Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media

Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media

Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media

Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audiovisual Media


Mermaids have been a feature of western cinema since its inception and the number of films, television series, and videos representing them has expanded exponentially since the 1980s. Making a Splash analyses texts produced within a variety of audiovisual genres. Following an overview of mermaids in western culture that draws on a range of disciplines including media studies, psychoanalysis, and post- structuralism, individual chapters provide case studies of particular engagements with the folkloric figure. From Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid" to the creation of Ursula, Ariel’s tentacled antagonist in Disney’s 1989 film, to aspects of mermaid vocality, physicality, agency, and sexuality in films and even representations of mermen, this work provides a definitive overview of the significance of these ancient mythical figures in 110 years of western audio-visual media.


‘Den lille Havfrue’ (‘The Little Mermaid’) is Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s best-known short story. Since its initial publication in 1837 it has been translated into a variety of languages and has been the subject of numerous stage, film and television adaptations. the first section of this chapter introduces the folkloric context of the story, its original inflections and various psychoanalytic interpretations of its narrative and symbolism. Focus then shifts to the Disney company’s sustained engagement with the story before moving on to explore subsequent screen interpretations of the scenarios and characters produced by Disney. the word “becoming” in the chapter’s title is used in two senses. the first refers to the duality of the little mermaid’s experiences. Not only does she have to negotiate the process of becoming a young adult mermaid, she then has to cope with the implications of her decision to transform into a young adult woman. Entwined with its exploration of these facets, the chapter also characterises the manner in which the nameless principal protagonist of Andersen’s original work became ‘Ariel’ and the nameless sea witch became ‘Ursula’ within a body of Disney texts and subsequent productions. the chapter thereby moves from folklore through literary adaptation to media-lore, documenting the processes of those transitions.

I. Danish Roots

It is impossible to understand the Little Mermaid as Andersen intended without
first understanding the folkloric mermaid. Attempting to do so is the equivalent
of reading Beatrix Potter’s
Peter Rabbit without ever having heard of any rabbit
besides Bugs Bunny
. (Grydehøj 2006: 10)

There is a critical consensus that Andersen’s short story ‘Den lille Havfrue’ was his own invention rather than his interpretation of an existing folk tale. While this may be an accurate characterisation it has resulted in limited address to prior representations of aquatic people in the Danish cultural context from which Andersen emerged and their potential linkage to and/or inspiration for aspects of his short story.

The modern nation state of Denmark comprises the Jutland peninsula together with over . . .

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