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The New Wave for Women and Girls: IN Mermaids, OUT Vampires

01/23/2013 08:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Why are mermaids edging out vampires in our pop culture, especially for young women? When I first began my mermaid series, The Drowning World, in 2003, there were few tail flukes in current film or fiction. A New York editor told me, "Mermaids are ancient history. Vampires are what's hot."

Another editor, when she read my novel of shape-shifters surviving rising seas and floating cities, asked, "But where are the elves and the fairies?"

Dutifully, I re-read Tolkien's hobbits and Twilight. I tuned into "The Vampire Diaries" and "True Blood." It's not that I didn't like vampires; it's just that I didn't get why a woman would want her life's blood drained away to spend her eternal life with a dead man. Too much like some of my own relationships. Not my idea of romance.

So I just kept writing about mermaids. Creating a cosmos takes time. When The Drowning World, was finally published in late 2012 -- right before Hurricane Sandy flooded the East Coast -- pop culture had also undergone a sea change.

"Are Mermaids the New Vampires?" Digital Journal asks. Mermaid books, especially YA crossovers, are so ubiquitous that one of my editors protested, "Some of them are even vampire-mermaids. Cheesh!"

What happened? Why is Animal Planet's "Mermaids: The Body Found" their biggest ratings hit -- a "mockumentary" that prompted NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to issue a disclaimer that "mermaids are not real." Why are YA readers falling in love with Carolyn Turgeon's Mermaid and Forgive My Fins? You know that when Twilight's Stephanie Meyer announces she's writing about mermaids, something fishy is going on.

Having spent the last decade creating mer-people of my own; and having also spent three decades underwater studying whales and dolphins for my non-fiction books, I have some ideas why vampires are ebbing. Whenever one myth replaces another, it's fascinating to understand why.
Here's a quick comparison of vampires and mermaids in mythology:

VAMPIRES:

1. Die to become undead
2. Feed off humans
3. Addicted to human blood
4. Compel humans
5. Powerful and sexy
6. Stylish and immortal
7. Make love and war
8. Secretive, taboo, mysterious
9. Plot: A Stranger Comes to Town
10. Romance of The Other

MERMAIDS:

1. Shape shift between worlds
2. Fall in love with humans
3. Don't need humans to survive
4. Mesmerize humans with songs
5. Powerful and sexy
6. Stylish, but mortal like humans
7. Make love more than war
8. Secretive, taboo, mysterious
9. Plot: A Stranger Comes to Town
10. Romance of The Other

Mermaids practice more feminine power than most vampires. Like many female wild animals, mermaids choose their own mates. So mermaids are action heroes in their own rights; they are not just acted upon by dashing male vampires who recreate women in their undead image. In my favorite of the vampire sagas, The Discovery of Witches, a renaissance-man vampire meets his match -- a powerful witch.

Unlike the tragic, self-destructive Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson's classic tale, our 21st century mermaids can live between sea and earth with style and pleasure. And unlike the vampire stories in which death or war are the main themes, mermaid myths focus most on romance and struggling to fit in -- or not. For girls and women, adapting to our ever-changing roles and societal expectations, our focus on relationships is like shape-shifting. We are always in moral and romantic dilemmas, such as: How much do we change ourselves to be loved? In a global village, can we love The Other/The Outsider/The Forbidden?

As far as setting, climate change may be unconsciously driving some of these stories, especially for the young. We always tell tales about how to survive. In a future of rising seas, will we actually learn to be more amphibious? Will we someday have to leave land and live in undersea or floating cities? Will Lady Gaga's mermaid fashions become the norm?

When popular culture and the stories we tell ourselves shift from vampires to mermaids, it suggests a more practical, regenerative and hopeful trend. Practical, because we seem more concerned with the living and our own survival. We don't long so much for death or the end of the world. Mermaids rising up with our seas beckon us to pay attention to their siren calls, to dive into our own depths, to fully fathom the oceanic womb that first, and always, gives our species life support.

Have pop culture vampires really cared much about saving our human world and habitat? Many mermaids are activists. Real mermaids, like movie star-mermaid, Hannah Foster, swim with wild dolphins and whales to raise awareness of the danger -- like military sonar -- destroying our seas. Megan Heaney-Grier, a U.S. Free Dive champion, whose mermaid photo graces the cover of The Drowning World, also champions' shark conservation. Then there is "Mission of Mermaids," an elegant ocean conservation movement.

Mermaids don't fall in love with eternal death. They fall in love with flawed and complicated real life, specifically humans. Mermaids, unlike vampires, want to stay in this world with us. They long for us, for our land and our legs. But they also have their own alternate universes that are complex and multi-dimensional. Mermaids have much to teach us about surviving a drowning earth. To mermaids, ours is not a dying world, but one worth loving -- and saving.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 17 books, including the children's book, Leopard and Silkie, a winner of the National Science Teacher's "Outstanding Books of 2013 for K-12." Her new novel, The Drowning World, is just out. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com