NOPE ON A ROPE. An illustration from the original book. Image: Getty.

The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The story follows the journey of a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea as a mermaid to gain a human soul.

The Little Mermaid of Andersen’s tale is quite unlike the sirens against whose enchanting and deadly song Odysseus was forced to protect himself. The sirens of the Odyssey are both an embodiment of danger to the lives of the men who hear their voices, and a challenge to the social order. Their destructive power results from the perception of them as creatures more closely connected to nature than culture. The Little Mermaid also has little in common with the mermaids familiar from folktales, whose voices presaged death for sailors and who led men into temptation. Andersen deprived his mermaid of the destructive power that legends had to attributed to these aquatic creatures, half-woman, half-fish. The result of the patriarchal procedure of assimilating what mermaids or sirens had represented – threatening womanhood – is the figure of the Little Mermaid, who may be destructive, but only to herself.

Andersen leaves no doubt as to the domination of the human world over the underwater realm. The supremacy and power of the dominant classes becomes authorised and accepted by those who have been deprived of that power, in keeping with the rule that “You will be law-abiding, or you will cease to exist.” The mermaid is subordinated in two ways: as a representative of a “lower” level of society and as a woman, who in a patriarchal society is subject to the power of men. She consents to this position without resistance and adheres closely to the rules that define her place in the power structure. She decides to undergo the suffering that comes from exchanging her tail for legs, because “[y]our fish’s tail, which among us is considered so beautiful, on earth is thought to be quite ugly. They do not know any better”; she also willingly accepts the pain she will thereafter feel with every step, comparable to stepping directly on the piercing, wounding blade of a knife; and she agrees to have her tongue cut out.

To the Little Mermaid, it is obvious that her royal upbringing means nothing compared to the much finer upbringing of the human prince – beside him, she finds herself in the position of a beloved “foundling.” Giving up her status is, along with being physically crippled, the price she must pay for adapting to fit a vision of female beauty that the prince can accept and love.

The story of the little mermaid reminds me of what it must be like to be an an Indigenous Australian living in a white dominated society where the power of eons of tradition is ignored, distrusted and denied and assimilated into the dominant world view.

Indigenous Australians still live with the reality that they are a minority group that is often expected to conform with majority norms, biases and values in regard to culture and lifestyle. They also live with the very real gap in well being that affects their ability to thrive within broader Australian society.

Recently, a 3-year-old Aboriginal girl was traumatised after she was racially abused in a shopping centre and tried to scrub her body to remove her black skin. 

“Samara was in a queue with her mother when another mother and her two daughters began to verbally abuse the young girl, making comments about her black skin.”

“I asked the woman what she meant by the comment and then one of the woman’s young daughters screwed up her face, she pointed at Samara and said ‘you’re black and black is ugly’,” recalls her mother.

Samara became upset and started to cry. She refused to attend Aboriginal dance classes and starting taking baths daily in a bid to scrub off her black skin.

“She was requesting to bath every day and she was soaping up to make herself look white” until her skin was red, says her mother. [1]

“Healing begins where the wound was made.”

When individuals are constantly feeling that their bodies are being perceived and categorised in biased ways because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and other visible characteristics, their capacity to act with free will is constrained. At a collective or community level, liberation is only possible when individuals and groups are able to gain power and control over the knowledge, systems, and institutions that surround their lives. 

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing the fragility of all our systems, our complex dependence upon one another, and health and healthcare as the most basic of human rights. Amidst this global health crisis there is hope for social change that we must use to construct new realities that re-balance and reinvent our social, economic and environmental systems, as well as gender and racial divisions of labour, power and resources for the stability and survival of humanity. The stakes are that high. [3]