The mermaid is a hybrid being, a product of human imagination that has dual potentiality; she can either uphold or challenge heteropatriarchal and able-bodied norms. She also has the potential to highlight human relations with more-than-human life. This paper explores the process of becoming mermaid in four performances that reinforce and/or challenge normate embodiment to varying degrees. One, at Weeki Wachee Springs, remains firmly tied to normate white heteropatriarchal values. Another, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, is a multivalent performance that both affirms and challenges dominant norms of embodiment. The others, solo performances by Amber DiPietra and Hanna Cormick, highlight the humanity of disabled people and the kinship among human animals and our more-than-human kin.

The mermaid is a hybrid being, a product of human imagination that has dual potentiality; she can either uphold or challenge heteropatriarchal norms and what Rosemarie Garland Thomson describes as the normate (1996, 8). The mermaid refuses the human/nonhuman binary. This refusal can cleave two ways. It has the potential to reinforce normate settler colonial heteropatriarchal views of humanity and animality; however, it can also provide avenues for imagining a more interdependent and relational world. The mermaid is an assemblage, a phenomenon that Jasbir Puar reminds us does not "privilege bodies as human, nor as residing within a human animal/nonhuman animal binary" (2012, 57). Like all queer assemblages, she is "always becoming" (Muñoz 2020, 78).

Close kin to the cyborg, the mermaid provides an avenue to enact both normative and alternative realities and, therefore, is a map "of power and identity" (Haraway 1991, 180). Donna Haraway's cyborg "requires an intervention" to address the ableist assumptions about disabled lives (Kafer 2013, 105). Nonetheless, Alison Kafer argues compellingly that the "unpredictability" of the cyborg "is precisely what makes it an important and potentially useful concept" for feminist disability studies (2013, 116). The mermaid is similarly unpredictable, making her a useful framework for exploring somatic norms and challenges to them. Simply embracing the mermaid images present in contemporary culture can be a consumerist, gender normative trap. At the same time, artistic engagements with the mermaid frequently highlight her subversive potential.

That the mermaid is usually imagined as part woman, part fish speaks to the ways that women, both cisgender and transgender, are frequently figured as closer to nature or as less human than cisgender men. Accordingly, the mermaid's femininity reflects a patriarchal gaze. Feminist disability theorists have demonstrated that gender, disability, and other axes of social oppression and privilege are always intertwined (Clare 1999; Kafer 2003; Roberts and Jesudason 2013; Kafer 2013; Bailey and Mobley 2019). Becoming mermaid is, therefore, complicated. Some becomings remain mired in normate settler colonial heteropatriarchal sediment. Some, though, push us outside of our current way of being, breaking down the binary between human and animal in ways that demonstrate the limits of current ways of valuing human and more-than-human life. As José Esteban Muñoz taught us, disidentifying with toxic images has the power to reclaim and refigure them (1999).

In this paper, I present and analyze two sets of contrasting performances. First, I explore the daily mermaid performances at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida alongside Amber DiPietra's one-woman show, "The Opposite of Evolution Studio" (DiPietra 2019; 2020b). I then consider the Coney Island Mermaid Parade alongside Hanna Cormick's assisted solo performance "The Mermaid" (Cormick 2018). These pairings allow for examination of the ways that somatic norms are reaffirmed and challenged in diverse modes of becoming mermaid. In each case, the collaborative performances provide cultural touchstones and context for the solo performances. Before I dive in, a consideration of the stakes of becoming mermaid.

Becoming Mermaid

Numerous cultures have images of powerful aquatic femininity. In West, Central, and Southern African there is the mythical figure of Mami Wata, or Mother Water (Caputo 2009). She is beautiful, powerful, seductive, and dangerous. Among African descended communities in the Americas there is Yemaya or Yemoja, the goddess of water whose images are sometimes merged with Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary (Otero and Falola 2013). Numerous First Nations peoples have tales of water spirits, some looking like beautiful maidens (Staff 2018). Yet most contemporary references to mermaids pull from European tales of sirens luring sailors to their deaths and of mermaids seen from the decks of ships. The latter were likely manatees swimming in warm waters off the coasts of pre-colonized lands. As Jennifer Kokai explains, mythological stories of mermaids are often conflated with stories of sirens, linking feminine embodiment to dangerous seduction. In more recent lore, Hans Christian Anderson's mermaid willingly commits suicide for love (Kokai 2017, 66). These various histories emerge in different ways in contemporary mermaid performances, pulling these performances toward or away from ideals of feminine chastity and heteronormative passivity.

