Our Mermaid Craze / Our Mermaid Craze: An Introduction

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

We are in the midst of a mermaid craze. Everywhere you look—from literature to film, social media to fashion, digital art to commodity kitsch—mermaids are omnipresent. Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid (May 2023) is just part of a global phenomenon represented by the opening of two museums in the U.S. claiming to be the world’s first mermaid museums (both in 2021, in Washington and Maryland), a slew of mermaid titles in book and film forms, the exploding popularity of mermaid conventions (“mercons”), and lots more. From a 2021 CNN article titled “Why so many people in China are becoming mermaids” to emergent scholarly interest in the entrepreneurial business activity of professional mermaiding, mermaids have become part of the landscape or “current” (to use Steve Mentz’s linguistic reconfiguration) of contemporary culture.1 A simple Google n-gram (below) graphing the dramatic increase in the word “mermaid” in published books marks a tipping point around 2010 and invites consideration.

This cluster responds to that invitation.

The essays clustered here approach the mermaid craze from different perspectives and methodologies, examining diverse cultural objects, spaces, media formats, and communities in ways that collectively offer insights into the renaissance of these ancient monsters as a contemporary cultural phenomenon.

The impetus for this cluster comes from my current research, a book project about twenty-first century mermaid narratives. I spent the last three years reading and watching a vast array of mermaid stories, all published in the last ten years. These narratives span readerships and multimedia formats, from children’s books (Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid [2018], Tracey Baptiste’s Rise of the Jumbies [2017]) to YA novels (Sarah Porter’s Lost Voices trilogy [2011-2013], Natalia Sylvester’s Breathe and Count Back from Ten [2022]) and horror (Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep [2017], Cassandra Khaw’s The Salt Grows Heavy [2023]) to erotica (Tamsin Ley’s The Merman’s Kiss [2017], Melissa Broder’s The Pisces [2018]), poetry (Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids are True What are You? [2014], Amanda Lovelace’s the mermaid’s voice returns in this one [2019] and Stephanie Burt’s We are Mermaids [2022]) to film (just to name a few, the Chinese blockbuster The Mermaid [dir. Stephen Chow, 2016], Blue My Mind [dir. Lisa Bruhlman, Switzerland, 2017], The Lure [dir. Agneska Smoczynska, Poland, 2015]) and television shows (a few recent TV shows, Freeform/Disney’s Siren [2018-2020], Netflix’s Tidelands [Australia, 2018], Invisible City [Brazil, 2021-] and the Korean The Legend of the Blue Sea [2016-7]. These are just a sample set, but there are also short arthouse films (Emilija Skarnulyte’s Sironemelia [2017] and Gabrielle Tesfaye’s The Water Will Carry us Home [2018]), anime (One Piece), video games (World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth [2018]), and much more.

These contemporary mermaid stories explore our culture’s most pressing anxieties and concerns—climate change, racial and social justice, global capitalism, genetic science, AI and algorithmic culture—and they do so across genres and affective registers with mermaids who are Black and Brown, sexually fluid, and grounded in Indigeneity. These stories rage against human destruction of the oceans and global capitalism, and they demand attention to their aesthetic patterns and power as a literary movement.

This is a deeply personal project for me. I have loved mermaids and their complex tales all my life—and have amassed a vast collection of mermaids from around the world. Yet, I have never (until recently) considered turning this personal passion into scholarly subject. (I recently wrote a reflection on this avoidance, identifying it as part of my academic disciplinary training, for a special issue of The Minnesota Review on “Creativity”).2 Turning mermaids into research has taken some time and self-talk, but when I finally dove into this research, I found I was not alone.

