Entanglements: an exploration of the digital literary work FISHNETSTOCKINGS

Racial Fetishism and Hybrid Forms


In July 2020, the words “racist fish” were spray painted across the base of Copenhagen’s famed Little Mermaid statue. Appearing against a backdrop of global anti-racist protests, this accusation seemed to implicate Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, and by extension the country of Denmark, in the same anti-black systems responsible for the murder of George Floyd. While Denmark was the first European country to abolish the slave trade in 1803, slavery continued in the Danish West Indies until 1848, or eleven years after the initial publication of Andersen’s fairy tale. Andersen scholars have established the many ways this historical context influenced his body of work, but they generally agree that race was not of central concern. The question that remains, then, is why the mermaid would evoke an association with race and an association with anti-blackness in particular. Before becoming the model of white, whimsical femininity that was popularized by Disney in 1989, the mermaid was already a near-universal figure of folklore. Depending on their cultural and historical origins, mermaids were variously portrayed as vengeful or benevolent, monstrous or sacred, deviant or idealized. Mermaid lore also received a significant boost during the Columbian Exchange and Transatlantic Slavery, during which periods anxieties over racial difference were mapped through and onto the mermaid’s hybrid form [See Jessica’s “Mermaid Stories as Code”]. Indeed, it is not coincidental that Columbus’s first mention of mermaids comes from a journal entry recorded during a voyage to Haiti in 1493. The mermaid in this sense is a symbol of racial hybridity and fetishism, standing-in for the unresolved contradictions between the universal force of racial blackness and its manifestations in individual black bodies.


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