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

“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. ‘