When Mermaids Come of Age: Sisterhood in The Lure and The Little Mermaid

The Lure (2015) | illustration by Dani Manning

I have long been interested in creating a film canon of sisterhood. Beginning with the Lumière brothers, the “canon” was heavily shaped by many famous pairs of behind-the-camera brothers whose shared boyhood informed their storytelling—think of the long shadow of four of the Warner Brothers, the working class families in the Dardennes’ oeuvre, or the mismatched brotherhood at the center of the Safdies’ Good Time (2017). Sister pairs are rarer, and unsurprisingly, so are onscreen depictions of biological and chosen sisterhood. I see Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s erotic horror musical, The Lure, far more in conversation with films like Jennifer’s Body (2009), Ginger Snaps (2000), or Raw (2016) than acclaimed sister movies like Pride and Prejudice (2005) or Thelma and Louise (1991). Its company consists of horror films that depict female bonds as supernatural and primordial, and heterosexuality as inherently consumptive. There are several versions of the mermaid myth that have shaped the Western depiction of the mermaid, including Greek sirens, Slavic rusalki, and the Renaissance Undines. Though most of these tales feature mermaids as man-killers, they rarely explain their motivations. Mermaids are monsters without a perspective, serving as stand-ins for the unpredictable, dangerous nature of the sea, and the similarly destructive force of female beauty and sexuality. 

From the beginning of The Lure, however, the mermaid myth is inverted. We’d expect to see these sirens luring men to their death through song; rather, it’s a young man playing a guitar by the shore that brings ill-fated Silver (Marta Mazurek) out of the water, her sister Golden (Michalina Olszańska) close behind. The two mermaids are as much seducers as seduced, charmed into staying in this unfamiliar city by its growing consumer culture and the chintzy glamor of the local nightclub. The film soon positions the sisters not as amoral temptresses, but as victims of human greed.

The sisters’ openly intimate relationship—which distinguishes them as monsters unfamiliar with human behavior—is the first casualty of onshore life. They share a telepathic link, with dolphin-like squeals and clicks subtitled for the viewer’s convenience. In their musical performances, they kiss and caress each other, even participating in a photoshoot donning Playboy-esque bunny ears. They’re aware of the power their demonstrated sexuality has for a male audience, as it’s this allure that has literally kept them fed. They’re unaware that their occasional hunger for human hearts will be comically, dangerously surpassed by the size of the male appetite for young women.

Silver loses her appetite for men, her attention shifting to feckless guitarist Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), and disapproves of Golden’s continued consumption of male flesh. In separating herself from Silver, she recognizes that she can only be with Mietek if she fully rejects her nature and past,  including her animal bond to Golden. Golden sees this changed attitude in Silver as a threat to their relationship. She’s also repulsed by the idea of lifelong male companionship. What could they possibly offer to a singing, magical mermaid? 

Though the man who confesses his love for Silver mistakes her for Golden, the innate differences between the two sisters is established from their first appearance. We see Silver first, gazing at her future lover Mietek, and in her tentative, warm eyes we see the sparks of girlish vulnerability that will doom her. Next to her, Golden’s instinctive, unabiding hunger is apparent, her smile always imbued with slyness. They initially show no shame in their nudity, their innocence apparent despite their flirtatious confidence. As Silver becomes increasingly devoted to Mietek, though, her body language reflects a self-conscious rejection of her animal nature, culminating in the removal of her tail. Like a suddenly pubescent teenager immune to polite suggestions that she might start wearing deodorant, Golden remains steadfastly unconcerned with public perception of her wildness.

The camera glides from the mermaids’ fanged mouths to their human breasts to their eel-like tails, reminding us of their hybrid contradictions. In human form, they have an entirely smooth pelvis, like a Barbie doll. The mermaids do have a vaginal slit in their tails, making non-oral penetrative sex only possible when in fish form. This amphibian body has erotic potential to the film’s women—the female bandleader who employs and houses them, Krysia, fantasizes about them lapping at her breasts, and Golden’s female lover kisses the ridges of her tail. 

The men find a fetishistic appeal in the sisters’ piscine anatomy, reflective of consumptive male attitudes towards female sexuality. A male musician offers up the girls to the club-owner in a seedy backroom. The owner sticks a single finger into the tail’s slit, like Thomas the Apostle investigating Christ’s wounds, testing the merchandise that he will steal and sell. The sisters, used to being the predators, don’t see the inherent danger in this situation, even though they quickly dry out while the club owner leers and prods at them. 

