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A critical investigation into the figure of the mermaid / I

Mermaids have been the focus of myths and folklore throughout the centuries. The mermaid is a figure that breaks down the binaries and hierarchies that western civilisation operates within. They became a popular topic of discussion within taxonomy in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, where the potential for classification was non-existent, enabling a discussion about speciesism. Western binaries are rooted in literature, and it is here that it can be argued, that the figure of the mermaid begins to undo. The character of the mermaid can facilitate discussion regarding gender, speciesism and what defines ‘animal’. “The western definition of humanity depended- and still depends- on the presence of the non-human: the uncivilised, the animal and the animalistic” (Huggan et al, 2015).  The photographic work of Nicky Coutts examines the ‘animal gaze’, and whether humanizing the faces of an animal alters our reactions to them. “As Erica Fudge argues in her book Animal (2002), anthropomorphism plays a key role in the production of children’s stories, and as such it may be fulfilling one of the key desires of our lives, to comprehend and communicate with animals” (Aloi, 2011). Walt Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid is a key example of animals being anthropomorphised to facilitate a sympathetic position in the audience. The figure of the mermaid can be utilised to discuss the treatment of animals, as she works as a hybrid figure that is neither human nor animal. This can be exemplified in The Mermaid (2016) where mermaids create a bridge between creatures of the sea and the humans affecting them. The sexualisation of the mermaid is often the focus of tales in folklore and popular culture, where she frequently represents the transition from girlhood to womanhood, exemplified in the ballet by Erik Chisholm, The Forsaken Mermaid (1936).  Walt Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Little Mermaid (1989), it comments on traditional western gender binaries and anthropomorphises characters within it.

In the West, there are certain binaries at play that structure our society and language. An example of binaries in Western thought is the presence-absence dichotomy, in which presence is superior due to absence typically being categorised as the outcome when you remove presence. This opposition applies to the division of male and female. The male can be seen, according to Western traditional thought, as dominant over female due to the presence of the phallus, while the vagina can be seen as a loss. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘mermaid’ as “An imaginary, partly human sea creature with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail of a fish or cetacean.” In literature, a mermaid lacks both the addition of the phallus and the ‘loss’ of the vagina, this, as well as the assumption that one’s sex, gender and sexuality should align, creates the mermaid as a figure that begins to deconstruct these binaries in Western culture. Within fairytales, the heroin must be “beautiful, white, pious, pure, good, not proud, industrious and not to mention: unsexed.”(Agren, 2013). This deprivation of sexuality and in a way, gender, is specifically relevant to tales of mermaids, due to their blatant unsexing by means of a fish tail instead of genitalia. Therefore, the mermaid represents the ideal woman in the removal of her sexual power and the presumption of innocence.

Binary opposites are rooted in literature and the character of the mermaid begins to undo these binaries that are operational within western imperialism through the hybrid figure. Shape shifting and transformations are a common theme in mythology, whether it is the shifting from human to animal, animal to human, or a transition of genders. However, it is not just in mythology that more than two genders exist. In Hawaii, “a multiple gender tradition existed among the Kanaka Maoli indigenous society. The mahu could be biological males or females inhabiting a gender role somewhere between or encompassing both the masculine and feminine”, and in a number of other pre-colonised groups and indigenous peoples. Although mermaids are generally thought to be female, due to the upper body being that of a woman, the UK-based charity Mermaids is a support system for children with gender identity issues. In naming the charity ‘Mermaids’ they are referring to when children with gender dysphoria will often draw mermaids, as they can be drawn without genitalia. In this way, the mermaid represents an escape from the classification of Western gender binaries and the social boundaries that this gender system puts in place.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Britain, classifications were being made by naturalists, zoologists, and comparative anatomists to systematically divide the animal kingdom into groups of species. “Each of the ways that people imagined, discussed, and treated animals inevitably implied some taxonomic structure “ (Ritvo, 1997). Therefore people’s rankings were reflected by the representation of themselves as being like/ or being, animals. In an example from Harriet Ritvo (1997), “worries about the concupiscence of human females structured the theory and practice of animal breeding”.  This humanization of animals establishes an engagement with them that is contradicted by speciesism, which “relies on the tacit acceptance that the full transcendence to the human requires the sacrifice of the animal and the animalistic, which in turn makes possible a symbolic economy in which we can engage in a ‘non-criminal putting to death’, as Derrida phrases it, not only of animals but of humans as well by marketing them as animal.” (Cary Wolfe, citing Jacques Derrida in Postcolonial Ecocriticism). In Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the sea creatures are made to talk and are given human-like characteristics that position the audience to think of them as ‘people’ and become more sympathetic towards them. In contrast to this, the villain (sea witch Ursula) is imbued with characteristics that oppose classic gender binaries, as she is de-feminised and obese, drawn after the famous drag queen Divine. By doing this, she is thrown into contrast with the main protagonist (mermaid Ariel) who is slim and beautiful, promoting heterosexuality as opposed to Ursula’s transgendered traits (Agren, 2013).  In the scene in which Ursula is eating, Ariel’s facial expressions tell the viewers that it is something unsavoury. In doing this, the viewers then assume that Ursula is consuming something that is not meant for the norm (usually human) dehumanising her, making it more acceptable for her to be killed at the end.

In his ecofeminist critique of The Little Mermaid, Pat Murphy comments on the colonial relationship between the land (being the industrialised country) and the sea (being the developing country). Despite the grandeur of the Underwater Kingdom, the land certainly holds the status as the dominant binary, for when the sea creatures venture onto the shore they are in danger of being eaten. When protagonist, Ariel, goes onto the land it is in pursuit of male attention from Prince Eric, in classic Disney style; “the young mermaid is a pre-sexual being as seen by her tail and the blue world she lives in, she longs to explore her sexuality in the red world above them and the pain she feels when she has legs symbolizes the transition from girl to woman” (Agren, 2013). Although Ariel is given legs she has been stripped of her voice and is somewhat advised to use her femininity to attract the prince. Her performance of stereotypical heterosexual femininity is evident in the scene where Eric is not looking, and her animal friends give her the thumbs up, applauding her for a realistic performance.

Image: Russian print from 1866 shows a mermaid and a merman.
Credit: Public domain.