My concept of becoming mermaid is influenced by Haraway's concept of "becoming with" and Dan Goodley's and Katherine Runswick-Cole's "becoming dis/human." Haraway emphasizes the ways that humans are always in relation with nonhuman life: "We become-with each other or not at all…. Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude" (2016, 4). This insistence that we recognize the always entangled nature of human and more-than-human life highlights the stakes of ignoring interrelatedness. We need each other in order to live. We also need pragmatic visions and practices in order for all of us to continue living. Neither naive hope nor inactive despair will help us survive.

Goodley and Runswick-Cole emphasize that while disabled and human are "too often set up as opposites," it is more productive to see them as "frictional: rubbing up against each other in interesting, dare we say, desirable ways" (2016, 5). While playful and potentially erotic, this approach is also quite serious. Disabled lives are at stake. Humanity itself is at risk. In a related text, they, along with Rebecca Lawthom, assert that "disability is the quintessential posthuman condition: because it calls for new ontologies, ways of relating, living and dying" (2014, 243). These new ways of relating, of living, require acknowledging our interconnectedness with other humans as well as more-than-human life.

The human as a cultural and political category is tainted by racism, settler colonialism, and ableism. Many people are excluded from normative understandings of humanity. Billy-Ray Belcourt explains that settler colonial logic includes anthropocentrism and "re-locates racialized bodies to the margins of settler society as non-humans" while also remaking animality as "blackness and indigeneity" (2015, 5). Therí Alyce Pickens describes the concept of humanity as separating "the human from the flora and fauna" in order to guarantee "that a human will be thought of as an autonomous subject," something that neither black nor mad people can attain within the racist, ableist lens of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought (2019, 74). This "ableist logic rooted in humanistic notions of subjectivity" is not only central to dominant notions of who counts as fully human, Nirmala Erevelles argues that it serves "as the condition of eligibility in the quest for social justice" (2018, 67). Thus, too often disabled people are not included in organizing for social change. Just as white supremacist settler colonial society requires colonized subjects to conform to colonial norms, normate society demands that disabled people imitate ableist norms. Such groups aren't separate, of course, and white supremacy demands that queers and women within its ranks conform too.

As part of resisting this dehumanization, marginalized people frequently highlight their distance from animals. While this makes political sense, at least in the short term, it leaves intact the separation between humans and more-than-human life. Another way to challenge the narrowness of the category of the human is to embrace human animality. While this might seem politically counterproductive, it challenges the foundation of post-Enlightenment hierarchies of humanity. In their articulation of the dis/human, Goodley and Runswick-Cole explain that "Disability has the radical potential to trouble the normative, rational, independent, autonomous subject that is so often imagined when the human is evoked" (2016, 2). Therefore, as they argue alongside their colleges in the DisHuman project, Lawthom and Kirsty Liddiard, disability "has the possibility to rethink the human—to contemplate human extension" (2018, 161). Relatedly, Sunaura Taylor explains that navigating an ableist world in her disabled body means embracing her animality. "I feel animal in my embodiment," she writes, emphasizing that "this feeling is one of connection not shame." Importantly, she explains that recognizing her animality has been a way of declaring her dignity: "It is a claiming of my animalized parts and movements, an assertion that my animality is essential to my humanity" (2017, 115). Thus, rather than leading her away from humanity, acknowledging that humans are animals creates a framework for asserting the humanity of disabled people in a world that devalues disability and non-human-animals.

The mermaid as a hybrid human and non-human creature is a productive site for exploring human animality. The two solo performances by disabled women move us closer to ways of worlding that recognize the stakes of continuing to value some bodies and ways of living over others. By evoking kinship with more-than-human life using the mythical figure of the mermaid, DiPietra and Cormick demonstrate the value of disabled lives by emphasizing connection to aquatic life. In both cases, these explorations emerge as part of Petra Kuppers describes as "somatic relationship to land," particularly land enhanced by human development (2022, 89). In exploring their vexed relationships to sidewalks and environmental toxins, they provide imaginative visions that emerge from the pragmatics of living in disabled bodies in our current world. For DiPietra and Cormick, becoming mermaid provides a methodology for exploring other ways of being and relating.

Living in a Spring and Returning to Sea

In January 2018, a friend and I travelled to Weeki Wachee Springs. One of the few remaining roadside attractions that were part of Florida's tourist economy in the 1930s-1970s, Weeki Wachee opened in 1947, was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1959, and became a state park in 2008. The park is located at the mouth of a natural spring named Weeki Wachee or "little spring" by the Seminole, the Native people on whose colonized land the attraction sits. A full day pass provided access to two mermaid shows and a boat trip along the Weeki Wachee river.

According to Weeki Wachee's website,

In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, scouted out Weeki Wachee as a good site for a new business…. Newt experimented with underwater breathing hoses and invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor…. With the air hose, humans could give the appearance of thriving twenty feet underwater with no breathing apparatus.

