Mermaids are having their big cultural moment. Dead, male, Edward Cullen-types are out, and vibrant, lively female sirens of the sea are in. In an essay for The New Inquiry, Carolyn Turgeon, writer of the YA mermaid novel Mermaid, argues that mermaids are replacing vampires, offering us a different sort of fantasy-creature experience, one that's more sexually ambiguous (mermaids don't really have genitals) and slightly less dark:
But compared with vampires (or zombies too, for that matter), the mermaid makes for a much livelier figure: She’s not dead, for one, plus she has a bright, pretty tail and exists in full sunlight. And she’s female. [...] And typically she is represented as super hot — think of Daryl Hannah in Splash or pretty much any other mermaid you’ve ever seen — yet she might kill you if you get too close, as with the killer mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean. Even Disney’s friendly flame-haired Ariel swims around shipwrecks and skeletons at the bottom of the sea.
We're here at The Atlantic Wire not the only ones over vampires. "Mermaids are half human," write Lindsey Weber and Amanda Dobbins at Vulture. "Not creepy, undead, extra-pale-like-sculpted-porcelain humans; living, breathing (underwater) humans."And ABC News argues that Netflix's recent purchase of the Australian series Mako Mermaids means there's a market for these fish-human hybrids. Perhaps most impressively, there were over 18 mermaid books published last year.
And in the real world, living as a mermaid (at least part time) has been a thing for decades. Whereas "real life" vampires sound like the basis for an incredibly bizarre episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, young women and men have been performing as merfolk at Weeki Wachee in Florida for over 60 years. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Virginia Sole-Smith found that, for the young people employed by the park, "mermaiding represented an alternative to prescribed female roles." Working for Weeki Wachee gave the women an opportunity to do something other than settle down into domesticity. The women Sole-Smith interviewed described Weeki Wachee as a "mermaid sorority," and added that the job is "like reliving your childhood.”
Best of all, there's a girl-power element to the mermaid movement that True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and especially Twilight lack. Even The Little Mermaid's Ariel, though not exactly your proto-feminist, shows some autonomy by choosing to leave her overbearing father and give up her voice. Turgeon argues that mermaids offer an alternative sexual identity for women:
Mermaids allow women to tap into something essential and powerful without becoming “unlikable” or unattractive. For women, mermaids offer the freedom of different interpretive options depending on her vicarious needs: Mermaids can be read as sexed or unsexed, vulnerable or terrifying, accessible or forever remote.
Mermaids also just have a lot of fun. Earlier this summer, a campaign on Kickstarter successfully raised over $100,000 to save Coney Island's Mermaid Parade. A vampire parade, on the other hand, would no fun at all. So more power to you, creatures of the sea.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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