Merpeople & the Danger of Men

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


Mermaid romances with humans are often intense narratives of forbidden love. For a lighter take, the ‘80s romantic comedy Splash is about a mermaid who rescues a man from drowning and comes ashore to spend six days with him in New York City. She becomes endangered when an obsessed scientist starts tracking her, determined to prove that mermaids exist. In the end, she wins over the scientist and returns to the ocean, and her beloved gives up his human life to join her there.


Tori Amos wrote “Merman” for her husband, but it became a song she dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shephard, a 21-year-old gay college student who died in a brutal hate crime in 1998. Her lyrics offer sanctuary and affirmation in a lullaby (“go to bed the priests are dead / now no one can call you bad”). One can see parallels between merpeople and the LGBT community in their fluid range of identities, lives under threat, and below-the-surface world of community and freedom that they create for themselves.


Nine mermaid poems open Matthea Harvey’s collection If the Tabloids Are True, What Are You? Her mermaids are inventive, Xanax-scavenging chainsmokers and their lives are startling alternatives to the usual mermaid tales of seduction. “The Inside Out Mermaid” is a literal inversion of the femme mermaid—the speaker’s body is all bodily organs, muscle and veins, subject to her lover’s manipulation. Her sole area of control is withholding her internal beauty, a space out of his reach.

Mermaid romances with humans are often intense narratives of forbidden love. For a lighter take, the ‘80s romantic comedy Splash is about a mermaid who rescues a man from drowning and comes ashore to spend six days with him in New York City. She becomes endangered when an obsessed scientist starts tracking her, determined to prove that mermaids exist. In the end, she wins over the scientist and returns to the ocean, and her beloved gives up his human life to join her there.

Tori Amos wrote “Merman” for her husband, but it became a song she dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shephard, a 21-year-old gay college student who died in a brutal hate crime in 1998. Her lyrics offer sanctuary and affirmation in a lullaby (“go to bed the priests are dead / now no one can call you bad”). One can see parallels between merpeople and the LGBT community in their fluid range of identities, lives under threat, and below-the-surface world of community and freedom that they create for themselves.

Nine mermaid poems open Matthea Harvey’s collection If the Tabloids Are True, What Are You? Her mermaids are inventive, Xanax-scavenging chainsmokers and their lives are startling alternatives to the usual mermaid tales of seduction. “The Inside Out Mermaid” is a literal inversion of the femme mermaid—the speaker’s body is all bodily organs, muscle and veins, subject to her lover’s manipulation. Her sole area of control is withholding her internal beauty, a space out of his reach.