We are living in a re-enlightened age. An age of unicorns and mermaids. They echo through our fashion, our makeup, our breakfasts, our social media, our favoured multi-billion-dollar companies. They arrived in around 2016 and we've noted them every year with renewed gasps of pleasure and surprise. They aren’t costumes or lifestyles, but presentations, practices and amulets against an increasingly disenchanted existence. They are a belief system and an ethos, a symbol in daily life rather than a lived daily life. ‘Bra sales down 800%, shell and double-sided tape sales up 800%’ is not a headline I expect to see in my lifetime. Nor is ‘Huge increase in lateness and also bruised elbows as women flop along the ground everywhere in their mermaid blankets’. Nor is ‘FORKS THE NEW HAIRBRUSH?’, though I continue to hope.
The trend for mermaids and unicorns is a divisive one, and can draw huge amounts of ire on social media from those less enchanted with the everyday mythical. I tend to see it from the same people who complain about ‘vocal fry’ and ‘like’. The insinuation is often that grown women are regressing into a kind of stunted childhood- or worse, teenhood. Mermaids and unicorns aren’t trends that especially appeal to me, as I have never been into either horses or fish, but I fully support my aquatic sisters in all of their transgressive land-based endeavours. As someone who was raised Catholic, nothing makes more sense to me than to pass one’s days in a world at once mundane and magical, embracing anything symbolic of both sorrow and freedom. The church I went to as a child had an enormous floor-to-ceiling mural of New Testament scenes which took up the entire front interior, characters repeated and filling the wall while disobeying all spatial and temporal laws. Jesus sits in the top centre strip below the ceiling, bearded, artfully draped, and clutching his cross. Six feet below that Jesus is another Jesus, springing joyfully over the tomb, as a Mary in blue stands slightly back and to the side, looking up at Jesus #3: Being Raised Up On The Crucifix Jesus. Ceiling Jesus is surrounded either side by bearded men draped in robes of differing shades of pastel and holding an array of poses: pointing, beard-stroking, harp-holding. The large square of wall to the right of Jumping Jesus is an apparently 20th century baptism scene, but in the foreground hovers a medieval figure holding a large platter of hams.
This artistically bewildering, if undeniably immersive scene, would house weekly soporific sermons inside a tight 57-minute service, after which the congregation were free to roam the gift shop, which did a roaring trade in pastel rosary beads, translucent bottles of holy water in the shape of Mary, and illustrated books of the saints in a strange and vaguely Pre-Raphaelite style: all jewel-toned robes, tumbling hair, red parted lips, and blue eyes turned sorrowfully up to God. The stories were heavily sanitised for children, which left me with the vague impression as a child that the greatest women through time were those who loved their wicked parents, peacefully gave roses to invading soldiers, possessed some kind of indefinable aura that drew wicked governments to them like moths to a flame, and died happily young, safe in the knowledge that they would be with God forever in their emerald and crimson robes. I spent my childhood waiting for my mysterious holy aura to be sensed and viciously persecuted by Tony Blair, and when that didn’t happen I turned 13, discovered the church’s stance on abortion, women, contraception, and LGBT rights, and fell into the arms of my other brightly-coloured suffering icons, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.
But back to mermaids and unicorns. Women’s fashion has always cycled through strange and inclement weathers, and teenage girls’ fashion has always matched it weirdness for weirdness. When I was wearing baggy athleisure trousers that disguised their basic comfort origins with a clip-on chain and the words ‘sk8r boi’ on the bum, women were wearing torn vests and cowboy jeans and skinny trailing scarves. No sooner had we finished buying our fluorescent expressions of anti-conformity from Claire’s Accessories than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were on the scene, dragging adult and tween alike into a world of velour tracksuits, minimal amounts of fabric, religiously straightened hair, and pink everything. Their fashion was almost anti-fashion in its strange lines and patterns and ugly mishmashes, and clothes were worn as a knowing salute to all things little girls were made of, even as they strove to undermine it with everything you wouldn’t want to be photographed doing on the front page of the LA Times. Teenage emos performed an almost perfect inversion of this concurrently, and my schoolfriends spent their weekends in countercultural hotspots such as the canal and the indoor market, their black outfits and hair adorned with coloured streaks, and frilly-edged The Nightmare Before Christmas hair ornamentation. Children’s things can be inherently dark, and dark things can come in beautiful packages, is what my friend’s myspace pages and later my third-year children’s literature module taught me.
