Several years ago, as a fresh graduate student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I wrote a paper about Persephone, interpreting her story less as a mother’s loss for an abducted child, and more as a teenager’s rebellion for the sake of identity formation. My thinking hinges on the very tiny detail that if Persephone really wanted to leave the Underworld and return to her mother, then why did she capitulate and eat pomegranate seeds? Sure, you could say it was because she was hungry, but determined women are rarely bothered by minor inconveniences as hunger. I think that Hades made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Notice, after all, that the story is written from Demeter’s perspective. The only perspective we get of Persephone’s experience is when she is crying to her mother. Do we really think that she’s telling her mother the whole truth? She didn’t even want to reveal that she ate the pomegranate. Let’s pretend that Persephone donned a leather jacket and jumped onto the back of Hades’ motorcycle early one morning. Of course, her mother would see it as an abduction. The little snot didn’t even say goodbye.
Anyway, the other day I was watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I work from home, and don’t have daycare, so my daughter and I watch a LOT of Disney Junior (far more than I’d like). When they broadcast a movie that gives me some relief from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Doc MacStuffins that takes me to my Laughing Place, then I’m all for it.
Perhaps it’s because this time I watched the movie as a mother, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been recently giving new consideration to the Princess phenomenon, but I just happened to see Persephone in Ariel, only in reverse–Ariel wants to leave the Underworld for the human world, not the other way around. She wanted to shed her goddess powers (as a mermaid) so she could walk and dance. She, too, made a defiant departure from her father. She felt restricted and confined. He wouldn’t even allow her to dream about the human world. So she left. And got a pair of legs.
The story is far more complex, with a sea witch and losing her voice and such. But the point of any mythic story is that we put our own spin on the details, but the basic structure carries from version to version. Stories such as The Little Mermaid help answer the question of Persephone’s story–just what was her experience while she was gone? Disney’s version tells this story to a modern audience, with Ariel experiencing many of the same growing pains as the American teenager. Even 25 years after its initial release, The Little Mermaid continues to tell the story of the American teenager who is trying to separate herself from parental control and become her own woman. (I’ll save the Eric bit, and the leaving home for a boy bit, for another conversation.)
True Love’s Kiss is today’s pomegranate. It’s a literary symbol that symbolizes union with someone or something else other than a parent, the divine marriage, a key step in the Individuation process. Regardless of what one things about love in the real world, the symbolic marriage in literature and myth speaks on a psychological level, helps elevate the inner reaches of psyche to a conscious level, leading to wholeness.
I contend that Persephone, and Ariel, had to leave. Without the departure, a daughter can’t become her own woman. Disney’s Rapunzel and Pixar’s Brave both illustrate the problems of an over-bearing mother on a girl’s identity formation. Sometimes, it comes with sacrifice, like trading fins for legs, but often, as The Little Mermaid II demonstrates, it doesn’t mean forever.