Our Mermaid Craze / Like a Fish Out of Water: Cripping the Mermaid

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

In her 1978 performance of Gloria Gaynor’s song, “I Will Survive,” Bette Midler wears a mermaid fishtail costume in her cabaret persona as Delores DeLago. Gaynor’s lyrics about being left alone by her lover (“Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?”) take on new meaning as Midler wriggles across the stage and climbs into a power wheelchair flapping her mermaid tail while singing defiantly, “Oh no, not I, I will survive.” She is joined by three other mermaids in power chairs who conduct a tightly choreographed wheelchair dance in which the chorus, “I’ve got my life to live, and I’ve got my love to give / And I’ll survive…”. warp the mermaid trope into a story of disability empowerment.1 Describing this cabaret performance as an example of “mermaid drag,” Cynthia Barounis notes that in her motorized wheelchair Midler “assures us that she is ‘not dead yet’” (200). Although Bette Midler is not disabled, as far as I know, she understands something about the mermaid not as a figure of estrangement but as the embodiment of freedom, movement, and adaptation.

In Disney’s version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Little Mermaid (1989), Ariel must relinquish her voice to live on land and marry Prince Eric. The singing voice that had been her great accomplishment among merpeople is now lost as she strives to live among humans for whom speech and language are a given. As someone whose fins have been transformed into legs, she is a fish out of water, a metaphor of disorientation I want to pursue regarding disability. In the mermaid’s many manifestations as Homeric siren, Celtic selkie, French Melusine, Inuit Sedna, German Loreli, Wagnerian Rhine Maidens, Japanese Ningyo, Haitian Voodoo Mami Wata, water nymphs, naiads, and rusalki, the figure of a half fish, half woman is the embodiment of the gendered uncanny, the familiar mixed with the strange, the human as animal. In this respect she causes something of the “aesthetic nervousness” Ato Quayson sees attending the encounter with disability, the shudder of recognition by a nondisabled person at corporeal precarity.2 As an allegory of disability, the mermaid embodies the fact that her non-traditional body inhabits two worlds, one in which she moves effortlessly and gracefully and another in which she is ungainly and mute.

In considering the mermaid’s potential for a disability narrative I want to think about another influential trope that has been used to describe people with disabilities. The figure of the cyborg as formulated by Donna Haraway appears “precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed” (153). The cyborg contests the separation of human and machine but embodies its potential to disturb binaries of gender, cognition, and body. By an odd—Haraway would say ironic—reversal, the woman-as-machine “might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154).

Haraway’s formulation has inspired some disability theorists to see the cyborg as epitomizing persons who use wheelchairs, prosthetics and medications as components of embodiment. An alternate formulation is provided by Stacey Alaimo who uses the phrase “trans-corporeality” to describe bodies “in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world [and that] underlies the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’” (2). If Haraway’s cyborg is a future targeted, post-human figure, Alaimo’s trans-corporeal identity looks (back) to links between human bodies and animals, plants, and other forms of organic matter. Here is where the mermaid offers an alternative figure for the “different” body, one that moves through multiple environments, bodies, and cultural forms.

In what follows I look at several examples of mermaid cultural expression among disability artists who seize upon the trope for critical ends or who embrace capabilities discovered by immersing in water. My examples include Christine Sun Kim’s 2015 installation Close Readings that involves deaf recaptioning of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Sue Austin’s underwater wheelchair performances, and Petra Kuppers’ “Salamander” project that stresses water encounters among people with disabilities. These are not individuals donning prosthetic fins (although there is a large population of professional and amateur merpeople who do) but artists who use their different bodyminds to extend and complicate a venerable aquatic metaphor.

My first example is the deaf artist, Christine Sun Kim, whose work explores the social value of sound through installations and performances that challenge the ideology of audism—the idea that sound and speech are norms for the human against which deafness is viewed as a tragic limit or barrier. One of Kim’s bêtes noirs is the absence of adequate signage and captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, whether in airports and train stations or on television and movies. In Close Readings (2015), she addresses the captioning of films in which diegetic sound is often reduced to a simple phrase: “music in background,” “crowd noise,” “sound of thunder.” Kim asked four deaf friends to provide captions for expressive moments in film clips from five mainstream films, all involving some thematic treatment of vocalization. In her video installation, she blurred the upper half of the image, placing the deaf caption in parentheses above the official version at the bottom of the frame.3 One of the films she recaptions is Disney’s The Little Mermaid in which, as Kim says, “Ariel the mermaid basically gave up her voice in order to get a pair of walking legs so she could assimilate with walking humans (which is eerily similar to some of deaf experiences” (“Sonic Identity”). In the scene where Ariel arrives on land and encounters Prince Eric, the official caption reads: “whoa, whoa, careful easy” to describe the prince’s words to the now upright if unsteady mermaid. The deaf caption of the scene, “the failure of gesture,” places emphasis on another, equally relevant aspect since in this scene Ariel attempts to communicate with the prince using a kind of ad hoc sign language, her flailing hands trying to indicate her inability to speak. Her awkward attempts are, indeed, a failure of gesture, analogous in various ways to becoming, as I’ve suggested earlier, a fish out of water in an oralist world.

