A deep dive into the underwater community you never knew existed
Netflix’s new docuseries delves into the ridiculous and beautiful world of mermaiding, a global community of wacky and talented people who swim in fish tails.
In a nutshell
Just three days before the premiere of Disney’s new live action remake of The Little Mermaid, Netflix released this documentary miniseries about the real people who spend their days Under The Sea (although more often, in public swimming pools). It was a strategic choice to wait, because the original 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid is what surged the popularity of mermaids and caused the second wave of mermaiding (yes, it’s a verb now – the act of wearing and swimming in a mermaid tail).
The first, and most important wave began in the 1940s with a show at a huge spring in Florida called Weeki Wachee, in which young women donned the tails and performed underwater acrobatics in a glass tank. The Weeki Wachee Mermaids, several of whom feature in the show, are now nostalgic grannies, but they’re still revered as mermaid royalty because they did it before it was cool (not that it necessarily is – we’ll leave that to you to decide).
The third wave of mermaiding was of course the Internet, which spread it all over the world. Today it is a half-billion-dollar industry. The docuseries explains the world of mermaiding in four parts: Episode one introduces you to mermaiding and its history; episode two takes you deeper into the daily life of a mermaid; the third episode dips into Vegas, the glam side of mermaiding, and episode four showcases the competitive, oft-times bitchy side of the industry and the arrogant falseness that can come with pageantry #mermanandy.
The show shifts from documentary towards reality TV as it progresses, and with the stakes so unbelievably low, it loses a little momentum. But it remains intimate, tonally upbeat and visually stimulating throughout, and this community is so new to most viewers that you are likely to get hooked.
Where to watch it
MerPeople is available for streaming on Netflix
What’s the vibe?
MerPeople’s appeal is similar to a show like Tiger King – it immerses you in a community and industry you might never have thought about, populated by an array of unusual people. It’s exciting to be entertained by a subject you had no clue you could care about. You become fascinated by their eccentricity, infuriated by their ridiculousness, and invested in the goings-on of their highly specific little world, yet it’s probably so different from your experience that it provides a satisfying escape.
MerPeople is less controversial than Tiger King, and the characters are outlandish in a far more likeable way, but there is a dash of drama that comes out in the competition side of the industry. Parts of MerPeople, particularly in the second half, are similar to niche-career reality-TV shows like The Big Flower Fight, Blown Away, or Well Groomed – everyone’s peculiarity and creativity is cranked up to full blast in pursuit of success and you become invested in the success of the best or most likeable, even while you’re aware of how low the stakes actually are.
In that genre, the show it’s probably most similar to is RuPaul’s Drag Race – for many of the mermaids in the show, performing in their tails is about expressing who they really are, just as it is for drag artists, and there’s a similar emphasis on acceptance of outcasts. Sometimes you’re laughing at the ditsy “competitors” and sometimes you’re marvelling at the excellence of their craft, and the more you learn, the more empathy you develop for this initially foreign predilection.
A closer look
The opening shot of MerPeople is a strange sight – from far ahead we see adults wearing fish tails in what looks like a hotel swimming pool. It seems a little pathetic really. But there is literally much more going on beneath the surface.
Cut to a group of kids staring at a glass tank, mesmerised by the graceful merpeople swimming on the other side.
Cut again to the performers emerging in exhaustion as they come up for air, blinking out the chlorine, crying in agony and complaining that the pool guy must not have checked the pH levels of the water.
This erratic scene perfectly captures the multidimensionality of this phenomenon, to which so few people are likely to have been exposed. The documentary maintains a balance of revealing how mermaiding is far more technical and nuanced than you might have thought, while always acknowledging that it’s kind of hilarious how seriously people take it. You could easily enjoy the show for the amusement of how ridiculous it all is, or in admiration of how beautiful and complex it can be, but it would be hard not to feel at least a little of both.
It takes a while before the documentary acknowledges the overlap between the Mer-world and the drag community, but the similarities are evident immediately – the personas, the performance, the glamorous aesthetic and the importance of the community. Both can make people who have felt cast out from society feel special, mystical, graceful and feminine. To boot, the mer-world is awash with dorky, niche, adorable pun-based vocabulary that would make RuPaul proud, (although when they talk about looking fishy, it means something slightly different): Mermazing, Fintastic, Splashy, Turtley, Dolphinitely, For shore, Seasters etc.
There’s The Mertailor, who designs lifelike high-end mermaid tails; Circus Sirens, the elite mean-girls travelling circus mermaids; Chè Monique, who leads The Society of Fat Mermaids, and there’s Blixunami, a grown-ass man who collects and plays with mermaid Barbie dolls and says “I definitely believe a thousand percent that I am a descendant of a mermaid.”
Some of them conform to the kind of people you’d imagine would want to spend their life in a mermaid costume – adult children – but others are impressive athletes and performers. Mermaid gigs fall into two categories: either family-friendly kid-focused or high-glam Vegas corporate party rooftop pool kind of vibe.
At a professional level, it is physically demanding and can be dangerous – they may have to swim blind around hypothermia, sting rays and “porcupine-puffer fish”. The Weeki Wachee performers would swim through a tube, five metres down and 20 metres forward, just to get into the tank and begin performing.
Morgana, who claims to have been the first professional freelance mermaid in the world and is now one of the most successful people in the industry, answers questions about mermaiding that we might never think to ask. “Mermaiding is so much grosser than people realise. When you’re lubed up from the waist down, and sitting in the tail in the sun for two hours, everything’s real sweaty … down there.”
Whether you find mers hilarious or spectacular, the show imparts a sense of how impactful these niche communities can be for the oddballs who populate them. Morgana ends the show on a saccharine-sweet note, explaining, “By definition we are a community of rebels, renegades and runaways. So not only are you given a place where there’s no wrong way to be, but the things that make you different, that you’ve been ridiculed for in the past, are now the things that make you special. The idea that there is a world and a community where there is a place for anyone, is incredibly appealing to people who’ve been told that the world doesn’t want them.” DM
MerPeople is available in South Africa on Netflix.
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In case you missed it, also read Want to swim like a mermaid? Now you can