Gay Subtext in The Little Mermaid? Stories with a Secret Message for Queer Youth

Photo: Wiki Commons
Photo: Wiki Commons

As a gay youth I spent countless hours looking for myself in the pages of the books on the mandatory reading list at my Catholic school. Much as they tried to suppress anything even remotely queer (in both senses of the word) there it was, that certain something in the subtext that read a little different, a little more than the other characters, a little… gay. Ponyboy and Johnny in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders shared something between them I coudn’t quite articulate but I knew it made me feel a funny. Ferdinand and his refusal to stop smelling the flowers and toughen up was basically me at every team sport I ever played. The Little Mermaid and her forbidden love were almost exactly how I felt when I started to feel the first pangs of same-sex attraction. Thank God for the X-Men and their demonstrating that in spite of society’s bigotry I had inner resources I could call on when times got tough, that what made me different was what would eventually give me the strength to fight. In honor of Gay Pride Month take a look at some of my favorite pieces of young literature that I believe have a secret message for gay kids. These books make perfect gifts for the child in your life that seems a little different, a touch set apart from their peers and a bit too fabulous to grow up to be anything but gay.

1. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton’s classic young adult fiction reads like the Brokeback Mountain of middle school lit. Ponyboy Curtis lives in a world of Greasers and Socs (pronounced “sew-shhhh” as in “social”) where the poor kid/rich kid struggle constantly asserts itself into daily life. In this case the greasers are the “poor kids” and are looked down upon by Socs and society alike for their socio-economic accidents of birth. There’s also almost no adults in this world and ONE GIRL with a speaking role. Instead of high school football games and dances, Ponyboy and his brothers Daryl and Sodapop and greaser buddies Dallas, Two-Bit, Steve and Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny, live in a world of rumbles, switchblades, hair product and rolled jeans and leather jackets which are so incredibly in right now. The sexual tension between young Ponyboy and Johnny when they’re shacked up in an abandoned church for the second half of the book jumps off the page as does their unintentionally funny, Lucy and Ricky-type domestic set up while they’re in hiding. Dallas’s bad-boy-tough-but-secretly-sensitive character reads like a John Rechy hustler with a heart of gold and Ponyboy’s inability to fit in completely in greaser world and his longing for something better is an age old story for every kid trying to figure out where his place is. The 1980 film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola hints at the novel’s gay subtext but doesn’t come near capturing it on screen. Dare I say it, maybe it’s time for a remake? My choice to direct: Ryan Murphy.

2. X-Men 

Uncanny X-Men

Mutants. AKA black people. AKA immigrants. AKA nerds AKA GAYS!!! Crack just about any issue of the long running superhero comic and you see the “mutants as gays” metaphor. Mutant powers first reveal themselves around puberty (sound familiar?), the government repeatedly tries to limit mutant rights, anti-mutant groups commit mutant hate crimes, mutants sometimes choose to hide or “closet” their mutant identities (which is not a possibly for some of the more “obvious” mutants); it’s a very long list. Charles Xavier’s School for the Gifted is a sanctuary for young mutants just figuring out this new aspect of their identities where they can safely discover their mutant gifts and eventually aid progress for mutant kind by joining Xavier’s X-Men. Doesn’t that sound like the Harvey Milk High School, or Fame? The comics are notorious for letting ambigious hints to chacters same-sex inclinations slip in (Storm goes through a very butch phase and lives with women on and off before her eventual hetero marriage, Magneto and Xavier share a past that occasionally has hints of failed romance) and the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand even includes a scene where Bobby “Iceman” Drake “comes out” to his family as a mutant. In a world where gay kids are bullied and bashed at school and home it’s important that with the X-Men comics they see characters as persecuted and “other” as themselves battling homophobic, err, I mean “antimutant” foes and WINNING.

