Friday, August 1, 2014

Mermaid visions: the sexual politics of women and water

I have been thinking about a creature this summer: the mermaid. I've been spending a lot of time ruminating about this subject and it seems as if every time I have a handle on the nature of this cultural icon, I am presented with another story to analyze. There are so many sides to the mermaid that it is a slippery creature to study.

I picked up on the subject of the mermaid from Seanan McGuire's short story entitled "Each to Each" in the recently published "Women Destroy Science Fiction" special edition of the journal Lightspeed (Issue 49. June 2014- you should go read it now because it is that good). McGuire's narrative follows a female sailor in the US Navy, genetically and surgically enhanced with gills to explore and patrol America's national boundaries. Her story takes place in a not-too-distant future in which humans have abandoned our hope/dream of mining and colonizing distant planets and turned our attention to exploring and utilizing deep sea resources. Women, she suggests, were found to be better at working in the tight confines of deep sea submersibles (a hat tip to the breakdown of a gender barrier in the Navy: the ban on female sailors serving on submarines was lifted in 2011 in England and 2012 in the US; Female officers currently serve on 14 USNavy submarine crews. The USNavy will begin integrating enlisted women in 2016 with the hope that by 2020, 20% of submarine crews will be female). It was merely a step, the narrator states, to the creation of all-female crews. From there, the idea to keep the crews and ditch the boats lead to modifications and the navy mermaids (or mods) were created. 

McGuire's story is amazing, more so because it packs so many thought provoking elements into only a few pages. The narrator (who is in the process of conversion from dry sailor to mermaid) explains that the modified sailors serve two purposes for the Navy: they function as a tool to explore and patrol- they are sailors who value their duty. However, the Navy has also used them as symbols: both the future of exploration and national expansion and also as sex symbols. The mermaid modifications are made, not only with duty and work in mind, but also public perception: "mods" include not just gills, scales, and specialized eyes, but also breast implants and other cosmetic surgery meant to enhance the gendered profile of the mod (without the permission of the sailor). 

The mods ultimately find this sexualized and demeaning aspect of their job oppressing. In addition, the more modified they become, the less time they can spend on land, creating a desire to transition fully to an aquatic existence. At the end of the piece, the reader is left with a vision of mermaid mods "going native": a splinter group of militant mermaids recruits the Navy sailors to join them in living fully in the sea, away from national and sexualized concerns. 

What McGuire offers is a well-rounded examination of the traditional mermaid myth and its inherent complications. The mermaid is both feminized and bestial; she is both a sexual symbol for male sailors and a princess character for young girls, and also a vision of the evil and bestial nature of women. It is these opposing images that I would like to look at in this blogpost.

While there are mermen, it appears that this image has less weight and gender implications about the public perception of humans and the sea. A quick Google search shows no hits for "Jacques Cousteau merman." Michael Phelps has been photoshopped into a merman by Disney but I can't find any passing references to him swimming like a merman- even the copy for the Disney promotion says he is "part fish" not a merman, per se. 

This is different from the idea of women who explore and swim. They are commonly referred to as 'mermaids': A blog post about Sylvia Earle states, " Dr. Sylvia Earle is a mermaid. She became one when she was pushed down by a wave at the age of three." Female athletes such as Annette Kellerman and Diana Nyad are referred to as mermaids. Little girls want to be like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and books utilizing mermaids as strong figures for girls are still being written (The Mermaid and the Shoe- 2014). 

What this suggests to me is that a man who is aquatic or close to the sea might be associated with fish and maybe they swim "like a fish" but a female who is close to the ocean, who immerses themselves in this environment becomes something other than a human female in our minds: she is a mermaid. This need not have completely negative connotations, but it is something that can be explored because it points to ideas about women in nature and the dual roles of both earth goddess and beast that have plagued this relationship throughout time. 

Behind the shells: the strange case of the mermaid bra

One of the most interesting aspects of McGuire's piece is her focus on the politics of breasts for "mods". McGuire picks up on one of the most important aspects of the mermaid: her chest. 

Historians of science have talked about mermaids as interspecies: organisms or creatures that defy taxonomical categorization. Interspecies fall outside of conventional categories- human or fish- but because of our desire to categorize and order, we continuously seek to find a place for them. The mermaid is a difficult case (as is the merman) because, to put it bluntly, we aren't ever really offered an idea of how they reproduce. King Triton (Neptune, or any other name you want to call the king of the sea) has a billion daughters but we never meet a mother. How the heck does that happen? 

It would be much easier for us to place the mermaid into a category if we knew a bit more about their bits. Do they lay eggs and then fertilize them outside of the body (closer to fish) or do they internally fertilize, and if internal fertilization, are they oviparous (egg layers) or viviparous (live birth)? Without this knowledge, we are forced to look at other telling features of the mermaid to classify her.

