Our Mermaid Craze / A Fishy Feminism

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

Are mermaids feminist? Or rather, if mermaids are feminist, a figure that serves as a site for negotiating the possibilities for women’s power, what kind of feminists are they? How might a queer intersectional feminism speak to more equitable interspecies relations? To ask that last question first requires an acknowledgement of how thinking human as a species risks a reductive biologism that ignores cultural forces at work in defining “the human” and thus its relations. To think a human relation to animal necessarily entails the question of which humans, which is not always obvious in the face of the more predominant question of which animals, even if we narrow down simply to fish. From a globally-dominant, Western, capitalist, and tacitly white vantage, humans are those holding dominion over the animal kingdom, whose members then are merely resources to extract and exploit. How could a fish be feminist?

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s 2015 Polish mermaid horror musical The Lure provides a lens for exploring the possibilities for this fishy feminism, suggesting what a beyond-human feminism might, er, entail.1 And yet, even after multiple viewings of this film, I am still ambivalent about whether and how it is feminist. So I turn to Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals to round out this ambivalence.2

The familiar 19th century tale by Hans Christian Andersen reiterates the loss of feminine power, as the eponymous little mermaid loses her voice when she gains her legs; the story ends with her losing the Prince she loves, though she gains a chance at redemption by becoming an air spirit. The Lure follows key beats of the Andersen tale, featuring teenage sister mermaids with a talent for singing and dancing, the loss of one mermaid’s voice in becoming human and her loss of the prince she became human for, that rejection turning her into seafoam, while her sister tries to help her save herself from that fate.

And yet, unlike the better-known Disney versions, the doubling of the mermaid figure in The Lure offers space for a critical ambivalence. The ambivalence hinges on the film’s layers, starting with the dual mermaids who offer competing views—Silver, who wants to become human and marry Mietek, the boy in the band who brought them ashore, and Golden, who remains true to her animal roots as an independent predator of men. Golden’s animality raises provocative questions about how to situate hybrid hum/animals in relation to Man’s dominance over the very definition of human. Surely other genres of the human are possible, as Sylvia Wynter urges us to consider.3 The film itself is a genre mashup, mixing musical numbers in among scenes styled as thriller, horror, realism, or domestic melodrama; its composite discourse bears a conscious distance from its characters. Even the musical numbers range across genres and performance modes. Hybridity is central to how The Lure’s formal discourse works in tension with Silver’s narrative investment in becoming human.

The Lure repurposes tired tropes about feminists as maneaters, or as antisocial lesbians refusing marriage and domesticity. Golden preys on local men while leaving unscathed a policewoman who picks her up for a tryst, tipping this trope over into camp. If the cop is female is she still The Man? Or is she subverting the institution from the inside—after all, the policewoman lets Golden go free after their rendezvous. The scene provides a titillating power play between human and mermaid, as the cop holds a gun to Golden’s head while inviting her to caress the cop’s neck with her teeth. The segue to a different fantasy, by the band’s matriarch envisioning Golden and Silver suckling at her breasts, further suggests a covert network of female desire flowing through the film; but is Golden’s desire represented in these scenarios? Golden’s repeated killings of men, whether anonymous pickups or a final vengeful lunge for Mietek’s throat after her sister’s dissolution raise the question: Is it murder when an animal kills a human, or just confirmation of who’s the top predator? Meanwhile Silver’s love for Mietek had become increasingly passive and even insipid; as the day dawns she spends her final embodied minutes slowdancing in Mietek’s arms, as if seducing him to betray his new bride. It’s the familiar story of a sisterhood betrayed by a woman’s undying love for man.

Golden takes a moment to regain her mermaid self. Still from The Lure (2015; dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska).

Yet the queer recycling of cliches and the doubling-down on literalness (Silver’s surgery scene shows her and her human donor lying on beds of ice like fish in a shopcase) redirect our attention from the meaning within the scenes to the meanings between them. The bricolage mode of the film renders the seemingly “main” thread—the major beats of a human-centered story of initial meeting, success in the band, falling into love-story, quarrels, returns, sacrifice to become human—to being just another set of elements in the composite whole. The seams mark the limits of apprehending queer desires or relations under the patriarchal heteronormativity of Man. The most explicit tell is the marine mammal clicks and whistles that signal the mermaids’ talk, which the subtitles translate. It’s the edges of the film’s pastiche that matter, including those between human and fish, between girl and woman, between realism and fantasy.

