Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice by Stephanie Golden explores the issue of why so many women are willing to cater to the needs of others even at the expense of sacrificing their personal happiness, psychic health, and physical well-being. Using Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid as metaphor, Golden compares the behaviors of historical and contemporary women to the mermaid’s willingness to mutilate her body, lose her voice, and endure pain all because of a distorted sense of devotion to another person(s), an ideal, or a cause.
Golden weaves interviews of contemporary women with examples of the behaviors of historical women and with the research of prominent past and present historians, sociologists, psychiatrists, and physicians. Her well-documented research explores the religious and cultural roots of sacrifice and the unequal distribution of the burden placed on women to endure physical and psychological pain for the benefit of others. Women’s conditioning has been so ingrained that many women harbor feelings of guilt if they articulate their personal needs and/or insist on having them addressed. This results in women de-selfing, losing their identity, abandoning their dreams and aspirations, and assuming the guise of victim and/or martyr—a guise which relieves them of personal responsibility. They starve themselves both literally (as in the case of anorexics) and metaphorically from a sense of guilt and need for affirmation.
Golden argues that sacrifice in and of itself is not a bad thing. Sacrifice should be an exercise of conscious, mindful choice. It can and should be constructive, fulfilling, self-enhancing, mutually empowering, and nurturing of oneself as well as of those we serve. Problems arise when sacrifice is stripped of these qualities and, instead, entails self-defeating behaviors, a loss of voice and agency, a willingness to endure ill health and pain, and the surrender of control over one’s life.
Golden’s shuffling between different interview subjects was confusing at times and the central argument became repetitive. In spite of that, however, Slaying the Mermaid has considerable merit. The research is well-documented, all-encompassing, and considers how the intersections of race and class impact the gendered manifestations of sacrifice. Ample concrete examples from the lives of women buttress the claims.
But perhaps more importantly, the study spurs us to examine the motives behind our own sacrifices: Are our sacrifices made by choice? Or are they the result of years of a socialization that promotes the ideal of true womanhood as consisting of self-denial and a willingness to embrace physical and psychological pain in the service of others?
Slaying the Mermaid prompts us to interrogate our own motives. And as such, it provides a valuable service that makes it well worth reading.