3. The Story of Ferdinand

I want you to think about The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf very carefully and tell me how you haven’t seen the subtext in this before. A bull is raised to fight and be aggressive just like the other bulls (what gay kid hasn’t felt that comparison?) but all the sweet-natured (i.e. GAY GAY GAY) Ferdinand wants to do is sit and smell the flowers, probably because he took one of those Japanese three-point flower arranging classes and he’s contemplating a FABULOUS centerpiece for brunch in the pasture the next day. When a bee sting causes the gentle giant to be mistaken for the fiercest bull on the farm and sissy Ferdinand gets carted off to the city for the bullfights, our boy stands his ground and refuses to fight. That’s just not who Ferdinand is and he is not going to try to fit into anyone else’s view of what it means to be a man! I mean, a bull! Ferdinand takes the stand all gay kids eventually have to take: this is who I am and I will not apologize and has even gone on to become something of a pacifist hero for his refusal to fight. I think  he’s better suited to his role as gay icon: I for one am always inclined to think of that beautiful bull when I stop and smell the flowers. 

4. The Little Mermaid

“The Little Mermaid” statue in Copenhagen

There’s something about Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid that speaks strongly to the conflicted feelings baby gays are starting to experience once they realize there’s something a little different about themselves. Let’s take another look at the basic plot: girl sacrifices who she is (mermaid) with great pain (every time the mermaid walks it’s as though her feet are being stabbed with knives) to be with her great forbidden love but finds herself torn between two worlds. She must either give up her family and the underwater home she’s known to be with her prince or kill him to return to the sea. DECISIONS. It came as no surprise recently when it came to light that the tale was actually inspired by an unrequited love the author felt for another man. The mermaid’s conflicts are easy for gay youth to identify with: torn between love and family, feeling not quite right in your body (the mermaid not feeling right in her aquatic form for love of a human), and of course, giving up your voice and remaining quiet forever for a chance at happiness. Although the original story has one of the most beautifully tragic endings in fairy tales (the mermaid sacrifices herself but instead of dying she turns to foam and is promised a chance at an immortal soul by the daughters of the air, the one thing mermaids do not possess), it’s still a pretty depressing fate for gay kids to contemplate, even if it was the most upbeat scenario Andersen could possibly imagine in his time. The 1989 Disney version gives the story a happy ending, gays it up even more with show tunes and basically turns the story into La Cage Aux Folles. The longing that all gay kids feel to belong still manages to assert itself into the Disney film most powerfully with the movie’s signature ballad “Part of Your World” which has always sounded like an anthem for moving out of a small town to a big city that would let you be the secret inside.

5. The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Elizabeth George Speare’s novel begins when Kit Tyler is torn from her childhood home in colonial Barbados by the death of her grandfather and seeks refuge with her conservative religious family (they are quite literally Puritans) in icy cold Connecticut to avoid marrying a man over twice her age. Once she settles into life in New England she discovers that everything she knows of life is considered “sinful” and that the townsfolk are not exactly friendly to those who don’t conform to their strict code. Things take a turn for the better when Kit meets Hannah, the so-called “witch” of Blackbird Pond who is actually a widowed Quaker woman shunned by the townsfolk for her beliefs. Then, of course, because this is Puritan New England, a sickness breaks out and everyone yells “witch” at Hannah and Kit and a torch bearing mob come chasing after the women in the middle of the night. Kit’s constantly futile attempts to fit into her Aunt and Uncle’s zealous lifestyle feel so familiar to any gay boy who tried to butch it up or any baby dyke who tried to play the part of the femme for acceptance and the fact that these are crazy Christian fundamentalists makes the story that much more relevant. Ultimately, Kit proves herself innocent of the crime of witchcraft and decides to head back home to the islands with a sailor she befriended, but not before slightly opening the eyes of the townspeople to their bigotry and making over her drab pilgrim cousins in some of her fabulous tropical gowns. A gayer ending could not be had.