I see several stories within the sisters’ narrative. There’s the obvious coming of age and puberty metaphor: Silver rejects her voice, her childhood playmate (Golden), and a body constantly described as smelling of fish, as she pursues adult heterosexual romance. Simultaneously, Golden finds pleasure in the power that her transformed adolescent body holds over men, and wields it to hunt more efficiently. There’s also an expat assimilation story of two women new to a country that trafficks them—towards the end of the film, we learn that Silver and Golden have never been paid for their performance work. And there’s a trans narrative in Silver’s romance with Mietek, who passively leads her on while repeatedly expressing his revulsion with her body and genitalia. 

I resist reading Silver’s devastating removal of her tail, which renders her voiceless and feeble, as a one-to-one metaphor for gender-affirming surgery, but Silver’s struggle to be accepted as a woman certainly mirrors experiences with cis men that trans women have discussed. Though Silver actively makes the choice to remove her tail and refuses to hear Golden’s protests, Mietek takes full advantage of her devotion to him. He allows her to become dependent on him while knowing he will never love her in the way she desires—or literally needs to survive.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” it’s neither legs nor a vagina that the little mermaid longs for, but a soul. Mermaids do not ascend to heavenly paradise like humans after death—they’re animals, fish, malformed pagan beasts who turn into sea foam when they expire. The Sea Witch agrees to turn the Little Mermaid into a human, telling her she must marry the prince in order for the change to become permanent, the sacrament of holy matrimony giving her a piece of his immortal soul. Unlike the Disney version, it doesn’t work out; the prince marries someone else. Her sisters suddenly arrive to give her a knife, telling her to kill the prince. When her feet are awash in his blood, however, she will regrow her tail, an image that invokes the Sea Witch’s blood which she uses in her potion, the brutal pain the Little Mermaid experiences walking on her legs, and the link between menstruation and adulthood. But of course, she can’t kill her love, and dissolves into foam. 

The story has a happy ending, at least by Andersen’s warped standards: the mermaid is made into a divine daughter of the air who can earn a soul through 300 years of good deeds. Not having a body, her good deeds are limited to bringing cool breezes to humans. This is in keeping with the miasma theory of the time, a belief that noxious air caused disease. In this deeply unsatisfying conclusion, the Little Mermaid happily takes on the role of desexed caretaker as she gazes at the prince and his new wife. Already infantilized by an insulting moniker, the Little Mermaid is barely a character, even by the flimsy conventions of a morality tale, metatextually symbolic of the expectations of unappreciated female sacrifice.

Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid mostly discards the Christian imagery, though I can see shades of it in “Part of Your World”, a Howard Ashman and Alan Menken “I Want” song that is one of the best in the Disney canon. The song is made even more extraordinary by Jodi Benson’s vocal performance, which captures girlish innocence, tentative wonder, sadness, and a full-throated hope for the future. In the dark, gloomy grotto, we hear Ariel long to be where they “stay all day in the sun,” to be “warm on the sand.” It’s easy to see these lyrics as a metaphor for God’s light and acceptance, especially when we contrast the bright, warm-toned land with the depths of Ursula’s hellish sea lair.

The similarity I find most striking between the Anderson original and the Disney adaptation, though, is how utterly alone our little mermaids are. These motherless girls find a dangerous mentor in a sea witch, who fulfills their obvious desire for love and approval. Neither Ariel’s father or sisters have treated her as anything more than a pretty voice, and her attempts to express her desires have only gotten her in trouble. From Ariel’s perspective, her deal with Ursula is a fair trade. She surrenders her mostly useless powers of articulation for what she sees as unencumbered social mobility.

Here again, I see the parallels of queer narratives in the desire these mermaids express, the familial rejection these desires are met with, and the mermaids’ subsequent isolation. (This interpretation has been embraced by queer fans of “Part of Your World,” who see a queer longing for acceptance in the lyrics penned by Ashman, a gay man.) Because these mermaids are alone, without any community that can offer them guidance or protection, they are easily preyed upon by both sea witches and club owners. Silver’s affection for Mietek, the little mermaid’s for the unnamed princes, and Ariel’s for Prince Eric should all be passing crushes. Instead these feelings define their lives—eventually killing Silver and permanently transforming both Ariel and the Little Mermaid. None of these girls know enough of the human world to resist the brutal demands of a heteronormative capitalist society, none have adult mentors or community to guide them. In both Mietek and Eric, we see the fickleness of human love and attraction, as well as the quiet cruelty men freely commit in a society that prioritizes their desire. 

