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  • Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audio-visual Media by Philip Hayward
  • Lucy Fraser (bio)
Making a Splash: Mermaids (and Mermen) in 20th and 21st Century Audio-visual Media. By Philip Hayward, John Libbey Publishing, 2017, 211 pp.

Philip Hayward’s Making a Splash was published in 2017 in a small spate of research monographs on the mermaid theme. These included Tara E. Pedersen’s Mermaids and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern England (2015), Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tale Transformations of “The Little Mermaid” (2017), and Jennifer A. Kokai’s Swim Pretty: Aquatic Spectacles and the Performance of Race, Gender, and Nature (2017). Hayward’s work goes some way to explaining, perhaps, this academic trend: the book details waves of popularity of mermaid films and television, including recent vogues. It covers “all feature films and television programs that have included substantial representations of mermaids or mermen” in North America, Europe, and Australia from 1904 to 2015 (3). Though Hayward excludes animations apart from Disney’s and a few others, and acknowledges that he may have missed some productions, it is difficult to imagine that anyone is more qualified than he is to critique any omissions. The book offers an encyclopedic collection of sources that will prove essential for anyone working on this topic.

Making a Splash does not engage much with fairy-tale studies but has several points of appeal for researchers in the field. Working from a base in cultural studies (and thereby engaging with adjacent fields such as literary studies, art history, and musicology), Hayward takes up the concept of media lore as developed by the Russian Laboratory of Theoretical Folkloristics, which understands screen-based communication as a third type of cultural knowledge distinct from oral and literary communication (18). Analysis is then framed by psychoanalytic theory, particularly Freudian, Jungian, and Lacanian ideas. These are certainly well suited to unpicking Hans Christian Andersen’s influential fairy tale. [End Page 352] Chapter 1 focuses on such psychoanalytic readings of Andersen’s story and of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), then turning to an informative range of audiovisual responses to the sexualization of mermaid Ariel, including pornographic parodies. As a result, this chapter provides vital context to screen depictions of mermaids but somewhat neglects the topic of children as mermaid fans, though they are the main target audience for both the Danish fairy tale and the Disney adaptation.

Chapters 2–4 likewise focus on films and novels for adults and the issue of the mermaid’s identity, sexuality, and sexual appeal. Chapter 2 explores the “allure” of “fixed-form” mermaids (who do not metamorphose), particularly for the heterosexual male gaze, with special reference to films and plays from the 1940s and 1950s (56–66). Chapter 4 also focuses on sexual appeal, but this time through the figure of the “transformative mermaid” who “switches with relative ease” between different physical forms, which is a depiction that was institutionalized by the 1984 romantic comedy Splash (92). The value of the media-lore frame shines here in the author’s comparison of this block-buster film with nonmainstream products such as pornographic parodies, feminist mermaid-themed pornography, and more ephemeral representations such as social media posts and a short film featuring a performance artist known as the Permaid (105–07).

Chapter 3, “Sonic Seduction: Mermaid Vocality and Its Expression in Screen Soundtracks,” which is coauthored with Jon Fitzgerald, takes a musicological approach, which is an ideal lens for understanding audiovisual representations of the mermaid and the complex issues of gender, identity, and voice that weave through mermaid stories—Andersen’s tale in particular. Here, technical but accessible explanation of film soundtracks and vocal techniques is used to show how speaking and singing voices, as well as music and sound effects, can and do deftly convey the multiple meanings of mermaids.

Chapter 5 then shifts from the male gaze to feminine identifications with mermaids, here exemplified by Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Mermaid Chair (2005) and the film adaptation of the same title (2006). Children’s mermaid culture, while not the focus of these initial chapters...


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pp. 352-354
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