Another Gaze: Something in the Water
Extract from issue four of Another Gaze.
Mermaids, according to folklore, are vainglorious and bloodthirsty tricksters obsessed with seduction. They are the sirens that lure you to your death on the rocks, or the selkies that strip off their aquatic skin when they leave the water, so that they can manipulate you into sex, or love, or parenthood, or all three, only to then disappear as hastily as they arrived. In pre-Raphaelite paintings, mermaids were depicted as frivolously feminine, combing their long hair or idly examining shells, while in ancient Assyria, the mermaid-like goddess Atargatis was so sexually powerful that her lovemaking killed her mortal lover. Although visions of mermaids vary from culture to culture, in most of the stories that concern them mermaids use sex to get what they want or to destroy what they hate, signifying both danger and desire.
It’s weird, then, that in cinema mermaids are more likely to be manic pixie fish girls. Their otherworldliness serves as a titillating plot device, used to spice up the lives of dull, rich, white men like Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid (1989), or Tom Hanks in Splash (1984). Take Splash, for instance, a fish-out-of-water love story between Tom Hanks’ Allen, a preppy and forgettable fruit wholesaler, and Daryl Hannah’s Madison, a mermaid whose tail transforms into a pair of legs on dry land. She may look human, but much of the film’s humour – if, for a second, we pretend that it can be called that – is focused on Madison’s inability to comprehend the human world. Examples include her arrest for public nudity, and the ostentatiously large water fountain that she buys Allen as a gift. She’s sweet and naive and quirky, an eternal adolescent. Even when strolling butt-naked through Liberty Island, Madison is PG-rated. In Splash, mermaids are reduced to a family-friendly fetish, stripped of their sexuality and, often, their power. Plenty of interviews from the year of Splash’s release are available on YouTube. In one of them, the interviewer addresses Daryl Hannah and director Ron Howard. “I looked very carefully,” she says, “Because I wondered how you were going to do a mermaid and not make it too sexual or sensual.”
Of course, nobody (kinks notwithstanding) wants to be dashed on the rocks, or fucked to death like Atargatis’s lover. But the sanitisation of mermaid sexuality into something cute and unerotic is symptomatic of a historical ambivalence for bodies that don’t fit into any predetermined ontological category. To desire a mermaid is to desire beyond the borders of the human. It makes things messy, confusing, and disrupts the bordered logic of the self, of what we believe to be human, and importantly, what we believe is not. Are mermaids more human or more animal? What are the markers of humanity? Madison speaks, sure, and Ariel is open about her desire to be part of the human world, but what were they like before, when they lived underwater? And besides, the category of mermaid is broad: there are other mermaids who aren’t so welcoming, so physically appealing, who have more in common with what we think of as the animal world.
The category of ‘animal’ is an assertion of power. It creates distance between ourselves and non-humans, making it easier to ignore the vexed question of animal consciousness and rights claims. But, perhaps more fundamentally, the animal category is foundational to our own self-image. Adorno and Horkheimer put it this way: “Throughout European history, the idea of the human being has been expressed in contradistinction to the animal. The latter’s lack of reason is proof of human dignity.” In other words, this division of sentient life into human and animal, in which the latter is subordinate, is the bedrock of human identity. Hybrid creatures challenge us because they expose the limits of this identity. Mermaids, vampires, or werewolves, with one foot firmly in the animal world, pose an existential threat to the symbolic order. But Thanatos is never too far from Eros, and ambivalent desire for the chimerical other is the driving force of mermaid cinema. The mermaid, unlike the vampire or werewolf, is a uniquely feminised hybrid creature, and answers to a peculiarly cis heterosexual male fantasy. Revulsion for the animalised other is bound up with desire for her femininity.
In his book Colonial Desire, Robert Young describes the self-image of the white, hetero, conventionally masculine Englishman as a fundamentally desiring kind of subjectivity, an identity built on a profound sense of lack. He then suggests that this emptiness manifests as ambivalence towards the other, desire mixed with revulsion. This same emptiness echoes down the years to Tom Hanks’ character in Splash. “All my life I've been waiting for someone…” he complains, but he, too, is ambivalent about his desire: “and when I find her, she … well, she’s a fish.”