• Ariel Bartlett

Murder, Mermaids, and Kim Petras: A Personal Insight into the Significance of Trans Representation

(Content warning: Gender dysphoria and self harm.)

(Photo sourced from here.)

As someone born in the nineties, it would be unfair to say I had no transfeminine role models growing up. To do so would be a disservice to the likes of Christine Jorgensen, Marsha P Johnson, and Greer Lankton whose fearless advocacy and self-expression would’ve constellated my fragmented identity — had I only known they’d existed. Instead, my limited exposure to what it meant to be transgender came from an uncharitable depiction of sexual reassignment surgery in South Park and Jame Gumb, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. As much as creating a woman suit out of skin procured from homicide victims had its charms, for some peculiar reason, it didn’t appeal as a means of surmounting my cross-sex identification. Consequently, life in my body felt like a drunken, late-night train ride: a source of enervation, exacerbated by the awareness I was on the wrong line.

During primary school, I had the privilege of my grandmother living directly across the road from me. This meant upon arriving home from school, I’d ascend the tiled steps to her front door and be treated to an afternoon snack: nearly always vanilla ice cream with a gluttonous amount of Cottee’s Thick ‘n’ Rich Chocolate Flavoured Topping. I then remember many afternoons spent heading outside and walking unending loops around her property: past the lavender bushes and geraniums lining her driveway, past the letter box, down a narrow passage created by her neighbour’s fence, past her clothesline, and back past the lavender bushes and geraniums. The circular nature of this course trumped only by the circular nature of my thoughts. Why do I feel like a girl? What can I do about it? Nothing? If there’s nothing, then why do I feel this way?

I often see interviews where a public figure is asked what they would tell their twelve-year-old self, and they nearly always respond with some sort of universally appealing platitude like, ‘It gets better,’ or, ‘Just be yourself.’ If I had such a luxury, I imagine myself now waiting by the letter box in my grandmother’s front yard. In the vision I’m wearing a floral dress and tasteful flats. (If we’re realistic though, I’d probably be wearing stripper heels and some sort of not-what-it-looked-like-online polyester disaster.) I would watch the driveway, waiting for my twelve-year-old self to appear, her mind crowded with thoughts of a becoming that felt whimsical at best. I would then hold that child the way she already held defeat and tell her there was no need to become the girl she already was. I’d tell her about all the resources she didn’t even know she had: gender therapy, puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and a history of transgender identities as old as humanity itself.

It would be ungracious to place blame on my younger self, but everything I didn’t know then has left an indelible mark on me. I mourn the first quarter of my life. I mourn the time and money I’ve lost in an effort to undo what puberty did to me. I mourn the prospect of my body ever feeling like anything other than a factory second. In the absence of what I know now, it is hardly controversial to suggest my younger self would have benefited from trans representation that extended beyond the sexual reassignment surgery luridly depicted on South Park or the sadism of Jame Gumb. As noted by Jeffrey Arnett, a professor in developmental psychology:

One of the most important developmental challenges of adolescence, from the perspective of most developmental psychologists, is identity formation, the cultivation of a conception of one's values, abilities, and hopes for the future. In cultures where media are available, media can provide materials that adolescents use toward the construction of an identity (1995, p. 522).

Conservatives are quick to vociferate that entertainment has become ‘too political’ (as though the exclusion of minorities from the media wasn’t political in and of itself), but it’s all too easy to cherish the status quo when the status quo has always benefited you. In a world crowded with white, cisnormative, patriarchal narratives, denying a space for alternate identities in our media only succeeds in leaving minority youth without a blueprint for their own self-actualisation.

Just last year, for my Honours project, I wrote about allegories as a means of filling a lack within pre-existing systems of signification. For those who don’t know, Hans Christian Andersen (author of ‘The Little Mermaid’ amongst many other well-known fairy tales) spent much of his life lovelorn over the son of one of his benefactors: Edvard Collin (what’s a Twilight?). I argued in my thesis that grappling with feelings of homosexual attraction in an episteme that had no formal signifier for homosexuality (Wullschlager 2000, p. 115) reduced Andersen’s identity to that of an orphan signified: a signified value unsheltered by any linguistic or semiotic signifier. In ‘The Little Mermaid’, the mermaid herself affords Andersen a signifier through which to define his own sense of otherness. After all, the mermaid’s amphibious nature possesses this same ambiguity. Throughout the narrative, the little mermaid adapts to water, earth, and air. Consequently, unlike much else within a Saussurean understanding of semiotics, it becomes challenging to define her with reference to that which she is not. To complicate matters further, the little mermaid is uncomfortable in all three environments. In water, ‘She grew more and more fond of human beings; she wished more and more that she might rise up among them’ (Andersen 2006, p. 75). On earth, ‘Each step she took [...] felt as if she were treading on pointed awls and sharp knives’ (Andersen 2006, p. 81). Even her time in air is described as a ‘time of trial’ (Andersen 2006, p. 87). Thus, each environment represents a failed attempt at identification — an unsatisfactory label for Andersen’s orphaned sense of self.