Submerged six feet below the water's surface, an 18-seat theater was built into the limestone so viewers could look right into the natural beauty of the ancient spring.

Newt scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time. He taught them to drink Grapette, a non-carbonated beverage, eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets. He then put a sign out on U.S. 19 that read: WEEKI WACHEE. And on October 13, 1947, the first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater opened.… On that day, the mermaids performed synchronized ballet moves underwater while breathing through the air hoses hidden in the scenery ("History," n.d.).

This description is notable for what it does and does not say. The spring is simply described as an attractive site for performance rather than an environment full of more-than-human life. The women performers are described as pretty girls, highlighting their youth and normative beauty. Perry was looking for women who would appear pretty rather than athletic while swimming and didn't violate the southern investment in racial hierarchy and segregation. In other words, thin, conventionally feminine, able-bodied, not-too-muscular white women under the age of 25 (Kokai 2017, 62). Not mentioned are the men who initially entertained audiences alongside the "pretty girls", something that would disrupt the depiction of feminine aquatic life (Kokai 2017, 63). Becoming mermaid was understood within a normative set of hierarchies.

Historical and contemporary promotional materials work hard to keep the Weeki Wachee mermaids within normative heterosexual femininity. In the 1960s and 1970s, they lived in dorms on the property, allowing ABC to assume a paternal role, providing curfews and rules forbidding guests from sleeping over. The lesbian or queer possibilities of this situation are surely quite obvious to a contemporary audience; however, Kokai describes the family friendly angle promoted in Weeki Wachee materials as augmented by the fantasy their performance creates: "No matter how alluring, mermaids are forever chaste because they live in the water and their fish tail negates the possibility they could have genitalia" (2017, 68). Nature, then, provided respectability for these young women, rendering them untouchable by men. A queer or, as I explore below, transmobile reading might emphasize how their tails also moved the mermaids outside of heteronormative role expectations by highlighting their relationships with more-than-human life (Nelson, Shew, and Stevens 2019).

This trading of one ability—walking—for another—moving like a mermaid in the water—could be read within the framework of transmobility. Mallory Nelson, Ashley Shew, and Bethany Stevens explain that transmobility emphasizes the ways that "disabled bodies actually have a greater array of options for mobility and movement [than normate bodies], providing an impetus for creativity and imagination" (2019, 2). These can include movement from earth to water and back, what Kuppers describes as "delicious tracking of earth and water" (2022, 68). Becoming a Weeki Wachee mermaid taps into the possibilities offered by disabled people engaging with sidewalks and streets. Thus, while Weeki Wachee mermaiding affirms social norms in many ways, it also provides a way of thinking about different forms of embodiment.

In the early days, the performers performed water ballet and only wore tails for promotional photos. As fabric technology progressed, enabling the creation of tails that allow bodies to move freely enough for performers to remain underwater for long periods of time. These decorative lyrca tubes also help to mask the athleticism required to move underwater in a spring moving at five miles per hour while smiling for an audience. The natural setting and fabric tails are used to mark this performance as natural—as part of the natural world and as natural to women. The presentation of both the mermaids and nature are careful curated for the audience, creating what Kokai describes as "silenced bodies of humans and nonhumans alike" (2017, 5). Mermaiding in a spring moving at five miles per hour requires a distinct and powerful form of embodiment that the Weeki Wachee mermaids must disguise in order to fulfill their role as normatively feminine, transmobile entertainment.

My friend and I arrived a bit early for the first performance and were treated to silent film footage on television screens above the windows that would allow us to look into the submerged "stage." Soon, the curtains opened to a view of the spring where fish and turtles swam behind six young adult, presumably white women wearing mermaid tails. The first performance was a five-song cabaret-style set. The mermaids swam a series of choreographed sets accompanied by mermaid-themed songs in a variety of genres including classic rock and hip-hop. For the culminating number, "God Bless the USA," two mermaids wearing blue swimsuits with stars on the sleeves performed the ballet style movements of the early days before being joined by two other mermaids holding an American flag. These performances highlighted how the Weeki Wachee mode of becoming mermaid is tied to a nostalgia for earlier time periods of American patriotism and, by extension, white heteropatriarchy. After curtain the descended, more old film footage played on the monitors, this time with sound, providing a visual and auditory rendition of Weeki Wachee's history.

At numerous points during these performances, three manatees watched from the edges of the underwater stage, quietly observing before moving along to another part of the spring. Fish swam among the mermaids throughout the set. The presence of more-than-human life did more than help create the fantasy that the human mermaids were in some kind of watery fantasy world. It also reminded viewers that humans are part of a natural world that exceeds the somatic norms currently held dear by many.