Now adult trends embrace the wholesome but imaginary innocence of what we’d give our children, and children charge headlong into their adult wardrobe. I work at a primary school, and regularly find myself in a sea of 8-year-olds in crop tops and jumpers saying #SELFIE and NEW YORK and LA and CHILL and SASSY and BE UNIQUE and UNICORN QUEEN. Unicorn backpacks and unicorn waterbottles and unicorn charms and unicorn headbands (a large and impractical decoration permissible on the child’s birthday only). Children and adults have formed a kind of tacit agreement to believe again, to throw one’s whole blank canvas into stating that magic is real again and that wholesome things don’t necessarily have to be ironic. With all the disgusting things happening in the world right now, the trend seems to demand, you begrudge people their sincere love of a sparkly horse with wings and a decorative yet lethal forehead appendage, or a blue sealady with very soft and shiny hair?
Mermaids are, literally, a different kettle of fish. Women in water as a trope come with a lot of complicated baggage of their own. Women in the water tend to have ended up there in tragic circumstances, and women from the water to tend to be dangerously naïve at best and vain murderers at worst. I’m thinking of that story written for adults in the seventeenth century about a little mermaid who traded her voice for legs and every step she took was like knives in her feet and she was ordered to kill the prince she loved with a dagger in order to save her own life. She refuses, and after turning into seafoam she returns as a ‘daughter of the air’ – well-intentioned creatures in purgatory who earn entry into the Kingdom of God after 300 years of good deeds. The spirits can shorten the 300 years by floating unseen into the houses of good children, but encountering a bad child makes them weep, and each tear adds a day to the trial. It’s understandable that Disney took that out in favour of some merry calypso beats and a wedding instead.
Mermaids also feature in another Disney classic, Peter Pan. Peter Pan is a truly fascinating book, a propaganda piece in favour of an eternal childhood that manages to make childhood a nightmarish proto-adulthood, in which little boys survive and thrive because the little girls around them will always know how to be mother. It’s the most realistic book I’ve ever read in my life. The two fearsome patriarchal figures of the story, Mr Darling and Captain Hook, are traditionally played by the same actor. Misogyny and a reluctance to allow women a central voice in their own narratives begins, like charity, at home. Captain Hook is described in the novel as “never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding; and the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, showed him one of a different caste from his crew.” Towards the end of the novel we find Hook pacing the deck of his ship, contemplating his hour of triumph. The narrator reveals that, “Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze; but as those who read between the lines must already have guessed, he had been at a famous public school”. So far so contemporary, a predilection for dressing like Charles II aside.
And Mr Darling? Mr Darling “used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved him but respected him.” Mr Darling “often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.” Mr Darling “had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so of course they had a nurse.” Mr Darling, unhappily surveying his dog-nurse, wondered if they neighbours talked, because “He had his position in the city to consider.” Mr Darling “was determined to show who was master in that house, and when commands would not draw Nana from the kennel, he lured her out of it with honeyed words, and seizing her roughly, dragged her from the nursery. He was ashamed of himself, and yet he did it. It was all owing to his too affectionate nature, which craved for admiration.” And then, just in case you thought peak 2018 had been achieved in the 1911 world of Peter Pan, we find Mr Darling a celebrity in Nana’s dog kennel, where he installed himself permanently in a flamboyant performance of remorse. He is carried in his kennel to his daily cab to work and returns home in the same fashion at 6pm. The narrator praises him for his bravery in this public display of contrition, before noting, “It may have been quixotic, but it was magnificent. Soon the inward meaning of it leaked out, and the great heart of the public was touched. Crowds followed the cab, cheering it lustily; charming girls scaled it to get his autograph; interviews appeared in the better class of papers, and society invited him to dinner and added, ‘Do come in the kennel.’”
And Wendy? Doing the best impression of a mother she can. She has flown away to an enchanted land with her siblings, and after the young boys have spent a long day fishing and hunting and killing anonymous pirates, she welcomes them back with dinner and homework, and when Peter returns from an adventure with his head bandaged she “cooed over him and bathed it in lukewarm water while he told a dazzling tale.” She fails to make friends with the mermaids in the lagoon, being irritated by their lazy haircombing and tailsplashing, and is almost drowned by them after being rescued from Hook, when one gently pulls her off the rock and into the sea. It’s hard not to fancy a life of hedonistic mermaidry after reading Peter Pan. They play football with special bubbles made in rainbow water after rainy days, utter “strange wailing cries” at the turn of the moon, and never once have to send their children to spring-clean Peter’s house when he’s out killing pirates.
