Loving the Other: Hans Christian Andersen and the evolution of mermaid romance in Western media

by Carrie Sessarego

Humans have always been fascinated by the notion of people who live in the sea. Mermaid romance combines the allure of the water with the irresistible tug of the unattainable and a dash of sex. Above all, mermaid stories help us work through the idea of falling in love with that which is ‘other’ from us.

The mother of mermaid romances is, of course, “The Little Mermaid,” a story by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1837. Andersen suffered from many unrequited crushes on both men and women. In “The Little Mermaid,” he explores the agony of loving ‘the other,’ someone who is utterly forbidden and unattainable. 

Andersen’s story is full of body horror, tragedy, and an ending that is only happy from a very specific point of view. This story has influenced every mermaid story since, but it’s easy to forget how very horrifying much of it is. Comparing the details of Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” with other mermaid stories demonstrates how much some things have changed in the world of mermaid fiction, as well as how many things have stayed the same.

In this story, love is expressed through self-sacrifice, a concept which was consistent with both Victorian ideals of womanhood and Andersen’s experience with same-sex attraction. Andersen’s mermaid suffers terrible physical and emotional pain in her quest to earn the prince’s love. In the end, she sacrifices her own life for the man she loves. When the prince marries another woman, unknowingly dooming the mermaid according to the terms of the mermaid’s agreement with the sea witch, her sisters intervene. They make their own deal with the sea witch, one which stipulates that if the mermaid stabs the prince on his wedding night before the first rays of dawn, and his “warm blood sprays on her feet,” she can rejoin her sisters under the waves. If she does not, then she will die when the sun rises, and, lacking an immortal soul, become foam on the sea. 

Much as Andersen found himself forbidden to love another man, his mermaid is forbidden to love a human. Once she falls in love with a human, she is cut off from her family and her society. She cannot tell the prince that she loves him because she had to earn her ability on land in part by allowing the sea witch to cut out her tongue. The phrase “The love that dare not speak its name” was not coined until 1896, but in “The Little Mermaid” we already see this concept made literal. Ultimately, the mermaid ensures the prince’s future happiness by allowing him to have a more socially conventional and respectable marriage, a choice that costs the mermaid her happiness and her life.

When faced with the choice between murdering the man she loves or dying herself, the mermaid chooses the latter. However, there is a twist ending! Instead of becoming foam, she finds that she is embraced by the Daughters of Air, who promise her that because she has “suffered and borne her suffering bravely,” she can earn an immortal soul after three hundred years of good deeds.  Since the mermaid isn’t foam on the sea after all and has a way to win the soul she craved all along, the story has a happy ending, sort of. True love and true happiness, in Andersen’s world, consist of subjugating one’s own desires and sacrificing one’s own happiness to benefit others. 

In the modern era, all this self-sacrificing looks less like good morality and more like unhealthy codependency.  When Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid,” women in Denmark, Andersen’s homeland, could not vote and being gay was a crime (this is a simplification, and uses terms that Andersen’s contemporaries would not have used, but is essentially the situation that Andersen faced). Since then, women’s rights movements have radically altered the possibilities open to women, and the modern discourse in the Western world is less about sacrificing for the good of one’s family as it is about self-actualization and modelling self-love as positive thing for one’s family. 

In the human rights struggles of marginalized people, including women and LGBTQIA people, giving up or being robbed of one’s voice, either literally or metaphorically, in exchange for the possibility of love is associated with oppression and erasure. LGBTQIA people continue to fight across the globe for the right to live and love openly. Many marginalized communities, including women and LGBTQIA people, use terms such as “finding their voice,” “lifting their voice,” and “being heard” as rallying cries, referring to their oppression as “being silenced.” While the mermaid’s silence is relatable, it is not considered admirable in the same sense that it was in Andersen’s day. 

One of the qualities of the mermaid in “The Little Mermaid” is that she is “innocent” both in the sense of being virginal and in the sense of knowing nothing of life on land. She is fifteen years old when she trades her tail for legs, and is treated by others as though she is both a much younger child and a sexually mature woman. The prince refers to the mermaid as “his little child” and as “his little foundling.” Andersen states that the prince “loved her as he would love a little child,” although his infantilization of her does not deter him from kissing her “on her red lips,” suggesting that his frequent caresses are the result of sexual attraction.

