Deep BLUE UNDERWORLD
By Olivia Lowes
Interviewees: Sam Hafey, Allira Violet
Photo by Bill Park
A common thread connecting ‘the feminine’ to oceans and water is prevalent throughout a plethora of cultural narratives.
For Pink Ink’s first article release I decided to speak with the leading creatives of Wild Tongues Productions, Sam Hafey and Allira Violet. Together we have formed questions about our own preconceptions surrounding the topic of women and water. We researched symbols and motifs with this interconnected aesthetic in popular culture, ancient literature, and reality. Through discussion and contemplation, we progressed to explore and challenge common associations with the feminine, the aquatic, and all things in between.
Many of our findings were closely related to an eco-feminist lens. Often the isolation and mistreatment of women in society intersects with man’s exploitation of nature and its resources.
Placing an eco-feminist lens on the ocean’s aesthetic highlights an abundance of iconic imagery, particularly that of ancient mythology. The most recognisable symbol within this exploration is the mermaid.
Mermaids and Sirens
Growing up with mermaids throughout modern children’s popular culture in films such as Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ and the much loved Australian series ‘H2O (Just Add Water)’, as well as Shirley Barber’s mystical illustrations, there is definitely a predetermined vision of ‘the mermaid’ in narrative. Our experiences with this mythical creature are definitely limited by its marketability. However common threads of fascination, longing, and magic stand out as shared associations.
The western mermaid that Sam, Allira and I are familiar with is likely a development of figures seen in Greek Mythology. The bird-women who seduce sailors known as ‘The Sirens’ featured in tales such as ‘The Odyssey’ evolved throughout the ancient folklore as their wings were eventually replaced by the tail of a fish . Classic narratives depict the mermaid as romantic and mysterious, often associated with the unconscious. Mermaids commonly act as a luring distraction from a sea voyage or war, intersecting constructed human conflict with sensuality; both evil and wondrous. The more savage version of the mermaid derived from sirens is rarely resembled in modern depictions.
It wasn’t until I saw a darker motion picture presentation of Peter
Pan with menacing portrayals that I was forced to reflect and
consider the mermaids complexity in history. The presentation of
claw-like talons, ice cold skin and fangs for teeth made me consider
what I was commonly spoon fed, that of a “beautiful” image and
therefore challenging me to dive deeper in my understanding of
‘mermaids’ in society, and their significance to me. - Sam
Similar creatures have been developed in completely isolated cultures. The Japanese Ningyo can be compared to the western mermaid with a similar half human/half fish appearance. A far from gracious demeanour and image; often pictured with fangs - perhaps makes it more akin to the original Siren.
In Norse and Celtic mythology, selkies, meaning "seal folk" are mythological creatures that shift from seal to human form by shedding their skin.
Although the idea of the Seal folk does not strictly relate to women alone, the narrative that belongs to the selkie is inherently feminist. A typical folk-tale is that of a man who steals a female selkie's skin. After he finds what appears to be a women naked on the sea shore, he compels her to become his wife. In various versions the wife spends her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home, and will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. This concept is not so unfamiliar to many women in patriarchal western society. Ideas of entrapment within a relationship, as well as tethering to a greater
dominant and oppressive power is a familiar narrative for many women, one all too close to home.
The Little Mermaid
Reflecting upon her own experiences with mermaids and creatures alike in popular culture, Allira has spent some time researching Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ and its origins, aligned with the original Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. Unsurprisingly, the romanticised Disney adaptation alters many of Anderson’s darker elements.
Determined to pursue eternal love with an unfamiliar prince, the little mermaid visited a ‘sea witch’ to help her attain human legs. Though the sacrifice was, if the prince married another, the little mermaid would die, turning into mere sea foam on the water’s surface. - Allira
Rather than the known ‘happily ever after’ ending, the original tale sees protagonist ‘Ariel’ rejected by a prince whom her life relied upon.
Knowing that she has failed to marry the prince, the little mermaid began to travel back home to the sea when her sisters emerged, having traded their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a magical dagger that will kill the prince, and once his blood falls onto her legs, turn her legs back to a tail. The little mermaid accepts the dagger but is unable to follow through with the plan when she sees him sleeping next to his new bride.
Her new fate is as an ‘air spirit’, with a purpose to bring cooling breezes to the hot winds around the world. After three centuries of service, the little mermaid’s air spirit then has the chance to create a soul. - Allira
The darker ending of Anderson’s original tale may seem fitting to the different era, but research into the story has proven contextual occurrences could have interplayed with the tale’s symbolic pessimism - Allira shares:
It was first theorised by Rictor Norton that the original tale was written as a love letter by Andersen for a man named Edvard Collin, who was not responsive to the letters. Andersen wrote to Collin in an 1891 correspondence; “my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” - Allira
Though this reading somewhat takes the story out of its time context, the mute mermaid as a symbol of repressed homosexual love has evolved the derivative sexual associations with the mythical creature.
Symbols behind the Mermaid
A mermaid’s tail allows her to glide freely through the waters yet she is restrictively bound to dwell only in these parts. This interconnected quality of confinement and fluidity is often aligned with unrequited love as well as sexuality, transgender identification and gender fluidity, hence the UK charity ‘Mermaids’ which supports gender variant and transgender youth.
”The representation of the mermaid figure tends to be
consistent: grounded in Western heritage, the mermaid’s alluring
beauty and sexualised body are overtly stressed and confine her to a
place of objectification.”
“such a reductive representation of her femininity and her cultural roots does not do
justice to the mermaid’s complexity and paints a monolithic understanding of her figure.”