After a quick boat trip that introduced us to the flora and fauna of the area including plentiful manatees and one alligator, we returned to the submerged theater for a production of The Little Mermaid (Weeki Wachee Mermaids 2018). Following the Disney version of the story that emphasizes benevolent patriarchy in contrast to the evil of independent womanhood, the kindly father and prince provide contrasts to Ursula's evil entrapment of the young mermaid (Musker and Clements 1989). The performance ended with the prince forcing Ursula into the vortex while the little mermaid looks on, passively. The heteropatriarchal narrative was only disrupted once when a manatee swam through, moving of her own volition, impervious to the unfolding tale.

Becoming a Weeki Wachee mermaid reinforces heteropatriarchal values. The queer possibilities of young women holding each other's ankles as they spin around underwater, a move featured in both performances, and the liberatory potential of swimming alongside manatee and other wildlife are mitigated by Weeki Wachee's framing of these performances as "old Florida" and the normative embodiments of the performers. The possibilities for disrupting normate embodiment through the transmobilizing process of becoming mermaid remain mostly unrealized due to the centering of normative, white womanly embodiment and treatment of more-than-human life as backdrop rather than co-creators.

Disabled performer Amber DiPietra provides another reading of the manatee and, thus, another way of becoming mermaid. In her solo performance "Opposite of Evolution Studio," she engages with a painting by disability culture artist and scholar Sunaura Taylor, "Self-Portrait with Manatee" (Taylor 2014). In the painting Taylor floats alongside a manatee in a green-grey watery world. Both beings are naked and hover with their heads facing the viewer and arms dangling in front of them. Taylor's gaze is directed below. The manatee meets the viewer's gaze. The angle of their arms is identical and Taylor's fingers are obscured by the brush strokes. These beings are clearly kin.

In a performance at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on November 22, 2019, as part of an Eco-Arts Symposium organized by University of Michigan professor and disability culture artist Petra Kuppers, Taylor's painting was projected on the wall in the front of a room with cement floors with chairs set up in an arc to create a stage beneath the projected image (Taylor 2014). On one side of the room windows opened to the street. Passersby occasionally looked in. A motorized scooter sat along the left side of the improvised stage; a massage table was on the right. DiPietra emerged wearing a black and white bathing suit. Small in stature with a shuffle to her walk, she moved at a pace that might have seemed slow for normate bodies. She was light-skinned with dark hair, something that hinted at her mixed white and Latinx heritage. Her arms hung differently than a normate gaze might expect, mirroring the two sets of arms in the painting above her. Her website describes her as living with "autoimmune disease, lung disease, eye disease and partial blindness, short stature, bone deformity and degeneration, depression and anxiety, and chronic pain" (2020).

"If only there were a sidewalk leading all the way into the sea." This statement, in DiPeitra's voice, began the prerecorded narration. She slowly moved around the room while the narration explained key aspects of navigating public space: paying attention, touching walls, staring at her feet, lurching backward, straining forward. Her pace required that audience members experience the world in crip time (Price 2009; Kafer 2013, 27; Samuels 2017). According to Ellen Samuels, crip time, like DiPietra's walk around the room, is punctuated by "backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings" (2017). For Samuels, "the calm straightforwardness of those who live in the sheltered space of normative time" is part of what disabled people need to resist and disrupt (2017).

Arms outstretched, DiPietra perambulated the room, nearly touching the people sitting in the front row. The Eco-Arts Symposium gathered many disabled people along with their able-bodied peers. A video-recorded performance at Rollins College in Orlando, Florida on March 9, 2020 demonstrated a different scene. In the video, her arms extended into some audience member's personal space in order to find a surface to steady herself. Rather than assisting DiPietra, many audience members shifted to avoid her touch. Such forms of interdependence appeared unusual for these presumably able-bodied people who sit in linear rows of chairs that seemingly accommodate their bodies. In contrast, at the Riverside Arts Center, her audience included many people who were used to helping steady someone unstable on her feet, including some who also live in crip time and need similar support.

Arriving at her scooter, DiPietra found her balance before planting her feet on the platform above the wheels, grasping handlebars and sitting down. After taking a deep breath, she turned the key. She made a three-point turn before floating off, moving quickly and effortlessly through the space. No lurching, no straining, just smooth movement. Another three-point turn brought the scooter back to its original position. She dismounted and placed her belly on the seat of the scooter, allowing her legs and arms to move freely in space, as if she were swimming. She then reoriented her body, lodging herself between the handlebars and the seat, head resting on the back support before allowing herself to sink, butt resting on the platform where her feet would usually be. The narration explained what her movement had already demonstrated: "Walking is not a pleasurable experience." Since not walking is an important link between people with motor disabilities and animals in the normate mind, DiPeitra's performance showed the bind many disabled people are placed in: endure pain or dehumanization (Taylor 2017, 107).