While modern mermaid stories might not go as far as Andersen in explicitly infantilizing the heroine, certain aspects of this infantilization appear in modern-day mermaid stories. As s “fish out of water,” the naïve mermaid views life on land with child-like curiosity even as she possesses a sort of elemental wisdom and ready sexuality. Splash, a comedy from 1984, provides a good modern example of this character type, which critic Jonathan McIntosh calls the “Born Sexy Yesterday” type. Madison, a mermaid appears on land with the body of an adult woman and greets Alan, the human hero, by kissing him. The two almost immediately enjoy enthusiastic and consensual sex. Yet in her complete naiveté about human life, Madison acts like child who must be taught how to act and what to value. In providing this knowledge, the hero can consciously or, in Alan’s case, unconsciously create the perfect mate for himself from a sexually mature blank slate.

It’s remarkable how tenacious the plotline of “The Little Mermaid” is. At least one or two elements of the story are found in modern mermaid love stories with startling frequency. The basic framework of mermaid plots often involve a mermaid falling in love with a human, saving the human from a threat (usually drowning), and making a bargain of some kind, usually time limited, so that the mermaid can be with their beloved. There is almost always an element of secrecy, with the human being unaware that the mermaid is not human. For instance, in Splash, Madison, saves Alan, from drowning several times. She then follows him to New York City, where she takes human form. She then spends the next “six fun-filled days” winning Alan’s love, while trying to hide the fact that she is a mermaid from Alan. There are many plot complications that diverge wildly from “The Little Mermaid,” but the core of the story remains intact.

As with Splash, Disney stepped away from the love-is-pain aspects of “The Little Mermaid” when making their light-hearted animated movie. The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, kept the concept of a mermaid who is obsessed with humans and who falls in love with one, along with some basic plot points, particularly the time-limited deal with the witch. However, Disney dumped the body horror, moralizing, and tragedy and replaced it with comedy, songs, and action. 

The poor mermaid in Andersen’s tale doesn’t even have a name. Disney’s mermaid is named Ariel and her beloved is Prince Eric. Andersen’s mermaid is quiet and shy, while Ariel is brash and extroverted. Andersen’s mermaid has her tongue cut out by the sea witch. Ariel’s voice is transferred to the witch (Ursula) by magic, not mutilation, and Ariel gets her voice back in the end. Andersen’s mermaid’s human feet come at the price of feeling with every step “as though you were walking on knives so sharp the blood must flow.” Not so for Ariel, whose feet are just fine. There is no ambiguity about this happy ending, although adult viewers may raise an eyebrow realizing that Ariel gets married at the age of sixteen. Ursula is killed, Ariel and Eric get married, and Ariel can still chat with her family whenever they bob their heads above the waves. Ariel is never told to back out of the deal by killing Eric, and there’s no mention of the afterlife.

Ursula’s lair is certainly horrifying and the final battle with her is very scary, but most of this story is romantic and comedic. Instead of being a rumination on the pain of unrequited love and the importance of self-sacrifice, the movie is all about music, adventure, and romance, with a strong subtext of growing up. Ariel is sixteen years old. Eric is implied to be her first crush and, subtextually, a sexual awakening. Appearing in a seashell bikini top, Ariel is portrayed in a much more sexualized way than previous Disney princesses, despite her utter naivete about the world of humans. The movie involves her rebelling against her overprotective parent in her desire to see more of the world and have more independence, a classic component of coming-of-age stories.

Under the terms of Ursula’s contract, Ariel only has three days to win “true love’s kiss.” This implies that true love is something that develops very quickly if not instantly, and something that may be more symbolic than anything else. Eric remembers Ariel’s song, which he heard after she saved him while he was in a semi-conscious state, and he has searched for the singer ever since, associating the voice with beauty and safety. Ariel is hopelessly smitten with Eric after saving him from drowning, even though during that time he is either fully or partially unconscious, suggesting that her love for him is more of a symbol of her love for the rest of the human world than a love for him as a person.

Additionally, love in The Little Mermaid is about physical chemistry, and reliability. Ariel saves Eric and Eric saves her, showing that they have the capacity to help each other through difficult situations. Ariel and Eric also enjoy each other’s company and have strong mutual physical attraction, as evidenced in the song “Kiss the Girl” and in a passionate post-battle kiss. 

Finally, love between human and mermaid represents the breaching of barriers between countries and peoples, bringing a new kind of peace to the world. Ultimately, in this story, if any risks are taken and sacrifices made for love, the anxiety and pain will not last. The power of love resolves and heals the conflicts that exist between people from very different worlds. Even Ariel’s father, who initially despises all humans, grows to accept the other and sanctions the marriage between Ariel and Eric.

