It is hard not to be disconcerted at the discovery of the world of professional mermaids. For me, the very idea that an activity of this kind exists is likely to restore my faith in the human species. Not because mermaids are so beautiful that we absolutely have to celebrate them, but because their existence is a sign that fiction continues to play a powerful role in the lives of some and in spite of all the injunctions for more pragmatism, rationality, and seriousness, which continue to fall upon us like a radioactive waterfall or an RSS feed.
Let’s recall Ursula Le Guin, who wondered in 1974 why Americans were afraid of dragons and more generally of the literary genre of fantasy1, and who noted that it was in fact an anti-fiction stance, most often coupled with sexism. Transposing her question to Suzanne Husky’s film, we could ask ourselves today: “Who is afraid of mermaids?” Yet the answer would be the same.
It is always possible to dismiss mermaiding with the sweep of a hand, this practice that has been developing all over the world (even in France2) and that consists of dressing up as a mermaid either professionally or for recreation, decreeing that you prefer to live in “the real world”3 (in passing: someone must explain to me one day what “the real world” is). But when we see the film and listen to Rachel, a professional mermaid who is the focal point of the film, we see a set of exciting questions develop around the connections between fiction and politics, the exacerbated performances of femininity and what they say about social acceptance of the female body (particularly in terms of the threat that they continue to embody in the male imaginary) and finally, the invention of new modes of collaboration between species (for which Donna Haraway, in particular, provides the theoretical link4).
Interview scenes, in which we see Rachel preparing before a performance (she performs in an aquarium in Sacramento), are shown in parallel editing to excerpts of make-up tutorials for rookie mermaids, news images depicting activist mermaids engaged in the protection of underwater flora and fauna, and iconographic documents – some of which are quite old – developing an image of the mythology of the dangerous and vengeful mermaid combined with a criticism of capitalism. Rachel explains that her partner is a professional pirate and that her private life is possibly the place where the limits between fiction and reality are the most blurred. It is this tenuous limit that the film explores, showing various ways in which a fictional figure can have verifiable effects. Embodying a mermaid – the ultimate dreamlike creature with an impossible body – has helped her to accept her body, Rachel explains. Some sequences that show video bloggers sharing their beauty secrets have the same tendency: striving to get away from a normative view of female beauty in order to accept or even exacerbate this monstrosity that is consubstantial with all bodies. In other sequences, women play the card of sexy exotica-aquatics in a more literal way. But, in the best of cases, it is a matter of returning to sender the image of a constrained body, transforming it into the expression of power through seduction and self-affirmation. On a more collective level, the mermaid represents a new form of alliance between the human and animal kingdoms. It is therefore no accident that certain activists make use of it.
Not so long ago, the web was still considered under the angle of the aquatic metaphor, as a space that we could explore in depth, in which we could surf or undertake acts of piracy. Now, Pirate Bay has closed, we are required to store our data in clouds, and the web now more closely resembles a six-lane network of motorways that is deemed dangerous to circulate within, than it does an infinite ocean of knowledge. By focusing on these creatures, the film thus emphasises the way in which the internet has enabled the development of cultural niches, of which the emergence of the seapunk movement was a striking manifestation5. It would be good to describe at greater length the fantastical bestiary that exists online, with its unicorns, rainbow dolphins, and various red pandas.
The final images are chilling. We see Rachel graciously move about in her aquarium, then the framing shifts and we realise that the aquarium, suspended high up like a giant television screen, is located within a kind of American pub. The woman who described herself moments earlier as a symbol of freedom, is actually in a cage. While mermaids contribute to maintaining the utopia of an oceanic web, reality is definitively a desert in which we’re dying of thirst.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”, in The Language of the Night (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).
- Ursula K. Le Guin, op.cit., 36.
“We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
‘My wife reads novels. I haven’t got the time.’
‘I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don’t now.’
‘Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world.’
Who speaks so? . . . It is, I fear, the man in the street – the hardworking, over-thirty American male – the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profit-mindedness, and even our sexual mores.”
- See Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).