The new trend in fiction, evidently, is mermaids. We’re over vampires, werecreatures, fairies, and angels, and now it’s time to move on to another mythical creature; people seem reluctant to return to contemporary YA in the interest of exploring fantasy themes[1. Not that I have any complaints about fantasy; it’s one of my favourite genres and much of my own fiction falls under the magical realism category.]. Looking at the different attributes and mythology associated with each of the trends that’s bubbled and subsequently popped in YA, you can follow a shifting in social attitudes and narratives as storytellers both write their passion, and adjust to what people want.
There is something fundamentally sad about the mermaid, although I may be viewing them with a prejudicial eye because when I think of mermaids, I’m always reminded of the mermaid statue in Copenhagen. She’s trapped by a terrible and impossible choice, drawn to the land and the people she loves, but always wanting the sea, where she is at home and able to navigate. In either world, she will be miserable, because she’ll be missing a key part of herself. There is no happiness for the mermaid.
Other takes on the trend seem to take it in different directions, and one thing that strikes me about the way people frame mermaids is that there are some fascinating parallels with disability. At sea, the mermaid is in her element. Her body is specifically designed for that environment and she’s capable of navigating with ease and comfort. It’s her home, after all. On shore, the mermaid cannot walk and must use other people or devices for mobility, unless she can be magically ‘cured,’ usually for a few short hours of land-based bliss. This ‘cure’ is also a mutilation because it involves fundamentally altering her body to navigate a world that is not designed for her.
In mythologies where mermaids do get to walk, the cure is often framed as a tragedy because it’s short term, and they’ll have to return to their helpless flippered state at the end of the night, or day, or week. This frames the mermaid’s own body as a problem; it’s the body that is the tragedy, because it doesn’t fit on land and doesn’t belong there, and the mermaid must pretend to be something she is not in order to capture her love interest or save the day or whatever she is doing on land. At the same time, her body is an object of mystery and awe because of its alien and unusual nature.
It is rare to see the flip side of the story, with a mermaid’s love interest drawn underwater and tormented by the limitations of a body designed for land. There is some inherent gendering, here. Since mermaid stories are often heterosexual and mermaids are usually female, the love interest is typically male. We do not see men floundering in the ocean or struggling with breathing systems so they can be with their loved ones. Instead, it is the mermaid who must sacrifice to be on land if she wants to pursue her true love.
I would love to see some reversal and playing with these tropes, some serious confrontations of the disability and gender narratives embedded in storytelling about mermaids, because I think it would be really interesting. Why not have a gay or lesbian retelling of a traditional fairytale? Or one where the mermaid remains underwater and the love interest is forced to give everything up to go into the sea? Why not flop the paradigm and turn the normative land-based body into the tragedy and the thing that must be modified in order to fit into an undersea environment? Or perhaps a mermaid could fall in love with someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility on land and discovers that the water provides freedom and independence? Why does the mermaid tale have to be inherently tragic, a tale of one broken and one ‘normal’ body?
Retellings of fairytales have so much potential when it comes to challenging the way people think about the world and interact with society. The disability narratives in mermaid folklore are not very hard to dig for, although many people still remain unaware of them, and it would be fascinating to see people take them on directly. Mermaids have the potential to challenge dominant narratives about what it means to be ‘normal’ and how people make decisions about their bodies and lives. Far from being an epic romance, this is more like an epic social commentary, for those willing to go there.
For those who insist, it can even be tied back to the dystopian trend; I can readily imagine a futuristic world where global warming has caused such shifts in water levels that mermaid adaptations are advantageous, rather than a weakness. A world where an upper class has the money and power to pursue expensive genetic modifications to survive in water, while the lower classes are trapped on shrinking land and forced to scrabble for survival. In this paradigm, the assumptions about the bodies of mermaids are utterly flipped and turned on their heads, forcing readers to understand that disability can be contextual, not just absolute, and that access to resources can play a big role in how people survive, or don’t, in a hostile environment.
I want to get excited about mermaids, thinking about all of the interesting things that could be done with their characterisation in fiction. I suspect I’m probably in for a disappointment, but I’m still ready to be surprised.