An excerpt from a longer essay called ‘Reborn as a sea hag’, from Airini Beautrais’ highly anticipated forthcoming essay collection The Beautiful Afternoon.
It’s only once I arrive at the studio that I realise my chosen placement is going to require me to go without pants the whole day. There is something vulnerable about being naked from the waist down, with someone you don’t know very well. But my tattooist is easy to talk to. We’ve lived in some of the same places. We talk about our academic backgrounds, our work, our hobbies. A tattoo artist, like a beauty therapist, a massage therapist, a hairdresser, a nurse, is used to working with all kinds of human bodies, in a way that those of us who don’t touch people for a living can’t easily comprehend. As the sun starts to go down, my skin feels more sore, and the hip bone of the side I have been lying on all day starts to ache. The suckers come last, fiddly and repetitive. It must be tiring, tattooing people all day, I say, and the tattooist agrees.
The octopus on my side-butt is not a direct reference to either Hans Christian Andersen’s sea-witch or Disney’s eight-legged Ursula: those are just the examples nearest the surface when one goes diving. There are a lot of stories about mermaids, but very few where the sea hag is the protagonist. I was drawn to the sea hag as an emblem of female power. Instead of being an object of male desire, she is an independent figure, a maker of potions, someone to be feared. The octopus has also been associated with various mythological monsters. Folklorist F.T. Elworthy likened the octopus to the Gorgons; Medusa and her sisters. Drawing on figures from pottery, he argues that “in these curling objects we may recognise what must have been as familiar as they were dreadful to the ancients living on the coast; not snakes, but the writhing tentacles of the horrible Octopus.” He goes on to say: “Those who have studied that monster, the Octopus, at close quarters, as I have, will find no difficulty in appreciating the awfully fascinating glance, in the baleful eye of that odious creature, an eye in itself conveying the most frightfully malignant expression of any living thing upon which I have ever looked.” Freud saw the Medusa as representing the genitalia of the mother, eliciting fear of castration. “This symbol of horror is worn on her dress by the virgin goddess Athene,” Freud writes. “And rightly so, for thus she becomes a woman who is unapproachable and repels all sexual desires.”
Even after four waves of feminism, the value systems of a traditional patriarchal society are still very present. In a hetero-patriarchal worldview, the idealised woman is young, virginal, compliant and selfless. She has a neat and tidy vulva that has never been penetrated, and has never given birth. As she cannot simultaneously maintain this state and fulfil the purposes of sexual provider and mother, she must be constantly replaced. In such a value system, the body of the promiscuous woman is seen as ruined and debased, and the post-partum body as unpleasantly altered and undesirable, subjected to immense pressure to revert to its maiden state via weaning, weight-loss and surgery. There is no winning for a woman in this system: the body’s divinely appointed job is to bear children, but its reward for doing so is renewed hatred and disgust. This disgust is often internalised. I am frequently saddened by social media posts and articles by otherwise feminist women, lamenting the exact number of kilograms they have gained, or displaying a begrudging kind of self-acceptance, with the caveat that they hope to be smaller in a year or two.
The idea of the octopus came to me on a walk at South Beach in Whanganui. While our kids and Oscar the dog ran through the dunes playing hide-and-seek, a friend and I talked about our love lives, as we often did. I was being ghosted again by an on-off boyfriend, after admitting I thought some of his writing featured misogynistic tropes. For the hundredth time, I was done with him. And I wanted something symbolic to ensure I wouldn’t go back, to him or anyone like him. Once, on another beach, he’d made a joke about accidentally seeing my genitalia, and “getting the fright of his life”. I might as well embrace that Freudian fear, I thought to myself. Writhing tentacles on my leg, a Medusa’s head, would help filter out anyone who was terrified of vulvas.
The sea-witch is an older woman of dubious morality, or in Ursula’s case, genuine evil. The nameless Little Mermaid, and Ariel, are young and pure of heart. But there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy. They are all creatures of the mythical ocean, belonging to a diverse family of characters. In the same way they transcend beautiful versus ugly, good versus bad, appealing versus terrifying, the mermaid, the sea-witch and their mythological cousins also complicate the virgin/whore dichotomy. The fish tail could be seen as a sexual fetish. The lack of legs and therefore lack of human genitalia (logically, a mermaid has a cloaca) could symbolise unattainability. Or the creatures of the sea could represent female sexual agency and the destruction of men through desire. Or they could be darker still: the aquatic being could be something monstrous from the very depths, a Grendel’s mother. The sea monster could more broadly represent any sexuality or gender identity that does not conform to patriarchal, heterosexual norms.
Like the Medusa and Grendel’s mother, the Sirens and the Lorelei, depictions of water creatures over the past two centuries span a broader spectrum than the romantic feminine characterisations of Andersen’s and Disney’s versions. Fake mermaids made of monkeys and fish, crafted in the nineteenth century, and housed in various museum collections, are testament to the idea of the mermaid as a creature of horror. In her movie Herstory of Porn, Annie Sprinkle plays an older mermaid who has sex with a younger mermaid and a male diver. New Zealand filmmaker Adam Stevens’s 2003 short film Delores features a fishing crew who accidentally catch an injured, angry and foul-mouthed mermaid, whose strong smell makes them vomit. In the video for his song ‘Music for a Sushi Restaurant’, Harry Styles plays a singing squid man who is discovered washed up on the beach. WWE wrestler John Cena had a cameo in the 2023 Barbie movie as ‘Kenmaid’, a merman with billowing blond hair.
To my mind, possibilities are the greatest things stories can offer us. Being told the same story over and over, on the other hand, with no alternatives, serves to solidify power. The evil old witch versus the beautiful young princess is one of the most harmful of these narratives. It reinforces a tendency to categorise women as attractive and unattractive, or, more crudely, “fuckable” and “unfuckable” in a way that undermines a person’s humanity. I can’t go back and relive my childhood, replacing folk tales and Disney movies with a diet of books and films about strong women who followed their dreams and demanded respect. But I can continue to explore alternative narratives. I can’t determine how other people see my body, but I can determine how I respond to other people’s perceptions.
The tattooist cleans my skin and applies a balm, then carefully wraps the octopus. I drive back to the airport, get on a plane, sit in the tiny seat with my hip aching. It is not a painful ache, more a pleasant one, like the rough tingle you feel in your hands after a day working in the garden. I am tired, but endorphins flow through my blood. I am happy. At home, I peel away the tape and the wrap, wash off the plasma and surplus ink in the shower. There is my body: naked, human, alive and imperfect. Tentacles writhe around my hip, as if the octopus has suckered onto me. I am a woman, and a mother. I am no longer young. Never, never again do I want to be fucked by someone who hates any part of what I am, who finds me disgusting, who views me as an object or a repository. The octopus’s eye looks out of my leg, keen, watchful, powerful.
The Beautiful Afternoon: Essays by Airini Beautrais is out in March. You can pre-order your copy from Te Herenga Waka University Press here.