If you were to stop a random person in America, they’d likely be able to tell you what a mermaid is. Whether or not they know the historical context or how mermaids became popular in America would depend on the person.
Dr. Jennifer Kokai, a professor of theater at Weber State University, is in the process of writing a book about mermaids. Her interest in the watery creatures goes back to her childhood.
“I had grown up going to this weird theme park called Weeki Wachee in Florida,” Kokai said. “You see this mermaid show where these women perform in mermaid tails, breathing out of air hoses… I didn’t know how it had ever occurred to anyone to do the mermaid show to begin with and I was like, ‘You know what, that’s an interesting thing to write about.’”
Kokai said she didn’t want to be a mermaid when she was younger. In fact, the idea of being one is a little odd, since mermaids are, in essence, human-shaped fish.
“I think what I find interesting about mermaids is what they say about our culture at any given time, and what they say about what we find beautiful and how we deal with sexuality and spirituality,” Kokai said.
Mermaids are most often seen as beautiful women who occupy a somewhat controversial space—they can be seen as objectifying women. “We still think of mermaids being really pretty and having long hair,” Kokai said. This image of mermaids as objectified women, even if they are partially fish, makes them somewhat controversial.
On the other hand, mermaids are very athletic and powerful in the water. Kokai said, “we also now think of [mermaids] as… very capable in the water and very strong… some think of it as an empowering thing.” In fact, some women choose to perform as mermaids because they find it empowering. Mermaids sit on lines like these between two ideas often, according to Kokai.
Kokai’s work has started to gain recognition outside of Weber State because she is approaching a subject that no one else has really written about or compiled work on. The chronology of the various fairs such as the 1939 and 1940 World Fair that led to places like Weeki Wachi and theme parks like SeaWorld, whose origin was actually based on the idea of “sticking pretty women with tails in a tank with dolphins,” Kokai points out, has influenced our culture in many ways.
“I think that what’s really interesting about her work is that she’s really one of the only scholars in the country that’s studying mermaids,” said Christine Denniston, Director of Public Relations for the Telitha E. Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities at WSU. “I think what’s interesting about that is that she’s sort of a pioneer in this area and so she’s really become a definitive source.”
Kokai’s book will look at mermaids from many angles: historically, culturally and in regards to our relationship with the ocean, in America and worldwide. She has been working with an academic publisher, and hopes to get her work published within the next year.