There used to be a corner shop on Sidney Street, East London that was one of those places run by rheumy-eyed, gummy-grinned old dudes with no teeth. The place was stuffed with evil, mogwai and small pieces of Kryptonite, and sold tat, hardcore army surplus, unicycles, rags, bones, teeth and much more. I'm not sure I ever went in there, and more thankfully still, it disappeared ages ago.
What I remember with astonishing clarity was the nearly-new soft pornographic magazine in its dusty, mildewed window. I forget which jazz title it was, but I will never forget the cover image: a woman in a waterproof mac and matching sou’wester. But the pose appealed even more than the outfit. Though her exposed bottom was facing the camera, she was also bent over at the waist looking backwards, like a quarterback. This meant you got the bottom, the breasts and the beaming British open-all-hours sauce smile, but not that unknowable scary, hairy thing that you always saw from the front – the from one of which, you were faintly aware, you had clambered into postnatal existence. To a boy of nine who felt nice when his willy tingled, this pose - soft bits yeah!, freaky things not there - represented a kind of uncomplicated feminine perfection.
When I reflect on the allure of the mermaid, I sometimes think of that shop window. Whither the enduring appeal of the Mermaid, if not that she has no genitalia? She is the mythical manifestation of unmessy, wipe-clean femininity. Not womanhood, mind: the point of these creatures is their suspension between states, their almost-ness and interstitial impossibility, and their imperviousness to time and mutability. This detached, otherworldly sexiness is obviously key to their appeal to very overgrown prepubescent boys.
But girls like them too, especially since Disney sugar-coated Hans Christian Andersen's devastatingly melancholy, profoundly misogynistic “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. The academic Dr Chris Richards wrote that Disney's “Ariel… can be understood as a fantasy sexual self for young girls, a figure through which the relation between the self as experienced in the present, with the body of a small child, to the self as imagined and projected into the future, with the sexual body of a woman, can be played at, perhaps rehearsed, perhaps learned.”
In her willingness to surrender her freedom, her immortality and her scales to the consuming love of a mortal man, the mermaid embodies a myth that’s as potent and destructive in big girls' real lives as those she represents as a male fantasy are to boys’. She gets a jealous husband and a so-called soul for all her love-smitten sacrifice. Life's a fish, but then you die.
According to Jorge Luis Borges, English is the only language to formally distinguish between mermaids and Sirens, those hot, wet and wild monsters whose sweet promises threaten to lure any passing hetero hero to his doom. But Borges adds that even the Sirens represented a bittersweet sense of loss and love: when a man did manage to prevent himself from diving into Davey Jones's locker and thus defy her call, the defeated Siren would kill herself.
And then, very straightforwardly, Daryl Hannah in “Splash”!
Text and illustration by Peter Lyle