I Rewatched the 1990 Film ‘Mermaids’ & Relived All My Sexual Shame

I didn’t understand how sex worked. Honestly, I don’t think I truly understood sex until years after I actually had it for the first time at 19.

But before that, when I was still a virgin, I took a pregnancy test. It was my first year of college during winter break, when my best friends from high school were also home. I had recently spooned with some musician dude I liked at my art school. That’s it. It’s not that I thought immaculate conception was possible. It’s more that I thought sperm was this extra magical crazy space alien invader. After we spooned (him without underwear or pants, me with underwear on), I won’t lie, I was totally like OMG DOES SPERM GO THROUGH UNDERWEAR?!

While I knew how sex biologically worked, I was also influenced by the fear of God–and you know, shame and guilt. Lots of guilt. There were many reasons for this, mostly due to attending an all-girls religious school for 14 years. In an all too awkward (and late) sex talk, my mother told me never to give blow jobs because they’re “gross.” Meanwhile, girls in my homeroom class pondered if others girls masturbated. One literally said, “Ew no, that’s gross.” The consensus back then clearly was that women’s sexuality was gross.

So, you can imagine I wasn’t exactly upfront about my own sexuality (being inexperienced and secretly queer and extremely shy, not to mention bespectacled and with a mouth full of sparkly braces).

And well, that’s what led me into the fluorescent aisles of CVS, buying a pregnancy test I didn’t need and having the cashier give me an extra long look. Of course, when I went over to one of of my friend’s houses for a sleepover and took the test, a big fat Negative came back.

I was reminded of this recently when I rewatched the classic 1990 film “Mermaids.”

I remember the first time I saw it at 14: I was flipping through the channels (remember those pre-Netflix days?) and ended up watching “Mermaids” one summer afternoon before I started working my first job as a supermarket cashier.

Let’s be clear: I was a teenage goth. Honestly, I was also a kid goth, buying my first album at age 11–yes, it really was The Cure’s “Pornography”–which I somehow snuck under my mom’s gaze. So naturally, I was a fan of Winona Ryder (though unsure of whether I wanted to be her or kiss or, really, both). I fell in love with her first in “Beetlejuice” and then again in “Edward Scissorhands,” so I was game.

Ryder was joined by a young Christina Ricci and Cher–two other fierce women I still love. So, when I began watching “Mermaids” over 10 years ago, I was hooked–because I immediately realized I was Winona Ryder’s character: anxiety driven, sexually inexperienced, but full of desire, curiosity, and on the cusp of adulthood.

Now, in my late 20s, when I rewatched “Mermaids” out of curiosity and boredom, my identification with Ryder’s character is only more apparent–and utterly laughable. It’s hilariously embarrassing to me just how naive and afraid of sex I really was–and how much I have changed on that front (and how much more chill and calm I am in general, not just with sex).

Back in high school, everything gave me anxiety–even the thought of talking to someone I had a crush on would knot my stomach so tightly, it felt like a quilt could be made out of my intestines. Now, I just go with the flow–I usually don’t even blink when I have to speak in front of a group (I perform poetry regularly) or meet new people.

mermaids gif

And yet, as I watching “Mermaids,” I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for the times I would stay up late and anxiously worry about being pregnant, about messing up that dreaded presentation in front of my class, about not knowing how to talk to that cute guy or girl.

Then of course there is that one particular scene in “Mermaids” that still haunts me: Ryder’s character, 15-year-old Charlotte living in Oklahoma, ends up having feels for a 26-year-old guy in her town (oh, the scandal!). When she and Joe kiss, Charlotte truly believes she is pregnant–and that God may be punishing her by making her pregnant through immaculate conception. She even goes to a gynecologist to have an exam done to determine if she is pregnant–which is when the gynecologist does the whole “this isn’t how pregnancy/sex works” spiel.

While it’s easy to laugh at Ryder and do the whole “oh, she’s just a crazy teenage girl,” it’s also a reality many women and girls face when they grow up in a religious household that shames sex and real sex education. Even if shame and guilt aren’t involved, it can be hard to get real information–and have safe, but helpful, talks with someone (because parents aren’t always equipped for the sex talk and your friends may not know).

I was Charlotte once. I thought I was pregnant as a virgin, too. It sounds absolutely absurd, but it happened–and I’m sure I’m not the only one it’s happened to.

No words could describe the overwhelming sense of joyful relief, the intoxicating feeling of all that guilt and shame about possibly being pregnant wash over my body like a giant wave when I saw that negative test.

And no words can describe how strangely funny and bittersweet watching “Mermaids” is for me now. I’m glad I’m no longer the awkward college kid who thinks they’re pregnant and is so afraid of sex that it’s wholly anxiety-inducing (while at the same time having that all-consuming desire to have mind-blowing sex that makes you forget about your loneliness for a moment). I’m happy that college kid grew up into a much wiser, calmer, sarcastic, more guilt-free adult.

But I’m also sad for college me, for feeling that heavy burden of guilt, being a censor of my own sexuality. I’m sad for all the girls and femmes and queer kids out there who struggle with the same anxieties and shame I did, who feel like they can’t come out or talk about their real desires for fear of being ostracized.

All I can do, at this point, is laugh and say goodbye to the naive, younger version of me–and hope my work as a writer helps others out there, waving to them from a distant ship they’ll soon be on, traversing into the other side of world, the weird but beautiful dark side that lights you up the deeper you go in.

mermaids gif


Joanna Valente

Joanna C. Valente is the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Xenos, and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault.

Read More