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.
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.. 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.
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. 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
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
 See Anna Potter, Susan Ward: H2O: Just Add Branding: Producing High-Quality Children’s Drama for Multi-Channel Environments. Media International Australia, November 2009.
 Kate Alexa, ‘No Ordinary Girl,’ Lyrics