Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS

Mermaid Stories as Code


Recognizing the racist underbelly of mermaid history (as Diana points out) should prompt us to consider how, when, and why mermaids became associated with whiteness.

Mermaids existed for millennia before Andersen. Recall that Andersen never gave his heroine a name; she was an unknown figure—a type, and, in the end of the story, a didactic lesson in Christian heteronormative desire, morality and sacrifice. Disney’s 1989 animated film brought the Victorian short story to twentieth century popular culture, canonizing Andersen’s little mermaid - and giving the heroine a name, red hair, and a happy heterosexual marriage. Much was changed in the remake, but what remained was the mermaid’s whiteness.

Disney is remaking The Little Mermaid, this time with a Black actress as the protagonist. The casting announcement (in 2016) provoked racist backlash. [insert tweets here] 

Writing for The New York Times in the aftermath of this racist backlash, Caribbean children’s author Tracey Baptiste points out the pitfalls of our lack of knowledge of mermaids: “The focus on Eurocentric stories and storytelling has done us a disservice, leaving most totally ignorant of the fact that mermaid stories have been told throughout the African continent for millenniums.” Bapiste is a Caribbean-American writer whose book series for young readers works to fix this lacuna, in particular the second book in her The Jumbies YA book series, Rise of the Jumbies (2017) which features Mama D’Leau’ and Caribbean mermaids. 

The racist tweets surrounding Disney’s announcement illuminate grandiose ignorance of the fact that mermaids with dark skin and origins beyond Christian nations far preceded Andersen’s little mermaid. The fact is that mermaid stories lack serious (and certainly scholarly) attention to mermaid tales. This is especially troubling when we recognize that recent mermaid narratives (like Baptiste’s) defy expectations of alabaster skin and blond hair, Christian ideals of female sexuality and heteronormative romance, and other genre conventions solidified by mermaid imagery in the wake of Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837). 

Today’s mermaids are Black and Brown, sexually fluid, powerful in their relationships to Nature, and grounded in indigenous knowledge. They present alternatives to life under neoliberal capitalism, white patriarchy, and digital surveillance culture. The mermaid offers a focal point for tracing our racist histories and ideologies. Much work needs to be done to recover and recognize the mermaid as a figure born of Western colonialism and the Middle Passage. This is the topic of my current research, a book that challenges the idea of mermaid=white and demands reconsideration of mermaid history and the importance of mermaids as symbols and ciphers for cultural ideologies. Taking mermaid stories seriously as a historical genre, one that operates through codes and patterns shaped and formed over time, invites critical and historical analysis of how these texts serve to produce cultural, political, and ideological (and racist) culture.

FISHNETSTOCKINGS is an installation piece that features mermaids as central to its content, form, and experience. The text of FISHNETSTOCKINGS is a mashup of a Twitter feed and the text from the most canonical mermaid story: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837). But FISHNETSTOCKINGS is not an adaptation of Andersen’s tale. It is, instead, a work that uses media to question how and why Andersen’s tale is “the one” that matters. This makes FISHNETSTOCKINGS an important work of literary deconstruction that employs mermaid imagery in order to critique the historical ideologies converging around and through her.

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