DiPietra slowly slid from the scooter platform to the floor. As she rolled on the ground, limbs in the air, the narration described "swimming in the ground, being atemporal, a wave and a particle, a Buddhist ground." In this performance, becoming mermaid was a way to dissolve into the present, engaging in watery movement on land. The pace of her turning quickened until she encountered the edge of the room. Her movement halted, she began rolling in the other direction. The narrated voice shared Taylor's description of the painting projected on the wall; it represents the "Radical possibilities of being in a slow, interdependent body." This becoming manatee/mermaid provided a transmobile alternative to normate, bipedal movement.

The narration repeated the opening line, "If only there were a sidewalk leading all the way in to the sea," linking DiPietra's terrestrial existence to the ocean life evoked by the painting and her movements. She sat up laboriously. Once upright, she smiled and beckoned to audience members to join her on the floor. "I want to swim here, just in my own native element," the narration explained. "How closely can you pay attention to your relationship with gravity, the dance we all do? Yes, you. We are all in the same sea." This was an appeal for audience members to acknowledge kinship with her and, by extension, the manatee. She invited them to tap into their human animality, to become mermaid with her.

The performance transitioned into a dance class as DiPietra led a portion of the audience in a movement series, bending forward before circling from her hips, arms lifting and falling, all the while resembling the bodies projected above her—one human, one manatee, both mermaid. Her graceful movements evoked the ease she was reaching for throughout the performance. She worked within her range of motion, swimming in the space that immediately surrounded her. She became mermaid despite sitting on solid ground. She continued leading the audience in small arm movements, sometimes punctuated by bends from her waist, before bowing to indicate that the session was over.

Rolling onto her side, she began "walking" toward her scooter. Her right side in contact with the carpet, her legs moved forward one at a time, alternating as she progressed along the floor. She turned over onto her belly and then rolled all the way to her scooter. She climbed back onto the seat and stretched before gliding toward the massage table on the other side of the stage area. A request to "return me to sea" and a final wish for a sidewalk, a sidewalk that would enable her to be mermaid, to devolve into an aquatic ancestor, finished this section of the narration. The relocation marked a shift to a different segment of the performance, focused on her experiences as a body worker.

In contrast to the celebration of normate bodies transformed into mythical creatures at Weeki Wachee, DiPietra's performance centered her disabled bodymind's experiences of struggle and ease. The manatee was evoked as kin rather than picturesque backdrop. This was a becoming with rather than a hierarchal performance of human exceptionalism; it was a desire for a watery life of ease.

Excess and Sparseness

The Coney Island Mermaid Parade provides another way of becoming mermaid, one that celebrates normate and non-normate embodiments simultaneously. Started in 1983 by Dick Zigun as part of Coney Island USA, a non-profit arts organization that also sponsors the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the parade began as a motley crew of people invested in Coney Island's history as an alternative space since 1897 (Dennett 1996, 319). Present-day incarnations of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade sit awkwardly between a counterculture aesthetic and the sexualized mermaids on display at Weeki Wachee Springs. I attended the parade on June 20, 2015. That day thousands of mermaids and other sea creatures followed the opening delegation along Surf Avenue, down 10th Street, and then along the fabled Coney Island boardwalk. Given the cold temperatures and intermittent rain, the usual culminating plunge into the Atlantic was skipped by all except a few very brave souls. Normative genders appeared alongside other embodiments—large women, people of color, drag queens, and disabled people.

Historically, Coney Island was an infamous beach-front entertainment venue that included the amusement rides one can still indulge in today, along with food, beaches, and the now famous freak shows, a site whose popularity would peak in the 1920s (Kasson 1978, 9). Freak shows were, as Petra Kuppers reminds us, among the few stages that disabled people had access to (2004, 31). Eli Clare describes the phenomena of the freak show as "an elaborate and calculated social construction that utilized performance and fabrication as well as deeply held cultural beliefs" (1999, 86). At Coney Island, these beliefs responded to the "[m]idgets, giants, fat ladies, and ape-men [who] were both stigmatized and honored as freaks" and other elements of a decadent scene that refuted cultural norms without eradicating them (Kasson 1978, 50). Commentators' response to the spectacle included attention to women's bodies, wherein outrage was tinged with prurience. For example, Reginald Marsh's painting "George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park" depicted an amusement park where most of the people on rides and most of the spectators were partially-clad, voluptuous women (Kasson 1978, 92). Photographs from the same time depict a much less lascivious scene, with women in casual, long-sleeved, full-length dresses alongside with casually dressed men. Thus, women refuting sartorial standards of modesty were central to the imagined excess at Coney Island from its early days. This celebration of excessive femininity continues today.

