When I was little, I loved mermaids. I loved the illustrations in my book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. I drew pictures of mermaids over and over, draping them in strings of pearls.

Now that I’m addicted to tumblr, I’ve discovered that mermaids are more popular than almost any other image. A mermaid also encompasses two hugely popular tumblr subjects: Tits, and women submerged in water. While tits need no explanation, the drowning women are disturbing.   Paintings of Ophelia tend to be lovely and melancholy, but depictions of modern women floating under water or laying dead in bathtubs are reminders that people like to see women in  jeopardy (if not actually dead.)

Mermaids are always beautiful and young, so that aspect of their attraction is obvious. In mythology and folklore, Mermaids are sirens who lure sailors to their death.   Do men find this danger seductive?

More important, mermaids have no genitals. Do men love them because of this or in spite of it? Does it relieve them of performance anxiety? I’m convinced that the anatomy issue is key somehow.

For me as a child, The Little Mermaid was a beautiful fantasy of a daughter who was loved by her family and showered with jewels.   I didn’t really understand why she would leave her home. I wanted a home filled with love and warmth. I didn’t feel good about her deal with the sea witch. The prince seemed kind of dimwitted not to recognize her or to intuit her love for him.

Later on, I remember reading The Little Mermaid to little Max, at bedtime. The book I read to him was an old unabridged translation of the original Hans Christian Anderson stories. It probably took several nights to get to the end, and I was so engrossed in the story that I forgot what was coming. I choked up with tears and tried to think of a way to spare Max the tragic last paragraph: The Little Mermaid threw herself overboard and turned into seafoam, comforted by some angelic sprites who asked her to join them. I think I made something up but I can’t ask Max.

Why do we love a story where the heroine sacrifices everything for love, even suffering constant  excruciating  pain, and ends up getting nothing but death? Until Disney changed the ending and turned a classic tragedy into a sappy feel-good product to sell other products, it was, for me, an inexplicably melancholy story.   It punishes a girl who seeks adventure and romance, so what else makes it such an enduring favorite?

Theories, memories, insults, anyone?

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33 Responses to Mermaids

  1. TheShoeGirl says:

    I used to dream of being a mermaid but then I realized that they can’t wear heels…


  2. Sister Wolf says:

    ShoeGirl – Hahahahhaha, thank goodness you wised up.

  3. yesilikethat says:

    The Hans Christian Andersen version is SO sad. I’ve always thought the fascination with mermaids has something to do with their sexlessness. Interesting point about the sirens and the fact that mermaids are always young and beautiful but also anatomically incomplete. Surely someone has written a PHD thesis on this?

  4. skye says:

    I didn’t grow up with that mermaid story at all, the only mermaid-ish story I ever heard was of the Sirens in The Odyssey – with their fiendish and dangerous sexualilty, which fitted right in with the pussy power femme fatale version of reality that my crazy mother was teaching me. The one that always made me feel sad was the selkie story, where the seal woman has to give up this vital side of herself (the seal, free to swim the ocean with the other seals) in order to have love and children, and in the end escapes back to the sea. The only answer is to marry a merman (like in Zoolander) and have merbabies.

  5. Sheri says:

    It’s a very beautifully written story, and my first reaction as I started to read was why isn’t there more writing like this for children? But it really kicks my feminist side into high gear.

    “Unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well.” But only then?

    “She received permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion.” Like a dog?

    “I will give up my life for his sake.” Ugh.

  6. Sam says:

    I have memories of, as a child pretending and wanting soooo bad to be a mermaid, whilst mucking about in our backyard swimming pool – I remember I felt it even more so whilst at the beach! I have no idea why I felt this way and as much as I try to analyse it, I still cannot think as to why myself & so many girls are fascinated by mermaids. I recently went swimming with my two nieces, who are also fascinated by mermaids, and took my mind back to a time when being a mermaid would have been the bestest thing ever! In a way I even felt it again then.

    I really would like to know why.

    The shoe thing never occurred to me – maybe thats when it changed….when I discovered shooooooooooooooes!

  7. Cricket9 says:

    Hans C. Andersen had a sadistic streak IMO – how about that matchsticks girl, dying lonely on the street? He liked to make children cry…
    I have a an artist friend who’s fascinated with mermaids – will ask him why.
    As a kid I loved the idea of being able to live under water, but not the excruciating pain for a stupid prince!

  8. annemarie says:

    I almost got whiplash so vehemently did I nod my head at every sentence in this post. I too was deeply affected by the story’s ending. I always thought I would have done what the Little Mermaid did (sacrificed myself for Love) and indeed did so when I grew up (not literally…but almost).

    Although the story has the same arc as Daisy Miller and Anna Karenina, all women who were punished for wanting to live with greater passion, I think the Little Mermaid fulfills the very female desire for self-immolation through passion. Something very holy and pure about that, I think.

