The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Across decades and genres, mermaids and sirens rise from the deep to confront audiences with the already unstable human identity.
In 2009, Nadya Vessey, an Australian double amputee, bewitched the world with her personal transformation—with the help of special effects company Weta Workshop, she acquired a prosthetic mermaid tail. As glamorized as it was by news stories, Vessay’s adult mermaid embodiment serves as an example of how the female—and disabled—body queers one of the longest-standing fetishes of the male gaze. It is precisely the hybrid nature of the marine feminine which attracts and repulses, its fluidity intimately tied to female maturation, in the process of which the flesh and bone remain both human and foreign at the same time.
There’s no linear thread of the films that feature mermaids, just as there isn’t a homogeneous version of the legends themselves. By placing emphasis on particularity and locality, I’ll arrange an overview that mimics the way a mermaid’s body has been portrayed—and no less fetishized—by the films it inhabits. Such a dissection signals both the fragmentation and the scrutiny female bodies have been subjected to for centuries. Starting from the mermaid’s caudal area (since the fish tail is what magnetically beckons the gaze), I’ll move my look upwards, splitting into two to then hover around the fully human half (the chest). Oftentimes, the meeting point of tail and torso conceals the (female) sex as a gravitational center for many a sea creature’s demise. Finally, this vivisection will end at the face, aurally adorned by the voice, and in repeating this classical and also cinematic mimic of an upward pan, there’s a promise of a reparative gesture that is, in its essence, a political one.
It’s fairly uncommon for films to have the mermaid’s tail—her most voluptuous and yet daunting part—on display, as something integral to her body. Ken Annakin’s Miranda (1948) does not allow its mermaid protagonist to adapt fully to the human world, she thirsts for saltwater and craves raw fish, but it is proper decorum for her fish tail to be disguised, wrapped in unreasonably long dresses. Miranda (bubbly Glynis Johns) giggles at the prospect of seducing men, either married or engaged to be so, and her endearing performance—she never merely passes for human—wins the hearts of both men and women alike. Before the Disneyfication of Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale had the mermaid excite female rivalry as an indispensable trope, Miranda offered a cheerful comedy of misinterpretations in which bodily shame only went as far as concealing, instead of transforming the tail into legs. Importantly, the film also gestures towards a much less explored aspect of the mermaid myth, that of disability, with everyone willing to lend a helping hand and carry her around the house and town. Miranda trades a realistic self-image as a mermaid for immobility on land.
Some mobility is granted to Shan (Yun Lin) in Stephen Chow’s multi-color fantasy tale The Mermaid (2016). The film’s extensive CGI team crafted a glittery, sleek tail to keep Shan perked up in her attempts to seduce and assassinate a millionaire who puts the whole mermaid race at risk. As a romantic comedy, put together with gusto which wanes by its end, The Mermaid attracted huge audiences and was crowned one of the most high-grossing films in China. The free interpretation of the mermaid body here includes overt sexualization, and borderline absurd costume choices, such as a leg-shaped cast to cover the tail, and the idea of each of the two fins wearing socks and sneakers.
For those who can have both legs and a tail, a bewildering transformation awaits. These types of stories concern young girls who are surprised to find out that they already belong to the mermaid kind. Their passage to womanhood is usually unpleasant and associated with aches and abjectification of one’s body (the feeling that the body is somehow alien). In popular culture and TV the examples include the Australian teen series H2O: Just Add Water (2006-2010) and its spin-off Mako Mermaids (2013), as well as Kevan Peterson’s Scales: Mermaids Are Real (2017) and Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum’s ode to female friendship, Aquamarine (2006). All examples are PG friendly, young-adult oriented, and are made as if to accompany young girls (and boys in the case of Mako Mermaids) in whatever psycho-sexual and social transformations teenhood will offer them.
The European arthouse version of this theme focuses more on this agonizing anxiety and even borrows explicit imagery from the New Extremism aesthetic to paint a mermaid portrait with body fluids, instead of wiping the picture clean. Blue My Mind (2017) may be Swiss director Lisa Brühlmann’s debut feature, but it put her on the world talent map. The film made festival rounds from San Sebastian to Locarno, praised for its audacious allegorism which conflates girlhood with bruises, shedding skin, and syndactyly. Furthermore, Blue My Mind is more preoccupied with the process of transformation, instead of a mermaid backstory or a love-promise, and in turn the film offers a definitive antidote to all sterile depictions of “every girl’s dream,” i.e. being a mermaid. Brühlmann articulates the pain of change as a necessary price women pay in order to keep up with a (deeply flawed) world and social order. In Blue My Mind, there is no room for reversibility, nor a mobile way to slide out of your tail into the comfort of two legs. When the mermaid becomes a metaphor for humankind’s fluid adaptability, being a fish among fishes and a human amongst humans, some form of discretion is required on her behalf.
