Rockport’s Growing Mermaid Problem
As many feared once Rockport allowed liquor, the town is falling apart. Its latest scourge? Mermaids
Mary Faino was visiting Mexico when she came up with the name for her store in Rockport.
She was going into business on a street next to the ocean with a fellow artist, a woman who, like Mary, worked with and on paper. There were papier-mâché mermaids for sale in the craft shops, and one morning the name just came to her: The Paper Mermaid.
At first, the artists sold only their own work in the shop, which might include an ocean scene or human/animal hybrid, but not that much in the way of actual mermaids.
“Back then, I was placing my figures in Italian settings,” says Mary, who grew up in Rome and returns there every year. Her paintings and drawings sold well enough, as did the other items she was making and adding to the inventory, like books and scarves. But as the store continued to evolve, Faino found herself going in other directions.
“I have a background in design, and found that I really enjoyed being a buyer for the store and not having to always be producing work for it.” The Paper Mermaid slowly added gifts, toys, more stationery and cards, and … mermaids.
Her partner has since moved on. Mary now runs the store by herself. She carries two slightly overlapping categories of mermaid products. For children there are books, paper dolls, sticker dolls, and a rack of differently-sized cloth dolls in an assortment of hair and tail colors. (But not skin tone: Mary has tried to include more multicultural mermaids, but they don’t sell). The overlap includes mermaid cupcake toppers, Nepalese paper garlands, and Mermaids in Wonderland: A Coloring and Puzzle Solving Adventure for All Ages.
For adults, or kids too old for dolls, there are a variety of takes on the mermaid theme: the vintage postcard calendar, retro mermaid socks, a mug that says “Mermaids Have More Fun,” and a blank book adorned with a rather emo mermaid and a quote from Anais Nin: “I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
Faino says women come into her store all the time with some version of a connection to mermaids: they were a mermaid in a previous life (she has a dish for them now that says so), they collect mermaids, they really really love mermaids, and — most often — they say they are a mermaid. She’s met groups of women who have given their clubs a mermaid name: a book group, some motorcyclists.
At a trade show recently, she noticed more mermaids than ever before. “They’re hot and getting hotter,” she was told. A customer recently asked if mermaids were a symbol of Rockport, they were seeing them around so much.
So what do they mean to her now, besides a good name for a store next to the ocean founded by women artists?
“They’re creative and whimsical,” she offers. “They’ve always had a following.” But she’s not sure why it’s getting bigger. “Perhaps people have a greater need now for an escape into fantasy.”
She reminds me that mermaids adorn churches in Europe, and how the Puritans must have been glad to leave that sexy ambiguity behind. They’ve also become a symbol of gender fluidity, and we decide it would be very cool to go see the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade one of these years, or that park in Florida where they hold mermaid shows. We laugh about how American depictions are so determined to hide the offending nipple in various ways.
I ask about mermaids that don’t make it into her store. Of course all kinds of kitsch mermaids, tacky mermaids are out there. She turned down the guy who made a soft porn calendar with his girlfriend wearing a tail on the beach.
The children’s mermaid world is, if anything, even more kitschified.
Faino owns a Barbie mermaid someone once gave her, but there are no Barbies in her store. The dolls wear bandeaus or seashells over their flat little chests, and lack the enormous anime eyes and extra-large heads so common in the doll universe. They do tend towards the sparkly and shiny — she knows what young customers like. The exception in the children’s zone is a painting Mary has done, available for the wall or as a card, in a colorful, mixed-media style similar to the illustrations to her book A Day in Rockport (published last year with text by S.D. Kelly). Against a deep blue background, her mermaid dives with arms outstretched, directing both hands and gaze towards several large fish swimming just beneath her. Her tail is the same green as the fish, and has extra fins on it. Her brown hair floats around like hair does underwater, and is adorned with a yellow starfish.
“It captures something of what I like about mermaids—she’s in a private magical space, enjoying her solitude. The title “Night Swimming” is from the REM song. A friend of mine said ‘It’s very fishy’ and I said well, they are fishy.” Fish are iridescent and shiny and colorful, but they are also covered in protective slime, and they die when deprived of their element.
Inevitably, looming under this discussion, approaching inexorably (cue Jaws music), is a fairy tale.
Mermaid stories date back to 1000 B.C. Assyria and are found all around the world, but the dominant one remains Disney’s, via Hans Christian Andersen. The Danish writer’s version is related to stories of Undine, a female water spirit described by Paracelsus and the subject of novels and ballets in the nineteenth century.
Those legends hinged on the idea that the undine could acquire an immortal soul by marrying a human. There was typically a catch, like the man had to stay faithful, or she had to revert to fish form once a week. Andersen just made the catch really big, and really Christian. Disney ditched the sacrifice and let the water spirit live happily human ever after. While some fans point out that this makes Ariel have all this rebellious agency that the “original” Little Mermaid never had, it’s still a princess plot as far as I’m concerned.
While there’s no trace of red-haired Ariel or sidekick crab Sebastian in The Paper Mermaid store, the Disney effect remains inescapable. There is no trace of Andersen’s mermaid either.
“When I carried a book with a somewhat sensitive version of the “bad” ending, people didn’t want it,” Faino explains. “I felt I had to give people a warning that the ending was different, that she didn’t marry the prince.” The customer would invariably put the book back, so she stopped carrying them.
Really? I ask her.
Not one person walks in here and says, oh cool, here’s the weird, dark, Scandinavian tale to counteract the marriage-fixes-everything Disney juggernaut? (Maybe it’s good that I have a son and not a daughter).
Mary answers no, then adds wistfully, “I would love it if a writer could do a good updated version that was less … well, how do you tell that story so she isn’t a martyr? I would like to illustrate that.”
While she’s waiting for that to happen, I give her the news that Disney is already at work on a live-action remake, so she’ll be ready for the next peak of the wave of fascination. Meanwhile, a trailer for another live-action mermaid movie’s been released on YouTube, and the reaction has been so negative that comments were disabled.
I want to talk one of those women who identify so strongly with mermaids. I think about calling up a tattoo parlor to see if they had any leads, but Faino saves me the trouble by telling me about the person who cuts her hair.
Mary Willette of Lords and Ladies salon in the Liberty Tree Mall has mermaids on her business card and all over her Instagram feed. Her house and work station are decorated with mermaids, her hair is purple, and she has a full sleeve tattoo of a mermaid with purple hair and other sea creatures.
She grew up in Malden, with a mother who “hated the ocean” and never took her. Mary has made up for that lack ever since.
“I’ve loved mermaids as long as I remember. The Little Mermaid was my favorite Disney movie. I just think they’re beautiful. My favorite place on this earth is the ocean. I feel at peace there and the idea of living in it fascinates me. There’s also the dark side of mermaids luring men to their death, which symbolizes power to me.”
No conflict for Willette between dark and cute versions. I can respect that. I ask if she’s noticed the uptick in mermaid imagery of late, and if she has any idea why that’s happening. She has noticed, can’t explain it, but thinks it’s great.
It’s good for business too, she adds. More and more people are coming in for hair like hers — cartoon and fantasy hues — calling it “mermaid colors.”
Poet Jennifer Jean has a more complicated relationship with mermaids. Her website is Fishwife Tales, named after a character she created for her first collection of poems. But she’s not writing about shape-shifting female marine creatures these days, and she doesn’t perform the Fishwife poems much any more.
In her essay for the anthology Mythology & Modern Women Poets, “They’re Not Mermaids, Really: Shame and Re-visioning the Mermaid Mythos,” Jean writes about how she created a character to express doubts and fears about her upcoming marriage. Feeling she was leaving behind a community of nurturing women to enter an alien, unfamiliar state, she thought, who else does that, how, what is lost and gained from the passage/transformation? She was studying poetry in graduate school in San Francisco, a(nother) city where the ocean’s proximity is impossible to ignore. The poems began to take shape, in the voice of an ocean-bound creature both attracted to and suspicious of the world of humans. The name “Fishwife” played with her both keeping and rejecting her aquatic origins as she moves towards joining herself with a fisherman in marriage. Jennifer avoided the term “mermaid” throughout, to avoid some of the trappings associated with them. The Fishwife wasn’t into singing, she never pulled out a mirror and combed her long hair.
The poet got married, and the newlyweds moved across the continent, landing initially in Gloucester, where her husband had family. Jennifer was pregnant, and as she settled in, eating seafood and swimming in the ocean of her new home, a new life floating inside her, she found herself writing more poems from the Fishwife’s perspective. She was also learning and thinking about her maternal grandmother, an actual fisherman’s wife, who moved from the Azores to Providence, R.I., and thus looked out onto the same ocean. Eventually the series of poems became a collection, with individual parts set to music or published online.
Jean also began teaching college, and having the occasional, inevitable conversation with new colleagues about what she was working on. She would describe the Fishwife project, and after a little while people would usually say, “Oh, a mermaid,” as if that explained everything. She could see that somehow, if not even consciously, they were picturing something pretty and accessible, not the complex being she’d worked so hard to create. She grew less and less comfortable with writing about the Fishwife, and began to move on to other subjects.
The subject of human trafficking, and helping its survivors, is Jean’s current passion. Part of leaving the Fishwife was simple moving on. “I’ve reconciled myself to marriage and family” she explains. “The mermaid was fear-based—I was afraid of losing my creative abilities when I got married and had children. But I didn’t. It’s still my domain name, I’m still a Fishwife, but in a different way. It’s more with pride now.” She mentions how at the writing retreat she just led, a woman originally from Gloucester got really excited to hear she’d been writing about mermaids.
Jean’s daughter Chloe, 11, has read some of her mother’s Fishwife poems, but tends to prefer the mermaids she watches on Netflix. There are a couple of television series out of Australia, and Chloe tells me about one of them, H20.
“There are three of them, and they’re in high school. When they get wet they turn back into mermaid shape in ten seconds. So they’re always trying to avoid water.”
And they have powers, her mother reminds her. Chloe recites: “Freezing, boiling, moving water around. They can make water into jello, and then it hardens even more.”
Like any myth, the mermaid means different things to different people, cultures, and times. To those of us who live next to the ocean, she’s a reminder of its closeness, its depths both literal and figurative, the way we feel so different when we float or swim in its waters. The mountains have their yetis and the forests their Bigfoot, but only the mermaid has had two Discovery Channel “docufictions” made about her in recent years.
While the dominant (Western) fairy tale has the mermaid longing for the human world, seeking love and/or immortality in it, I think the idea persists partly for the opposite reasons, because of our human longing to connect with wild places and creatures. The mermaid may visit the surface but she lives free in the ocean depths, and she doesn’t want your soul, or your fork.
I especially like the interpretation provided by the originator and seller of a t-shirt that’s been spotted around Rockport lately. Silvana Costa had “Mermaid Problems” shirts made for her store The Wicked Peacock, and it did so well she added a keepsake bracelet, with the geographical coordinates of Rockport on the other side of the phrase. She also sells Mermaid Problems wineglasses at Strut Boutique across the street.
“It just sort of came to me,” Costa says of the idea for the shirt.
She concurs with Faino that many of her customers self-identify as mermaids. “It’s funny, because I’m not a mermaid myself. I don’t really like sitting on the beach or swimming in the ocean. I’m a total wolf, I like being alone in the woods.
“But there are tons of ‘mermaids’ in Rockport. I think it does two things. One’s on a deeper level, by reaffirming our belief in the unknown. ‘Does it exist?’ Nobody wants to say no, but saying yes is out of bounds. It expresses the presence of the divine, that middle space. It gives us that sense of wonderment — it’s a socially acceptable way to express that, to maintain a childlike sense of wonder.
“Then there’s a surface way people identify with it: being near the water, hanging out on the beach. Having long, flowing hair.”
I ask if there’s a dominant age group for mermaid fandom and she says no, it’s “all ages, literally.”
So why problems? Costa laughs, explains that her sense of humor is to blame. “When people ask, I say ‘those are the best kind of problems to have.’”
One shirt she sold, though, was from a completely un-ironic perspective.
“This girl came in, frantic, at nine-fifteen in the evening. ‘I need that Mermaid Problems t-shirt!’ I said, yeah, I bet, like what filter to use for your selfie, and she said ‘No, I really have mermaid problems! I’m one of the directors of The Little Mermaid at North Shore Music Theater and my mermaids are giving me a hard time! Whose wig isn’t fitting right, whose fin …’”
The director later sent her a photograph with her in the shirt surrounded by her mermaids.
“Another time, a bunch of ballerinas all got one. They have a small following.”
She should definitely keep those shirts in stock.
▶︎ The Paper Mermaid, 57 Main Street, Rockport. Hours: Open daily, 11 am – 5 pm. For more information, call (978) 546 3553 or visit them on the web.
Dana Smith is a photographer based in Boston. His photos appear in publications like The New York Times Magazine, Time, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Yankee. an instructor at the New England School of Photography in Boston since 1999. He is the chair of the editorial department at the New England School of Photography, and also teaches numerous workshops.