Mermaids have become a popular trend recently, from companies selling mermaid floats, mermaid-tail swimsuits, or mermaid-themed makeup. Nowadays, they are considered an ideal of femininity, as sensual, beautiful, and strong creatures. But it wasn’t always the case. The figure of the mermaid has undergone many shifts through time, from its origin story to today’s pop culture icon. Our constant fascination with this fictional character seems to mirror our own ideas on gender, specifically what it means to be a “real” woman…
Mermaids first appeared as sirens in Homer’s poem The Odyssey. They were half bird half woman, and perceived as a threat to men, and more specifically sailors, because of their powers. Indeed, a siren’s singing voice was greatly feared by men at sea. Legends said that anyone who heard a siren’s melodious voice was sure to meet their end. Overcome with lust and desire, sailors would throw themselves overboard in a vain effort to reach the enchanting sea creatures. Ships would sink to their destruction while the sirens kept on singing mercilessly. Their voice was therefore the source of their power; it was not yet their physical beauty.
Yet, when we talk about mermaids, the most iconic remains Christian Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid fairytale that inspired Ariel, the Disney animation film. It is very interesting to point out that in both these tales, the mermaid figure becomes an attractive water creature, who chooses to give up her voice. In these stories, the mermaid lives underwater and falls in love with a human prince. Desperately yearning to join him on land, the mermaid chooses to willingly trade her compelling voice for human legs. She gets walk on land but is unable to speak.
We must not underestimate the symbolic weight in this trade. The mermaid, by giving up her voice, renounces to what was previously the source of her powers, what made her superior to men. She renders herself powerless in front of a male figure of authority: her prince. The mermaid myth was rewritten from being a dangerous predator to men to becoming a harmless and beautiful object of contemplation for men. She no longer lures them underwater to their death but is the one lured out of her natural habitat. In literature and in films, the mermaid figure shifts from being a predator to becoming a prey.
This evolution is very problematic, as it seems to tell readers and audiences that girls can only find love, and be loved when they are beautiful but silent, obedient, and submissive. These fairytales do not showcase strong, independent female characters, but characters whose personality is rendered less important than their looks, and whose sole goal is to be in a relationship. However, the recent film The Shape of Water shows a more modern take on the mermaid myth. Elisa can be interpreted as a mermaid figure, since she is found as a child by a river, unable to speak. Like the traditional mermaid tale, she had given up her voice for a human form. At the end of the movie, when she finally returns to her natural habitat in the water, the scars on her neck open up as gills. Through out the movie, Elisa follows her heart and rebels against authority: she does not let herself be intimidated or controlled by patriarchy.
Numerous contemporary TV shows have also participated in giving new meaning to the image of the mermaid: making mermaids positive and inspiring mythical female creatures. Without a doubt, mermaids remain fascinating popular icons, whose perception through time reveals our own changing views on femininity, gender, and sexuality.
Article by Inès Huet