Another female filmmaker made her festival debut with a bold treatment of the mermaid myth. Agnieszka Smoczyńska debuted at Sundance 2016 with her horror-musical The Lure which later received a Criterion release. In The Lure, two mermaid sisters swim out on the river bank in Warsaw to “live a little” right after the end of Poland’s martial law during the communist 1980s. The film’s genre hybridity stands for the constant tension between East and West within European political history, and the monstrous iterations of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” here come fully fleshed as heavy costume-tails which both actresses had to wear at all times. Resembling dragons more than fish, the mermaids of The Lure are also cannibalistic and blood-thirsty. Most curiously, the transformation pictured in the film is one from mermaid to human, framed as a surgical transplantation from a bird’s eye view of two hospital beds. The Lure marks a prominent moment when post-financial crisis Europe looks back at its own communist trauma by the means of fantasy and mythology. The pain of having to choose legs over tail and putting an end to reversibility echoes the traumatic rift in Europe since the migrant crisis of 2010s disrupted all (if any existed) ideals of a unified European entity.
Anna Melikyan’s sophomore feature Rusalka (2007) follows a girl who is convinced she’s a mermaid as she moves from a coastal town to Moscow, where she confronts the dangers of big city life, anonymity, cruelty, and loneliness exacerbated by capitalism. Alisa (Mariya Shalayeva) is never seen transformed, nor is there any actual evidence of her mermaid origins. The film explores the occasional audacity that accompanies coming of age but contextualizes it in the polarized dichotomy of Russian society. Far more stylized and playful, Uldus Bakhtiozina’s debut Tsarevna Scaling (2020), shown at this year’s Berlinale, imagined a space outside of the harsh Russian reality, to push the idea of physically performing femininity to extremes.
Playing on the theme of repressed sexuality, Matt Cimber’s horror flick The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976) does not feature a mermaid as a character but the mermaid-shaped tattoo on the protagonist’s abdomen signifies her deadly desires. Other instances of externalizing female sexuality as noxious in horror films, have been read through the "monstrous feminine," a term coined by film theorist Barbara Creed. Stemming from a collective (male and misogynistic) unconscious, the same intuitions which relate female libido with fear of castration have therefore confined its expressions to a practice in need of regulation.
Unsurprisingly, the mermaid as a figure has been a depository not only of female desires but also the carnal yearnings of men. When Winslow (Robert Pattinson) makes love to a wailing mermaid on the rocky shore in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019), her tantalizing appeal is confined to a body that’s pronouncedly inhuman—a metonymy for his deteriorating mind losing its libidinal grip. A similar Freudian likeness between sex drive and death drive can be traced in the group of films which feature a killer mermaid, usually in the aftermath of an unrequited love. Rusalka (1996) is a short animation film by Alexandr Petrov which recounts a simple story of mermaid revenge, and a local Polish variation of the myth is later explored by Julia Bui Ngoc and Mai Bui Ngoc in their short The Nixie (2018), based on Adam Mickiewicz poem commemorating a water nymph.
The mermaid or nymph, as a symbol of European Romanticism, uses her mythical origins to lure men into a timeless existence with a promise of bliss in the face of Industrialization and Late Capitalism alike. However, as rational man has learned to doubt all such promises in a secular world, the danger of intermingling with the past in such a mystical way has to be accompanied by a death threat. It’s fear that washes over Johnny’s (Dennis Hopper) face halfway through the lavish black and white thriller Night Tide (1961) when he’s warned that the beautiful Mora (Linda Lawson) not only poses as a mermaid as an act for money but is, in fact, one herself
It’s usually horror films that explore this theme, ranging from the English-language Russian slasher Mermaid: Lake of the Dead (2018) to the dark undertones of The Siren (2019), which is one of the few non-heteronormative mermaid films out there. One can also find the brutality of mid-length Japanese cult classic Guinea Pig in its sixth installment, named aptly Mermaid in a Manhole (1988). A possible break in the ableist narrative that permeates mermaid films can be seen in Mermaid Down (2019), and with its exacerbated portrayal of violence against women making its slim runtime hard to endure, it calls attention to the prejudices embedded in mermaid films. The female creature, in this case, is not only mute, but also an exoticized casting choice (in the figure of Russian-born American Alexandra Bokova) who is then subjected to psychiatric evaluations and mutilation. Even if the film borrows prolonged representations of physical brutality to highlight the ethical stakes of othering the mermaid as a nonhuman creature, in the end, it bites off more than it can chew, leaving its corporeal ethics in a twist. Since, the mermaid, aided by an army of women attacks and ultimately, murders the evil psychiatrist, blood retributions can only perpetuate violence, instead of eliminating it.
Mermaids may be seen as metaphors for members of minority groups, disabled people, or an anthropomorphized version of aquatic life, but on screen violence can never be purely allegorical. As for exoticization as a means of othering, the recent NotMyMermaid backlash drew attention to the all-white mermaids. Mermaid Down, on the other hand, poses an ambivalent example of furthering discriminatory practices by relegating the role of a marginalized, fetishized creature to a woman, already a representative of a marginalized and fetishized group.
