No sailor is immune to the legend of mermaids. Since ancient times, mermaids have been in our consciousness as a pivotal feature of sea world: main characters of legends, minor characters in worldwide B.C.E. epic poetry, and subjects of exhausted seamen’s delirious dreams. It took me a while to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with confusing a manatee with a perfect female specimen of humankind, even if it flaunts a fishtail with an otherwise flawless body, but I am over that. Yet, the shape and esthetic image of mermaids Animal Planet presented in their December, 2013 rerun of their show, Mermaids: The New Evidence, is much closer to my imagined picture of this mythical creature than a dugong, or any one of the idealized, artistic representation of mermaids I have encountered in the past.
I was glued to the TV while Animal Planet aired the second show about the discovery of “biologist”, Dr. Paul Robertson. I stayed up till 2 a.m. on a school night, and endured the ridiculously persistent, revolving commercials, the smug demeanor of the host, the reserved attitude of the “leading scientist”, and the blurry footage of the subject: alleged mermaids. The next day I replayed the program for my husband. I wanted to believe so desperately that I tried to ignore the most obvious signs of a hoax, such as my husband chuckling and casting sideway looks at me while eating lunch, checking if I was serious; Kim Kardashian’s tweet related to mermaids; the unusually comic look of most scientists – one with slicked down hair wearing a funeral suit – who testified during the program; and, of course, common sense.
The Smithsonian expert laughed his ass off during the interview while introducing the life and antics of a 19th century sideshow personality, inventor of “humbug”, P.T. Barnum, which should have been another sign of “fakeness”, but to my discredit, I still bought Animal Planet’s mermaid story.
So, what is going on? Is dumb dumber in the 21st century? Is media responsible to make the general audience dumber, or does it merely have the right to ride the dumb? Or does it?
I had the sense to do an internet research. I learned that all “scientist” participants in the show were actors. Mermaids don’t exist. Boohoo.
I am wondering why Animal Planet had to present the hypothesis of aquatic humanoids this way. Why did they choose to exploit the open-mindedness of their audience? Do we not trust the intellectual ability of people anymore? The creative fantasy segments depicting mermaids that supported the presented theory were not only visually pleasing, but also intellectually stimulating. They made sense. Why did the creators have to wrap it in a fake reality blanket and sell it as scientific news?
My concern is not the exhibition of outrageous ideas, but the sleazy, deceptive presentation of them. What irritates me most is the intellectual dishonesty. Animal Planet lost its credit for me forever. There are many natural phenomena that are unknown to me, and I rely on programs produced by channels like this to hear about news, adventures, and discoveries. Many of them are incomprehensible for me. I marvel at deep sea creatures with characteristics and behavior of full-blooded aliens, and I recognize that I would never have the chance to see them if it were not for the scientists who present them to me. I read and watch accounts of foreign cultures with hair-raising customs, and the only point of reference for me is the trust I place in the documentation and interpretation of the anthropologists, the film makers, and the producers of these programs.
But now I don’t know what to believe. The creators and producers of Animal Planet’s Mermaid show betrayed my (and all together the public’s) trust, and did a gigantic disfavor for the other contributors who still give a damn about science and nature. I am stunned. Exchanging ethics with ratings and dollars does not seem to be a long-term strategy. I might be wrong, which makes the scenario even gloomier.
I understand that the walls dividing genres are crumbling, and the classic borders of fiction, nonfiction, and reality are becoming blurred. Many artists and previous TV and radio shows dabbled in the genre of “mockumentary”, but their objectives were to entertain and pique interest, and not to go over the top to deceive. Integrity and ethics has provided a raft to help intellectually excitable people to weather the challenges of our millennium. Not so any more, thanks to Animal Planet.
Need to respect the human intellect much more, and find a more legitimate genre for presenting the theories and thoughts of outliers (check out Anaximander, the first known scientist to link humans and fish).
The genre of “Bogus” is disrespectful and more than often backfires. As a long-term strategy, fake simply does not cut it.