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These mermaids are no princesses: talking Siren with Sibongile Mlambo and Eline Powell

Contributed by
Mar 29, 2018

Bristol Cove, the fictional locale in Freeform's new series Siren, proclaims itself "The Mermaid Capital of the World." Tourist-friendly myths and fables abound in this peaceful sea-side town. But below the surface, there is more than anyone bargained for.

The fantasy-thriller follows mermaids Ryn and Donna (Eline Powell and Sibongile Mlambo). Donna gets caught in a fisherman's net and injures a man with her tail. When both Donna and the injured man are captured by the government for studies, Ryn surfaces to search Bristol Cove for her lost friend. Along the way she meets marine biologists Ben and Maddie (Alex Roe and Fola Evans-Akingbola), and local mer-expert Helen (Rena Owen).

But this is no Little Mermaid, and the mermaids of Bristol Cove are not the princess type. Ryn and Donna are far from the sexualized mermaids long depicted in cultures across the world—from beautiful creatures who lure men to their deaths through seduction and song to similarly stunning beauties who want the love of a human man and who are, so to speak, "Bright young women, sick of swimmin', ready to stand." These mermaids have bite, and much more.

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"[Ryn] is definitely a predator. She's definitely full of fierceness and can absolutely handle herself and above and beyond," Powell explained. "But there's more to her than that. She's curious, she's searching for an intimacy with those around her. She can be vulnerable and nervous and all those things. But I'd say she's just very pure and she has a very strong survival instinct from living in the ocean. She's a hunter. So she's got all those badass traits, but there is realness to her beyond that. She gets, how do you say, emotional at times as well. In her own little unique way. "

Beyond the fantastical thrills of the story, the show has a deeper message about the environment, among other social issues. 

"Mermaids haven't been on land for decades. They just mind their own business. But it is because of pollution and other things that you will see in the show that they are driven up to the surface. It's the whole cause, really," Powell said. "So it starts because the worlds are starting to collide, and we are treating the ocean like it's just a thing we can dump our trash in and keep catching stuff out of, not recognizing that it's a living and breathing thing. So in that sense ... it's almost like this physical voice to say we're like the mommies of the ocean or something, in the grand scheme of things."

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For Mlambo, the opportunity to present a mermaid that isn't the typical white version we generally envision was hugely important to her, especially now when representation both matters most and is at long last growing. "I mean, I watched Black Panther and I thought, 'Oh my gosh.' I saw all these women that looked like me and I thought, 'I wish I had this when I was a kid.' I hope that other younger brown and black women will watch this and feel that way."

That representation extends beyond her character and into her day-to-day life. Mlambo is effusive about her hometown of Zimbabwe and her South African heritage, and what it means to people with similar backgrounds.

"It's also one of the reasons why I insist on using my full name. Because people from that part of the world recognize it. And I think it's just so important to have that type of representation, and just to be able to have a positive influence," she said, noting that she wasn't asked to change her name but had her own internal concerns. "I didn't think that Americans would be able to say my name. But now that I see a whole bunch of people with difficult names, I was like, 'You know what, I'm just going to get onto that bandwagon.'"

Both actresses are excited by the possibility of a new genre fandom and all that comes with it, being self-proclaimed sci-fi/fantasy fans themselves. Mlambo is a huge Game of Thrones fan, while Powell's taste tends toward Mulder and Scully.

"It's the most amazing honor and incredible feeling. I am absolutely a sci-fi geek. I still watch X-Files every week and I get into the details so bad, 'oh, this doesn't make sense' and stuff," Powell said. "Having theories and decisions about what they're like and what is not possible. I think that's a wonderful thing. People have been so, so valid and supportive of it and so excited. I hope to God they love it."

The two-hour series premiere of Siren airs tonight on Freeform.