Though it’s Mietek who comes between the two sisters, he is deliberately drawn faintly and excruciatingly passive. Prince Eric wants to find the true love who saved his life, even if he is easily hypnotized away from her by Ursula; all Mietek does is follow the next pretty face. Silver falls in love with Mietek perhaps because she is young and naive enough to confuse his passivity for gentleness, or because she sees his disgust with her body as normal in a culture that degrades the female form.

That continuous degradation is shown even during Silver’s death, when Mietek makes his final, clueless insult to her. As the two dance in the dawn after his wedding, Silver’s face expresses both an acceptance of her looming demise and her bliss in their last embrace. For a bored-looking Mietek, she might just as well be his annoying little sister. When she dissolves into sea foam, he is not just confused but disgusted. He didn’t know the consequences of Silver’s decision to become human—because she didn’t tell him, or because he didn’t care?—and now, soaked in her foam, a literal expression of her physical ecstasy, he recoils. 

I think of Jo’s reaction to Meg’s impending marriage in Little Women. In Greta Gerwig’s version, Jo begs Meg to reconsider, kneeling before her to propose a different future for the sisters. “Let’s run away together,” Jo says, in a romantic but completely nonsexual tone often only available to young women. “You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.” The sentiment is identical to what Golden repeatedly says to Silver, begging her not to fall in love with a human, not to give up her voice and therefore their sisterly bond, and not to sacrifice herself for Mietek. 

But what do adult sisters look like? Can they be interesting forever—is there a version of the world where sisters live happily and safely together as adults? There are plenty of weird sister spinsters and asexual godmothers who care for their sexually-viable surrogate children, but fully-formed women with independent goals and interests? It’s rare enough to see a cinematic depiction of a single woman like that, let alone two. The city in The Lure offers no structure for community building, with the only avenues for connection found in shopping malls and sleazy nightclubs. For Silver, heterosexual love seems like the only available relationship not based on condition or consumption. She forgets that she already has one with her sister, internalizing the societal devaluing of female relationships.

In a 2017 interview, Smoczyńska discusses her childhood growing up in the popular “dancing restaurants” of the Communist era. In the mermaids and the period setting, Smoczyńska wanted to capture the hopeful feelings her generation had as children, unaware of the crushing history of Poland’s poverty and oppression. Silver’s love affair, and its devastating consequences, are emblematic of that misguided innocence. The sisters’ hybrid yet limited mobility to move through land and sea seems to reference the idea of a borderless Utopian state— another hope that proves to be unfounded. Golden flees her adopted land, fully cured of any childhood innocence. Like Golden’s fellow Little Mermaids, she is completely alone. 

This is the last inversion of the mermaid myth; the mermaid, or Syrenka, has been a symbol of Warsaw since the 14th century. In the stories about the Warsaw mermaid, the citizens learn not to despise, but to respect, the strange beauty and power of the mermaid, who in exchange offers protection. There is no such allyship between Silver and Golden and their new homeland. Rather, like so many teenage girls, they are treated as novelties, abused, and swallowed entirely.

In the current American political climate, the story of the mermaid serves as a parable for the role of women in male-dominated societies that treat us as disposable, whether we are wife or temptress. Most girls who flee their homes to make their way, penniless, in an unfamiliar world do not end up princesses. Even when their fates are softened by Andersen’s Christian moralizing or Disneyfication, the mermaids who leave the sea represent the many female casualties of a conservative society that continuously attempts to destroy any community outside of nuclear, heterosexual family units. 

Every time I rewatch The Lure, I am a little bit older, and Silver and Golden seem much, much younger. I wonder if other mermaid girls have survived the transition to shore, or if most of them return to the safety and innocence of the sea. Maybe things would have been different had Silver and Golden come ashore at a different time, when they were mature enough to see through the city’s shallow glamor, or to seek out a society that embraced female closeness and offered queer community. But throughout all of these mermaid stories, I see the frustrating history of the marginalization of untraditional desire, and the survival of women and gender minorities in the face of that subjugation. 

There is no such thing as a girl who has everything, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep wanting.