Women, Mermaids, and Mystique: Why We Don’t Really Want to Be Part of Your World

Culture, Film, Media, Philosophy, Television, Worldviews — By on May 26, 2010 at 1:40 pm

“I want to have fins”, she sighed, gazing longingly at an advertisement for Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

I could hardly have been more relieved; for a moment I’d thought I’d walked in on every modern mother’s nightmare – a preschooler who longs to be thin.  It’s not healthy for a four year old to fret about her weight, but it is normal for today’s youngest females to love mermaids.

Believe me, I know.  I’m terrifically popular with the local 7-and-under crowd, probably because of my daughter’s absurdly well stocked play room.  I’ve watched the girls spend countless hours in mermaid-centered play—mermaid coloring pages, mermaid dolls, mermaid bath toys, mermaid movies, mermaid costumes—you name it, they love it.  The advertising industry has more than adequately cashed in on this nearly universal girlish desire for great hair paired with amphibious appendages, and it’s easy to see why girls respond so eagerly. From Disney’s Ariel to Barbie’s Merliah, today’s mermaids are young, glamorous alpha females whose beauty and courage are admired by all.  Every girl wants to be like them.

But isn’t that a little strange?  Mermaids are an odd sort of symbol.  Attach fish parts to a woman, and suddenly you have an unfailingly captivating new creature whose place in the imaginations of the next generation of wives and mothers is nearly unchallenged.  Fish parts? Really?

Mermaids have always fascinated us, though they have not always been as positively portrayed as they are in today’s children’s programs.  Tales of the unlikely creatures have captivated men and women alike since at least 1000 B.C., with myths springing from such disparate places as ancient Assyria and 14th century Warsaw.

As usual, J.K. Rowling got her mythology right when she described the merfolk who live in the water near Hogwarts:

“The merpeople had greyish skins and long, wild, dark green hair. Their eyes were yellow, as were their broken teeth, and they wore thick ropes of pebbles around their necks. They leered at Harry as he swam past; one or two of them emerged from their caves to watch him better, their powerful, silver fishtails beating the water, spears clutched in their hands.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 432)

Mermaids have usually been depicted as dangerous, unlucky creatures whose appearance bodes ill.  They are, traditionally, a far cry from Ariel or Mermaid Dora.  Many are even ugly.  How on earth did we make the jump from sirens to sweethearts?  And what is it about the image that has captivated the imaginations of so many men and women for so many centuries?

The most important source of modern western conceptions of merfolk is Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. This 19th century tale describes a young mermaid’s desperate attempts to gain an immortal soul and true love in one fell swoop.  Though her beloved Prince marries someone else and the mermaid commits suicide, she is ultimately granted a sort of soul because of the good deeds she did while on land.

Ensoulment, it seems, is good for one’s image.  Especially when Disney gets involved.  Disney’s 1989 animated interpretation of Anderson’s sympathetic tale sealed the western mermaid’s fate: no longer an undead harbinger of death and destruction, today’s mermaid is a kinder, gentler being with great hair and nothing more threatening than a desire to be “part of your world.”

On the surface, it appears to be a sign of progress that the old monstrous image has been baptized into the sort of harmless plaything that delights millions.  But this is actually a sign of our regression—and it says a thing or two about the flaws in our preferred feminine archetypes.

Mermaids myths are found all over the globe, and they vary wildly.  All the stories agree, however, that the creatures have fins instead of legs, and are able to attract human men.  This attraction is necessarily unproductive, however, as men can’t live under water and sex is physically impossible for mer-women.  A mermaid has all the power that comes with being desired by men, without the need or ability to ever submit herself to that desire.  This is especially true of modern mermaids, whom I have already compared to socially dominant women.  They are beautiful, but unattainable.  A man may love a mermaid, but he can never have her.  She may enjoy being desired for as long as she likes while never having to submit to the demands that love and sexual desire require.

In a way, then, today’s mermaids are even more insidious than the fierce old sirens.  C.S. Lewis described the danger in That Hideous Strength:

The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god. To desire the desiring of her own beauty is the vanity of Lilith, but to desire the enjoying of her own beauty is the obedience of Eve, and to both it is in the lover that the beloved tastes her own delightfulness.

Ancient merfolk were thought to lure men to watery graves through their songs and spells.  Though modern merwomen are, by contrast, known for being playful and affectionate, they can do just as much harm as their fiercer ancestors—and more.  Women naturally long to be admired, and it’s normal for girls to gravitate towards feminine images which inspire such admiration.  This desire for admiration must be tempered, however, by the kind of humility that Lewis describes above.