In recent versions of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, becoming mermaid means intentionally embracing excess and even freakiness. Excess is not a neutral category. Jillian Hernandez identifies excess as a survival strategy for Black and Latina women and girls. Like attributions of humanity, understandings of excess emerge from middle-class Eurocentric norms. "To present aesthetic excess is to make oneself hypervisible, but not necessarily in an effort to gain legibility or legitimacy," Hernandez explains (2020, 11). As a performance of excess, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade provides an opportunity for those who are regularly deemed excessive to be honored and for others, including many conventionally attractive white women and men, to dabble in excess for a day. As Bree Hadley explains, performances of freakdom "can challenge spectators to experience—if fleetingly—the uncertainties of the face-to-face encounter with the extraordinary body" (2008). This playful wildness is likely freeing for all involved; however, not everyone can return to respectability when the parade is over. Some are marked as excessive, as freaks even after the streets reopen for automobile traffic.

Writing about the contemporary Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Elizabeth Stephens explains that

sideshows are sites in which norms about the body, its limits and capabilities are theatricalized and transformed into spectacle, but in which, for this very reason, they can also be effectively contested. Non-normative bodies are not simply exhibited or put on display on the sideshow stage but are rather performed as the unstable—indeed, destabilizing—product of the dynamic interrelationship between performer, audience and theatrical space, in an ongoing process of un/fixing competing ideas about ab/normal corporeity (2006, 486).

The mermaid parade similarly uses the fantastical image of a half-fish, half-woman along with related images including jellyfish, octopi, and Neptune in both his Roman god and Disney royal manifestations as a way to explore and challenge dominant somatic norms. Becoming mermaid during the parade is a playful challenge to the genteel norms of the early twenty-first century.

Each year, two participants are chosen to represent King Neptune and Queen Mermaid. The evocation of a king, who has always been represented by a cisgender man, and his always cisgender woman queen, to oversee the parade comprised primarily of feminine women, demonstrates the normative gender associations that structure the parade despite the countercultural and liberatory dynamics. These roles are sometimes interpreted conservatively, such as in 2016, when a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur was paired with a Sports Illustrated supermodel. Sometimes, though, these roles represent outsider embodiments. In 2015, Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, who met while working at Coney Island Circus Sideshow, were the king and queen. Fraser, a disabled performer, and Muz, a feminist stripper, played with the heterosexual ideal. Both are white and conventionally attractive. Nonetheless, his "small and perfectly deformed arms," are outside of the somatic norm (Brantley 2014; Jones 2016; Kuppers 2004, 31; Stephens 2006). They are also the basis of his fame.

Fraser's "Sealboy" persona, a role he played at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, worked explicitly with the history of freak shows using his research about and reimagination of a famous freak, Stanley Berent aka Sealo the Sealboy (Kuppers 2004, 36; Hadley 2008). Kuppers explains that in Fraser's "fantasy of Sealo, Berent denies total freakdom, other-than-humanness by naming himself" (2004, 37). This assertion of humanness from someone ejected from normate society happened through claiming relation to non-human animal life. Hadley identifies the complexity of this move, exploring whether or not confronting spectators with their complicity in transforming disabled people into "freaks" can successfully rehumanize disabled people by (2008). Muz's public acknowledgment of her sex work also signaled the excess of Coney Island's history along with a third-wave feminist reclaiming of women's sexuality that plays with questions of agency (Pilcher 2009; Stallings 2015, 18–22).

This elevation of a disabled man to countercultural royalty helped highlight the other disabled bodies in the parade. Among their entourage was a woman of small stature using an electric wheelchair. Throughout the parade, disabled people mingled with normative and less normative normate bodies as part of the spectacle in the street. Among the able-bodied performers were numerous large, black woman claiming space for their generous, dark-skinned bodies. Mami Wata was moving among the marchers that day. Because weather prevented all except the most committed from jumping into the Atlantic, the watery worlds the creatures on parade might occupy was purely imaginary.

The human impact on such sites of habitation was only occasionally referenced during the parade. In contrast, Hanna Cormick's theatrical performance "The Mermaid" explores questions about if either land or sea life is possible or desirable at this point in the Capitalocene (Cormick 2018; Haraway 2016, 57; Moore 2017). Using an autoethnographic approach, Cormick explores how toxins affect her body and, by extension, other bodies, both human and more-than-human. For her, becoming mermaid is a way to acknowledge her relationship to other living beings similarly affected by human-produced pollution.

