Early sightings of “mermaids” by sailors and fishermen were said to resemble more of a female manatee. In the 1800s, P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey circus, showcased a mermaid in his American museum. Although patrons were promised beauty, they were greeted by a creature that was half monkey, half shark.
In 1941, just six years before the opening of Weeki Wachee, Esther Williams had become the iconic image of “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”
“The culture of late capitalism has seen the spread of commodification into perhaps the last two available domains—the unconscious (pornography, psychotherapy, fantasy) and nature (wilderness parks, zoos, and anthropology),” sociologist Steven Fjelmen said.
Williams, a champion swimmer was the perfect combination of the two.
“When Weeki Wachee opened in 1947, the mermaids picked up the threads of novelty, female beauty, athleticism, and domestication that the Feejee Mermaid and Esther Williams had perpetuated,” says Jennifer Kokai, an assistant professor of theater at Weber State University.
But for Barbara Wynns, a former mermaid who performed in the 60s and 70s, mermaids are sexualized and desexualized at the same time, making them a relatable role model to women.
“They make a good symbol for a lot of women who are trying to negotiate being strong, but still accessible and lovable,” Wynns told the New York Times in 2013.
Today she runs the “Sirens of the Deep” camp to help women of all ages and sizes “find their inner mermaid.”
However, today's mermaids still complain about Ariel getting married at 15 in the show.
Being a mermaid today