Mermaid masquerade: an adventure to the borderlands

By Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario

It’s more common than you think. There are women, and some men, who dress up as mermaids. The first mermaid convention happened in 2011 in Las Vegas – it celebrated not merely the love of mermaid mythology, but the growing popularity of ‘being’ a mermaid. This comes at a time when an increasing number of women are engaging in cosplay (costume role play).

For many mermaid cosplayers the costume is an outward manifestation of environmental concern, often unsurprisingly focussed on marine issues. For others, the costume becomes creative expression, with many YouTube videos featuring mermaids merging water sports with the kind of glamour inherited from Esther Williams aqua-musicals like Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). The mermaid’s ability to seemingly dance and swim indefinitely under water is an impossibility, an illusion that is magical and appealing to enact.

The mermaid is also a quirk in a girls’ culture now in the grip of princesses, dominated by Disney. Ariel, star of 1989’s The Little Mermaid, reinvigorated Disney princesshood. Despite the fact that Ariel is often marketed in her transformed human state, wearing a pink gown, the fascination that surrounds her rests in her mermaidhood – in her tail and underwater dancing, specifically. While the human princess is always approachable, the mermaid exists apart, an enchanting figure of a world distinct from our own. The mermaid’s tail renders her unattainable and, to paraphrase Ariel, free of the kinds of social expectations that exist where the people are.

Playing the mermaid places women just out of reach, but also in the borderlands before maturity. Ariel makes a dangerous bargain in order to assert her independence and leave her father’s kingdom to pursue the Prince, in the end convincing her father of her right to realise her adult desires. While Disney’s The Little Mermaid was in production, the iconic Dirty Dancing (1987) featured another headstrong Daddy’s girl who would fall in love with a handsome man from the wrong side of the tracks, make a forbidden deal that would go horribly wrong, and finally convince her father that she was now a woman.

The popularity of Ariel and Dirty Dancing’s Baby is in many respects based on their discovery of confidence in their adult, female bodies. The fairy tale on which the Disney film is based, Hans Christian Andersen’sThe Little Mermaid, written in 1837, has been recognised for its metaphoric references to sexual maturity. The mermaid loses her tail and obtains legs in a painful ordeal, but Andersen’s heroine loses any kind of body, dissolving into air. Her descendents achieve a happier ending for their desires.

The mermaid’s existence on the margins – between sea and land, childhood and adulthood – makes her an attractive physical figure for girls and even women to emulate and explore. Adult dressing up – or masquerade – has a long history, leading back through Renaissance Italy. Contemporary masquerade has been revived in the practice of cosplay, with people dressing up and performing as favourite characters. It is especially associated with big genre events like Comic-Con.

For a long while, cosplay options for women had been dominated by ‘slave Leias’, a sexualised role play inspired by Princess Leia’s bikini costume in The Return of the Jedi (1983). However, as women have become more active in cosplay, steampunk and cross-gender performance (women dressing in traditionally male roles like the Doctor from Doctor Who) have become more popular. Still, though, options are limited when compared to what is available to male cosplayers. The mermaid is one of the exceptions where female cosplayers dominate.

The mermaid does evoke sexuality, yet she is able to escape human complications and dive back into the ocean. In this respect, she resembles Hollywood’s manic pixie dream girls, quirky young women who excite the imagination of male protagonists, but who quickly disappear into an unknown world. Mermaids are never on land for long, but always make an impression, often on human men. One of the early manic pixie dreamgirls, in fact, is Miranda, mermaid star of the 1948 British comedy, Miranda.

Miranda and her mermaid relations continue to entice women into the ocean today. The mermaid may attract men, but it is women who overwhelmingly want to be her – to realise her freedom, her physical autonomy and her marine enchantments.

Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario is a lecturer for the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.

Reproduced, with thanks, from Dr Rozario’s article in the Monash News Blog.