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So you want to be a mermaid? As the fairy tale taught us, switching identity rarely has a happy ending

Some mermaids decide they don’t like the land. Credit: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty

Some mermaids decide they don’t like the land. Credit: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty


February 4, 2021   6 mins

Scuba diving is both magical and terrifying. Put on your gear, slip under the surface, and find yourself freed from gravity. In the glory days Before Coronavirus, I remember diving through the clear waters of coastal Turkey, drifting on warm currents and rolling to stare at the sunshine playing on the surface, from underneath.

But even as I rippled through the deep, marvelling at flashing schools of fish, there was a trade-off: constant self-control. Don’t breathe out through your nose. Don’t sneeze. Never, ever panic. For a short while it’s possible to pretend that you have the freedom of such an alien world, but in truth you’re only ever a tourist, granted safe passage thanks to technology, training and self-discipline.

Something about this sense of crossing an uncrossable threshold surely also powers our obsession with mermaids. And it is an obsession: mermaids are everywhere. Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story recently won the Costa Book Prize, while “mermaiding” — swimming in the sea wearing a “mermaid tail” — has gained a cult following in Australia. And you only need to browse the girls’ clothing selection in a high-street shop to find countless cartoon girls with fish-tails, sequinned and sparkly, smiling at you from t-shirts, dresses, wellies, duvet sets, pencil cases and the like.

As a parent of a four-year-old, I’m more familiar than I’d like with mermaid content, and Disney is a rich source. Sofia the First: A Mermaid Tale is a favourite with my daughter, who is entranced by the moment when Sofia is magically transformed into a mermaid and dives underwater. There, she swims in circles exclaiming: “This is incredible!”. And it is. The rest of the story is almost an afterthought, with the whole narrative punch condensed into that moment of metamorphosis, and the dive into a new and mysterious realm.

If mermaids offer an enchanting dream of transformation, perhaps it’s no surprise that the transgender movement enthuses about the special place mermaids have in their iconography. Activist Janet Mock links this to Ariel, heroine of the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, who chafes at her underwater life and longs to visit the world beyond.

Ariel falls in love with a human, Prince Eric, and persuades the sea-witch Ursula to give her human legs, in exchange for her voice. Of course, being Disney, it all ends happily: Ariel gets her transformation at the end and marries the prince. It’s an elegant, arresting fantasy of pursuing and realising a seemingly impossible vision, and encapsulates perfectly the Disney motto: “Where Dreams Come True”.

Today, it’s increasingly accepted that we should support each individual in pursuit of their dreams — even to the extent, as in Ariel’s case, of accommodating those who radically alter their bodies to align with inner identity. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in the 31 years since The Little Mermaid was released, the association between mermaids and those who pursue an identity at the cost of physical transformation has only deepened. Six years after the film’s release, a charity was founded with the aim of supporting transgender youth — and given the name Mermaids. Meanwhile, Starbucks (whose logo is a mermaid) ran a 2019 campaign in partnership with Mermaids, celebrating the moment a young transgender person hears their preferred name spoken by a Starbucks barista and, for the first time, identity supersedes body.

But just as scuba divers gain the enthralling freedom of the deep only via technology and absolute self-control, a delve into the deeper iconography of mermaids suggests that crossing a threshold as un-crossable as that between air and water isn’t as straightforward matter of making Dreams Come True. As T.S. Eliot hinted in 1911, the dream of oneness with the ocean always comes with a price, or else comes to an end:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The modern mermaids of pre-teen iconography are both ultra-glam and sexless, sporting revealing, shimmery shell bikinis and jewelled hair — even as the iconography swims smoothly past the question of what’s going on below the waist. As transgender icon Amiyah Scott puts it to Janet Mock: “With mermaids, the bottom is kind of like an unknown and I like that.” It’s not really done to speculate about how mermaids make more mermaids.

For a culture that simultaneously offers pre-teen girls Playboy-branded merch and rages about paedophilia, this style of mermaid perfectly combines an alluring, hyper-feminine aesthetic with a convenient evasion of the sexual dynamic that hyper-femininity is meant to evoke in adults. But the deep history of mermaids — and their element, the ocean itself — tackles those far darker and more turbulent feminine sexual associations in a way that’s far less sanitised.

Once you’re out on the open sea of unbounded female desire, the mermaids of legend aren’t pretty and sexless at all. They’re alluring, slippery and apt to steal your loved ones. In one Cornish folk tale, chorister Matthew Trewalla followed a mysterious woman out of the Sunday service in the mining town of Zennor, straight to the ocean where he vanished.

As the story goes, Trewalla was never seen again — until spotted by a ship’s captain some years later. He had transformed to a merman, swimming alongside his mermaid wife and mer-children. Zennor’s mermaid tempts Trewalla to turn his back not just on friends and family but on land itself. She’s far closer to the temptress of seafaring lore, who sings to passing ships and causes them to run aground.

