I first heard the rumors at school. “If you look closely at the cover, you’ll see something bad,” one of my classmates said.
Just one sentence tarnished everything I held dearly about “The Little Mermaid.” When I got home, I dug my favorite Disney movie out of the cupboard, sat on the floor and stared at it. I didn’t know what could be “bad” about it.
My mother walked by and spotted me staring at Ariel and Prince Eric with a chaos lurking behind them.
“Mom,” I said. “What’s so bad about this cover?”
“Oh,” she said nonchalantly, with a shrug. “Apparently, the castle spires look like a penis.”
I looked back at the cover. As if Barbie and Ken’s anatomy hadn’t confused me enough, golden genitals were something else entirely. But there, smack dab in the middle of the art, there was a spire that looked rounder and less like the others. And suddenly, I knew what a penis looked like.
Thankfully, my mother refused to let me be uninformed, offering explanations when she saw fit. This was in the 1990s, before you could just Google questions about sex. My mother was acting as my own search engine (with safe search on, natch), teaching me about the birds and the bees. There was no parental condescension. She simply talked to me like another human being.
Around the same time this Disney rumor was making the rounds, “Murphy Brown” was on the air. My mother loved the CBS show starring Candice Bergen as a news anchor, and one particular episode she was watching involved a gay character. Realizing that kids absorb everything, my mother called me over after the show.
“Do you know what they’re talking about on ‘Murphy Brown? ’ ” she asked.
“No,” I said. While most kids absorb what they see on TV, I could tune it out like background noise.
“It’s about a gay character. Do you know what it is to be gay?”
“It’s when two people of the same sex like each other. A boy likes a boy. And a girl likes a girl.”
“I just wanted you to know in case people make fun of you for not knowing what it is.”
And she sent me on my way. She didn’t go into the logistics of how things worked sexually between same-sex couples. But she simply let me know that it was a thing to be aware of, to not be ignorant of people who may be different from me — in addition to helping me avoid being made fun of for being simple-minded, which I certainly had an inclination to be.
When she noticed I started to go through puberty earlier than other girls, she slyly kept sliding Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” across my nightstand. Margaret wanted her bust to get bigger, but I didn’t. I wanted to stay unnoticeable in that way as long as I could.
“You can come to me with any questions,” she’d say. But I would storm out of the room and plug my fingers in my ears so I didn’t have to acknowledge the reality of growing up.
Seriously, what would I do without this woman? My sex ed unit in school didn’t cover “Murphy Brown” or hidden Disney messages, nor did it make Judy Blume required reading (although it should have).
I’ve always valued how frank my mother was about taboo subjects, and it’s something I’ve taken with me into adulthood. I’m not a mother, but I volunteer with children on a weekly basis, hopefully acting as a mentor. Recently, one teenage girl in the group asked a question that made the other volunteers bite their tongues.
“What’s 420?” she asked.
For a moment, I thought about not answering. But since she was the oldest of the group, I called her over away from the other children and explained: “It’s a holiday that celebrates smoking marijuana,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, surprised that that was all it was. “Really?”
“I just wanted to tell you in case kids would tease you for not knowing.”
Now, when I tell my mother that she instilled this honesty in me, she claims she doesn’t remember saying these things. If anything, she just wanted to be direct with me so I didn’t feel embarrassed. When she was a kid, she had felt clueless about sex, she said, so she wanted to make sure her kids didn’t suffer the same pain.
Today I don’t look dumb anymore when it comes to euphemisms and penis jokes. But I might look back on “The Little Mermaid” a little differently than everyone else.