Did you have a mermaid phase as a kid? A lot of little girls have a pony phase, or a ballerina phase, and I definitely had both of those, but mermaids were totally my thing. I always loved swimming and The Little Mermaid was huge when I was little, so it makes sense, but I think I might have been a little bit obsessed. I also think I might still be obsessed, and I’m definitely not the only one.
There’s very few things I think can’t be improved by the addition of mermaids. Do you remember that commercial-flop Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire? For a surprisingly long time as a kid, that was my favorite movie, and I still thought the main characters probably should have been mermaids. The best part of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie was the mermaids. A lot of people hate the D&D idea that if there is a race that exists on land, there is most likely an underwater equivalent, but I love that. My favorite episodes of two of my favorite cartoons (Futurama and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack) were the episodes about mermaids. The lost city of Atlanta, anyone? Mermaids that transform into skymaids? (on an unrelated note, I seriously miss both of those shows)
Okay, okay, enough gushing. So, what we think of as the “typical” mermaid is probably best exemplified by The Little Mermaid or the slightly earlier Tom Hanks movie Splash. Long flowing hair, a lovely singing voice, generic green/blue scaly fish tail from the waist down (in fact a cetacean-esque tail), shells or coconuts or just nothing on the boobs, probably in love with a human man. They’re generally beautiful young ladies, although the more monstrous variant is becoming just as common, if not more so as an intentional subversion of the stereotype. This idea of a top-half-beautiful-woman, bottom-half-fish can be dated all the way back to Assyria, circa 1000 BC. The later, fair-haired, pale-skinned, singing details were added later, probably from Western Europe and Scandinavia. Actually, the “mermaids turning into skymaids” thing I mentioned earlier was likely inspired by the original Danish version of The Little Mermaid, the real Hans Christian Andersen story, where mermaids who do good can become sky spirits, and eventually earn human souls through good deeds.
Other folklores have their own versions of mermaids. I mentioned in my last post that many cultures have historic legends of vampires, and it seems like mermaids are another one of these sort of universal concepts. There’s a story in One Thousand and One Nights, that is naturally my favorite story among them, where mermaids exist, although they’re anatomically the same as land-dwelling people. That alone would be pretty cool, but they also live in a society where money, ownership, and property don’t exist. They’re literally Arab communist mermaids, hundreds of years before communism as a principle existed, and if that’s not the best damn thing, I don’t know what to tell you. There are Chinese mermaids whose tears are pearls, Russian mermaids who are the restless spirits of young women who died before their time (often violently), African mermaids who cause AND cure disease and infertility, even a modern Caribbean vodou loa mermaid who represents wealth and beauty. I don’t know about you, but I would kill to see a beautifully animated movie about any or all of these. I doubt they’d be considered “commercially viable” any time soon, but a girl can dream, right?
Some more common monstrous traits common to mermaids include shark parts, sharp teeth or claws, being completely covered in scales, squid or octopus parts, oh and also the tendency to intentionally lure men to their deaths for fun. I’m probably going to chalk that last one up to 1) sexism (mermaids are almost always female hence the name) and 2) the inherent dangers of the sea, and leave it at that.
Despite all this, there is really very little diversity in mermaid fiction. All of these variations are basically superficial traits that don’t do much to change the underlying structure – both physiological and narrative. Mermaids are dangerous and you shouldn’t trust them. For the most part, they’re all based on the same type of fish + human combination. In modern portrayals, their cultures are all pretty clearly Western European in basis. They have roughly the same type of interactions with the human world. And as much as I enjoy that, it’s starting to get stale. In a larger theme of adapting popular fairy tales into other cultures, tumblr has seriously gone all out with imagining more diverse mermaids.
And not just physically diverse either. We’re seeing a lot of narrative variety, which is fantastic. You can have as much fun as you want with characters who look different, but if they’re still fulfilling the same basic role in a story, what’s really changed? Not a lot. I like that mermaids are often dangerous women, because I like the idea of men respecting and fearing women with as much awe as they have for the sea itself. But that can’t possibly be all we’ve got, right? If mermaids are basically “women + ocean”, then shouldn’t there be as much variation as there is in both women and oceans? Sometimes the sea is docile and beautiful; sometimes it’s terrible and stormy and frightening. Sometimes it provides sustenance, wealth, and life; it contains just as much possibility to take away life, to drain, to harm. I’ve written before about how space is a metaphor for the ocean, but in mermaid legends, the most common interpretation is that women are a metaphor for the ocean. If you’re going to turn us into a metaphor, at least make it a good one, right?
I think mermaids are going to be undergoing something of a renaissance soon. We’ve had the vampire thing for years; dragons are huge right now what with Game of Thrones, The Hobbit, How to Train Your Dragon, and more. I think it’s time for mermaids to take the spotlight for a while. There’s a lot of untapped potential there. We’ve got the current generation of Little-Mermaid-loving 20-somethings feeling nostalgic for their childhoods, and there’s a lot of money in nostalgia. Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction have never been more mainstream than they are now, so if we’re going to keep that trend going, we’re going to have to introduce some new trends, and not just keep cashing in on “dragons are cool now, right? IDK, magic?” So I’m going to keep hoping for a resurgence in mermaid fiction, and I know I’m not alone.