The little mermaid is a major landmark in Copenhagen, attracting thousands of visitors a year. H.C. Andersen’s little mermaid is said to “embody the spirit of the city.” It is much maligned for being much smaller than people expect and the statue has undergone her fair share of decapitations, demonstrations, and vandalism incidents.
All those things beside, I found the cultural symbol to be a a little bit depressing and a rather sobering comment on longing and “the things we do for love.”
The sculpture is about LONGING. The little mermaid is gazing off into the distance longing for something that she may never have. The start of the story is that she was longing for a man she spots from afar. She could have been perfectly content to hang out with the hotties in the sea, but she wanted to be with the mysterious, captivating, and enigmatic human that she spotted on a ship. From a distance, he was everything she ever wanted.
And she ended up giving up EVERYTHING in order to try to be with him. She sacrificed her biggest gift – her enchanting voice – in order to get legs. By giving up her voice, she sacrificed the one thing that set her apart and made her unique in the world. (Also, from a critical feminist perspective, isn’t it interesting she had to give up her voice, but that she got “beautiful” legs so she could still charm the pants off the prince by her beauty, body, and graceful dancing?)
In addition to giving up her voice, she also signs up for a life of excruciating pain. Each step she takes feels like daggers, and she lives in constant pain, but she continues to dance for the prince in order to convince him to love her.
Later, she again assumes this position of longing as she wishes for her former life after realizing that her dreams with the prince did not come true and he chose another.
By the end of the story, her heart is broken, she does not get the man she gave up everything for, but she is also not able kill the man (which she is told to do in order to become a mermaid once more). She ends up flinging herself into the sea and DISSOLVING into sea foam.
So, as a recap, the little mermaid gives up her most precious gift, her health, and her family in order to be with a man, who ends up choosing someone else. The little mermaid ends up broken-hearted, alone, and dissolved into the sea.
So, remind me why we teach little girls to want to be little mermaids?
It makes me think about the narrative we construct about love. The beautiful, intoxicating, irresistible, emotional love that we are told to look for and expect in life. This idea of magical, all-consuming LOVE is purported to be one of the things we should dedicate our lives to finding, and in some cases, to sacrifice it all to keep it.
But sometimes it is too much to give. Sometimes the sacrifice is too great, when we have to give up aspects of ourselves that are intrinsic to who we are, the ones that make us unique, or pieces of ourselves that determine what we have to contribute to the world. Mark Manson describes it beautifully in this post on why love is not enough
So I sat by the little mermaid, letting these lessons wash over me and I bought the little replica to remind me of being aware of the things I do for love. In the search for fairy-tale moments and enrapturing love, I need to know what pieces of myself are essential and how to hold onto them so I don’t find myself dissolved into the sea.
As a fun sidebar, I also found it strange that this is actually what the area looked like:
Hundreds of people snapping pictures and posing in front of the depiction of a vulnerable, intimate moment. It all seemed like a strange and jarring intrusion into a delicate moment.
But that is just my take. Let me know what you think!