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A CRITICAL INVESTIGATION INTO THE FIGURE OF THE MERMAID / II

“The sea world is rendered either invisible or mythic while the land world is endowed with cultural validity. As contradictory and complementary, the two-world motif creates permeable yet dangerous borders, furthers the plot, and establishes a hierarchy of desires”, this relates to the idea of the dominant culture being unaware of those around it, while marginalised cultures are aware of the dominant one as well as their own. The transition from girl to woman is also evident in The Forsaken Mermaid, a ballet by Erik Chisholm. In this mermaid tale, the protagonist longs to venture onto the land, but her parents say, “Not until you are a little older my child”. When her birthday comes she goes onto the land, immediately catches the eye of one of the men and they are married. Again in this instance, the sea poses as the place of innocence and virtuosity, and the land acts as the place to travel when the character has reached sexual maturity, exhibited by the lack of genitalia when the mermaids remain in the sea with their fish tales. The mermaids of these stories develop the full body of a woman when they appear on the land and therefore a vagina. As well in both, “human speech is denied her [them] and she is dumb”, the only attraction to the males in these stories is the physical and sexual attraction, which in both, turns out to not be enough and both male protagonists are near to marrying other women.

The character of the mermaid is a particularly sympathetic role, due to her having the face of a human. Levinas (2002) comments that the face of an animal is merely ‘biological’ and does not ‘invite, or command, a direct ethical response’ as the face of a human does: “I cannot say at what moment you have the right to be called face. The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of an animal. I don’t know if a snake has a face… I do not know at what moment the human appears, but what I want to emphasise is that the human breaks with pure being, which is always a persistence in being”. The work of artist Nicky Coutts focuses directly on the ‘animal gaze’ and indeed, challenges Levinas. In her photographic series The Inheritors, she subtly alters the faces of animals, by editing human eyes into their faces. This anthropomorphism of animal faces creates “an uncomfortable level of equality with the viewer” states Chrulew (2004). Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory argues that “there is nothing so impressive as the eyes of animal- especially apes, which seem objectively to mourn that they are not human”. The Chinese film, The Mermaid (2016), tells the tale of a businessman whose sonars are killing animals in the ocean, for which he does not care (he laughs when a goldfish explodes in an example of the sonars power), showing no sympathy for the animals he is allowing to die. However, after realising the existence of mermaids and seeing them dying he removes his sonars from the ocean. In this film, the mermaid was utilised as the bridge between human and animal creating strong sympathy within the viewers due to her human face and the faces of the dying merchildren. This validation of humans over animals is the focus of speciesism when different values and rights are applied to what category of species an animal is in. “Through the speciesistic discourse some animals are represented as being more animal than others. So, in the attempt to bring mammals and humans closer, speciesism may have also inadvertently distanced non-mammals from us and other animals” (Aloi, 2011).

The boundaries in the classification of animals were emphasised by the presence of hybrids/ mongrels/ crosses. The language used around such animals was not positive, and the “rhetoric of repulsion emphasised the transgressive nature of hybrids, it also signalled their attractiveness. Border violations were appealing as well as threatening. After all, much more disconcerting monsters also played to large and appreciative audiences” (Ritvo, 1998). This explains, why the idea of the mermaid- a hybrid human/ fish creature was an exciting proposition at this time. ‘Oddities’ such as “Dwarfs and giants, Siamese twins and bearded ladies, however unusual and striking, could be viewed as exaggerations of what was normal or ordinary” (Ritvo, 1998). There also became an increased interest in the mythical. Unicorns, being some of the most common sightings, were immediately disregarded as other animals (such as the rhinoceroses), mermaids being more intriguing due to their inability to fit into a taxonomical system: “Most zoologists were content to ignore reported unicorn sightings, which almost always, even when submitted by travelers with some credibility as field naturalists, came attended by an air of gossip, wishful thinking, and nostalgia. Exhibited mermaids, on the other hand, concretely challenged the established order of nature, which offered them no place” (Ritvo, 1998). These exhibited ‘mermaids’ were comprised of the remains of primates and fish, however, people still paid for the pleasure of viewing a ‘mermaid’. Therefore, mermaids have become “an attempt to broaden the spectrum of representations” (Bell et al, 2005). In the present day, people still pay for the pleasure of viewing ‘mermaids’. Performance artists, working on their own, or at places such as the Weeki Wachee mermaid shows in Florida, perform underwater or on land dressed as mermaids. Mermaid performers such as Mermaid Melissa utilise the character of the mermaid to promote ocean and animal conservation through storytelling and performance. Even in reality, her performances in the ocean allow her to interact with aquatic animals and encourage children and adults to become active in saving the oceans- her tagline being, “saving the world’s oceans, before all creatures become mythical”.

The hybrid figure of the mermaid works to break down traditional western binaries. The mermaid’s lack of genitals while in the water, acts as a removal of sexuality, and define her as an innocent and non-threatening character. However, in tales such as The Forsaken Mermaid and The Little Mermaid, she gains the full body of a woman while on land and is immediately desired by men, although in both they lack the ability to communicate with them. This brings them close to their destruction, their sexuality is too threatening in a male dominated societies. This shape-shifting when the mermaids move from land to sea, is often looked at in mythology and folklore, where characters can change into other people, objects, or genders. Although western gender binaries are traditionally male/ female- attributing specific traits of femininity or masculinity- there are a number of cultures that have three or more genders. This creates fluidity between the sexes that is not acceptable in the western imperialist hierarchal system. The character of the mermaid has the ability to facilitate the discourse around more than two genders, or the shifting from one gender to the other. This is due to their lack of genitalia, which can be seen in folklore as a freedom, and is evident in the naming of UK based charity Mermaids. The character of the mermaid can also be utilised in storytelling as a way to create a nexus between species, as is seen in Stephen Chow’s (2016) film, The Mermaid. In Nicky Coutts photographic work The Inheritors, she aims to do something similar, creating an emotional link between the image of the animal face, with its human eyes, and the viewer. This begins to break down speciesistic discussions around the taxonomy of animals and their relationship to us as humans. The presence of ‘mermaids’ in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain forced a closer look at the system of categorising animals, as the mermaid categorically did not fit into their taxonomical system. The present day version of the mermaid- people who perform as mermaids – utilise the character to create a discourse between land and sea; much like in The Mermaid (2016). The character of the mermaid, through mythology, literature, and popular culture works to create discourse around a variety of significant themes and works as a hybrid figure between the animal and the human.

Image: This 1805 illustration (artist unknown) from the Waseda University Theater Museum shows a mermaid that was reportedly captured in Toyama Bay. According to the accompanying text, the creature measured 10.6 meters (35 ft) long. Credit: www.pinktentacle.com