The mermaid’s conflict between killing the prince or accepting her own death in the final portion of the work embodies the primary conundrum of the semiotic orphan: to reject the system that failed it or to accept its voiceless descent into obscurity. Seeing as neither outcome offers the validation the mermaid yearns for, she is forced to reckon with what Sigmund Freud describes as the ‘painful transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle’ (Freud 1925, p. 64). Since this painful transition can only be soothed through recourse to the imagination (Freud 1925, p. 65), it is perhaps why, at this point, the story makes its greatest imaginative leap. After turning to foam, as the sea witch warned she would, the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air (Andersen 2006, p. 79, 86). She is told that like mermaids, ‘The daughters of the air have no immortal souls either, but through good deeds they can create one for themselves’ (Andersen 2006, p. 86). This discovery conflicts with the sea witch’s warning seven pages earlier: ‘“[...] if you don’t win the love of the prince [...] then you won’t get an immortal soul!”’ (Andersen 2006, p. 79). Thus, only through an endorsement of hitherto unestablished world building is Andersen able to carve closure out of a seemingly hopeless set of options. Returning to the dilemma of the orphan signified, instead of rejecting the system that created it or accepting a descent into obscurity, Andersen uses allegory to carve a new system of signification that affords his ambiguous sense of self the parental signifier it craves.

For so many minority youth, endorsing authorial control to carve closure out of a seemingly hopeless set of options has long been the only way to achieve self definition within discourse and language that overwhelmingly favour majority experiences. Consider the reclamation of terms such as ‘queer’, ‘fat’, ‘crippled’, and the N-word. Self-definition for minorities has long been a fight against a system hellbent on creating labels for the sole purpose of invalidation and erasure. Is it any wonder my name was somewhat¹ drawn from the closest approximation I had of Andersen’s little mermaid? My whole life has felt like a time of trial as a daughter of the air, and it is only now, at twenty-four, that I’ve started to feel anything approaching an integrated sense of self — or, more poetically: an immortal soul.

Recently, I’ve found myself listening to Kim Petras on loop. (Sidebar: If you haven’t heard her Halloween EP, you need to get onto that!) Comparing myself unfavourably to people on the Internet has long been a hobby to which I’ve devoted myself with a masochistic fervour. Wanting all my clothes designer and someone else to buy them is certainly a relatable sentiment, but in many ways, I feel that’s where my similarities to Kim end. Watching her music videos is seeing my unrealised and unsalvageable potential in glorious, glossy technicolour. Seeing her is seeing the life I could’ve had if twelve-year-old me knew what I know now. It’s seeing the life where my voice never broke, where I didn’t spend my high school formal fidgeting in a stiff suit, where I had money for more than surgery, and where I’d only ever used a letter opener to open letters. Kim Petras is the blueprint I never had — but thankfully, for trans youth now, she’s a blueprint they have. She’s a means forward in a world that, until recently, looked like endless loops around my grandmother’s backyard. She’s a push toward shifting culture and language away from trans erasure and into the light. And knowing trans youth listening to Kim Petras may be spared the uncertainty I experienced growing up gives me a feeling of peace stronger than any dysphoria.

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¹ One could write a thesis on the intertextuality within my name. There’s a bit of Andersen, a bit of Plath, a bit of Shakespeare. All that good stuff.

References: Andersen, HC 2006 [1837], ‘The Little Mermaid’ in J Wullschlager (ed.), Fairy Tales, trans. T Nunnally, Penguin Books, New York

Arnett, JJ 1995, ‘Adolescents' Uses of Media for Self-Socialization’, Journal of Youth Adolescence, vol. 24, no. 5, pp. 519 - 533

Freud, S 1925, An Autobiographical Study, trans. J Strachey, Hogarth Press, London

Wullschlager, J 2000, Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

© 2020 Ariel Bartlett