    Also, in psychoanalysis, mermaids are sexless because men don’t like to be reminded of the vagitus from whence they came. It disgusts them because they hate their mommies etc etc. But I think the sexless heroine has a function for women too. We can’t be penetrated, so it ensures our safety, and we can’t be impregnated, so remain ourselves, not split into two.

    Women tend to love this story more than men, but it’s always been subjected to sexist readings- very wrong, I think.

  9. Cat says:

    @Cricket9 H.C. Andersen didn’t like to make children cry, in fact it was quite the opposite. But seeing how he himself had a very tragic life, as well as beeing horribly poor at one point, I think “some” (aka most) of this translated into his fairytales.
    H.C. Andersen actually made a lot of heart warming and nice stories, though, so if you have read all of his stories (which I doubt, I don’t think you would be saying that, if you had read most of them) I think you would see otherwise. 🙂

  10. Lara says:

    a little off topic but did you know that little children with gender identity issues adore mermaids? They all seem to be drawn to them because they lack genitalia!

  11. Cat says:

    I had pinkish red pijama pants that I would wear on my head and pretend it was my mermaid hair. I must have been 5 or 6. My hair was curly and short and often made fun of by mean little girls at school. I dreamed of having long shiny mermaid hair.

  12. Cat says:

    @ShoeGirl: I never saw it that way before…. yay for feet!

  13. mudwerks says:

    I think the danger = seductive angle is relevant…mysterious and uncertain – the unknown – plus there’s breasts…

    And perhaps the built-in birth control is a draw. With no genitalia there’s no chance of errant guppies becoming burdensome, spoiling the mood.

    Men like fishing (apparently) and fishing is catching and controlling. So putting a woman’s upper half on there could also be construed as weird man stuff, creating even more interesting lifetime-movie-type-evil-man scenarios…

  14. Cricket9 says:

    My hometown city Warsaw’s coat of arms is a mermaid – but she’s armed and fierce:,27.16,70.0

  15. I loved that story but I think I learned that always have a plan b or c for your hopes and never do deals with toothless hags! I have to agree that old Hans was deffo up for scaring kids.

  16. Dru says:

    Cricket9 is right, Andersen’s tales were often sad, but the little match girl was the one that REALLY made me cry.
    Mainly because it’s heartbreaking (for me as a child, and even now) to read of a child so desperately poor that she has to stand out in the street in the cold selling matches that she isn’t even allowed to light to keep herself warm.

  17. Dru says:

    Come to think of it, most fairy tales we know of were a bit cruel – the original ending of Cinderella involved some gruesome punishment for the stepsisters, and I think it was Snow White that had the evil stepmother being forced to wear and dance in shoes made of hot iron until she fell down dead?

    Oh, and let’s not forget the father who wanted to marry his daughter in that story about the princess who tried to put him off by asking for impossible things by way of dresses.

  18. Suspended says:

    It’s the beauty, the seduction, the danger and the smell of fresh fish…haha

    For me, this sums up the desire for mermaids –

    Words by Ursula Rucker

    I’ve watched you for so long
    I must have you
    Sirens have nothing on my song
    My song is ageless and perfect
    Angels envy my song
    You must be strong
    To resist this
    I’ve seduced men you thought were myth
    Gods have murdered mortals over me
    They died with my name on their lips
    My taste on their tongues
    My love is the only one
    You need

    Come rest your earthly burdens on my breasts
    You’ll find them firm like virgin
    Irresistible, like Goddess
    My breasts are filled with Neptune’s nectar
    One sip and you’ll be mine

    Now sink into my sea soft skin where your fantasy begins
    Don’t fight, you’ll never win
    I know my hair is mesmerizing
    It reflects the colours of sun’s rising
    And set
    You’ll never forget my wet
    Come under, my kiss will keep you safe
    What seem to you like minutes in my world are endless days
    Ride my waves of pleasure
    Forever … and ever … and ever … and ever

    Your human hands like magic to my coral strands
    As our bodies melt into the sands of the ocean floor
    I’m deep in your love … into your love … into your love
    But wait,
    My seduction, has now become a dangerous attraction
    I can’t breathe
    I … I can’t breathe
    I’m drowning in your love … drowning … drowning
    Drowning in your love … drowning … drowning
    I’m drowning in your love

    Save me
    I can’t breathe
    I … I can’t breathe

    I got to save myself
    I’m losing myself in your … love
    I’m pleading with the gods to save me
    I’ve pleasured all of you so many times
    One of you please save me!
    I am … drowning

    Who? … who?
    Who are you?
    And … and why are you saving me?

