Ordinary Mermaids: H2O Just Add Water

This week, I talked at the Childrens Media Symposium at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Subject:  H2O: Just Add Water, a popular TV series featuring teenage mermaids, filmed not far from here (in Australian terms),… 

H20: Just Add Water, is a suburban-beachside-teen-comedy-fantasy show  that screened from 2006 to 2010 on Australian TV and around the world.  In it, three teenage girls (proper Emma, wild-girl Rikki, and girl-next-door Cleo) are transformed into mermaids when they swim in a mysterious pool during the full moon.

Gold_Coast_skyline
Gold Coast–Just add mermaids By Petra [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Following this, they become part-time mermaids.  Whenever they get wet, they transform instantly into a mermaid.  If they want to avoid discovery (and they do), it becomes difficult to wash dishes, have showers go to pool parties held by the popular kids, hold down a part-time job feeding dolphins at Seaworld . . .  Emma, a serious competitive swimmer, has to give up her career.

H20: Just Add Water is filmed on Australia’s Gold Coast, a beachside tourist destination, with many theme parks, hotels, and a glitzy property-development culture.  Alongside is a languid suburban lifestyle, with which a coastal hippie mysticism co-exists.  The main threat facing the girls, is the threat of discovery, of being turned into museum exhibits, or scientific experiments.

Sea_world_australia
Sea World..  Just where you’d think a mermaid would have an after-school job . . .

 

Various villains and ne’er-do-wells seem determined to unmask the girls.  There’s Zane, the black-shirt wearing troubled rich-kid, his mean-girl girlfriend Miriam, and the bombshell grant-getting scientist, Dr Denman, who stumbles on their secret and seeks to monetize their magical properties.  For people like them, and Zane’s property-developer father, the magical powers of Mako Island, the place where the girls come into their mermaid-hood, are also up for grabs.  Environmental themes loosely pervade this series: the mermaids use their power to protect nature from over-fishing and over-development.  Indeed the girls have magical powers, which come in handy.  With the power of thought, Cleo can move water; Emma can freeze it; Rikki can heat it up.  Working individually or together, they use their powers to solve problems, avoid discovery, or defeat the bad guys.

Almost every culture has a mermaid figure.  From the sirens of Greek mythology to the Cameroonian Jengu, to the Little Mermaid of Danish lore, to the Aboriginal Yawk-Yawk, to the Siren of Warsaw, these figures–half-woman, half-fish or other sea-creature, symbolize the power of nature, and the power of femininity.

Siren_3244
Medieval Siren . . . By Desconegut – http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3244, Domini públic, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45891211

H20: Just Add Water plays with those themes.  Once a month, when the moon is full, one of the girls sees its reflection in water and goes into an altered state.  Controlled Emma starts feverishly kissing boys.  Shy Cleo commands the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood when she suddenly has the exquisite singing voice of a mythical Siren.  Rambunctious Rikki starts setting fire to things with her touch.

In these episodes, which are scattered through more everyday, sit-com-like episodes, we see the show’s attempt to deal with matters of femininity.  A mysterious older lady, Miss Chatham, herself a former mermaid, explains the mysteries of the full moon, and gives hints about mermaid-lore.  From the beginning of their transition, the girls are inducted into a set of feminine mysteries: submerging into magical water in the chamber of the volcanic  island, is of course highly symbolic of femininity.

There are not many allusions made to classical mermaids in the show.  Those that do appear, come when one or other of the characters does a little research in the subject.  For the most part, H2O: Just Add Water offers a mermaid myth bolted on to a suburban teen sitcom.

In some ways, it would be unfair to expect much more from a show like this, created deliberately with an international audience in mind, drawing on the relative cultural anonymity of the Gold Coast, with its resemblance to Miami and other coastal resort cultures[1].  Certainly, expecting H2O to provide an in-depth exploration of Australian myths, is a bridge too far, and makers of Australian content for children often wrestle with the market-trimming challenges that cultural specificity cause.

Which may be why the show’s mermaid myths do not go much further than to express a general sense of girl-power, in which mermaid tails help you swim extra fast and rescue handsome boys in distress, and in which magical powers help you freeze your arch-rival in her tracks.

The lyrics to H2O’s theme song confirm the anodyne dream like this:

Cause I’m no ordinary girl

I’m from the deep blue underworld

Land or sea

I’ve got the power if I just believe[2]

And there we have the secret to the show: a promise of extraordinariness, delivered in an ordinary manner; promising access to a fantasy world for girls, simply by believing, showing that myth, however gently or simply delivered, is just around the corner.  Despite the promises, Cleo, Rikki, and Emma, are ordinary girls–and therein lies their power.

 – – Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

[1] See Anna Potter, Susan Ward: H2O: Just Add Branding: Producing High-Quality Children’s Drama for Multi-Channel Environments. Media International Australia, November 2009.

[2] Kate Alexa, ‘No Ordinary Girl,’ Lyrics

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Report from the Bushland: Research Findings from the University of Newcastle

Marguerite Johnson, who is collaborating with me on a Guide to Classical Antiquity in Children’s  Literature, has built a wonderful community of folklore scholars at the University of Newcastle.  It was my privilege to participate in a day of presentations and thought on the broad topics of fear and myth, to meet her terrific students, and to see their work.  I didn’t see any of the wildlife Marguerite identifies in her blog, but the human inhabitants of the university were very impressive! 

— Liz Hale

 

Springtime at The University of Newcastle is a magical season. It’s warm and the bushland campus is waking up from winter slumber. This includes all the reptiles as well as the buds on native trees and shrubs. Walking through parts of 140 hectares of natural bushland during spring, staff and students are often surprised by snakes making their way across paths; ducklings waddling across roads (often with a line of cars behind them); and, at twilight, baby possums and wallabies making their first outings. We are always advised not to approach the wildlife, but they are regularly photographed. Sunny the Snake can be seen each year basking in the sun on one of the bridges over a small creek, and even has his own Facebook page.

Amid a time of awakening and looking forward to the long summer break, my postgraduates, honours students and a few enthusiastic undergraduates known collectively as Folklore @ UoN welcomed Dr Elizabeth Hale to our bushland campus.

Liz, Marguerite, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON
Marguerite, Liz, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON

It was a rainy, slightly humid day that was one of presentations, sharing of ideas, feedback and food. Liz had made her odyssey to discuss Our Mythical Childhood with my students, many of whom are working on folklore, myth and reception projects. Liz began by inviting students to bring along a childhood memento to explain their early interest in the ancient Mediterranean. We were treated with childhood photographs of honours student, Gabrielle Brash dressed as Xena. We even had a modern-day Excalibur wielded by honours student, Matthew Howe. And PhD student, Natalia Polikarpova, shared a truly frightening image of Medusa from a Russian television cartoon.

 

Following this, Liz participated in discussions stemming from a series of student presentations, complete with lavishly illustrated PowerPoints and terrific ideas. The presentations began with our two Classical Studies honours students, Gabrielle and Matthew. Gabrielle presented on ‘Metamorphosis of the Russian Vampire: Folkloric and Ancient Origins’, which examined the comparisons between Greco-Roman folkloric beings and early examples of Russian vampires.

Matthew Howe, in ‘Transformations as a Game Mechanic’, considered the theme of shapeshifting and how it translates in games such as World of Warcraft.

Postgraduate students presented papers on their theses. Of the four presentations, three were based on aspects of myth, folk tale and fairy tale from Greco-Roman traditions and their reception in various post-antiquity environments – from the early modern European age, to the contemporary west.

Tanika Koosmen discussed ‘Why Werewolves Eat People: The Origins of Cannibalism in Werewolf Narratives’. Nicole Kimball talked about ‘What is a Witch? Images of Witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum’. Adam Turner asked: ‘Does She Scare You?’ (on female monsters in gaming culture).

Natalia Polikarpova, presented on ‘Gender and Death in Seneca’ as part of her PhD research in Classics. We are thrilled to have Natalia (Natasha) with us all the way from Rybinsk. Gabrielle is particularly pleased to have her in Newcastle to discuss Baba Yaga (the topic of Gabrielle’s honours thesis).

We were also joined by three of my most engaged and talented undergraduates. Erica Wright, studying Ancient History and English, chaired one of our sessions, and is already known to Our Mythical Childhood and Antipodean Odyssey through her blog-essay on the character, Mercy in Overwatch. Natasha Schroder and Jennifer Murray have been key members of Folklore @ UoN, participating in the honours / postgraduate research days, which we have held each Friday during the second semester of our 2017 academic year.

A Day of Fear and Mystery . . .

Folklore @ UoN is the result of a teaching experiment I began a few years ago. Owing to  the small number of honours students enrolling in the non-compulsory fourth year program following the awarding of their Bachelor of Arts, I began to invite postgraduate students as well as interested undergraduates to the honours classes. This proved to be a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable teaching experience. What has gradually resulted is a collective of students from three levels of study, with different research experience, and shared scholarly interests. The students support and mentor each other. Now we have enough momentum to begin inviting visiting academics to share their research with us.

 

Liz is the first of many wonderful colleagues to visit a Folklore @ UoN event, and we thoroughly enjoyed her time with us and for sharing the joy that is Our Mythical Childhood.

 

— Marguerite Johnson