Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What's the deal with fish-women?

I've always liked mermaids. I guess since Disney's Peter Pan, though I could've learned about them before that. And not just mermaids, but merdudes too. An undersea civilization of fish-people is an awesome adventure fantasy. The idea that mermaids are also a sexual fantasy frankly never occurred to me until recently. I had to struggle to understand it.

I mean, I get that they're sexy from the waist up. Mermaids are invariably beautiful and if they're not half-naked then they're all naked. Of course they're sexy. From the waist up. But that applies to women with legs too. What is it about mermaids that makes them a fetish?

What got me thinking about this was Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, a movie I expected to like (William Powell and a mermaid? I'm in.), but really really didn't. Ann Blyth is heart-breakingly beautiful as the mermaid, but as I said in my Flick Attack review of the movie, "When (Powell) seduces her by teaching her to kiss, it’s more Humbert Humbert than Captain Kirk." Blythe's mute, child-like mermaid is so innocent that she doesn't even get a name. She's literally nothing but an object of William Powell's mid-life lust.

She reminds me of Nova in Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes. If you haven't read the novel, there's a bizarre, but fascinating love triangle between the Earth astronaut (named Ulysse in the book), Nova, and Zira. Boulle's commenting on sexual attraction and the old question of which is more important: external beauty or internal? Nova is physically perfect and primordially sexual, but Ulysse can't connect with her. Her behavior - and possibly her mental ability - is too animal-like. When he finally sleeps with her, he's ashamed and I was a little creeped out. It's like he was having sex with a pet. Zira, on the other hand, is physically repulsive, but also warm, intelligent, and funny. Guess whom Ulysse ultimately makes the deepest connection with?

I should mention that William Powell's character is also married and has a young daughter in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. That ramps up the skeeviness level quite a bit for me, but I would have been able to dismiss the movie without thinking more about it if I hadn't followed it up with Miranda, an English film from the same year with a similar plot.

Glynis Johns' (Mary Poppins, While You Were Sleeping) title mermaid talks and is even the aggressor in this version, but there's still something wonky about the way Griffith Jones' character (a married doctor on a fishing holiday away from his wife) reacts to her. Mr. Peabody accidentally hooks his mermaid while fishing and kidnaps her, while Miranda grabs Dr. Martin's line and pulls him in to kidnap him, but the men's reactions to the mermaids is the same in both movies. Martin objects to being held captive at first, but when Miranda makes a deal with him to let him go if he'll take her to the surface world with him, he not only agrees, but whole-heartedly throws himself into buying clothing for her and arranging her cover story as a wheelchair-bound patient of his. He has many opportunities to escape her, starting with the scene after they make the deal, and makes no use of any of them.

I know I'm overthinking Miranda. It's supposed to be a light-hearted story about the cute adventures of a mermaid on land, but I was already bothered enough by Mr. Peabody that it got me wondering what power mermaids have that two, independent film studios from opposite sides of the Atlantic would make movies about them in which mermaids make men want to put their marriages at risk. Then I got to thinking about some of the hyper-sexual mermaid art I've seen and debates about whether mermaid nudity constitutes "real" nudity because mermaids aren't actually human (in other words, looking at mermaid breasts is like looking at monkey breasts). That puts me back to Nova again and I wonder if the mermaid fetish isn't about domination. Here's a creature that (at least part of her) looks like a woman, but really isn't. She has the power to temporarily dominate men (certainly in Miranda's case and with mythological sirens), but can be overcome and tamed like any other wild animal. Only with a sexual element to it.

Here's what I think. I don't think it's about sex at all. In its historical context, I think it's about the allure of the sea. It's about what Herman Melville described in the first chapter of Moby Dick. "With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me." He goes on to elaborate about these feelings at great length (as Melville will).
But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him.

Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies—what is the one charm wanting?—Water—there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
That's not nearly all he has to say about it, but it gets the point across: People love the water and the ocean in particular. I do too, but some people love it with a passion that they can't understand, much less describe to someone else. They love it so deeply that they leave their homes and families for it. It's as necessary and pleasurable to them as sex.

Mermaids capture that metaphor quite nicely and the domination angle also fits right in. Mermaids - like the sea - are dangerous and will crush you. The idea of gaining some control or power over them/it is intoxicating, but men will never be able to dominate them or it completely and - to a certain mindset that loves being frustrated by the never-ending hunt - that makes them and it even more attractive.

[Mr. Peabody lobby card from Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans]


Ken O said...

Anytime I see a mermaid all I can think of is Fry from Futurama shouting, "Why couldn't she be the other type of mermaid with the fish part on top and the lady part on the bottom?"

Mitchell Craig said...

You left out Splash, in which Madison is very much a sexual creature (and not just because she's played by Daryl Hannah although that helps). But you might be saving that discussion for another column.

Michael May said...

It's been a long time since I last saw Splash, but my memory of it is that it's different from Mr. Peabody and Miranda in some important ways.

First, Madison sometimes has legs (implying that she's also got other human parts, wink wink nudge nudge), so she's able to be sexual without also being weird.

Second, she and Tom Hanks' character are mutually interested in each other. It's a traditional love story, just with a fantasy element. There's no power struggle or broken marriage to make things creepy.

It is a fun movie though, so I appreciate your bringing it up. Makes me want to watch it again. It and Roxanne. I had such a crush on Daryl Hannah in the '80s.


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