The author Louise O’Neill is to release what is being described as a ‘feminist retelling’ of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. “Fairy tales have a dubious record when it comes to representations of women,” Lauren Fortune, editorial director for the publisher Scholastic UK, announced, “and Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, who quite literally gives up her voice and drastically changes her body, all for the flighty prince, is spun under a welcome feminist spotlight by [O’Neill]—one of the UK’s brightest writing talents and the perfect author for this re-telling.” O’Neill is not ‘one of the UK’s brightest writing talents’—a quick Wikipedia search on the publisher’s part would have revealed that she is Irish (hence the book, entitled “The Surface Breaks”, being set along the Irish coastline). That error is accompanied by Fortune’s inane assertion that the casting of a ‘feminist spotlight’ upon the fairy tale is something that we ought to, or indeed already do, ‘welcome’.
While publishers and booksellers can hardly be blamed for celebrating any opportunity for increased sales, the suggestion that readers should welcome the rewriting of a classic story to reflect modern sensibilities is indicative of a sinister industry of victimhood, where inconvenient truths are filtered out at the behest of a minority committed to being perpetually offended. I haven’t read the book, which is due to come out next May, so I can’t critique its approach. O’Neill is an established writer with two bestselling titles (Only Ever Yours and Asking For It) to her name. The book may well be a good read, and may well handle the matter skilfully. Without the freedom to adapt and to be inspired by others’ work, literature as a whole would be poorer. We would have no Ulysses, no Brave New World, no Madame Bovary. The open cogging of a story written by someone else is not at issue here. Rather, it’s what the whole affair says about the priorities of modern feminism.
It’s a logical thing, really. If The Little Mermaid needs a feminist retelling, the story must be misogynistic in some way. But this makes no sense. In Andersen’s tale (far removed from the Disney cartoon), it is the young, female mermaid who makes all the important decisions of her life. She is the one who makes the decision to pursue the prince. She is the one who, fully informed of all the risks (loss of her tongue; constant feeling of walking on blades; potential dissolution into sea foam unless marriage is secured), chooses to consume the potion that gives her legs. She is the one who chooses not to kill the prince, despite her sisters’ urging. At the end, she has the chance to earn immortality by helping humanity: ultimately, she is the one in charge of her own destiny. True, most of these decisions are pretty poor, and a sensible cost-benefit analysis on the part of the mermaid would have ruled them out. But choice-focused feminism doesn’t and shouldn’t strive for the freedom of women to make only good choices. If modern feminism is truly about freedom and equality, then the freedom to make bad choices, choices that lead to regret, choices that have devastating consequences, must also be celebrated and defended.
Andersen’s mermaid is actually a feminist icon. She makes these choices for herself, no one else, because it’s what she wants, and she owns those choices and the whole messy fallout that ensues. Accusers will point to the fact that she’s doing all of this for a man. She’s changing herself for a man. It’s the man who gets away scot-free, making a decent marriage with a princess and with no knowledge of the turmoil the mermaid has undergone for him. But unless what modern feminism actually seeks is a (hetero)sexless society where we wrap ourselves in a romance-repelling cotton wool and can’t lust after a man because women and their oppression are all we are allowed to think of, there’s nothing wrong with this. A woman going out of one’s way to lock down a man isn’t a betrayal of one’s gender. It’s bloody good fun. And if it doesn’t work out, well, hey, it’s rubbish. But we can handle it. The Little Mermaid is already feminist. It’s just not the right kind of feminism. There’s no sense of victimhood in it. The mermaid does what she wants, doesn’t get what she wants, and does her best to move on to the next world. In her own way, she’s determined not to be a victim. There’s no public shaming of the blithely unaware prince. There’s no rape. There’s no unintended pregnancy that needs terminating. Everyone just gets on with everything. And that’s just not good enough for modern feminists.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether feminism in the twenty-first century intends to create victims or victors, infants or adults. Because if we welcome feminist retellings of stories like The Little Mermaid, what are we really doing? We tell ourselves that pursuing men is inherently wrong, and not a fun and healthy expression of sexuality. We say that chasing a potential love, with all the heartbreak that might entail, is not for true feminists. We say that choices made even while fully aware of the risks are not to be respected if they do not adhere to modern feminist doctrine. To an extent, we also deprive an entire academic discipline —literary criticism—of its function, because if we simply rewrite texts to suit our ideologies, we lose the art of argumentation, the art of critiquing.
Feminist literary theory particularly suffers, because it shifts from theory to industry—rather than addressing literary reality, feminists subvert that reality by simply ‘retelling’ it. It’s like a child who, on being told that it’s bedtime, covers his ears and shouts to drown out the sound of his parents’ voices. It is, actually, quite possible to read the story in its original English translation and to conclude that there may be some ideological flaws in it. Let us do that on our own terms. Don’t infantilise us by giving us the work that should have been written. We are not all so emphatically determined to be victims. We can have sex without being raped. We can get pregnant without it being a tragedy. We can lose (and win) a man without losing our minds. We should be celebrating Andersen’s mermaid, not remoulding her to become the victim that some want us all to be.