I am a mermaid. I have always been a mermaid.
As someone with cerebral palsy, my legs have always been somewhat questionable. On land, they could tire at any moment, prompting me to sit down wherever I happened to be, even if that was the floor of a department store. They could (and did) cause me to trip and fall with alarming regularity. On land, my legs were a liability.
The water was different. The local YMCA had private swimming lessons available at a discount for children with disabilities, and my parents enrolled me in lessons before I even started kindergarten. My body did things in the water that it could never do out of it. I could kick, albeit with reduced strength. I could hop on one foot, a skill my physical therapists never quite succeeded in transferring to land. I even spent a summer learning how to do a backflip in the water. The water supported me in a way no brace ever did. I wasn’t afraid of falling in the water.
I was good at swimming like I wasn’t good at walking. I repeatedly won the gold medal for the 25-meter breaststroke at the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged. At crip camp, I was one of the precious few campers afforded the privilege of going into the deep end, a handy escape route when the boys were intent on dunking me. Even now, years after I’ve swum in any formal capacity, I go to Aqua Fit class at LA Fitness on Saturday mornings and feel the water welcome me. No matter how long I go without being in the water, I’m still a mermaid.
Mermaids, to me, are fundamentally disabled. Like wheelchairs, crutches, or prosthetics, mermaid tails aid movement and facilitate freedom. In the water, tails allow mermaids to do anything imaginable. But on land, without their tails, mermaids are at a loss, quite literally unsure of their footing. Like many humans, mermaids move through the world in a different way. It is only in an environment that was not built for us that some of our differences become disabling. Whether that environment is steps or dry land doesn’t really matter: disability is disability all the same.
Mermaid mythology has become so entwined with disability that the medical term for “complete or partial fusion of the lower limbs” is sirenomelia—sirens being a synonym in some myths for what we typically think of as mermaids.¹ Similarly, another term, “The Curse of Ondine,” used to label a medical condition—in this case a form of sleep apnea called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome—hails from an early myth that may have been a predecessor to the myth of the mermaid. A water nymph named Ondine punishes her two-timing husband by cursing him to stop breathing the moment he falls asleep.² In the original story of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, the little mermaid must endure pain as punishment for her ambition even before she bargains for a human soul. Her grandmother orders oysters to attach themselves to the mermaid’s tail before she ascends to the surface of the water to observe the human world. When the mermaid complains that the oysters hurt her, her grandmother is unmoved. “Pride must suffer pain,” she tells her granddaughter. Later, the little mermaid pays an even steeper price for her desire: though she is granted human legs, she is cursed to feel pain like “treading upon sharp knives” every time she takes a step (the story makes sure to repeatedly highlight her graceful walk, even as walking causes her pain). With all of these connections between mermaids and disability, it’s no wonder that the late disabled historian Paul Longmore suggested that mermaids could be used to recast prevailing notions of disability in a lens of empowerment.
Modern fantasy media, however, has usually been reluctant to make the explicit connection between mermaids and disability. A spate of movies and TV shows in the last several decades, like H2O and Aquamarine, present mermaids as traditionally beautiful young girls who are just as graceful with legs as they are with tails. In the Disney retelling of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is initially unsure of what to do with her legs, but once she gets the hang of walking, she could pass for any able-bodied woman, with no mention of the pain that cursed her in the original story. Even Ariel’s missing voice is treated as more of a plot device meant to motivate her into a traditional heterosexual romance than a disability. Considering that most modern mermaid images are thin, white, and extraordinarily feminine, I can’t help but wonder if the unwillingness to link mermaids with disability in the popular imagination has partly to do with the fundamental conception of mermaids as sex objects who exist as temptresses to men. Disability, like fatness, queerness, and other marginalizations, is fundamentally incompatible with sexiness in the ableist gaze of Western society.
It wasn’t until I read the incredible works of Seanan McGuire that I felt fantasy had finally acknowledged what I had known for years. Seanan McGuire’s October Daye urban fantasy series features several mermaids as important side characters, most notably Dianda Lorden, the lovably violent ruler of an undersea demesne. When the titular October—Toby—meets Dianda for the first time, they’re both on land. And yet instead of waltzing around on land like she doesn’t usually have fins, Dianda is using a wheelchair with her fins on full display. Dianda says, “Legs are tiring when the water is distant. I need to save my strength.”³ When I first read that, my jaw dropped. Here was explicit confirmation of a truth earlier mermaid stories dared not acknowledge. Throughout the series, Dianda’s wheelchair is often referred to casually as just another part of her. At a kingdom-wide event, an accessible space in the audience is saved for her. Her husband supports her when she has trouble navigating the stairs. Dianda is disabled because she’s a mermaid, and on land, she’s navigating a world not made for her, just like all disabled people do.
