Will Mermaid Replace Vampire as #1 Ambiguously-Sexual Mystical Beast?


Ugh, vampires have been lurking and staring and silently inhaling ravioli fumes on dates with high school-aged human women for, like, years now. We are all tired of it. It’s about time for a sea change in the Sexy Mystical Young Adult Fiction Love Interest landscape. In this instance, “sea change” literally means “a change into a sea landscape,” because everyone keeps insisting that it’s going to be all about the mermaids, starting, um, soon, we promise.

This idea has been circulating (like a mermaid around the body of a drowning human prince) for years now: USA Today predicted that mermaids would be “the next big thing” in 2011; the Huffington Post claimed that the sea-maidens would be “IN” this January; and, more recently, Vulture and ABC News jumped aboard the bandwagon (bandbarge? I’m running out of ocean metaphors and it is only the second paragraph). Only one question remains, and that question is “Where in Poseidon’s name are the actual tweens clamoring for cool and trendy mermaid media?”

According to a piece in the New Inquiry penned by Carolyn Turgeon — who is the author of a YA mermaid novel titled Mermaid — they’ll be here soon enough. Turgeon argues that mermaids are appealing in a lot of the same way vampires are, only mermaids are less sexually terrifying:

Conflicted, frustrated sexualities are integral to both the vampire and the mermaid. 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… She’s primal and wild, from the deep ocean — she is death and birth and the subconscious and the great mother. And typically she is represented as super hot … 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.

One of the reasons that Twilight was so successful was because it managed to eroticize abstinence; the series’s strange, blatant narrative of “if I bite you, I will lose control of my impulses and kill you” was mirrored by its other strange, blatant narrative (which was “if I penetrate you with my penis, I will lose control of my impulses and kill you”). In the process, the chaste relationship of two hapless teenage-lookin’ people, one of whom is a 100+-year-old virgin, became erotic — and no one had to be anxious about a frank discussion of sexuality. Phew!

Mermaids can do something similar but slightly more transgressive, argues Turgeon:

Mermaids offer an image of female sexuality that is both potent and nonthreatening to men… 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.

The unbounded depths of the ocean represent the infinite depths of female desire! Only, also, since mermaids have fish tails without any genitalia on them, we don’t have to address that desire if it makes us uncomfortable. In short: because of her inability to straddle anything, the female mermaid is able to straddle the virgin/whore dichotomy. It’s safe, but it’s also arguably more sex-friendly.

Turgeon believes that the mermaid’s tail “evokes the freedom of being beyond gender, for a moment, while at the same time tapping into a primal female power so rarely expressed.” To equate “mermaid” with “female liberation” like this is probably going too far — after all, the quintessential pop culture mermaid is The Little Mermaid, who gave up her voice and her entire life to court some dude. Plus, “mermaid‘ is, obviously, a pretty gendered concept. No one really cares about mermen, except for that one guy.

But, hey, maybe one of the countless mermaid titles recently published will do something to change that!

“Mermaids Are Officially Cooler Than Vampires, and That’s Great for Women” [The Atlantic Wire]
Image via Getty.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin