Stories and Mermaid Songs

“Something has happened. But how? Was it overnight, or has it been creeping up on us and we’ve only just noticed? It’s the girls, the young and pretty girls.They used to sing like sirens, like mermaids, all sweet and liquid, breezy melodies, wavy melodies, but now they’re shorn of melody, though their mouths open and close as before.

Have their tongues been cut out?”  

Margaret Atwood, “Something Has Happened”,The Tent, 2006.


In our workshop “Wake Up Sleeping Beauty” we use traditional fairytales as a stimulus for discussion. All the pretty girls are challenged to awaken: to identify the poison apples in their lives and slay some dragons.

My favourite business writer Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi and Saatchi and author of the inspirational Love Marks, discusses why stories can be so transformational in his book Sisimo:  

1. Great stories touch us. They connect with our own desires and experiences and what we care about.

2. Great stories are contagious. The itch to pass on a great story is almost unbearable. Stories have to be shared.

3. Great stories are cloaked in credibility. They make practical sense, intuitive sense, emotional sense.

4. Great stories connect with the emotions. Genuine, compelling emotion drives every story.

5. Great stories surprise and delight. They are infinitely capable of the unexpected. It’s not just about novelty and revelations but also creativity and emotional truth.

6. Great stories have context. Whether it’s a fairy tale or a business lesson, stories weave facts and events together so we understand their larger meanings.

7. Great stories are fast workers. They get in ahead of our rationalizations and logic with their own compelling truth.

8. Great stories are crafted. We all like stories to be recounted with skill and effort.

9. Great stories make us laugh. Humor disarms us and opens us up to new ideas.

10. Great stories teach us to be smart. Through great stories we learn to spot disinformation in an instant. Shoddy stories reinforce prejudice and hide the truth.

11. Great stories introduce us to great characters; people we want to spend time with.

12. Great stories open us up to other worlds. Welcome to the world of the imagination, to new geographies, to new realities.”

I think it is sad that society has stopped telling great stories to our teenagers. They respond brilliantly to a tale well told. 

One of the most disturbing fairytales of all that seems to contain compelling truths for our girls is that of the little mermaid. Our words have enormous power, yet what did the mermaid decide to sacrifice to get her man? Her voice – her words. And her fins – body mutilation. When all this still doesn’t work and she cannot win the Prince’s love, Ariel throws herself into the sea. Heartbroken. No happy ending.

What will our girls do in the quest to be more beautiful? More loved? More?

A quarter of teenage girls in Australia say they would get plastic surgery if they could, and two per cent have already gone under the knife. Almost 60 per cent wanted to be lighter on the scales. Many silence their inner turmoil and pretend they are happy whilst behind closed doors they binge drink, self harm, play at being “mean girls” and bully others…

The Fairy Godmothers must act. Older women have to step up and act as guides and role models,  girls cannot be what they cannot see. Where would Cinderella have been without her Fairy Godmother, Sleeping Beauty without the kind fairies who tried to protect her, and Dorothy without Glynda the good fairy?

Don’t buy into the myth that older women have nothing to offer. The media perpetuates the quest for youthful perfection. Older women are virtually invisible and either taken off air when their use by date expires (which happens when they are mid-thirties) or sent off for surgery.

Women need to be more supportive of each other regardless of age. We’re all battling with the same dragons. We all have moments when we look despairingly into the mirror and ask, “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

There is great power in the collective female voice. Will we give power to the negative, to the compare and despair game? Or will we choose a different song? Our “Sleeping Beauty” workshop opens with the powerful song “Wake Me Up” by Evanescence. The lyrics include ” Wake me up inside (I can’t wake up) Wake me up inside (save me) …speak sentences, sing again. I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems. Got to open my eyes to everything. Bring me to life…”

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Let’s all open our eyes. Let’s create new realities for our Princesses and for ourselves.

Let’s create our own Happy Ever After.

P.S. I worked with the girls from All Saints Grammar yesterday and reading through their feedback comments this morning I was reminded yet again of how powerful great stories are, and of the urgent need for Fairy Godmothers! Take 5 minutes and read through their comments – what beautiful, honest words

I found the girls extraordinary – so many hugs, so many smiles.     


11 thoughts on “Stories and Mermaid Songs

  1. Claire Clements says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Danni. Words really are incredible tools and the fairy tale concept is certainly being misinterpreted these days in my opinion. I guess the thing with stories, especially fairy tales, is that they can be retold and manipulated over and over until they become something different. I wonder if my 8 year old and 5 year old nieces will think of the common princesses, like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, in their original form, the Disney form, or the Shrek the Third form where Rapunzel is quite the tyrant and the girls take on a very modern attitude.

    I’m going to end up writing too much here if I keep going, but I think this post is terrific. Thanks again for what you do. 🙂 Claire

  2. Jane Higgins says:

    In her famous book “Women Who Run with the Wolves” Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) argues that stories are medicine which have the power to repair and reclaim but that these tales of transformation have been lost and sanitized in today’s culture. The world’s foremost authority on mythology Joseph Campbell (1988, p.5) says that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance” and that “fairy tales are children’s myths” p. 138.

    If we take this as truth, then we must bring these myths and stories out and share their meanings and messages with young girls. We the wise women, the older women, the protectors, nurturers and guardians must help our girls to make sense of themselves and the stages they are passing through.

    I totally agree Danni, – you can’t be what you can’t see! So let us stand together for them to see us in all our glory!
    xx Jane

  3. Lisa Porter says:

    Thanks Danni for the link to Claire’s poem – it took my breath away, So thank you, too, Claire.

    I love those 12 points about stories, and will share them with my classes! Part of the HSC ESL English course is a Module called “Telling Stories” – we look at all sorts of narratives and the characters (and other narrative elements) within. Whilst we teachers are generally working within a timeframe and a list of set texts, at the moment I am feeding my students “Choose your own adventure” stories – remember them?? They love being able to take on these personas and control their destiny in such a dramatic way! We talked today about how character is an essential element of narrative – how the choices a character makes influences the plot, themes and overall atmosphere… the students realise that this doesn’t just apply to novels and class texts – it rings true in real life… that their choices influence the course of their lives, and that positive choices generally have a positive outcome.

  4. Danni Miller says:

    Lisa you are such a talented, passionate and creative teacher! As an ex-English teacher I admire the way you bring texts to life by linking them back to the bigger isues that affect girls today. All great literature can be enjoyed on many levels and will “speak” to us in different ways depending on where we are at at the moment of connection.

    Love viewing life as a “Choose Your Own Adventure!”

    Well done Fairy Godmother 🙂

  5. Claire Clements says:

    Thank you for your lovely comment about my poem Ms Porter. 🙂

    I also think the idea of the “choose your own adventure” in English is a great idea. The more involved readers can be with their texts the more they can take away from it. I wish we’d had some of those in our English classes.

  6. storm greenhill-brown says:

    The whole notion of fairy stories intrigues me. In fact I know that whole dissertations have been devoted to their dissection and analysis. One powerful myth/fairytale that I find particularly haunting is that of “The Seal Wife”.
    A group of mermen and mermaids were at the shoreline with their sealskins discarded when a group of drunken sailors came upon them. One of the men snatched up a sealskin that belonged to a young and beautiful mermaid before she could transform and swim away. He then bound her to him and the earth by hiding the skin in the thatching of his hut. She became his wife, bore his children and remained in servitude for many years. One day, her child discovered her skin in the roof of the hut and she, overcome with joy, transformed and left her husband and children behind for the sea.
    Fairy stories are full of symbols and motifs that can be very powerful and often mirror roles and relationships in our contemporary lives.
    “Wake Up Sleeping Beauty” has very significant messages for our teenage girls on so many levels. I just love this workshop Danni!!

  7. Andrea (of JustOneMoreBook! KidLit Podcast) says:


    I agree completely. Story sharing should be a lifelong enjoyment.

    I also feel that enlightened education must have a solid start in preschool years. We need to replace inappropriately fluffy, skinny, lightheaded mermaids and princesses and their onion-paper storylines starting in books for 4-8 year olds. We need to do our best to seek, find and share wonderful, engaging, educational, thought-provoking books that become part of the fabric of these young people, the lenses through which they’ll view the world and the stories they can return to and reflect on as they grow.

    And we need to continue the conversation, continue sharing, exploring and learning from the great stories of the world’s many cultures. We need to remember the 4year old inside the teenage girl.

    Thanks for inviting us to remember

  8. daniel darius says:

    Thank you. As a male in his 40’s (Ca,US) who has dealt with the aftermath of sexual abuse in those closest to me, consider this comment an affirmation of the truth of your direction, travails, actions, conviction and direction.

    There is a deviousness and inherent evil in the self-blame that perpetuates abuse – enlightened action and awareness must be encouraged through mass media – here is where I congratulate your group. Please keep upo the positive messaging through direct action.

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