McGuire never lets the reality of disability slip past her when discussing mermaids, even across series. Her novella Rolling in the Deep also focuses on murderous mermaids, though much different than Dianda Lorden. The mermaids of Rolling in the Deep and its full-length sequel Into the Drowning Deep are carnivorous, ghastly creatures who focus on death and destruction. The books feel more and more like a bloodbath with every passing page. However, Rolling in the Deep also features a troupe of performing “mermaids” as part of the mockumentary that forms the premise for the book. Two of those mermaids use wheelchairs, and mostly keep their costume fins on, even when not in the water. (As a side note, one of those mermaids is based on Teal Scherer, star of the webseries “My Gimpy Life”). The head of the troupe, Sunnie, explains it this way: “We’ve found… that people talk one way to a woman who doesn’t stand up because she’s a mermaid, and another way to a woman who doesn’t stand up because her legs are not quite up to factory standards… As far as we’re concerned, they’re mermaids.” Once again, mermaids are linked to disability and the complicated realities of ableism.4 As long as people can dismiss those whose legs don’t work well on land as fantastical, fictional creatures, they won’t have to face the ugly truth that disabled people exist. Not only that, but disabled people exist as perfectly ordinary humans who are not special or inspirational, just navigating a world not made for them.
In McGuire’s short story “Each to Each” for Lightspeed Magazine, this encapsulation of the social model of disability within a fantastical premise is the most explicit. In the near future, women are recruited to become “military mermaids,” genetically and surgically altered in steps to resemble sea creatures in order to be most effective in the water. Yet, even as their bodies change, the women are expected to “pass” for typical as long as possible. They stuff their feet into boots even as their feet transform into fins, and are expected to speak verbally even when it is difficult to speak through air instead of water. Those who have fully transformed, who spend their time in the water and cannot even approximate “normal” human ways of moving and interacting, clearly make “drysiders” uncomfortable. But in the water, the women are able to move smoothly and freely, and communicate efficiently with each other without the need for verbal speech. Rather than using metaphor to shy away from tackling the realities of disability and ableism, as so many modern mermaid media does, Seanan McGuire uses metaphor to tell stories about disability. She understands that using fantasy as a vehicle to highlight real-world issues around disability can ultimately lead to increased acceptance, and maybe even social change.
What makes Seanan McGuire so good at filling in the holes of fantasy with the disability stories the genre has been missing? The answer is simple: she’s one of us. Seanan McGuire has spoken at length about her disabilities, including her chronic pain and need to use a motorized scooter at some large cons. She also identifies as neuroatypical. I didn’t find out that Seanan McGuire was disabled until I’d already fallen in love with her writing, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. A disabled author finally gave me the disabled mermaids I’d been yearning for. If we had more disabled authors like Seanan McGuire writing powerfully and authentically about disability, maybe we’d see more representation in fantasy and science fiction. Maybe we wouldn’t feel so much like there’s no place for disabled bodyminds in worlds of magic and technology.
Seanan McGuire is on the frontier of a new revolution in fantasy—a disability revolution. If fantasy authors and creators can conceptualize mermaids (and other forms of mythical creatures) as fundamentally disabled, there’s no end to the potential for great storytelling and social commentary. Perhaps more importantly, children with disabilities can grow up knowing that there is a place for them, even in fictional worlds. Ariel sings, “Legs are required for jumpin’, dancin’.” I have to disagree. I’ve found that you can dance just as well with fins—or a wheelchair—as you can with legs. Somehow, I think Seanan McGuire and her characters would agree.
¹ Kallen, B., et al. “The cyclops and the mermaid: an epidemiological study of two types of rare malformation.” Journal of Medical Genetics (1992), 30-35.
² Skye Alexander. “The Curse of Ondine.” Mermaids: The Myths, The Legends, and Lore (Adams Media, 2012), 20.
³ Seanan McGuire. One Salt Sea (DAW Books, Inc., 2011).
4 Mira Grant. Rolling In the Deep. (Subterranean Press, 2015).
© 2019 Cara Liebowitz