Navel-Gazing: Why Are Mermaids Sexy?


Renae really wants to deconstruct the assumption that mermaids are sexy. Amy thinks Ariel is pretty.  Chaos and self-discovery ensue.

Renae: So, Courtney Stodden dressed up as a scaly fish hybrid, writhed awkwardly on rocks, and told the world she was “so wet” to shill credit reports. How does this make you feel?

Amy: Confused mostly. What does Courtney have to do with credit reports? What do mermaids or fishing have to do with credit reports? Why would Courtney, as a mermaid, exclaim that she is wet? That’s sort of a basic function of being a mermaid.


Renae: good and important questions, all of them. But, if I may take a step back for a moment to look at the bigger, more disturbing picture, why do we as a culture equate mermaids with sexiness? I mean, those two guys in the commercial are pretty thrilled with their half-fish, half-woman catch of the day—never once do they stop to think, “Hmm, her dual-species composition is a little unsettling.” It’s a trope as old as time: women with fish tails are sexier than those with legs—it’s some sort of weird upgrade. What’s going on there?

Amy: You’re right. I’ve really taken for granted that mermaids are sexy. It was just something I GREw up knowing. I think because I watched The Little Mermaid every day.

Renae: And what exactly was it about Ariel that made you believe mermaids were sexy? Was it her blatant disregard for shirts?

Amy: This is blowing my mind because Ariel just oozed sexy to me. But was she sexy because she was a mermaid? I don’t know. You’re forcing me to dig deep here. I do remember thinking that she was much more appealing before she traded her voice for a chance to walk on land. Ipso facto: women with tails are hotter than women with legs. Or rather women who can sing are hotter than women who silently brush their hair with a fork at the dinner table.

Renae: I feel like we’re getting into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory because it doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility that Zooey Deschanel’s character in New Girl might someday soon brush her hair with a fork at the dinner table. Which would turn the “mermaids are sexier than humans” thing on its head because as far as I know, Zooey Deschanel is a human and people find her wildly appealing precisely because she might try to brush her hair with a fork. So, to bring it back to matters at hand, I guess the question is this: if Zooey Deschanel’s character in New Girl had a fish tail instead of legs, would that make her sexier?

Amy: Well Zooey does have mermaid hair, so I’m leaning toward yes—the tail would just bring the point home. Mermaids are famous for their GREat hair, which is why Katy Perry recently posed as a mermaid. The ad basically said, “Use our product to get mermaid hair.” Women secretly want to be mermaids. Because mermaids are sexy and have GREat hair.

Renae: BUT, AMY! Why are they sexy?! Why does Zooey Deschanel’s imaginary fish tail (and Katy Perry’s fake-real one) make her sexier? Is it because with a fish tail she has limited mobility on land? Do men like that?

Amy: You’re really stuck on the fish tail. Perhaps you’re onto something with this lack-of-mobility theory. It’s a form of incompetence, which men in movies seem to love. Case in point: Splash. Tom Hanks falls in love with mermaid Daryl Hannah because she’s hot and weird. She doesn’t know that she shouldn’t be naked in front of the Statue of Liberty, she has awful table manners when she eats shellfish in a restaurant, and she basically just wants to make out all the time. Renae! All this time we’ve been talking about MPDGs when we should be diving into the realm of MPDMs!

Renae: Manic Pixie Dream Mermaids! Of course! That’s exactly what Daryl Hannah was in that movie. She cried during Bonanza and kissed a cardboard box in the span of two minutes—she was a hot mess. But Tom Hanks wasn’t enticed by her lack of mobility or her mermaidy disdain for shirts because he didn’t even know about her aquatic secret until the end of the movie. And yes, I am stuck on the fish tail, because we are talking about mermaids. Let’s shift gears. Does this enigmatic sexiness apply to mermen?

Amy: No. Because I’m convinced the sexiness comes mostly from mermaid hair. A mermaid without long, lustrous locks is like a fish out of water.

Renae: Right, but do you think a long-haired, human-torsoed female is sexier with a fish tail or with legs? Like if I sprouted a fish tail right now at my desk, would you think, “Va-va-voom!”

Amy: I think I might. I think I would be jealous. Although, I’m not an accurate representation of how most people feel because have I mentioned enough that I was OBSESSED with Ariel growing up? I really wanted to be a mermaid. I still kind of do.

Renae: You could get a costume like Cher’s in Mermaids and take up standing in bathtubs.

Amy: Ah yes! Man, I love this movie. Let’s talk about it. So Cher isn’t really a mermaid but she’s supposed to be sexy and free-thinking and alternative like a mermaid, so she dresses like one for the New Year’s Eve party. It’s a metaphor! This discussion is so illuminating for me!

Renae: So mermaids represent freedom and a proGREssive lifestyle. But the movie is called Mermaids, plural, which implies that Winona Ryder—who plays a wannabe nun—is a metaphorical mermaid as well. And so is the little sister who puts a pumpkin on her head.

Amy: Right. Maybe the plural title represents the transformations these character experience, and mermaids are traditionally transformative figures, according to … well this is something that sounds good. Winona and Cher each undergo their own transformations—Cher learns to stay in one place, Winona learns that she is not the next Virgin Mary, mostly because she has sex in the convent’s bell tower. By the end of the movie, Winona has taken charge of her sexuality. She’s a little more like her mother in this way. So they’re both sexy metaphorical mermaids. The little sister just likes to swim and wonders what it would be like to live under the ocean.

Renae: Like you! Still, mermaids are anatomically incapable of having intercourse with humans. So the fact that we (humans) embrace them as sex symbols—or symbols of sexual empowerment or whatever is happening here—is maybe ironic? Mermaids: the hipsters of the sea?!


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