Pisces season is drawing to a close, but our cultural obsession with sexy fish continues unabated. I was actually late to observe the trend. Well after Sally Hawkins flooded her bathroom to fuck a fish man in The Shape of Water, my childhood Atlantis fantasies were revived by Jason Momoa as sexy AF half man-half fish superhero Aquaman. As I watched him straddle the line between land and sea, I recalled a similarly chiseled fictional merman: Theo from Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, who wasn’t actually able to straddle anything because of his tail. Broder’s novel, which came out last year, is full of lurid details about the protagonist’s sexual affair with Theo and kept me spellbound for 48 hours straight. (The penis is above the tail, in case you were curious.)
And pop culture has continued to deliver content to satiate our under-the-sea desires. On my morning commute recently, I noticed a sultry teenage girl with a fish tail smirked at me from a billboard for Siren, a show about alluring but very dangerous mermaids who wreak havoc on a small town. The group Clipping released a song called “The Deep” about an underwater society of people. And an illustrator I like created a drawing of a woman straddling a man-shaped fishbowl, her vagina suctioned against its surface.
I’m certainly not the first to explore this, but what’s with our thirst for fish? Is it that in the wake of #MeToo, women are so disgusted with human men that we’d rather bone fish? Are we afraid of a planet rebelling against us, and the mermaids and mermen are the dying planet embodied, emerging from the most remote reaches of the globe to confront us face-to-face? I decided to ask some experts.
Stories featuring non-human romantic interests are often how we work through cultural tensions.
“Perhaps it’s a way of rethinking relationships at a time when gender has become more…fluid?” Allison de Fren, an associate professor of media arts and culture at Occidental, wrote in an email. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.” De Fren has studied sexy robots, and said that from that research, she’s learned that stories featuring non-human romantic interests are often how we work through cultural tensions. “There are certainly issues around race, gender, and sexuality that need addressing right now.”
Let’s go back to “The Deep” for a moment. The song is in fact a direct exploration of issues around race. The song was inspired by an afrofuturist myth about Drexciya, which Pan African Music explains as “an underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women who were thrown off of slave ships.” While the tone of this project isn’t sexy, it does place the ocean in direct contact with reproduction. De Fren points out that there is something primordial about the sea, which is perhaps why we look to it to explain cultural tensions as old as race relations, which were baked into our culture at its inception.
Sarah Kessler, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School who teaches media and gender studies and is at work on a book about whales’ voices, says that anxiety around climate change is likely the primary force behind our oceanic obsession. We both fear and revere the ocean, and we feel pretty guilty about destroying it. We want to save the whales and dolphins as a means of redemption (think Blackfish), but we also sort of hope they’ll save us (think Cocoon).
“They’re at once human and sort of better than human,” Kessler says. “And perhaps having a kind of sophisticated relationship with sexuality is part of that image.”
Both de Fren and Kessler point out the way our society genders these sexy fish. Both the male fish and female fish tend to embody our physical gendered ideals, save for the creature in The Shape of Water, who stays pretty true to the one from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The double standard doesn’t lie in the way we want these fish to look, but rather in the way we want them to behave. I’m of the belief that while the media tells women we should hope to be chosen by a man, it tells men they should fear losing control of their ability to do the choosing. It follows, then, that the women in these depictions are deemed special via their relationships with creatures from the deep, while the female mermaids are still billed as sirens—in the eponymous show and even in The Little Mermaid.
One of the reasons we find mermaids sexy Is that we don’t always know what the genitalia situation is. It’s like perpetually trying to look up someone’s skirt.
Kessler says that perhaps the most alluring element, though, is everything that is still unknown about almost all things relating to the ocean. One of the reasons we find Ariel from The Little Mermaid—and all mermaids—sexy, Kessler says, is that we don’t always know what the genitalia situation is. It’s like perpetually trying to look up someone’s skirt. Similarly, there is still so much that is unknown about the ocean. What’s just beneath the surface? What exists at its deepest depths? Think of how Blue Planet captured our attention when it came out at the end of 2017. Kessler says that academia is becoming increasingly interested in studying the way our culture portrays the ocean in film and literature, and her students are constantly focusing their academic projects around the ocean.
“It’s similar to space,” Kessler says. “It’s like this other frontier.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.