In Old Norse mythology, sea-maidens are more menacing still: the nine daughters of Aegir the sea-god and Rán, goddess of the drowned, are waves on the ocean. Each of these nine sea-maidens has a different aspect — such as the frothing one, the billowing one, the welling one — “through which one can see heaven”. The seafaring Vikings who told these stories were intimately familiar with, and healthily afraid of, an ocean seen as both feminine and deeply dangerous.

This hostile undercurrent to the association between women and the sea comes out even today. There’s no shortage of not very polite modern euphemisms for women’s genitalia referencing seafood, for example, while in drag culture someone is said to be ‘fishy’ if they pass as a woman.

So is crossing to the other side desirable or detestable? And what’s the price of a visit? In the movie of The Little Mermaid, there is no price: Ariel’s father Neptune uses his magical trident to transform his daughter permanently into a human, whereupon she leaves permanently for the land and marries her prince. There’s no sense in the movie that this is anything other than an unambiguously happy ending. But while older mermaid tales evoke that same longing to cross the boundary, either seaward or landward, they usually carry a far greater sense of loss or danger than this “Dreams Come True” retelling.

The hauntingly sad Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired Disney couldn’t be further from wish-fulfilment. As in the film, the mermaid falls in love with a prince she rescues from a storm. But in exchange for giving her legs, the sea-witch doesn’t just steal her voice but cuts out her tongue. Even as the magic grants her a pair legs, walking on them is agony. And though the prince is fond of the transformed mermaid, he loves someone else. There’s no happy ending: the mermaid knows his marriage will break her heart, but though her sisters beg her to break the spell by murdering the prince, the mermaid loves him too much to save herself in this way. Instead, she throws herself into the water and dissolves into foam.

From the Disney perspective, this is all a bit grim. After all, we can all be whatever we want if only we believe. Can’t we? Far from offering a happy tale of dreams that come true, though, Andersen’s story reads like a bleak cautionary tale about struggling against your own natural limits.

Disney animations have a way of crowding out earlier and more ambiguous fairy tales, and it’s a safe bet the founders of Mermaids hadn’t read Andersen’s story when they named their organisation. In their search for a positive depiction of youth gender transition, it seems unlikely they had in mind constant physical pain, the loss of one’s authentic voice and a lifetime of being passed over as a sexual partner.

So even as the ancient history of mermaids has mixed feelings about the beauty and peril of femininity, the modern mermaid reboot is just as ambivalent about what’s real and what’s artificial — and just how far artifice can help us realise our desires. Perhaps it’s fitting that even as we’ve filled our real-life oceans with plastic, we should make such a concerted effort to give the archetypal oceanic feminine a plastic-toy  — or plastic-surgery — makeover.

But despite this embrace of the mermaid as a poster-girl for a consumer approach to identity, the mermaid as symbol isn’t so easily sanitised, or persuaded of her own happy ending. Some mermaids decide they don’t like the land after all, even if they’re no longer quite at home in the sea either. Some find new voices, and use them.

For despite all the toys, t-shirts and upbeat Disney stories, darker, older currents still roll beneath the safe and sparkly modern mermaid. These currents invite us to wonder: maybe some dreams bring no relief, even when they come true. Maybe some kinds of restlessness can’t be cured, only navigated.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Joe Blow
JB
Joe Blow
3 years ago

Everyone should be entitled to “identify” as whatever they like, as long as we all keep in mind that:
1.) Reality trumps fantasy
2.) One person’s chosen (sic) identity does not trump the dignity of other people – especially those other people’s right to remain anchored in reality.

You’re free to “identify” as a lizard, a tree, a rocking horse, or as a member of the opposite sex. It’s (supposedly) a free country. But your right to self-ID as a horse does not entitle you to expect to be fed apples by passers-by.

Karen Lindquist
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

Yes. However, I don’t think children should be allowed to make permanent alterations to their bodies without parental consent, and honestly, even with it.
And none of us should be involved in supplying the money for it to anyone.
And men who commit violent crimes ought not to be allowed to do it and go into women’s prisons.
And men who feel like a woman ought not to be allowed to compete against women in women’s sorts unless all the women involved in said sport competition are comfortable with it.
And no one should be allowed to silence people from having a conversation about it, especially when it involves the legal rights of the people being silenced.

nickwiz1
NC
nickwiz1
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

All true but your right to self identify as a Horse, whilst doesn’t come with automatic apples should at least come with a right not to be ridiculed, ostracised or worse, physically assaulted, and abused perhaps? In a free country shouldn’t everyone feel free to expect to be treated with respect and dignity?

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago
Reply to  nickwiz1

Everyone has the right to expect tat they will not be physically assaulted or (physically) abused.