According to her website, Cormick is "a performance artist with a background in physical theatre, dance, circus and interdisciplinary art…. Her current practice is a reclamation of body through radical visibility" (Cormick, n.d.). At one time her performances evoked the hyperability of circus performers, defying generally understood boundaries of human physicality. Since her diagnosis with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Ellers-Danlos syndrome, Chiari Malformation, and Dysautonomia, a cluster of rare diseases, her life and her art have changed radically (Dow 2019; Wiederholt 2018). For her, becoming mermaid emerges from her investment in a social model of disability, something she learned about from fellow disabled performer Liz Carr: "In the ocean, a mermaid is free, but by changing her environment, she is presented as disabled" (Wiederholt 2018).

Cormick's performance demonstrates queer theorist Mel Chen's analysis of toxicity as a condition that is "too complex to imagine as one or another individual or group or something that could itself be so easily bounded" (2012, 196). Additionally, the connections she draws between her body and the bodies of other lifeforms threated by environmental contamination illustrate one of Haraway's claims about human relationship with more-than-human life: "We are at stake to each other" (2016, 55). Cormick wants to use her experience to address the potential for futurelessness facing so many beings.

The film opens with environmental shots of a curved cement area serving as a stage. 2 Text reminding viewers that no food or drink are allowed and requesting that participants wearing "perfume, cologne, deodorant, hair product or makeup" move to the back of the site is layered on top of the post-industrial view. No audience is apparent, demonstrating how few people could meet this request. The window glass remains in the curved walls but the roof is missing, rendering the site neither indoors or outdoors, a twenty-first-century ruin evoking an ancient Greek arena.

Rhythmic breath through a mask that evokes the sound of ocean waves provides the first sound. The camera peers through an opening in the cement walls revealing a thin white man with dark hair wearing aviator sunglasses and beachwear standing to the left of a figure laying on the ground in front of a wheelchair wearing a pastel pink and blue mermaid tail, a matching bikini top, a neck brace, and a breathing mask adorned with white shells. The mermaid is also thin, white, and marked as womanly by the bikini top. The camera scans her reclining body, revealing metal splints on her fingers as well as a plastic tube linked to an unseen tank and the electrical cord of a microphone emerging from her mask. This mermaid is also a cyborg or, perhaps, a cripborg (Nelson, Shew, and Stevens 2019).

Spoken audio begins with a quote from Audre Lorde about the vulnerability and strength of visibility and voice. Cormick's own words follow, focusing on terms evoking difference—"disabled, sick, tragic, burden, failure." She moves slowly and with great effort, demonstrating what these words mean for her body. Each micro movement appears painful. She eventually sits, visibly winded, with her eyes closed while the voice over explains that she is here, in public, in order to "cauterize" her "shame" at becoming disabled. After a few seconds she reclines. As she pushes herself up again, the audio emphasizes the loneliness of living outside of social norms for her and her comrades, "the chronically ill, coloured, trans, queer, living-poor." Leaving the complexities of these alliances unexplored, she continues her narration as her companion helps her turn over and lifts her tail in the air. Cormick's companion is an interdependent helper who engages her intimately to help her navigate the world.

Cormick not only connects her embodied experience to other people excluded from and harmed by contemporary culture, she emphasizes relations among all life, human and more-than-human. As she lies on the cement floor she describes digging "into my body like a fossil fuel baron; it was there to serve me, and never the other way around." She is the extractor and the resource in this former approach to her body. Disrupting the common sematic schema Chen identifies as structuring most discourses about toxicity, she is both the body "under threat" and the body "causing… damage" (2012, 191).

She pushes herself up a few centimeters, lifting her head and chest ever so slightly. She connects the tremors running through her cells to the tremors running through "the coral, the seabed, the roots"; describing pesticides as "switching on dangerous genes" as well as damaging insect and plant life. Her sickness is the sickness of Australia itself. Human treatment of the natural world as resource rather than relation is killing human and more-than-human life. After all, "human beings are with and of the earth" (Haraway 2016, 55). Her companion's help returning her tail to the ground and turning her back over demonstrates the softness necessary for a new relationship to human and other bodies. Becoming mermaid, for Cormick, means acknowledging interdependence.

Demonstrating Kuppers's observation that disabled people are "ecosystems under duress," the live video is interrupted by a public service announcement (2014, 123): "The artist is at risk of suffering an allergic seizure during the performance. This risk is part of the work. If this happens, the following will occur." The camera returns to the cement arena where Cormick is laying on the ground with her arms and shoulders shaking while a quick drum beat plays. The camera moves back and forth between her twitching body and her companion who is holding a stack of white cards that he displays one by one. The first one reads: "The artist is having a seizure." Subsequent cards explain that she is conscious, how painful seizures are, possible sources of her allergic response including "food hidden in your bag" or "your hair product," and that compounds in personal care and cleaning products constitute half of city air pollution, which is more than cars produce. For Cormick, becoming mermaid is a painful evolution.