In another image from the same film, the deaf caption concerning the moment Ariel relinquishes her voice reads, “sound of voice being extracted,” a phrase that captures the darker implications of what it might mean for a deaf person to live in a world where the loss of voice is regarded as a tragic disability. The Disney company felt that the sound of Ariel’s voice being extracted by the evil Sea Witch, Ursula, required no caption, and yet the scene’s affective power for the deaf viewer is understandably powerful. Kim titles this series “Close Readings,” perhaps as a satire of formalist textual interpretation but also as a description of a more insurrectionary kind of deaf hermeneutics. By putting the captioning in the hands of a deaf viewer and not a hearing interpreter, the film’s expressive content is expanded and enlarged.4

Remembering Bette Midler’s performance, consider the mermaid in a wheelchair. The cover of Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael North’s anthology of disability poetry, Beauty is a Verb features an image of the British multimedia performance artist Sue Austin in a summer dress, barefoot, wearing dark glasses, and sitting in a red wheelchair at the bottom of a swimming pool. It is a startling image, but like the title of the anthology an image that diverts the aesthetic of beauty onto a specific action and vehicle. In this case the verb involves Austin’s underwater performance, Creating the Spectacle, in which she used a specially adapted wheelchair and scuba gear to perform under water at Sharm-el-sheikh in the Red Sea. In Norman Lomax’s film of her performance, she is shown moving through crystal clear water, past schools of fish and coral reefs, turning, twisting, somersaulting, waving her arms while remaining in her chair.[6] In her TED talk Austin describes asking people for their associations with living in a wheelchair, “and they used words like ‘limitation,’ ‘fear,’ ‘pity,’ and ‘restriction.’” As she observes in her talk, she had internalized these responses in the past, and this changed who she was on a basic level.

Austin’s underwater ballet may not seem like a candidate for mermaid status, but it hints at the way disabled artists test the habitus others take for granted, working to unseat—quite literally—who and what should occupy spaces, technologies, museums, and pools. A more communal version of this kind of performance is offered by the poet and disability activist, Petra Kuppers who also uses a wheelchair and conducts group performances both on land and in water. What she calls her “Salamander” project is a series of performances, workshops and communal swimming events in various bodies of water. At one level the Salamander project is about disabled people enjoying each other’s bodies and company in water, but Kupper’s larger intent is to foreground environmental and socio-political issues about community and who should inhabit social spaces.

In her recent book, Eco/Soma, Kuppers describes her pleasure at being released from gravity and restraints:

In the water, I am a salamander: I am mobile in ways I cannot be out of the water. Nothing straps me down, and I have the privilege of movement, sidewinder, undulating, rolling in the pleasure of my round strong limbs.

Her pleasure is tempered by her awareness of the political history of restricted public facilities like swimming pools and how they have traditionally impacted not only persons with disabilities, but other bodies deemed “unfit” or out of place:

We acknowledge exclusions and histories, including the racial histories of U.S. swimming pools, segregation, uneven access to swimming opportunities, and lack of nongendered changing rooms. We consciously insert disability into the pool’s framework. (129)

When she works with disabled people in water, she encourages them to bring associations, myths, and stories about water into their collective experience. Freewriting—what she calls “ekphrastic work”—is an equally important component of the Salamander experience. Writing practices offer another way to understand the metaphor of “immersion” that governs the Salamander project by placing people—immersing them—in a foreign environment. Kuppers stresses the important relationship between innovative writing and bodily precarity.

In the opening of her book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein notes that

Myth images-of half-human beasts like the mermaid and the minotaur express an old, fundamental, very slowly clarifying communal insight: that our species’ nature is internally inconsistent; that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth’s other animals are mysterious and profound; and that in these continuities, and these differences lie both our sense of strangeness on earth and the possible key to a way of feeling at home here. (2)

Although this is the only time mermaids are mentioned in the book, Dinnerstein’s use of the figure is to stress, as her subtitle says, “Sexual Arrangements” and the unequal divisions of gendered labor. “[H]alf-human beasts” like the mermaid and the minotaur remind us of our species nature—links to the animal world that seduce and terrify in equal parts. The mermaid causes anxiety since, in Dinnerstein’s view, she is tied to a “dark and magic underwater world from which our life comes and in which we cannot live” (5). I see the mermaid not as a regressive form of “species psychopathology,” a repressed fear of the maternal and the bios as Dinnerstein does but as an “extraordinary body,” in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s terms, that affirms species interconnections. Christine Sun Kim’s recaptioning of the Disney film exposes other ways of reading the iterations of audism in popular culture. In the process, she and other disability artists and activists turn Dinnerstein’s “strangeness on earth” into a site for interrogating for whom the earth is strange. The endurance of the mermaid figure in various cultural forms testifies to the importance of voices that interrupt a story about the littoral—where the border between nature and culture ebbs and flows—and the literal as the self-evident character of human agency.

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

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  1. I’m indebted to Cynthia Barounis’s essay, “Affects, Mermaids, Prosthetics, and the Disabling of Feminine Futurity,” where this cabaret performance is described.
  2. Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
  3. For images of Close Readings see
  4. Kim discusses the process of creating Close Readings in an interview with Jeppe Ugelvig O, “Sonic Identity Politics with Christine Sun Kim.” I have discussed “Close Readings” in Distressing Language: Disability and the Poetics of Error (New York: New York University Press, 2022): 64–5.