Ostracised? That’s a harder one – people are ostracised for all sorts of reasons. Tough to see how you can legislate against that.

And, as I said above, people have the right to be treated with dignity. That dignity extends to not being expected to have to agree that a man in a dress is, in fact, a woman in every meaningful respect. JK Rowling’s dignity, in her right to express her opinion without fear of ostracism, matters just as much as anyone else’s.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

A good piece.

The hauntingly sad Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired Disney couldn’t be further from wish-fulfilment.

What is clearly there in HCA, but not in Disney, is a tragic sense of life. The situation of people who desperately feel they are/ want to be the opposite sex is a tragic one. Because, in the full sense, they simply cannot have what they want.

Juilan Bonmottier
JB
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes, the myth of ‘transition’ -which is no real transition at all.

Christiane Dauphinais
Christiane Dauphinais
3 years ago

Jordan Peterson, in conversation with Douglas Murray on identity politics, January 2021:

“It is something you sign up to, that is felt to be better than having nothing to sign up to. It is something you define yourself, and that is informed by your lived experience. The problem is: what does that identity buy you ? I provides you with a path to what you’re going to do. But the question is: what will ‘what you’re going to do’ bring you ? The theory / narrative is: it will put an end to that feeling that you don’t fit in, that you’re an outsider. But the problem is: that feeling is universal and can never be cured.”

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
3 years ago

One of the great solaces of growing old is that we tend to become better at accepting not only what we are but also what we are not. Facing up to our own ordinariness turns out to be liberating. At last we can do what we do – sports, music, cooking, whatever – not to excel or to show everybody how brilliant we are, but purely for the pleasure of doing it. That brings contentment – and it takes decades to get there. What makes Mermaids and trans activism generally so pernicious is that it offers to make young people what they are not – and never will be – as a kind of fast track to contentment. Like Andersen’s mermaid, they are encouraged to maim themselves permanently in pursuit of an impossibility. And then fawned over as “žspecial”. It really is diabolical.

Stefan Hill
Stefan Hill
3 years ago

A women who used to be a man told her story on Swedish Radio. She said that life would have been easier if she had chosen to remain a homosexual man.

One example was how she fell in love with a man and after having sex with him told him that she had been a man but had surgery to become a woman. Her beloved turned away, trowed up and left her.

Very much like HC Anderssons mermaid.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago

The point about mermaids and apparent absence of genitalia is really interesting. Often in trans children the fear of developing into puberty, and all that entails (no pun intended) is so terrifying -and this fact is often just avoided by some psychologists when treating these children. Exploring these fantasies, and their associations, often helps reveal deeper truths and fears.

Jeff Evans
Jeff Evans
3 years ago

Always been amused by the Futurama tack on mermaids.

Our hero (Fry) eventually marries a mermaid, but the relationship eventaully breaks down when he discovers that sex is like that of fish – he must just release his sperm int the water to find the eggs,and there is no physical consummation with the mermaid.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

I cannot think of a more profound flight from reality than somebody wanting a sex change. For a person to take such a gamble with their body shows deep turmoil and confusion which should trigger long term counselling, not connivance.

Richard Budd
Richard Budd
3 years ago

asdf

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Budd
ceres777
ceres777
3 years ago

Hmm.

What if we retell The Little Mermaid, but with the twist that she was thrown into the water as a baby and transformed into a mermaid? Having legs may be agony, but so is having a fish tail. She is caught between two lives, neither of which she can truly live in.

Karen Lindquist
BM
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago
Reply to  ceres777

What if we find a way to help the person who cant make peace with themselves to find a healthy way toward accepting and loving themselves that doesn’t involve a lifetime of meds or surgery?

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
3 years ago
Reply to  ceres777

Sadly, it seems unlikely she will be able to select herself out of that dilemma by drowning herself!

alison.laurie
alison.laurie
3 years ago

Extract from my article CLOSETS OF THE PAST , in NZJPH4.1 2016″‹”‹1,
“The letters of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen reveal strong same-sex attractions. Rictor Norton suggests that Andersen’s letters to his close friend Edvard Collin on the latter’s marriage share similarities to Anderson’s story The Little Mermaid, suggesting that Andersen saw Collin as the Prince, the Princess that the Prince marries as Collin’s new wife, and himself as the Mermaid. Who dies for love.”
Readers unaware of Andersen’s strong feelings for men may be unable to fully appreciate the complexity of his stories.”

alison.laurie
alison.laurie
3 years ago
Reply to  alison.laurie
Tim Knight
TK
Tim Knight
3 years ago

I want to be a Merman with the head and torso of a fish and the legs of a human.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

Bit like Zuckerberg

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago
Reply to  Tim Knight

I also remember an episode of Red Dwarf

katiepert1970
katiepert1970
3 years ago

Fantastic analogy.