Femininity in fashion is constantly being twisted into something that is either self-aware or ironic to be acceptable. For every sincere Cath Kidston range of Tinkerbell merchandise we have a Snow White/Lolita mashup. Madonna’s song What It Feels Like For A Girl opens with a sample from the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden. “Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading.” This is a sentiment that rears its head through each new cycle of women’s fashion or analysis of women’s place in popular culture. The guardian article about “90s ladettes” being best placed to take over Chris Evan’s radio slot. The backlash against mermaids and unicorns. The “Be an [X] rather than a Kardashian” motto of the Madonna/whore binary supporters. Lady Gaga’s haute couture outfits pushed staples of female fashion to impractical and often unwearable extremes. Shoulder pads that reached eyebrow height. High heels that could only be worn from lobby to car and required the support of three men. An armoured corset dress made of actual metal, the bubble skirt doubling as tassets. The continuous and unambiguous self-commentary prompted a hypocritical backlash- tryhard, gimmicky, pretentious. There are kudos to be gained in being Not Like Other Girls, but it must follow the template set down by all those who are already Not Like Other Girls.
There’s certainly something to be said about the capitalist restraints on mermaid life. How, in order to present the best version of mermaid life on instagram one would ideally have the time and money for a high-quality balayage session, food dye to get that vivid blue mermaid toast, more food dye and great blenders for that mermaid smoothie, and somewhere to show off the results of those pricey mermaid makeup palettes. The fact that sponsorship means the Miranda Priestlys of the world are no longer always in the room where it happens, and a tv channel with a new show about mermaids can buy an article on a women’s pop culture site with the subheading “Mermaids are the biggest trend of 2018!” But the problem is absolutely not that grown women have decided to embrace something mythical, something associated with childhood, something bright and unashamedly girly and creative and glittery. It’s certainly not any worse than the highly meme-friendly idea that women should constantly be counting down to gin o’clock, nature’s sparkling and dainty alcoholic numbing agent to the everyday pressures of life.
Besides, everyday magic and self-expression can be found in embracing exactly as many colours and patterns and accessories as one feels like. Mermaids are, not to confuse things, just sitting ducks. Ugly Betty served look upon look every episode so that we could be our messiest, brightest selves. She may never have gone to a music festival with three different shades of green in her hair, but she painted with all the colours of the wind every single day.
At work, a kind of witchy injoke has taken root. The girls count my rings, swirl my hard cloisonné bracelet around my wrist, tug the tassels on my earrings. They slide the largest ring off my finger as I pretend not to notice, and then shriek gleefully into my face that now they have my magic. “You’re magic” is a common greeting, a feminine conspiracy. The boys take a more didactic approach. One boy says, “Miss, will you wear the black necklace with the white circle tomorrow?” Another boy says doubtfully, “Miss, are you wearing sports socks with a dress?” (Reader, I was not. It was a skirt.)
In one of four drawers assigned to me by the class teacher live my black work trousers, bought for a trial day cleaning rooms at a Travelodge in Hounslow, now nestled between hundreds squares and multiplication worksheets. They are my most sensible clothes for my least sensible work - the 6 gross motor skills sessions I run every week. They say, of course I’m ready to crawl around on the floor pretending to be a dog. They say, when I shout ‘runner beans’ we’re going to lift our knees up high, and when I shout ‘jelly beans’ we’re going to wobble our whole body like this. Surely if mermaid fans are as irritating as all that, then all fashion should be worn with a Declaration of Intent safety-pinned on somewhere? ‘Please don’t respect me in my deceptively utilitarian black, I’m about to take off my shoes and demonstrate stomping like a giant, whilst shouting FEE FIE FO FUM’? ‘I’m 19 and not yet in possession of a capsule wardrobe or an adult’s sensitivity to season, and that is why I am wearing a polkadot rah-rah dress with glittery silver tights and glittery gold mary-janes to this chilly February group therapy session’?
SIDENOTE 1: A lovely person gave me a gift of mermaid makeup brushes and I genuinely love and treasure them. They are extremely cute and colourful.
SIDENOTE 2: As accurate in many ways as the Ian McEwan/Madonna quote is, let's not pretend that people who look like unfeminine girls don't get a HUGE amount of shit from ignorant strangers too.
SIDENOTE 3: Although I'm in no rush to dab silver sequins on top of artfully ombréd turquoise lips, I do love tragic and mysterious water ladies in art. Three of my favourites are in Manchester Art Gallery. Sappho, looking furious and brokenhearted and majestic. Hero, looking tragic and noble. Ophelia, looking like a highly hormonal teenage boy painted her, which was indeed the case. Other magnificent women-in-water art: the video below is a short behind-the-scenes look at artist Isaac Julien's film installation Ten Thousand Waves, a masterpiece you can read about here because I wouldn't do it justice, which interweaves the story of Mazu the sea goddess with the city of Shanghai, the 1934 silent movie The Goddess, work in the rural Guangxi province, and news footage of the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy. I saw this earlier in the year at the Whitworth in a dark room with three large screens, and watched it for 90 minutes until we had to leave to make the free parking. It is incredible and I recommend seeing it if you're ever near a gallery showing it.