The finished illustration has been sitting on my desktop for a while. I have so much to say about the piece yet at the same time I’m afraid of what might come out if I start writing. The meaning behind the drawing is hard to talk about, it is deeply personal and raw. However, I believe that by sharing difficult topics through art, it will remind us that we are not alone, however dark our thoughts may be at times.
Worth is inspired by the tale of the The Little Mermaid which was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836. Many readers will be familiar with the general plot.* When I was eight, I distinctly remember reading the original version by Hans Christian Andersen and the story was beautifully illustrated in watercolours. However, I was deeply disturbed by the trials of the Little Mermaid. The world she lived in seemed to be so indifferent and oblivious to her suffering.
In contrast, I also have fond memories of the Disney version with its colourful cast of sea creatures including Sebastian the crab, Scuttle the seagull and Flounder the fish. As an adult, I was charmed by the animated feature Ponyo, directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki took inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen and adapted the story for an even younger audience featuring strong-willed kids as the main characters.
The original story of The Little Mermaid dealt with themes of self-sacrifice and redemption. Disney’s version gives us hope that dreams do come true (much in the spirit of their films). Miyazaki teaches us that responsibility and love makes it possible for two worlds to come together. Despite the latter attempts to give the Little Mermaid a cheerful tone and happier ending, there was always something that bothered me about the story.
Why does the Little Mermaid have to give up everything to live in the human world? Why does she have to be the one to lose an essential aspect of herself (ie. her voice), transform herself physically, and abandon her friends and family? Why is it that her existence solely depends on the love of one person? And was it worth it in the end? Even though Miyazaki’s version does a decent job of showing the compromises on both sides, Ponyo still has to give up something intrinsic – her magic – to live in the human world.
I understand from a storytelling perspective, it wouldn’t be much of a story if the consequences of the characters’ choices didn’t have significant weight. However, through the eyes of someone who has struggled with a low sense of self-worth, I’m compelled to question how self-worth is portrayed through the stories that I grew up with and love so dearly. And so lies the starting point for Worth.
Worth captures the moment when the Little Mermaid plunges into the depth of the ocean in despair. She is suspended in a moment between life and death. She hugs herself safely into a fetal position and her pose echos the womb-like cave which frames the watery landscape. Remnants of her fins trail behind her like a ghost. It is at this moment I imagine nothing else matters for the Little Mermaid and that she can just be as her life comes to a full circle. It is in this moment I imagine the Little Mermaid contemplating: What if we’re all worthy just the way we are?
*The Little Mermaid saves a human prince from drowning and falls in love with him. She makes an irreversible deal with the Sea Witch who transforms the Little Mermaid into a human. If our heroine fails to win the love of the prince, she will perish. After failing to capture the prince’s heart, she is given a choice to kill the prince to save herself. Unable to bring herself to do so, the Little Mermaid tosses herself into the ocean and dissolves into sea foam.