While most audiences are excited for the release of fantasy The Little Mermaid this weekend, Netflix had another plan. Their new reality series MerPeople seeks to understand a unique community emerging on social media. The idea of “mermaiding” has caught on in a big way on TikTok and Instagram. Those participating in the subculture create personas and characters based on mermaid lore. They can then perform for thousands, drawing the attention of their community and performance spaces as well. MerPeople serves as both an informative documentary about the history of mermaiding, and a snapshot of the current subculture.
When most people think of Mermaiding, they imagine Weeki Wachee Springs. The Florida tourist destination trained many swimmers to put on professional diving shows for decades. MerPeople gives insight into that history as the 75th anniversary of the park/stadium approaches. Meanwhile, we follow several others in the modern Mermaiding subculture. Eric Ducharme, the owner of the Mertailor brand, opens his own show space. The Blixunami explores being a non-binary merperson in a world often defined by gender. Sparkles pursues her dream of Mermaiding professionally, despite living in Arkansas. Morgana Alba continues to build the Circus Siren Pod to prominence. Ché Monique looks to build a body-positive organization known as the Society of Fat Mermaids.
Director Cynthia Wade directs all four episodes, and Boaz Freund shoots them with precision. Each of the episodes features unique footage, both above and below the water. This helps MerPeople stand out from traditional documentary and reality programming. There’s legitimate artistic license taken in the collection and creation of footage. Letting Wade and Freund make MerPeople pop visually becomes a huge reason for its success.
One aspect that is both beneficial to the series and to the community, comes from the inclusiveness on display. There’s genuine heart from many of those within the subculture who prioritize opening a wide umbrella for newcomers. These individuals never waver from these ideals, and it reflects well on the community. While we see many people of color, there still seems to be a cliche nature on display.
More than once, we see one of the performers we follow get blown off by another member who has already “made it” as a professional mer-performer. If this happened once or twice, this would have felt unusual. However, over the four episodes, we watch it occur several times an episode. While many are working hard to include unrecognized groups, at the end of the day many of the most successful in MerPeople remain conventionally attractive and white performers. While the community preaches acceptance, it still has room to grow. Wade seems to recognize these moments, and planting them on the edges of our frame forces the audience to confront them.
MerPeople succeeds as a fascinating dive into a unique subculture. The history of a Florida attraction continues to influence the culture, but new voices are creating dynamic change. With people willing to have so much fun, Merpeople becomes an extremely fun watch.