The telling characteristic of every mermaid depiction, from the youngest to the oldest, is the shell bra and this might tell us something about where she can be put in taxonomical categories. Breasts are extremely important when we think about what type of animal something is. Mammary glands equal breast milk and mammals. Londa Schiebinger  has shown that the delineation of the category 'mammal' is intrinsically linked with the social and cultural history of the breast. Mammals feed their young with their breasts, so if you have breasts, you are probably a mammal. The breasts are so important because they are, in this case, a marker that tells the viewer that the mermaid is probably a mammal and closer to a human female than a fish. Interestingly, the merman has less of an identification, although they are often depicted as heavily muscled and therefore "masculine". However, muscles are much less a symbol of mammals and humanity than the breast and we are left feeling that mermen may be slightly fishy.  Because of her obvious mammalian possession of breasts, the mermaid is marked fair game for the male gaze: you aren't lusting after a fish, but something almost human. 

The breasts of the mermaid are intricately intertwined with her identity and the categorization of her as an organism close to human females. The sign of a mermaid is the upper body of a human female and sightings and reports of mermaids throughout history have called attention to breasts. The famous Feejee mermaid of 1854 was drawn with noticeable human breasts and Dr. R. Hamilton described a mermaid he had seen as having "protuberant breasts like a human woman"  and had "breasts that were as large as those of a woman."

A drawing of the original Feejee mermaid- note the breast material on the chest area.

McGuire is right to call attention to the role of breasts in allowing the objectification of this mythical creature by human males. It is through the recognition that mermaids are close to humans, marked by their possession of mammalian characteristics, that make it possible to see them as sex symbols.

Beautiful and Bestial

Cultural visions of the mermaid suggest that she is both beautiful and bestial: an organism that is closer to nature and animal than human, but can be made into a proper mate for a human male. The mermaid desires closeness with humanity, especially human males, but is inextricably linked to the sea. However, she is also physically malleable and able to be contained and changed. 

Splash- Daryl Hannah as a mermaid. (1984)

Lady Gaga as a mermaid- You and I (2011) 

Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on the understanding of women as bestial and the cultural and social perception that this closeness to nature means they need to be trained or domesticated. Jean Kilbourne has shown how minority women are often portrayed in the media as exotic beasts of prey closer to nature than civilization. The mermaid also contributes to this concept of women as bestial, but in an interesting way: it allows women to be closer to nature without being overly scary. Many mermaid figures are portrayed as delicate, beautiful, and exotic without the mammalian land characteristics that might make them unattractive to human males. Instead, they have all the characteristics of the creatures men prefer to keep in their aquariums. Captivity suits the mermaid in a way it might not the tigress. 

There is, of course, a scary side to mermaids. They were feared by sailors and other fishing communities. They have, in recent years, been shown as monsters. Joss Whedon used the merman as a particularly unattractive monster in his hit Cabin in the Woods (2012), although we never see the female counterpart we can imagine it is similar but, of course, has breasts almost as large as a human woman's. On the Canadian paranormal drama Lost Girl (Waves 4:10, 2014) mermaids are vicious creatures that bite off peoples' legs and use them to walk on land themselves. Interestingly, the television show Grimm (One Night Stand 3:4, 2013) depicts the entire mermaid culture and also seeks to answer the age old reproduction question by offering a new twist on the old tail/tale: mermen are sterile and mermaids must mate with human men to reproduce. This makes mermen extra vicious but it maintains the image of the traditional mermaid as a supplicant to human males and their virility. 

Joss Whedon's merman from Cabin in the Woods

However, the mermaid does not always stay on land. Even though the male gaze creates this creature, gives her an acceptable mammalian form and also requires her captivity and servitude, she (or the image of the mermaid) escapes this captive existence and stays wild. Daryl Hannah returns to the ocean and takes Tom Hanks with her- the wild female is worth turning wild. Lady Gaga's mermaid appears to have struck out alone instead of cleaving so closely to her capture/doctor/lover. Aquamarine becomes a symbol of freedom and growing up (okay, I won't go too far with the Aquamarine here because Disney hasn't really progressed that far in proving that mermaids can be feminist figures. But they are working on it?). In McGuire's piece the mermaid is literally created and sculpted by doctors (similar to Gaga mermaid) but she is anything but powerless. She is inadvertently given the tools needed to slip out of the net of sexuality and need meant to ensnare her for life. Her link with the ocean overcomes her link with humanity. 

Aquamarine (2008)

The mermaid is a complicated figure: she represents an image of women as bestial creatures that can be manipulated and controlled by men. The very taxonomical features that identify the mermaid are those that mark her as a beautiful possession. However, the creature is also a symbol of freedom and adventure that seems to resonate with young women- the ability to get beyond a simple understanding of oneself as weighed down by the sexual conventions of humanity- to be weightless and free and to swim beyond imposed male conventions of beauty and duty. 

It is this duality that has kept me thinking about this mythical creature all summer. I've been living a life dedicated to unpacking this creature and I'm not closer to doing so. What does one make of a creature that is both terrifyingly subservient to prurient alpha male notions of femininity and also a vehicle for women to enact fantasies of escape and empowerment beyond the masculine gaze? Only for me that it is a subject that requires more exploration because the image of the mermaid continues to be a powerful symbol of femininity in our culture.