SLAYING THE MERMAID by Stephanie Golden


Women and the Culture of Sacrifice
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Another illustration of how women diminish their potential by, in this case, cutting off their tails to spite their psyches. Golden (The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelesness, 1992) takes as her theme the tale of the Little Mermaid—not the Disney version, but Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, in which the Little Mermaid, after sacrificing her seductive tail, walks in bloody agony as she serves the prince. Despite her fealty, she loses the hero to another woman. This, says Golden, has been a model for women since at least the days of the early Christians, when self-mortification’sometimes to extinction—was a moral imperative and supposedly led to spiritual transcendence. Golden brings the tale of sacrifice up to date with stories of contemporary nuns lured into renouncing such simple pleasures as dried fruit; she also recalls the television show Queen for a Day, where the winner was the contestant judged to have sacrificed the most. Catholicism takes a big hit, with its encouragement of sacrifice as “reparation” for Christ’s agony. The evolution of women’s devotion to self-sacrifice is tracked from Saint Catherine of Siena (who starved herself to death) through Freud (woman as masochist), and Simone Weil (living with God’s nail in her heart) to fictional private investigator V.I. Warshawski, who identifies with the victimized. Golden tries to examine the consequences of sacrifice from all sides, reflecting on the rewards of pain (a “rush” and a source of creativity), of being a victim (“suffering ennobles,” certain kinds of victims are “fashionable”), and on its relationship to power. Ultimately, she says, self-sacrifice as it usually presents itself is a practice of the powerless in search of control. However, with a nod to Buddhist philosophy, Golden goes on to assert that sacrifice can be redefined as “constructive” and “transformative.” There’s definitely an “aha” experience here; many women will recognize and bemoan their own sacrificial behavior. Next question: Where does self-abnegation end and true compassion begin?

Pub Date: June 17th, 1998
ISBN: 0-517-70812-4
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Harmony
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998