Scholars are reconsidering the relevance of mermaids in the long history of art, science, and culture, as evidenced by a small set of recent book publications: Tara Pedersen’s Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England (2015), Philip Hayward’s edited Scaled for Success: The Internalisation of the Mermaid (2018) and his monograph Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century in Audiovisual Media (2017), Vaughn Scribner’s Merpeople: A Human History (2020), and Mermaids: Art, Symbolism and Mythology by Axel Müller, Christopher Halls, and Ben Williamson (2022). Another significant milestone is the publication date of The Penguin Book of Mermaids (2019), an anthology that contains mermaid stories from around the world, in which “[a] third of the selections are published here in English for the first time.”3

I used my sabbatical to take a deep dive. When I finally came up for air, I looked around, eager to know who was diving nearby into the study of mermaids.

I am grateful to the ASAP/J’s cluster series for providing an opportunity to survey this scholarly current (again, see Mentz’s Ocean) and especially to editor Alexandra Kingston-Reese for her enthusiasm for this specific cluster.

I released the CFP hook and, from the very first nibble on my line, knew I had something big.

This cluster contains a diverse catch—creative and scholarly work, a hybrid of approaches, as one might expect from a cluster devoted to these hybrid beasts. But, all of the individual pieces speak to one another and to the larger ways in which mermaids serve as a heuristic to think with and through. They show how mermaids promote critical attention to storytelling and to the specific stories we tell about being human, about genres and media, symbols and selves. The essays do this work by examining the presence of mermaids in actual spaces (Sarah-Anne Leverette’s piece on Norfolk, Virginia and in Phillip Hayward’s essay on mermaids in Warsaw, Poland). The essays consider how mermaids serve as a means of identification and self-fashioning (from the poetry by professional surfer Devon DeMint to Trista Edward’s creative non-fiction essay on grief to scholar and cos-play mermaid Jalondra Davis). The essays take seriously recent works of literary and cinematic mermaid narratives (Délice Williams’s reading of The Mermaid of Black Conch and The Deep, Steve Mentz’s comparative analysis of the mermaid in The Mermaid of Black Conch and Shakespeare’s Ophelia, E.L. McCallum’s essay on the Polish film The Lure). And, the essays consider how this hybrid monster, who has seduced and fascinated humans around the globe for millennia, now serves as a trailblazing transdisciplinary site and symbol for theoretical explorations of disability (Michael Davidson’s essay), race and racism (Davis and Williams), the state of feminism and queer theory (McCallum), and more. Finally, a reflective interview with Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, editors of The Penguin Book of Mermaids (2019), suggests how scholarly interest and personal passion merged to produce a prescient anthology that is already inspiring more mermaid scholarship. Collectively, the essays demonstrate the power of humanities thinking, research, and rhetorical practice to address a contemporary cultural current.

I am not a fisherwoman, but presenting this cluster feels like what I imagine a fisherman feels when captured in that photo with the huge catch—the big smile alongside the big fish, communicating, “Hey, Look at this! Isn’t it amazing?”

I imagine this cluster as a kernel or foundation of what might be called “Critical Mermaid Studies.” Neologisms aside, this cluster demonstrates what is good and right about humanities scholarship and scholarly community: we devote serious, critical attention and analysis to things that matter to us personally, and when we bring our individual labors together into dialogue, to create a collaborative cluster, something magical happens. We become part of something larger, something that registers a moment and makes a difference.

Here is the fish I caught (and plan to release), but not before shouting loudly across the Internet: “Hey, Look at this! Isn’t it amazing?”

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

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  1. Steve Mentz, Ocean (Bloomsbury, Object Lessons series, 2020). Mentz suggests shifts in vocabulary to reflect and inspire the fact that the Ocean, and thinking about it, requires vastly different perspectives: “What if instead we redescribe the adventures of thinking as currents, as rates of flow and change? Why not emphasize movements and connections between or through difference?” (xiii–xvi).
  2. Jessica Pressman, “Hooked on Mermaids: Recuperating Personal Passion as Scholarly Research” in “Special Section: Mobilizing Creativity, Part 2”, minnesota review 101 (2023). DOI 10.1215/00265667-10770219