- Julie Schaack, “We are the lost”: Recovering the Feminist and Transcultural Complexity of the Mermaids in Literature
"This point has lead me away from plastic packaged barbie doll mermaids, disney-fied mass produced and consumable constructs and leads me instead toward the alluring and dangerously seductive siren call and to the far less known in popular culture, but arguably more intriguing Selkie." - Sam
Women and water
Whether it be Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or imagery within Japanese Folklore, a common thread connecting ‘the feminine’ to oceans and water is prevalent throughout a plethora of cultural narratives.
We find this cross-cultural association too discernible to be pure coincidence. However it is difficult to extrapolate the relationship between women and water back to one specific origin.
Water can be associated with pregnancy and birth, as well as menstruation and hygiene. Additionally, up to 60% of the human body is comprised of water/fluid, most of which is surprisingly located in organs like the lungs. Pregnant women need more water than the average person in order to form amniotic fluid, produce extra blood, build new tissue, carry nutrients, enhance digestion, and flush out wastes and toxins
The fact that women often bear the responsibility of collecting their family’s water supply proves significant. Insufficient access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene facilities disproportionately inconveniences females more than males. According to a United Nations study in 2019, 1 million deaths each year are associated with unclean births. Infections account for 26% of neonatal deaths and 11% of maternal mortality.
Ultimately, these negative associations reflect more on the patriarchal, economy driven global environment we live in, leaving the women of low economic countries in a place of vulnerability. A very large proportion of low income countries are affected by climate change induced drought.
The eco-feminist lens is therefore applicable to the reality of women’s relationship with water. The same chain of neglect intersects female exploitation to the mistreatment of our environment and preoccupation with patriarchy.
However the solution to this imbalance often manifests itself within a separation between the feminine and the natural world. Allira explores the neglect of women’s health and wellbeing in our medical sector.
Menstruation and it’s Ecological Footprint
Although improvements are continuing to be made and alternative medical products are increasingly more accessible, the universal experience of menstruation remains an experience constantly under scrutiny. The time of menstruation, and the broader experience of being a person with a vagina at any time of month, is heinously linked to our societal preoccupation with patriarchy and mistreatment of the environment. The ecological impact of ‘feminine hygiene’ products is not to be ignored, as according to Safe Cosmetics, the average menstruator uses over 11,000 tampons over their lifetime, leaving behind residue far beyond her lifespan. Arguably the worst ‘offender’ within these products are the harder thermoplastics such as the LDPE in tampon applicators. The consumer desire to use eco-friendly and sustainable options such as reusable pads or ‘the cup’ during menstruation is largely uncharted or studied, though it can be assumed it is not only the monetary cost but also the stigma and false information surrounding these products that cause hesitation upon purchase.
Vagina-owners are also constantly marketed towards damaging products such as ‘douching’ or ‘perfume’ options for their vulvas, which are scientifically proven to increase the chances of STD infection, and as a follow-on effect, increase infertility and pelvic infections. Reproductive health is a necessary exploration into women’s connection to the environment, showing the hesitations, judgement and shame surrounding the very topic of menstruation. - Allira
This shame and stigma prompts women to ultimately remove themselves from their bodies both psychologically and physically. Our patricentric society that separates women from the natural world completely conflicts with human instincts.
Psychological science can be used to discuss the impact on isolating human beings from the environment and water in particular. ‘Blue Mind’ by Wallace J Nichols was the first well-known publication to revolutionise the way we connect water as essential, or at least extremely beneficial tool for the human brain. Outside of the obvious need to use water for hydration and body function, the psychology behind the aesthetic of water shows that its mere presence in a room can link to improved happiness and health. One example lies in the state of ‘drift’ the mind may experience upon gazing at water, falling into an almost meditative and calming state due to the water’s inherent familiarity. Wallace quotes:
“Water is both lover and mother, murderer and life-giver, source and sink … Water unleashes the uninhibited child in all of us, unlocking our creativity and curiosity.”
And so, it follows that if women were to be disproportionately ‘locked out’ of access to water or encouragement to connect themselves to their environment, it can affect the psychological state of mind. - Allira
The same logic applies to women and the swimming pool. Women were not included in the development of competitive swimming and pool culture in the western world; this was man’s only correspondence with being submerged in water.
In 1907, Annette Kellerman pioneered the first ladies one piece bathing suit, after centuries of women having to cover their legs in the water. Kellerman advocated for aquatic recreation and fitness to be readily available for all women.
’Water is 700 times as heavy as air, and to attempt to drag loose-flowing cloth garments of any sort through water is like having the Biblical millstone around one’s neck’. - Annette Kellerman, ‘How to Swim’, 1918 - NFSA
Kellerman was labelled ‘Australia’s Fearless Mermaid’.
This essentially comes back to the mermaid as a notable (or not so notable) figure in women’s lives. Through researching ancient literature and popular culture, we realised that most creations connecting the developed human world with the natural world are heavily romanticised. Rather than investing in the deeper symbolism behind ancient figures like Sirens and Mermaids, modern society has deemed them nothing other than a distant fantasy. The mermaid as a fantastical figure has been commodified into a ‘fun’, ‘cute’, marketable image. We propose that one should not simply take these images at face value.
Though there is still much left undiscovered, by delving into the history of the mermaid, we are able to correlate influential imagery to women’s place in modern society among various cultures.
Perhaps rather than always being a distant fantasy, this interconnectedness of women and the water could become some sort of reality.