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Dangerous Seduction: Why We’re Drawn to Mermaid Tales

That is the Island of the Sirens. Circe warned me to steer clear of it, for the Sirens are beautiful but deadly. –Odysseus

A mermaid found a swimming lad, Picked him for her own, Pressed her body to his body, Laughed; and plunging down forgot in cruel happiness That even lovers drown. --William Butler Yeats, A Man Young and Old, 1926

I had just finished my colleague Peg Brantley’s excellent novel, Trafficked, when a softcore porn site featuring mermaids randomly popped up on my desktop. I don’t follow pornography and find it quite depressing in general so I had no idea that mermaid porn was a thing. Evidently, it’s a big thing. Immediately, I thought of the sirens leading men to watery deaths in Homer’s The Odyssey, of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and of the Disneyfied version featuring teen mermaid Ariel. With these stories in mind, the theme of my 4th thriller, The Mermaid Broker, began to take shape.

Across cultures, we’ve always been attracted to the dangerous woman archetype. The depiction of mermaids is a great example. Beautiful, young, naked-breasted females with lush hair and seductive singing voices, trolling the seas to tempt hapless sailors away from safety--is a powerful trope. Psychologists agree that the deep-seated male fear that a woman is going to abandon them or otherwise destroy them, is universal. The mermaid world of the ocean, symbolic of the feminine, of creation and our amniotic beginnings, is the perfect setting to stoke such terrors.

Some of the earliest reported stories of mythological mer-creatures are found in Babylonian folklore from thousands of years ago. As you’d expect, cultures dependent on rivers, lakes and seas for their livelihood are particularly rife with stories of strong watery women who drown their lovers--sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Many civilizations, however, including the Chinese, Persians and Irish, more often depicted mermaids as good-willed folk who are extremely shy but also as curious about life above the sea as humans are about life below.

Mermaid popularization went mainstream in 1837 with the fairytale The Little Mermaid written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. This story is the anti-feminist version of mermaid tales where the Little Mermaid rescues a handsome prince who stumbles overboard during a party. She returns him to the shore, falls in love with him but she must return to the sea.

Longing for the prince and an eternal soul that only humans can possess, she visits the conniving Sea Witch who sells her a draught giving the mermaid human legs in exchange for her tongue and beautiful voice. The witch warns the Little Mermaid that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea.

Consuming the potion renders the Little Mermaid mute, yet when she recovers, she has fully human legs and is a mesmerizing dancer as well. Unfortunately, the girl will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him. Otherwise, at dawn on the day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die of a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam. That’s pretty much what happens, until she wakes up sometime later on a warm beach as a “Daughter of the Air” who, because of her enduring kindness, is allowed to finally claim a human soul after putting in 300 years of good deeds.

Disney took this fable and spun it into the movie and billion-dollar marketing franchise. Unlike the original, the Disney mermaid, Ariel, doesn’t endure the knife pain curse, magically has her voice restored, and ultimately wins Prince Eric’s love. The pair marry with the mermaid’s sisters and father, King Triton, smiling approval. The bride and groom live happily ever after. In the most recent incarnation, Disney's live action remake of The Little Mermaid will bring Lin-Manuel Miranda together with legendary composer Alan Menken to hop on the Ariel bandwagon once again. Production began in December 2020.

This is a far cry from the ending of the Danish folktale where the Little Mermaid has a brutally grim life, must give up her identity and never has a ‘happily ever after’ let alone a movie deal. Perhaps this is why a new generation of female novelists are placing the mermaid archetype at the center of their fiction. The Surface Breaks, Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of Andersen’s fairytale; The Gloaming, “a queer mermaid love story” by Kirsty Logan; along with the The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, which takes place in London during the Georgian 1700s, are all claiming reader interest and success.

My quirky thriller, The Mermaid Brokers, continues with a feminist interpretation of the mermaid trope. TV journalists, Bea Middleton and pregnant Lucy Vega, take the roles of the classic mermaid “sisters.” They navigate the dark net of sex trafficking in Southern California to find Isabelle, a bright young high school biology teacher who has been trafficked into an international sex tourism ring where she must become a mermaid to be exploited and murdered. Bea and Lucy marshal their resources to save the tough, smart Isabelle who has been pushed to the limit and barely survives. Isabelle doesn’t have a happily ever but she isn’t required to do good deeds for 300 years to get her soul back, either.

The Mermaid Broker by Sue Hinkin at Mermaid Art from Many Cultures on my Pinterest Board:

Interesting Books Featuring the Mermaid Archetype in a Variety of Genres:

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill (Irish feminist retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale) A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow (Fantastical Black sirens, friendship and self-discovery) Sukey and the Mermaid by R.D. San Souci (Children 5-8, mermaid of color) The Deep by Rivers Solomon (Middle Grade African-American) The Gloaming by Kristy Neal (LGBTQ mermaid love story) The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Historical, UK bestseller) To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo (YA page-turner) Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox (Victorian Gothic) Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (Classic French fairytale novella) The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Contemporary women’s fiction) The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (Literary self-discovery) The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (Historical sci-fi, Nebula award winner) The Mermaid Broker by Sue Hinkin (Dark, quirky thriller) Ingo by Helen Dunmore (Children’s novel, mystery & magic) The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Caribbean lit) The Mermaid Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon (History, recipes, costumes and fun)

Mermaid-Themed Movies for your Viewing Enjoyment

Splash (1984) Tom Hanks & Daryl Hannah comedy

The Little Mermaid (1989) Disney animated fantasy

The Little Mermaid (2018) Is the woman in the traveling circus a mermaid?

Sabrina Down Under (1996) Teenage witch at Great Barrier Reef

The Lady in the Water (2006) M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasy psychological thriller

Aquamarine (2006) Teen romcom

Ondine (2009) Irish romantic drama where a selkie brings hope and love

Aquaman (2018) Superhero merman

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) A Bostonian and his wife catch a mermaid

Magic Island (1995) Family adventure with pirates and mermaids

Miranda (1948) Erotic Italian comedy—fisherman lands a mermaid

Neptune’s Daughter (1949) Romantic musical comedy, synchronized swimming

Peter Pan (2003) Wendy meets mermaids in Neverland

The Mermaid (2016) Chinese action adventure

The 13th Year (1999) Disney Channel—boy discovers his mother is a mermaid

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) Most popular of the Beach Blanket franchise, romcom


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