While Mermaid Dora isn’t likely to lead many young girls down the path of destruction anytime soon, the temptations contemporary mermaids embody may ultimately rob young women of the joys that come with humility and of the virtues one cultivates only through submission to something outside of oneself.  Nothing can compare to the freedom and peace this submission brings—not even fins. ‘


Tags: ,
  • Monica Romig Green

    Hey Rachel! Nice article. Very thoughtful. And made me think about the influence of the mermaid on my youth – the movie Splash. A very popular romantic comedy in my early teens, where Tom Hanks' character sacrifices his life to be with Darryl Hannah's Madison.

    But when I think back even earlier, I loved to imagine myself a mermaid because of the desire to swim like a fish – which felt like flying – but to maintain being a girl, which I also enjoyed. To me, it was more about the freedom to fly (or swim) instead of just being earthbound.

    Thanks for the thoughtful writing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Thanks, Monica! You're right, now that I think about it my own childish desire to be a mermaid did have a lot to do with wanting to fly. I'd forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder.

  • marykatereynolds

    Thanks for this post! It was a great read, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and clarity!

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Thank you, MKR!

  • http://semperjase.com Jason

    First it was mermaids. Other mythical archetypes have been given makeovers too, including dragons, vampires, and even demons (see Joss Whedon's Buffy universe).

    It strikes me a sign of the times that society is trying to redefine the evil out of evil. What was once universally considered evil is now viewed as just misunderstood. This trend is one of the major signs of creeping relativism that is leading society into a state where people are becoming incapable of understanding evil.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Disney was already giving the mermaid a public relations makeover long before The Little Mermaid. In their 1953 version of Peter Pan the mermaids are depicted as pretty, flirty, Peter Pan groupies (Ariel's ditsy sisters, I guess). It wasn't until the 2003 live action version of Peter Pan that I discovered that the mermaids were actually scary, vicious creatures in Barrie's book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Jason,
    I agree. It's also interesting to note that “scary” stories involve messed up human beings more and more often now. There are no monsters, but there are scary people. I wouldn't know, but I'm told that even zombies become more and more human with each new iteration. I wonder what the mythology (or lack thereof?) we're creating will communicate to future generations that look back at us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Jason,
    I agree. It's also interesting to note that “scary” stories involve messed up human beings more and more often now. There are no monsters, but there are scary people. I wouldn't know, but I'm told that even zombies become more and more human with each new iteration. I wonder what the mythology (or lack thereof?) we're creating will communicate to future generations that look back at us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    Jason,
    I agree. It's also interesting to note that “scary” stories involve messed up human beings more and more often now. There are no monsters, but there are scary people. I wouldn't know, but I'm told that even zombies become more and more human with each new iteration. I wonder what the mythology (or lack thereof?) we're creating will communicate to future generations that look back at us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    David,
    Good point! They cleaned up Pan himself quite a bit, too, unless I'm mistaken.

    Why don't we have monsters anymore?

  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    David,
    Good point! They cleaned up Pan himself quite a bit, too, unless I'm mistaken.

    Why don't we have monsters anymore?

  • Pingback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e120v5()

  • http://timpanogos.wordpress.com Ed Darrell

    Hans Christian Andersen.

    See here, for example:
    http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html

  • Naomi

    Reposting this comment from Google:

    Rachel, I think it's more disturbing that mermaids (1) can't walk and (2) exist seemingly only to attract men because these are archetypes of TRADITIONAL femininity, not MODERN. Without legs, she's literally not going anywhere unless a prince decides to fall in love with her and/or or carry her around for a while; as for the fertility issue, I think Lewis is decidedly barking up the wrong tree insofar as feminine power in a traditional system comes ONLY from the ability to attract men — this is all women can and should do. If women then decide to deliberately trade on that power (a la Lilith) in an attempt to achieve something they want instead of something men want them for, which is certainly not the best of all possible responses but is certainly an understandable one, they are accused of vanity and “entrapment”. Women are thus skewered on a double-edged sword: be beautiful so that men can “enjoy” your beauty (*ahem*), but don't presume any agency or control over how you're perceived, lest you be judged manipulative. Problematic?

  • http://www.facebook.com/larskval Lars Walker

    There's a Scandinavian legend (also current in the Scottish Isles, I believe) of a man who brings home a “silkie” wife (the silkie is like a mermaid, but has seal parts rather than fish). Through holding onto a token of hers, he is able to keep her with him. But when she finally finds where he's hidden the token, she immediately returns to the sea, abandoning him and her children. Later they visit her, and she weeps, but will never return to them, because land living isn't in her nature. Make of it what you will.

  • HopeKRhodesBartel

    Rachel – isn't the whole thing with zombies/vampires/werewolves that they were once human persons, whose humanity has been in some way corrupted? It often seems like people making myths a la Joss Whedon are exploring ideas of what it means to be human, what redemption might look like, what healing might require… There's less of interest in a completely non-human monster (kill it before it kills you) than in a corrupted human being who would like to be really human again (can i help it?).