The Shape of Water, a 2017 film, is a reclaiming of The Creature of the Black Lagoon and a Beauty/Beast romance. However, it also has strong aspects of the Little Mermaid story. The protagonist, Elisa, is introduced as a human woman who falls in love with and rescues a creature known only as Amphibian Man. Amphibian Man would seem to be the obvious mermaid figure in that he lives in and must return to the sea, but Elisa herself has many mermaid traits and is the one who has to sacrifice everything. She loves water and expresses her sexuality in the bathtub. She is voiceless and has scars on her neck that look like gill slits. Elisa is a cleaning lady, and her feet often hurt. Her teal uniform suggests a mermaid’s tail. After having sex with Amphibian Man, she buys herself red shoes, symbols of sexuality from another Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. And when Amphibian Man embraces Elisa in the ocean water, her gill slits open, her shoes fall off, and she becomes an aquatic creature.

In this story, Elisa and Amphibian Man are able to find love largely by recognizing this out-of-placeness in each other. Because Elisa cannot speak, her friends tend to use her as a sounding board, talking incessantly and leaving her little room to express herself. Her disability, gender, and blue-collar job contribute to her being not only unheard but largely unseen. With Amphibian Man, who learns sign from Elisa, Elisa feels truly seen and appreciated:

When he looks at me, the way he looks at me… He does not know, what I lack… Or – how – I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I – am, as I am. He’s happy – to see me. Every time. Every day.

In both Andersen and Disney’s stories, the loss of a voice impedes the mermaid from winning the prince’s affection. Here, however, Elisa and Amphibian Man communicate on a level beyond words (even beyond the sign language that they share). Amphibian Man and Elisa recognize each other’s humanity and intelligence. Elisa saves Amphibian Man from vivisection and Amphibian Man heals Elisa’s gunshot wounds and helps her transform into a fully aquatic creature. Love, in this world, is about healthy sexuality, empathy, understanding, and reciprocity. It is also about liberation. Elisa frees Amphibian Man from literal captivity, while he frees her from a life that she finds to be bland and stifling. This mermaid story ends happily, because both the ‘prince’ and the ‘mermaid’ recognize and devote their lives to each other.

Some writers have gone beyond Andersen’s template entirely, focusing on the ideas of “love for the other” and ideas of liberation and self-determination and leaving the plot elements of “The Little Mermaid” far behind. The Deep, is a novel written collaboratively by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes (the members of Clipping, the band whose song inspired the novel). This novel uses mermaid lore as the basis for a radical story of love and survival.  This book is rich in content and context, exploring liberation, memory, the terrible atrocities of slave ships, and conflict between responsibility to the community versus responsibility to oneself. It is a love story between Yetu, a kind of mer-person called a wajinru — a people who are the descendants of pregnant women who were thrown into the sea from slave ships — and a human woman, Oori, who is the last survivor of her people. 

The Deep is one of many recent romances that seeks to subvert the white, cisgender, heterosexual norms of Western-based mermaid stories in the past. Both Oori and Yetu identify as women. Oori is described as having “dark skin” and Yetu is also implied to have dark skin and scales. Both women stand outside of their own societies in various ways and both find that despite their biological differences they feel more comfortable with each other than they do to other members of their own species.

For these characters, love is about transcending the trauma of the past, as well as mutual acceptance and the ability to bring out the best in each other. Prior to meeting one another, both characters had sacrificed their lives to their communities, specifically about keeping the communities’ history alive. They help each other find a better balance between responsibility to the community and responsibility towards self. They are also models of mutual acceptance, loving one another’s bodies and minds and personalities wholly and without reservation.

While Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” remains a major influence on mermaid love stories, modern mermaid stories have the ability to explore sexuality, race, body type, gender, and self-determination in ways that Hans Christian Andersen, could never have considered discussing explicitly. Modern mermaid characters are more likely to have and to use their voice and to have unambiguously happy endings in this mortal life as opposed to in an afterlife. Andersen’s story of a character in love with ‘the other’ remains alive in happier forms, as mermaid stories continue to challenge us to take risks for love and to reach out to those who seem insurmountably different from us.

© Copyright Carrie Sessarego

Carrie Sessarego is the resident ‘geek reviewer’ for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where she wrangles science fiction, fantasy romance, comics, movies, and non-fiction. Carrie’s first book, Pride, Prejudice, and Popcorn: TV and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, was released in 2014. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld Magazine, Interfictions Online, Pop Matters: After the Avengers, The WisCon Chronicles, Invisible 3, and two volumes of Speculative Fiction: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays And Commentary. She spends her time chasing her husband, daughter, dog, and three cats, as well as giving presentations and leading book clubs at the Sacramento Public Library.

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