6. Twilight

Photo from Wiki

Usually I’m loathe to mention anything having to do with Stephanie Meyer’s abstinence-as-supernatural-cautionary-tale series but I feel it’s my duty to point out some of the obvious homo themes that crept into the Mormon Meyer’s books (and especially their film adaptations.) Bella is basically an unhappy, flannel wearing loner that can’t even muster a smile when a Morrisey looking, befanged twink and hunky gogo boy wannabe werewolf spend four books fighting for her heart. Yeah, about those fights… The Edward vs. Jacob conflict usually read like suppressed homo lust expressing itself all aggro and it didn’t help that Jacob was usually shirtless. In spite of that I kept rooting for those crazy kids to make it work. No, not Edward and Bella (who really does dress like the stereotype of a lesbian from the early nineties): Edward and Jacob. THAT would have been a series of books: can a vampire and a werewolf make their unnatural love work? And they’re both men! Don’t worry though, Bella and Alice will eventually find their way together in the new novel’s b plot.

7. Eloise

Eloise cover art illustrated by Hillary Knight

The titular heroine of Kay Thompson’s Eloise series (Eloise at the Plaza, Eloise in Paris, Eloise in Moscow, Eloise at Christmastime and Eloise Takes a Bawth are the original batch by Thompson and illustrator Hillary Knight) is so utterly fabulous she’s children’s lit’s eternal it-girl. Eloise is six, lives at New York’s Plaza Hotel (way before the new remodel… sigh), orders room service on her own charge, knows everyone at the hotel, is a world traveller and lives so close to Bergdorf Goodman’s that she can probably smell the perfume counter from her suite. Did I mention that the character of Eloise is based on a little girl by the name of…Liza Minnelli? Yes, it’s true: gay icon Liza with a Z was author Kay Thompson’s goddaughter (Thompson was a vocal arranger and voice teacher at MGM, the studio where Liza’s dad Vincente Minnelli directed hits like Gigi, An American in Paris and met Liza’s mom Judy Garland on the classic Meet Me In St. Louis) and when Thompson saw the independent, Proust-quoting little Liza asking the bellman to “charge it please and thanks a lot” while on tour with Judy, a literary star was born. Not even taking into account the plethora of possibly gay characters that populate the books (Bill the room service waiter. Phillip the tutor, Eloise’s oft-absent Dior clad mother who was clearly an international fag hag of some renown based on the names in her closet) the sensibility of the stories is undeniably gay. We know Eloise grows up to be Liza Minnelli but with her devil-may-care party girl “I think I’ll pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute” elan couldn’t you just as easily see Eloise growing up to be either Edina or Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous? Of course, most gay children don’t think about that when they first read the books: they just want to grow up to be Eloise.

  • ymzvi

    Growing up, I always wanted more openly LGBTQ characters in my books and movies rather than could-be-gay or stand in characters like Eloise. Visibility is everything. It means that we don’t have filter ourselves through the lens of everybody else’s experiences just to find a grain of ourselves. It means claiming our rights, making space for ourselves, and encouraging acceptance. Today, though we still have a long way to go, there are more LGBTQ characters and LGBTQ family books out there.

    This list is alright if you absolutely have to hide your identity for safety reasons. Personal choices about your safety as an LGBTQ person should always be respected. Coming out often puts us at risk of various forms of violence. But in a situation where I’m free to give a book featuring an LGBTQ character to a child, I’d rather give them one that normalizes being LGBTQ by letting the LGBTQ characters be open and diverse in their representation of LGBTQ people. When I was a kid, I always hated being relegated to subtext. It’s problematic to treat the obstacles faced by LGBTQ people (or any group) as interchangeable with the struggles of just any outsider. For any marginalized person or group, our experiences come with challenges that hopefully make us sympathetic to and in solidarity with other marginalized communities, but that are also unique to our particular community. Our existence and our stories can’t be substituted for anyone else’s.

    Especially important to me is choosing books that aren’t racist or fetishizing of people of color. ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’ both contain racist, Anglo/Eurocentric elements. ‘Twilight’, written by a white author, has been denounced by much of the Indigenous American community as a book that stereotypes Native Americans and glamorizes violence against women in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships. ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’, also written by a white author, centers around a white protagonist who appropriates the culture of the people of color over whom she had privilege/power in her colonial home. Both authors financially benefitted from work that inaccurately portrays people of color and their respective cultures. As in the LGBTQ community, people of color and other marginalized peoples have a right to self-representation and freedom from harmful stereotypes in literature.

Author

Tony Bravo

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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