At the end of the performance, her companion wheels her chair behind her. She reaches behind to lift herself into the chair and then leans back, exhausted. As her companion arranges her tail, the voiceover relates the response of so many able-bodied people to disability: "It must be so awful, I'd probably just kill myself." While looking directly at the camera, she emphasizes the experience of not being looked in the eye, of people not seeing her, as a way to address their own discomfort. Her words refocus on her body in relationship to the earth: "I am the low-lying islands we are drowning. I am the sick air, the sick ocean, contaminated water, earth. I am the damage we have done to the earth. I am all the people you hide away and pretend don't exist. I am everyone you tread on to stand where you are." This is a tragic rather than celebratory dance of relating, yet the interdependence is clear. She falls back in her chair, seemingly out of breath. The camera drifts away as Cormick's breath becomes the soundscape again, taking us back to the rhythmic ocean waves of the introduction. As a pop-rock song begins, the camera takes in the arena showing that the audience is entirely virtual. Despite the softly-spoken words, this performance is an accusation of society and viewers, a call for radical change. Becoming mermaid is an activist move for Cormick.

In some ways, Cormick's performance is even further away from the Coney Island Mermaid Parade than DiPietra's is from the daily performances at Weeki Wachee Springs. The Coney Island parade, like DiPeitra, articulates a desire to return to sea, usually ending in a plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Cormick reveals that such a return isn't as simple as the Coney Island celebrants might think it is. In DiPietra's words, "we are all in the same sea" and, as Cormick makes clear, that sea is contaminated. This is Haraway's Chthulucene where "[l]ike it or not, we are in the string figure game of caring for and with precarious worldings made terribly more precarious by fossil-burning man making new fossils as rapidly as possible" (2016, 55). Becoming mermaid means actively acknowledging harm to human and more-than-human being.


Becoming mermaid is multivalent. Some becomings have queer possibilities but remain mired in able-bodied, racial, gendered, and anthropocentric normativities. Still others embracing the heteropatriarchal and normate along with the queer and proudly crip. A few provide other ways of being with our kin, human and non-human.

DiPietra's and Cormick's becomings highlight relations among humans and more-than-human life. DiPietra does this by moving in ways that are easeful for her body under the projected image of Taylor and a manatee. The title of her performance evokes our aquatic ancestors and articulates a desire to return to sea. In her vision, humans and manatees are acknowledged as kin. This is a lively kinship, premised on shared limb structure, affinity for water, and the transmobility of her disabled body. The sea is an imagined refuge from the difficulties of life on land.

Cormick relies on narration and small, painful movements to demonstrate the relationship between her disabled body and the coral, low-lying islands, and other endangered parts of our world. Her focus is the toxins that attack all of these bodies indiscriminately. Cormick shows the fate she shares with more-than-human life as a result of human recklessness and greed. The sea that DiPeitra imagines returning to has changed since our aquatic ancestors inhabited it, rendering the ocean toxic too. This dire assessment of human relationship with ocean life doesn't render DiPietra's desire for recognition of kinship between human and more-than-human life naïve. Instead, it provides a pragmatic assessment that we must consider alongside DiPietra's more optimistic imagining.

We need both of these approaches to effectively envision how we might acknowledge that the ways that we are becoming with more-than-human life is harming all of us. In order to address oppressive, planet threatening, practices, we need critical assessment of human actions and visions for other ways of being. Cormick's indictment of the current state of human dominance of more-than-human life is a necessary part of this process. So is DiPietra demonstration of the value of disabled lives by acknowledging kinship with more-than-human life. On its own, Cormick's analysis risks the despair that Haraway warned us about (2016, 4). Combined with the more hopeful vision DiPietra provides, we have the beginnings of a tool kit to explore how we can create a different future. As we move into uncertain social and environmental futures, these cripborg figures can guide us toward becoming dis/human.

Works Cited


  1. Much appreciation to everyone who has provided support and suggestions on drafts of this article. Petra Kuppers has been an especially wonderful interlocutor, including on our travels to Weeki Wachee Springs. I am also grateful to the DSQ team and the anonymous readers who provided helpful commentary. Parts of this article were presented at BABEL (UCSB, 2014), Disability as Spectacle (UCLA, 2017), and PSi #25 (Calgary, 2019). Many thanks for the productive conversations in each of these venues.
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  2. The artist provided me access to a promotional video recording of a 2018 performance.
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