The Little Mermaid and Reinforcing Binaried Logics of Bodies

Watching “Poor Unfortunate Souls” made me consider how relationships of power are constructed and reified in narratives meant for children. In “Poor Unfortunate Souls” we see Ursula show how bodies that are marked as deviant can be changed to inhabit normative definitions of attraction. Ariel is coerced into subscribing to these ideals— trading her voice for a pair of legs. Thinking in terms of the title for Tuesday’s class “Narrative Expectations”—The Little Mermaid is reifying the expectations that a narrative goes from undesirability to desirability and from deviant to normal. The snippet of Ariel’s narrative in “Poor Unfortunate Souls” made me think about the relationship between trans bodies and the state. Ariel is manipulated by Ursula, who holds an uneven power relationship over her, into changing her body and giving up her voice (which can be read as giving up her agency and her “voice” in the broader sense— her ability to speak out against oppression). The state, which is committed to reinforcing normative binaried expectations for bodies, continually coerces trans people into undergoing sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).

Reinforcing binaried logics of bodies assists the state in the creation and reinforcement of gendered, raced, and class hierarchies. Writer Andrea Smith outlines in her work, Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, that the reinforcement of heteropatriarchy as the basis for the home structure reifies hierarchies of power in the intimate setting of the home so that racial oppression and hierarchy goes uncontested within our larger political, cultural, and social institutions. Judith Roof echoes this concept in Come as You Are, when she write about Freud’s binary premise, “The binarism of these life dynamics exists not only at the expense of other possibilities…but also as a result of a narrative of completion and wholeness that can result only from having all the of the parts and none too many” (Roof, 29). The state needs the narrative of completion and wholeness, as Roof writes, in order to create the fallacy that there are no other possibilities outside of a binaried model of gender and no possibilities outside of the US nation state and its gender, raced, and classed hierarchies. It is fascinating to think of just how important the materiality of our physical bodies is to upholding racialized cisheteropatriarchy– how can we give freedom for trans and gnc people to have agency over their bodies while also refusing and resisting the narrative of a “whole” and “correct” body? The state’s apparent anxieties over order and completion are played out on trans bodies, and the successful upholding of such structures is contingent on policing deviant bodies into binaries.


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