for the day when a copy of that book has been read, loved, passed on, picked up, and stashed on the bookshelf of a vacation house where my kids will pull it down and hand it to me. I’ll read it six times a day every day. They’ll hear her voice. They’ll see her face. They’ll know that her story - HER story - was important enough to write down in a book and share.
And someday, 30 years from now, when I’m recovering from my bunion surgery and still loopy from the anesthesia, my sons will exchange a rock-solid eyeroll when I slur and croon at them, “Ooooh, now I’ve got cute feet and I can get my Mr. Big Prince Big Charming! No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. SHOES ARE THE PATRIARCHY. But listen, kid, you don’t even know. Didju know, people used to think that mermaids could only be white. It’s true! It was a whooooooole thing.”
They’ll think I’m goddamn high. They’ll tell me to pipe down and go back to sleep until I start making sense.
So that’s what I’m telling you, person who has a problem with Halle Bailey.
Pipe down. Go back to sleep until you start making sense. I’m off to buy 40 tickets for opening weekend, and you can have one of them, but you’ll have to meet me in the future.. Don’t be fucking late.
If you have some critically important extremely scientific information about the mandatory caucasity of mermaid skin, please IMMEDIATELY submit it here. Someone from our team will take it VERY seriously and get back to you within 24 hours.