‘They want to dream for a while’: the deep attraction of mermaids | Phase

Oon a sunny Thursday in June, Tinside Lido in Plymouth was overrun with mermaids. It was a sea of ​​metallic sheen, cotton candy colors, seashell bikinis and long scaly tails. With a count of 378, this was the largest gathering of merpeople ever, according to the Guinness Book of Records. “It was fantastic”, says organizer Pauline Barker. “What a happy, colorful day. People went to town with the glitter and glitter and it was really happy.”

Barker is a devoted wild swimmer, who has her own mermaid tail. “I live in the world of outdoor swimming, and when we imagine we’re mermaids, or dolphins, or sea sirens, we just bring that fantasy world to life for a few hours,” she says.

“Mermaid” has gone mainstream, with an industry of monofins, tails and accessories, mermaid swim schools, merfolk communities and professional mermaids making appearances at events and aquariums. YouTube is full of mermaid makeup tutorials showing how to stretch fishnet tights over your face to stencil the effect of scales. But mermaids don’t so much have a moment, they are always bobbing in and out of cultural life. Stories of mythical sea-dwelling women appear in folklore around the world, stretching back thousands of years, from the Syrian fertility goddess Atargatis to the Japanese ningyo, the fleeting ghost of Mami Wata in West Africa, Irish merrows or the Thai mermaid princess Suvannamaccha . Some are benevolent, others rage like stormy seas; some protect sailors, others bring down their ships.

In more current iterations, Disney recently released the trailer for their new live action Little Mermaid movie, due out next year, and there’s a remake of the Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah movie Splash in the works, with Channing Tatum as one of them. sex-swapped merman. Meanwhile, Northern Ballet is currently touring David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid, a family ballet based on the most enduring mermaid in cultural life, Hans Christian Andersen’s water princess, intoxicated by the human world.

Gone mainstream… mermaids gather at Tinside Lido in Plymouth, Devon, to break the world record for the largest mermaid gathering. Photo: (pending credit)

Andersen’s story may have been overshadowed by the Disneyfied version, but as is often the case, the original—which Nixon followed for his ballet—is a bit more somber. A mermaid who gives up everything: family, house, her tail and her greatest asset, her voice, for a crush on a man who ultimately doesn’t love her.

In Nixon’s ballet, the sea lord takes the mermaid’s voice in exchange for a potion that will give her human legs, and tells her that she will only survive if the prince marries her. “I think people were a little shocked when they first saw the solo I did where she loses her tail because it’s sore, the cramps and the spasms,” Nixon says. “I imagine it as sharp stabbing pains and pins and needles,” says Abigail Prudames, the dancer who created the role.

Without her voice, the mermaid cannot explain who she is, and she must watch him marry another woman, knowing she will die without his love. She’s offered one last deal, kill the prince and become a mermaid again, but she can’t. “It’s about love in its purest sense,” Nixon says. “When you really love someone, there’s a selflessness, it’s about them, not you. You sacrifice yourself.”

It’s a real loss of innocence story. “She knows that the prince has his eternal happiness and she can’t go back, she has to deal with it,” says Prudames. “People make so many mistakes when they are young, but whatever choice you make, you have to understand that you made it for a reason. At that point it was good for you.”

Before all this sounds too heavy, Prudames adds, “There’s so much in this ballet for kids!” Not least fantastic costumes and graceful, rippling undersea creatures, but like most fairy tales, you’ll read whatever you want to see.

'It's really tragic'... The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker.
‘It’s really tragic’… The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker. Photo: David Hare/Alamy

It’s easy to see Andersen’s story as a decidedly unfeminist one. “It’s really tragic, heartbreaking,” artist Cornelia Parker says of the voiceless young woman. When Parker chose to create her own mermaid statue, for the Folkestone Triennial in 2011, she was equally inspired by the HG Wells story The Sea Lady, “which was about a mermaid who was a siren, the opposite of the passive figure of the Little Mermaid”. Copenhagen’s famous statue, Parker’s bronze, stands on the rocks overlooking Sunny Sands beach, but it monumentalizes a real, living woman, Georgina Baker, a local mother of two. As with all good public art, the Folkestone Mermaid means many things to many people. She is dressed in Halloween costumes and bunny ears, children sit on her lap, people leave their clothes with her when they go swimming: she is a landmark, meeting point and a proud local symbol.

As the statue gazes at the horizon, Parker says the Folkestone Mermaid is also “almost a clock for rising sea levels.” “At high tide she is more or less in the waves; she can be wiped out at some point. I always thought she was a bit like Canute, holding back the waves.” There is often an eco-friendly corner among mermaid lovers. Many involved in the mermaid community come from a marine conservation point of view, including the fundraiser at the annual March of the Mermaids in Brighton.

The Brighton event founder took inspiration from the long-running Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a celebration of creativity and dressing up that also inspired Jessica Love’s award-winning children’s book Julián Is a Mermaid. It’s a beautifully illustrated story of a boy who sees mermaids on the subway, on his way to the parade, and dresses up like her at home. You’re not sure if his grandmother will approve, but in the end she takes him to the parade – it’s a beautiful story of self-expression and acceptance.

Sea Person bust made by Eve Shepherd for the National Maritime Museum.
‘Friends with every living thing’… Bust of Sea Person made by Eve Shepherd for the National Maritime Museum. Photo: Eve Shepherd

In recent years, the mermaid has also become a symbol for the trans community. It resonates for several reasons, like a transforming being moving between worlds. Sculptor Eve Shepherd created a bust called Person of the Sea for the National Maritime Museum, working with young people who were trans or gender diverse. She drew on the young people’s ideas of what they wanted the creature to be, something that “was very kind and belonged to all places, the sea, the sky and the land, and it was friends with all living things.” Her creation is more than a mermaid, she has both wings and scales. They also wanted the creature to have a timeless, primordial quality, like the earliest organisms that moved from sea to land, because “although the trans and non-binary community may not have been recognized by the west until now, they have always been here. been.”

Shepherd’s own take on the Little Mermaid story is colored by the knowledge that Hans Christian Andersen was gay (some debate that label, but he certainly fell in love with both men and women, mostly unanswered). “The desire to be in love with this person from another world — there’s a sadness when you know the underlying story,” Shepherd says. “I can understand why the mermaid metaphor has been used by the gay community and transitioned into the trans and non-binary community.”

The mermaid belongs to everyone, her attraction is increasing. When costume designer Magdalena Jovanovic started her company Planet Mermaid selling mermaid tails in 2009, it quickly grew and grew. “It was like: Oh! I’m up to something,” she says. She started making tails for kids (both merboys and girls) and then found that adults were asking for them too. “When we talk to the customers, parents want their children to dream, they want the fairytale to last longer for them,” says Jovanovic. “And for the adults it’s similar. They want to dream a little longer.”

Some people go further with their creativity. “People are vampire mermaids or zombie mermaids right now,” she says. “I’ve always loved the beauty of costumes and how it can change you from one person to another. With just the right cut of fabric, the right shape, you can create character.” She likens the experience of swimming in a mermaid tail to turning into a butterfly. “That’s the only way I can describe it. You change immediately.”

For a final word on what’s great about mermaids, I consulted an expert, my five-year-old niece Lana. “They can talk underwater and sharks don’t eat them,” she reasons. “And I love the glitter on the tail.”

“All ocean animals are their friends,” her older sister Sophie says, before adding, “And it’s just cool to be half a fish.”

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