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Credit: Fox Searchlight

Mermen and the women who love them

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Jun 1, 2020

In Melissa Broder's novel The Pisces, 30-something protagonist Lucy is forced to take a therapeutic vacation to Venice Beach after a messy break-up and tumble with the law left her unable to stay in Arizona. For the first half of the book, she goes on messy dates, has unfulfilling one-night stands, and attends therapy with so-called "love addicts," all the while trying to figure out if the perfect man exists or her constant search for one is a futile endeavor. One night, while sitting on the rocks by the beach, Lucy meets an attractive swimmer called Theo, with whom she is instantly smitten. Their mutual attraction turns to obsessive love, even though she's never seen him below the torso. When it is revealed that he is a merman, she isn't put off by the discovery. This may have been helped along by Theo kindly letting her know that his tail begins below the d**k.

Up until this twist, The Pisces is devoid of any speculative elements, but in retrospect, the choice to make the supposedly perfect boyfriend a merman makes a lot of sense. Mer mythology has been a crucial part of various cultures for thousands of years, dating back as early as the Babylonian era. Nowadays, mermaids are cool thanks to major technicolor trends of hair and make-up and its status as a queer icon.

Generally, however, the focus is primarily on mermaids and not mermen. Mermaids are depicted as the great beauties of lore, the sirens who lure unsuspecting fishermen to their deaths, and the young women who crave life on the land, often accompanied by banging Disney tunes. Pop culture is also full of sexy mermaids, from Daryl Hannah in Splash to Robert Pattinson's sinister seductress in The Lighthouse. Men aren't often afforded the same fishy sex appeal, although there are some key instances we can look at to get why it's even a fantasy in the first place.

The mermen of mythology tend to be coded more in terms of godlike power and pure strength than their female counterparts. They are often shown to be kings of the ocean or its master in some form, most notably the Greek sea god Triton, a messenger for his father Poseidon. In art and sculpture, Triton is usually shown with a long fishtail and a stacked set of abs, something that Disney carried over into their adaptation of The Little Mermaid when they decided to name Ariel's father Triton.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Triton is something of an exception in ancient lore in that he is a merman depicted explicitly as an attractive and alluring force. That puts him at odds with fellow mermen like Konrad Gesner's depiction of the mythical sea-Pan in Historia animalium IV, where his creatures have goat-like faces, devilish horns, and drooping breasts. Even the mermen hoaxes of P.T. Barnum and myriad traveling museums of the era prized the monstrous nature of such a creature over any sort of thrall it could have over humanity. Many of the mermen of lore are older, distinguished figures whose age and wisdom are seen as in tandem with the ocean as an almighty force. It's not a job for the young 'uns.

Modern re-imaginings of the merman often do away with the tail altogether. Gill-man from Creature From the Black Lagoon, designed by Millicent Patrick, gave him legs, a choice replicated by Guillermo del Toro in his romantic fantasy The Shape of Water, a movie where the scaly amphibian hybrid is undeniably a total snack who offers Sally Hawkins the best sex of her life. Even Aquaman, whose costume and backstory and world are clearly rooted in mer folklore, isn't swanning around the ocean with a tail (although we would happily get on board with Jason Momoa doing so in Aquaman 2).

As with all good things in life, we can turn to romance novels for a deeper dive into sexy paranormal creatures. Take a gander on most book-selling sites and you'll find a veritable bounty of titles about mer love featuring well-muscled gents with the scales to match. The set-ups are simple: A woman of the land falls for a stoic but noble man-fish of the ocean, and their mutual passions send shockwaves across the world. An inherent part of the merman/mermaid fantasy is vulnerability, which is evident in such stories. There's a very different romantic dynamic at play with mermen heroes compared to other beloved paranormal romance protagonists like vampires and werewolves simply because not having legs or the ability to live normally on the land or literally breathe puts you at a disadvantage. We're used to seeing this proto-damsel story play out in pop culture with women as the helpless beings, so the opportunity to see a mega-handsome man be rescued by the heroine for a change has its obvious appeal. As much as mythology is full of mermaids who overpower and lure men to their deaths, it is just as populated with stories of helpless beauties who are enthralled or outright enslaved by men (see the lore of selkies).

Of course, we can't talk about sexy mermen without digging into the manatee in the room: How do you make hot mermen who f*** when they, you know, don't exactly possess the expected equipment? The Shape of Water dealt with this in a wonderfully candid way that seems to be the default mode for hand-waving away any biological quandaries (spoiler alert: It slides out like a surprise!). The Pisces is one of the rare examples in the genre where human genitalia is on display. Some mer-erotica gets more explicit than that, which shows how this speculative angle is more rooted in primal ideas and pure kink than, say, a hot person with fangs who hates garlic.

Sci-fi and fantasy romance is a great tool for exploring ideas of the unknown and taboo in a safe creative structure. Like all great pop culture, it readily allows for the exploration of the transgressive. The intrinsic appeal of mer-erotica may lie in how it, by design, offers direct opposition to patriarchal limitations on love, sex, and desire. In the eyes of our society's crushing gender binary, what is more rebellious and alluring than a romance that defies all our conventions of normalcy? So many cultural depictions of monster erotica and sexy creatures remain rooted in humanoid forms – two arms, two legs, two eyes, and recognizable genitalia. Mer-creatures, even if everything looks familiar above the torso, instantly challenges that and gets us to think about desire in more daring terms. That's what great storytelling does, after all.

In her review of The Pisces, Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker says that "people don't have sex with sea creatures unless the world has failed them." Broder's book certainly positions Lucy's insatiable lust for Theo as a sign of how far she has fallen. There is a grain of truth to this concept, but I think it's also more about the fantasy of escape than anything else. It's hard being a woman who lives on the land and deals with late-capitalist male bulls**t every damn day. In The Shape of Water, Hawkins' heroine escapes to the ocean with her amphibious love, the uncertainty of the deep still a far better option for life than the smothering confines of Cold War paranoia, ableism, and loneliness. When times are tough, who doesn't want to get away from it all, sinking into the freedom of the sea? Frankly, it would be nice to have someone to swim down there with.

Credit: Fox Searchlight

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