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?