The end of the film looks like devastation and tragedy has ultimately prevailed: Mietek lies violently bloodied and dead on the ship, his divorced father and mother look on in horrified shock, Silver has dissolved into sea foam, and Golden slithers away underwater with a hunted look. But that view is only from the human vantage. Another reading is that the mermaids have prevailed in this tangle with humanity, departing after seducing then destroying the humans. The quiet repose of the final shot, underwater, disembodied, not even clearly a particular point of view, points us to the fishy vantage’s promise—and its feminism. Power lies outside the human too, in other forms and modes. It is only the mermaid who tried too hard to align with Man’s world who doesn’t make it—and even then, who’s to say that sea foam is not a marvelous way for a mermaid to de-hybridize, taking Silver to the opposite extreme from her human form into a fishy finale.

Along with the question of “is this a feminist film” (which I will not settle here) is the question why are these mermaids white ? Their fishy forms are mottled browns and greens, so why does their human form turn to whiteness? It’s not just a Polish thing, but a question of how the film imagines the human. Whiteness makes the mermaids more familiar, even seductive to the humans in the story, but also to film audiences who see their whiteness reflected back. Thus, the crux of whether this is a feminist film lies in how The Lure shows feminism itself navigating the lures of Man: whiteness, domesticity, capitalist success.

Gumbs’s Undrowned counters these three lures. While her considered species are actual mammals as opposed to imaginary piscine hybrids, her expressed wish to join the sea and river creatures that she apostrophizes reverses the trajectory of desire that Silver embodies and Golden contests. Gumbs considers alternatives to domination for relating to other species, which necessarily entails rethinking what it means to be human, how humbly any of us could learn from the resonances between Black feminist experiences and the habits of whales, seals, or dolphins.

The Lure proposes the band—profitably playing a nightclub—as a counterpart to the family, only to reveal the commercial truth of the patriarchal family in that parallel. Where the capitalist band provides little traction to counter the heteronormative family formation, Gumbs imagines relationality differently, fully incorporating Black feminist tenets of centering community to take a lesson from how marine mammals school. Here’s where a fishy feminism could learn from Gumbs’ Black feminist marine lessons. Turning from the institutional human sense to what I would call the fishy sense of “school”, Gumbs asks: “What if school was the scale at which we could care for each other and move together.”4 This claim puts imaginative pressure on care as well as relationality, as Gumbs reflects, “I am wondering if we could trade the image of ‘family’ for the practice of school, a unit of care where we are learning and re-learning how to honor each other, how to go deep, how to take turns, how to find nourishing light again and again.”5 Gumb’s vision for school as a mode of collective care that radically reimagines who we should be caring for and how this caring can be communal and reciprocal, instructional and affirming underscores how unfishy The Lure actually is: two mermaids—or even third, a merman who became human and warns/guides Silver in how—do not a school make. Golden cannot save her sister alone. A truly fishy feminism centers the school over the individual.

Golden and Silver hang out backstage at the nightclub. Still from The Lure (2015; dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska).

If we’re asking why mermaids now, I would argue it’s a symptom of capitalism.6 Gumbs explores “what capitalism means on an interspecies scale” in her meditation on relating to marine mammals, directly addressing how “the actual suffering and endangerment of marine mammals on the planet right now is caused by the extractive, destructive processes and consequences of capitalism” (86). Like Gumbs’ turn to marine mammals, the larger turn to mermaids seeks a hybrid genre of the human that might offer something other than what the dominant definition of human does now. This mermaid turn signals a suspicion of the fishiness of the deal capitalism offers all who are marginal to the genre of human Wynter calls Man. Although she keeps her focus on humans, Wynter emphasizes human beings as always already hybrid beings. This hybridity is essential to overturning the narrowly biological and Darwinian view of the human as a species imposed by Man. Wynter shifts our vision of human from being in some essential or static sense to a praxis, constantly shaped by culture and social processes. Wynter frames this in terms of a narrative capacity that Katherine McKittrick says “allows us to critically re-envision our futures in new and provocative ways” (4).7 We see such a narrative in Gumbs’ turn to marine mammals  as she suggests how to imagine other ways of being human by tapping into our animal colleagues’ knowing. She is, of course, hardly alone, as shown by the increasing body of scholarly work in humanities’ ecocriticism and animal studies, and particularly work attending to how racialization complicates a Man-centered animal-human relation.8 Reading Gumbs with The Lure, however, charges us to see and seize some of the provocations that a critical re-envisioning of mermaids might produce if we understood how much further the reconceptualization of the human hybrid has to go under Wynter’s praxis.