    He said:
    I’ve loved you from afar with a child’s heart and a man’s longing
    I know you better than you know yourself
    Better than any man, myth … or immortal
    I’ve watched you seduce for centuries in the search for a creature who could please
    Fire your desires
    He could have never made you happy
    You would have died in his world
    Too cool … too cold

    I’ve waited for this moment to swim off into the current
    With you

    Don’t be afraid
    Your search is over, that’s all you need to know
    Swim with me
    Up into the current
    Swim with me
    Love with me
    Don’t be afraid

    Swim with me
    … swim with me
    Love with me
    … love with me
    Off into the current
    … off in to the current

    Oh, and The Little Matchstick Girl is about the saddest story I’ve ever read. My wife and I reference it regularly.

  19. Hammie says:

    I believe that my daughter is a mermaid. She is certainly a Siren who is happier in water. xx

  20. Juri says:

    I wish mermaids had genitals! A fish with tits is a sad reminder of the limits of my all-embracing love.

  21. kt says:

    I watched the Disney version of The Little Mermaid when it was released in theaters; I was six years old. I remember crying at the end when she left her father and life to be with the prince and to be human. I felt the exact same sentiment that you’ve expressed here. I didn’t understand why she’d go through all that strife for some a-hole and leave her loving and adoring family. Now, here I am at 28, wondering why I go through all the strife I do for some a-hole.

  22. Cricket9 says:

    @Cat – I did read most of Andersen’s stories as a child, and I was sobbing my little heart out for the match girl. Yes, he wrote “nice” stories too, but I’m sticking to my opinion…
    More to the point, in his journal Andersen wrote about his refusal to have sexual relations; he was also falling in love with unattainable women and men. Maybe he identified with the little mermaid? As good subject for that PhD thesis as any.

  23. Dru says:

    Reading it again, there’s one thing that struck me as funny – so many of the protagonists of fairy tales don’t have names.

    I mean, some do – Hansel and Gretl, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood (though two of those are nicknames) but it’s still odd and sad that the little mermaid didn’t even have a name of her own.

  24. Andra says:

    Oh Juri, I’m so sorry.
    Still, think of the poor mermaids. No genitals at all. It’s tits or nothing.
    You’ll just have to do the best with what you’ve got.

  25. Alias Clio says:

    My memory of The Little Mermaid, which may be wrong because it’s so long since I looked at the story, is that those readers who interpret it primarily as a story about giving up everything for love – the sexual kind – are misreading it.

    The Mermaid may have lost her prince, but her bargain was that she gained a soul when she gave up her voice and her underwater life to be permitted to marry him. That was the point. In fact, by the story’s lights, romantic “love” wasn’t worth much, but gaining a soul was.

  26. Sister Wolf says:

    Alias Clio – It’s great to hear from you! I’m aware of the soul part of the bargain. But what good is having a soul if you have to be dead to get one?

  27. Alias Clio says:

    But did she actually die at the end? (I told you I didn’t remember the story very well!) Or was it just that, having given up her ability to speak in order to gain a soul so that she could marry the prince, the prince abandoned her anyway? I thought that was the tragedy/triumph of that story, but I could be wrong.

    I must admit that when I was a child I did not like having Hans Christian Andersen’s stories read aloud to me. Their sadness used to hang over me for days like a pea-soup fog. Oscar Wilde’s stories too.

  28. Andra says:

    I thought all so called fairy stories were damned scary.
    The only stuff I liked was Winne the Pooh – and, I’m delighted to say I still do.
    I also love Paddington bear but he came later, when my own son was little.
    All the Brothers Grimm and the rest scared the crap out of me.
    I love Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories but I read them for the first time when I was adult.
    I dunno know about them for children. I’ll have to read them again and find out.

  29. Dru says:

    ^ oh, Paddington. I loved him so much because he was small and brown and foreign like me, and we both liked orange marmalade (though I’m not a bear).

    Also by the time I was eight, I liked Roald Dahl best. There’s a gleeful sense of nasty running through a lot of his stories, and something about that really got me – I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of nasty aunts flattened by a giant peach? Or horrible principals scared out of their wits?

  30. tartandtreacly says:

    Those who are into Japanese animation might want to check out The Mermaid Saga, a rather dark and occasionally gruesome series about people who ate mermaid flesh in the hopes of living forever. It gave me the creeps when I watched it as a kid.

    I recall the mermaids in the series were portrayed as rather nasty, spiteful beings, and Bad Things inevitably happened to those who looked to them for a meal.

  31. kate says:

    are you kidding? i hate this story.

  32. A Girl in Canada says:

    For me The Little Mermaid is the story of a girl who takes a chance on love and finds a new kind of happiness and independence. While the prince has to always be reminded of what could have been and endure a lifetime of sorrow. But I read a translated version from czech so it might have a slightly different ending. Namely the prince sees the mermaid only when it is too late to recipricate her love.

  33. Ms Q says:

    I wonder if Ariel ever got her period….. 😉

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