The relatively small number of merman films (however big of a box office success Aquaman  was) also points to an underlying (gendered) asymmetry. Having to deal with tail growth is a rare occurrence for movie mermen, with the notable exception of Disney’s The Thirteenth Year (1999). Corey (Chez Starbuck) deals with his bodily transformation in a remarkably stoic and confident manner, his scales and fins evidently making him the best swimmer at school. Monstrous appearances that are clearly gendered as male can be seen in Jack Arnold’s Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) which later inspired Guillermo del Toro for his fantasy film The Shape of Water (2017). Whether feared or loved, these monsters are attracted to women, without being a direct result of female libidinal projection the same way mutant-mermaids are of the male gaze. An important, albeit quite cryptic, addition to the merman film corpus is Lucile Hadžihalilović’s festival favorite Evolution (2015). Suggesting a posthumanist transformation beyond human, animal, or hybrid, Evolution delves into the Oedipal relationship between mother and son with an enigmatic easiness. Its stunningly damp visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, confine the film in a world that is both oceanic and claustrophobic at the same time, the young male body as fluid as the ebb and flow of the waves.
Some films consciously trade in their direct appeal to the male fantasy for a more acceptable bodily fetishization. In films like 1984’s Splash, which recently entered the discourse with its recent re-edit using CGI hair to cover Daryl Hannah’s naked backside. That said, Splash’s existence as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for unhappy Allen (Tom Hanks) only paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of what has become an emblematic Disney animation, The Little Mermaid, five years later. In both cases, the mermaids strive to become a woman (and an American one) and are subjected to a pain-free transition from sea to land, with her biggest obstacles being earning human manners and how to express her admiration for the dream-man. Not unlike the forceful kiss scene in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), both Prince Eric and Allen serve as guides to a ruthlessly patriarchal order that is presented as the norm. And both Ariel and Madison, as well as the mute, nameless mermaid from Irving Pichel’s film, are happy to oblige, learn, and cover their breasts in order to perpetuate a male-serving fantasy. Worlds apart from the agony described by Andersen in the original fairytale which accompanies the mermaid at every step in the human world, the sanitized view of womanhood snaps the mermaid myth in two, depriving girls from the notion of pain in their transformation, and the price one pays when abiding to certain heteronormative societal rules.
At last, we’ve reached the level of eye contact, a horizontal meeting of reciprocity, of look meeting look, the place where a mermaid is no different than a woman. The long-awaited climax of this textual “check-out” exercise rounds up the discussion of the body with implications for the personified presence of a mermaid through her voice, agency, and narrative power. In Homer and other Ancient Greek sources, up until early Christian times, the sirens were depicted and thought of as half-woman, half-bird, therefore it’s assumed that the quality of their singing and voice is a result of their aviary origin. In their ancient iconography, sirens were omniscient narrators (via song) and this all-knowing was closely associated with their lethality. Later, in the popular imagination sirens entered the water and became sinuous creatures. With appeal derived from a newly underscored beauty, instead of their wisdom, they called men to a pleasurable, deceitful, and explicitly erotic death. However, in the post-MeToo era films are ready to rewrite the mythological narratives. With its belligerent mythopoetics, Karen Cinorre’s debut Mayday (2020) reduces sirens to voice and empowers its protagonist, Anastasia, played by Grace van Patten, with a singular, fierce voice to confront the methods of revenge-seeking feminism, which she deems counter-productive.
Indeed, the films most concerned with the female voice (and the lack thereof, the most political metaphor from any mermaid story) are ones that investigate the possibility of a female-driven narrative. Such is the case with Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009) which presents the Celtic myth of the selkie, a transformative creature that lives between land and sea. In this case, the agency is split between the titular character (Alicja Bachleda) and the daughter of her chosen lover, Syracuse (Colin Farrell). A typical love story, aided by female agency and the power of narrating one’s own story as a fairytale, Ondine, as a meta-commentary, points to the emancipatory tool of storytelling. More than ten years later, a German namesake of the film premiered at the Berlinale. Christian Petzold’s latest film, Undine (2020), is inspired by a Germanic version of similar sea mythology but relies on the spectator to fill in the gaps, withholding any non-human imagery.
With only a forename to signify the protagonist’s supernatural origins, Undine is also concerned with the ability to break through rigid structures. Petzold was inspired by Ingeborg Bachmann’s story “Undine Leaves,” which problematizes female agency when the sea spirit is subjected to the curse of her origin—having to kill the man you love if he leaves you. Petzold’s film is more about becoming human as a result of a rupture of the heroine’s own patterns of life. In the face of Christoph (Franz Rogowski), Undine (Paula Beer) recognizes real life thrusting into her old nature, as if Christoph has plunged himself into her (him
—being the diver, her—being, essentially, water). Undine has found a way to speak to the political core of mermaid films without even presenting mermaid attributes. With Petzold’s film, the hybrid nature of the human is already evident and, since the film is flushed over by the waves of their melodramatic love story, the message can sink in deep.
When it comes to narrating myths and folklore fables, storytelling is never neutral. Considering the wide reach of marine legends in all of the arts, it’s important to say that the mermaid figure has embraced various modes of transformation while being a metamorphic creature herself. While it has successfully intercepted the collective unconscious to an extent that amalgamated the surface and depth of the mermaid figure. However, it’s the corporeal potential of the mermaid and her enduring presence that entails a rethinking of the normative human body as always unstable.