Gumbs exhorts us to end capitalism “as soon as possible” acknowledging that “if we don’t end capitalism this week it is because we are entangled, a reality that will continue to wound us”.9 The Lure shows this wounding in its mid-film climax, where in the midst of a quietly domestic scene of the family and mermaids gathered around the telly, Golden and Silver suddenly broach the question of why they have never been paid. The parents respond to say they provide everything, food, shelter, clothes. Their answer wraps the exploitation of the mermaids’ labor for a profit-oriented commercial venture in the priceless love of family (a familiar corporate cliché). The humans framed the mermaids as minor dependents. But the mermaids also have been treated, literally, like animals: we give food and shelter and even clothes—but not income—to domesticated animals, whether horses, cats, or dogs. Why not mermaids? The very animality of the mermaids, not just their youth, marks them as pets, uncompensatable, as a resource to be extracted for the marketing advantage of the band. Creatureliness deepens the tension between the sisters, as Silver abjures it (apparently invested in the economically-dependent wife model) and Golden seizes on it (to get away with murder). Their argument escalates to the point where the whole family falls apart in the wake of their fracas. Everyone is wounded. The love of family cannot withstand the challenges of the workers coming to consciousness nor the tensions within the hum/animal when the latter part of the hybrid is subsumed to a narrow conscription of the former. The more fundamental economy, the animal oikos—specifically, the school—demands reciprocity, “learning and re-learning how to honor each other, how to go deep, how to take turns” as Gumbs teaches. Gumbs focuses on the hopeful sides of lessons from animals, while in a more baleful vein of reciprocity Golden returns to avenge the animal on the human that threatens it.

“Maybe you already know something about this. About how a deadly system doesn’t have to seem like it’s targeting you directly to kill you consistently”, Gumbs writes.10 “Maybe you know something about what it means to bear the constant wounding of a system that says it’s about something else entirely”.11 The Lure’s fishy feminism reveals to us the impossibility of feminism from the vantage of the human—viz., heteronormative, patriarchal familial, capitalist. We need to embrace the hybridity, the pastiche, the seams, in order to get a more critical angle on the lure of Man. We need more genres, of the human, of the animal, and of the stories they tell, to have a truly fishy feminism. How might we slither away from capitalism even if not without wounds from being caught in its nets? And any fishy feminism needs to bear in mind the Black feminist lessons from marine mammals who swim with us.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Smoczynska, Agnieszka, dir. The Lure (Córki dancingu) Criterion, 2015.

    Fish themselves are not such a simple category. Zoe Todd cites fish biologist Joe Nelson’s Fishes of the World 4th ed. (Hoboken: Wiley 2006) to support her observation that because their diversity defies taxonomic ranking “scientists have come to a tentative and flexible working understanding of what a fish is” (233). Todd’s essay offers compelling insight into how differently some cultures think human/fish relations otherwise than the Euro-American extractive capitalist approach. See Todd, Zoe. “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada” Études/Inuit/Studies Vol. 38, No. 1/2 2014, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics (2014): 217-238.

  2. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. Emergent Strategy Series. Chico CA: AK Press, 2020.
  3. Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 257-337.
  4. Gumbs, Undrowned, 48.
  5. Gumbs, Undrowned, 48.
  6. We see this symptom played out in Netflix’s Merpeople series, which documents economically marginal, actual people who want to earn a living performing as merfolk, replicates the power structures of capitalism, with some few entrepreneurial types—those who supply silicone tails, who own performance tanks or other venues where merpeople can perform—exploiting the labor of the up-and-coming. Race, queerness, class all shape the appeal of mersonhood, as the dream of realizing one’s true self, of finding the acceptance in a community as a queer or nonbinary or just oddball or misfit, draws one in. Yet, as the documentary frames it, how do you advance your career as a merperson? Competitions, social media, the very ideological machinery of the capitalist beast that individualizes and ranks and assigns value. Merpeople shows some of the crosscurrents that mark the contemporary mermaid dream: claiming space for larger-bodied merfolk, merfolk of color—there’s a utopian patina of possibility that sheaths this striving.
  7. See Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Ed. Katherine McKittrick. Durham: Duke UP, 2015.
  8. See Johnson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World. New York: NYU Press, 2020; Holland, Sharon. (an) other: a black feminist consideration of animal life. Durham: Duke UP, 2023; Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2020.
  9. Gumbs, Undrowned, 87, 88.
  10. Gumbs, Undrowned, 87.
  11. Gumbs, Undrowned, 87.