Tina Kramer
Tina Kramer
3 years ago

The versions of “The Little Mermaid” I’ve read say that she became a “daughter of the air” which meant that after 300 years of doing good deeds she would receive an immortal soul and go to Heaven.

larry tate
larry tate
3 years ago

Breaking news! Due to a world shortage on suppresing and inhibitor drugs the trans community has completely vanished from the face of the planet. Some pundits have highlighted the fact that “no drugs, no trans”, is a fact.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 years ago

Person A: I have the right to self identify and you don’t have the right to address me or think about me in certain ways. Person B: paradox and contradiction there? Person A:! One another aspect- the science of hormones means that young men have physical advantages over girls in sport all other things being equal such as training and fitness. You can’t, for example, transition to being shorter.

Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Of course you can ‘transition’ into being a much stronger sportsman/woman. But that’s breaking the rules.

Lang Cleg
Lang Cleg
3 years ago

With you all the way about the commoditisation of seff, Mary. To be expected, I suppose, when cultural hegemony comes from a nation obsessed with self reinvention.

For your daughter as she grows: the late poet Helen Dunmore wrote a lovely mermaids series for kids, Ingo, whose underlying message is environmentalism. And the brilliant Aussiie Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island deals with the selkie myth in a very unsettling way.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
3 years ago

And then, there is the legend of Clytie (Ovid’s Metamorphoses), which perhaps Andersen’s mother read to him, as mine did to me. Early inoculation against wishful thinking. The real, old legends and folk tales — as opposed to the Disney version of — should be part of the canon for formation of the young.

simelsdrew
simelsdrew
3 years ago

“So you want to be a mermaid?” I’d rather be a human, thank you. Children are bombarded by so much crazy information nowadays! I’m amazed that adults choose to have children!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

There’s no shortage of not very polite modern euphemisms for women’s genitalia referencing seafood

There isn’t?

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Bivalve, razor clam, limpet, periwinkle, sea urchin, coquille St Jacques…

No, me neither.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Mermaids are harmless made up creatures, like pixies and elves. My daughters always wanted to be mermaids when they were little. I love the sea and know lots of women who do as well and spend as much time as they can in it, paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba, snorkeling. Best scuba diving in the world……Bonaire. Close to my heart. Nothing nefarious about women and the sea at all.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

“Nothing nefarious about women and the sea at all.”
Well, yes – of course.

But that misses the point. First, there is a UK organisation called Mermaids that campaigns for aggressive chemical management of mental illness in children in the UK.

Second, sea-dwelling women have real significance in mythology, and perhaps inevitably, as the dangerous work of sea-faring has always been men’s work (as just about all dangerous work is).

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

I don’t live in mythology, I live in the real world. As to an organization that co-opts the name of a mythological creature, what difference does that make in what the organization does? If it’s purpose is bad or wrong, it isn’t because it has the word mermaid in it. Would it be a better organization if it were named dragon or fairy?

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago

Well -they chose the name for a reason, right? though they may not have been fully conscious of why. Symbolism? (Although I just tried looking up Mermaid in the Dictionary of Symbols and astonishingly it’s not there!!).

Annette Kralendijk
AK
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

How does that matter to what they do? Would their mission be better or worse if they’d chosen a dragon?

kyria kalokairi
KK
kyria kalokairi
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

The most dangerous work a human can do is create life. Only humans who are women can do it, though.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

You’ve not been keeping up with your trans-ideology 🙂

Seriously, though, your claim is false. In the US, about 700 women die in childbirth each year. About 5,500 people – the great majority of them men – die in industrial accidents.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

Yeah but childbirth is still dangerous work, by any reasonable yardstick. Which rather falsifies your own claim, no?

Anna Borsey
Anna Borsey
3 years ago

Nonsense. Women do not create life all by their little selves; they do need the input of sperm, from a man, in order to become pregnant and in due course give birth to a new baby, an embryo human.

Crow T. Robot
Crow T. Robot
3 years ago

While made up, pixies and elves are not always harmless in tales– that for a reason.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Crow T. Robot

They are also harmless to people. We can’t eliminate every fantasy character ever written or sung about. Dragons are harmless too.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
3 years ago

Not everyone thinks on that literal plane. The human trick, I think, is to maintain a hold in reality, and yet enrich one’s speculations with symbolism. One can choose to love a dragon, but can one scale the heights? One can love a mermaid, and then wake up next morning to a dank and distinctly homely manatee…

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Liz Walsh

Fantasy doesn’t trump reality even if some believe in it, I guess that was my point. I love mermaids and Santa Claus but I know they aren’t real. As much trouble as some have holding on to reality today, it’s more important than ever that we are able to separate what’s real from what’s fantasy and symbolism.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

“Nothing nefarious about women and the sea at all.”

What about toxic salinity.