Lifeguarding in Pop Culture
Lifesaving have been a part of many cultures around the world for more than 100 years. (For a brief history of Lifeguards and Lifesaving, go here.) In the United States, there was a constable of the surf in Atlantic City in the mid 1800’s and lifeguards on both coasts and around swimming pools made their appearance shortly after the turn of the 20th century. This page presents several examples of the popular culture of lifeguards and lifesaving that have had an impact on American, European, and worldwide culture.
Here are some great examples of early cartoons with the theme of lifeguards and lifesaving, featuring Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop, and Mickey Mouse. Those out there who love old cartoons, please note the differences between the flat, humdrum Popeye of Famous Studios in the ’50s and the original Fleischer Studios’s version of the 30s, Few realized that Robin Williams was doing a spot-on rendition of the Fleischer Studios Popeye in the movie of the same name that flopped in 1980.)
- Betty Boop: The Life Guard (Fleischer Studios, 1934)
- Mickey Mouse the Lifeguard: Wild Waves (Walt Disney Studios, 1929)
- Popeye the Sailor: I Want to Be a Lifeguard (Fleischer Studios, 1936)
- Popeye the Sailor: Beach Peach (Famous Studios, 1950)
- Popeye the Sailor: Popeye the Lifeguard (Famous Studios, 1954)
- Tom and Jerry: A Life Less Guarded Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Lifeguards on the Big and Small Screen
Movies and television have made a major impact on what we think about professional lifeguards and such lifesaving techniques as victim recognition, swimming rescues, and CPR. All are enjoyable in one way or another, but only a few tell it like it is.
Here are some great lifesaving movies, TV shows, and shorts.
The big screen has had its share of lifeguard themes and related topics.
- Silent film on artificial respiration – prone pressure, the Schafer method (1927) - This is such an interesting piece of film that it is included here and in Airway and Ventilation on this site.
- The Endless Summer (1966) - OK. This is a surfing film (dubbed “the ultimate surfing adventure… in search of the perfect wave”), not a film about lifesaving (at least I didn’t put up Billy Jack or Rambo: First Blood). And anyway, since surfers like Duke Kahanamoku made up some very heroic early lifeguards, there will always be a connection between surfers and lifesaving. This film by Bruce Brown (starring surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August) made surfing popular in remote locations around the world and sparked two sequels.
The Lifeguard (1976) - This is an underrated story off an aging lifeguard who has trouble getting out of the lifeguard game. Sam Elliott plays the part of old-timer who just cannot leave the life so well, and Parker Stevenson parlays his co-starring role into a stint on Baywatch. The movie also co-stars Ann Archer and a young Kathleen Quinlan.
The Sandlot (1993). Squints (Chauncey Leopardi) and Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton) - a kid’s dream and a lifeguard’s nightmare (although Squints gets a little smile in the end)! (QB Christian Ponder dresses up as Squints and his wife as Wendy for Halloween 2013.)
- Men of Honor (2000) - With Cuba Gooding Jr and Robert De Nero, this is not lifesaving per se, but deep-sea diving.
- The Guardian (2006) - A Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer film starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. It has some great action scene but it’s basically a rehash of an Officer and a Gentleman or Men of Honor.
- The Lifeguard (2013) - This film with Kirsten Bell (a relaunch of the Sam Elliot plot) is reviewed by Variety.
TV has also featured a range of lifeguard shows.
Saved by the Bell (1989 to 1993) - Although it only ran for 4 years (not counting Good Morning, Miss Bliss and spin-offs SBTB, the College Years; SBTB, the New Class; and a few made-for-TV movies), Saturday morning syndication airing throughout the 1990’s made Saved by the Bell extremely popular weekend fare. Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Mario Lopez, as lifeguards at a country club where the cast worked between school years, may have been a big part of that success. Or maybe it was all Screech Powers!
- Rescue 911 (1989 to 1996) - Hosted by none other than William Shatner, this was a great program of reenactments ofactual 9-1-1 calls (the US emergency number). Some episodes involved lifeguards, drownings, swimming pools, and other bodies of water. All emergency calls chosen to reenactments have a happy ending although they display some emergencies can occur so quickly and when least expected.
- Child Pulled into a Storm Drain (Episode 104) - Ever wonder why we teach children not to play in ditches for storms or irrigation? Watch this episode….
- A 3-Yr Old Calls 9-1-1 (Episode 121) - For those who say that teaching the EMS call to children has no value.
- Lifeguard Caught in a Drain (Episode 222), Part 1 Part 2 - Thank goodness for laws and innovations that prevent entrapment. RIP Virginia Graeme Baker!
- Baby Nearly Drowns in a Bucket (Episode 417) - Any container of water can be a source of drowning for a toddler! It is worse when the container has a strong bleach solution or other chemicals. (Here is what the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says about large buckets and small children.)
- Many episodes of Rescue 911 are here.
Baywatch (1989 to 2001) - Of course, a discussion of lifeguards in pop culture would not be complete without Baywatch. After a single year (1989) as a network series for NBC, Baywatch went into syndication and became one of the most watched TV shows in the world. According to Wikipedia: “Everything from earthquakes and shark attacks to serial killers and even nuclear bombs served as plot conflicts on the show…. [A] trademark of the show was slow motion shots of the lifeguards running, most notably done by Erika Eleniak, Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, Alexandra Paul, and David Charvet along with Hasselhoff during the height of the show. Each show would feature one or two montages, often only superficially related to the plot.”
- Bondi Rescue (2006 to present) - This factual Australian show depicts the life and activities of real lifeguards at Australia’s Bondi Beach.
- An Unplanned, Real Drowning Occurs During Filming - This episode features a real rescue with real CPR and real the use of an AED. It also shows an example of agonal gasps. A great show for all lifeguards to see. By the way, the patient (Taka) recovers.
- A clip from Season 4-Episode 1, Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 - A bit of everything on this day at Bondi Beach, Australia.
- Lifeguard! Southern California (2012 to present) - A California docudrama depicting real lifeguards from several Southern California beaches. In many ways, this show is like the Bondi Rescue show, only without the great Aussie accents.
Shorts, Clips, and Parodies
No pop-culture look at lifeguards and lifesaving would be complete without the following short features.
- Lifeguard Takes a Bathroom Break (Jamie Kennedy Experiment)
- “Lifeguard Style” (El Monte, CA, Ex-Lifeguards) - This parody of the Psy hit got these lifeguards and their manager fired (although they were later reinstated - even I sent in a letter of support)! Here are pro-lifeguard highlights from the 2012 El Monte City Council Meeting. Here is the real Gangham Style video by Psy. And here the Split Rock Resort Lifeguards perform Lifeguard Style “with full support” of their agency.
- Bad Lifeguard (Nathan Worden and Company) - Pretty clever, but why didn’t they get fired?
- The Obligatory “Call Me Maybe” Parody (GCC Lifeguards). Here’s another: Capitola Junior Lifeguards lip sync “Call Me Maybe.” And still another version from France with French lifeguards. So many: ETP Lifeguards: Call Me Maybe again! And: Hampton Lifeguards
- A Day in the Life of a Lifeguard (TeamHeadJog) - Very funny!
- Stuff Lifeguards Say (DzW Productions) - Funny and sort of true….
- Extreme Lifeguard: The Movie (Aston Pool) - A little stranger than funny but worth a look…. I actually really liked the Battle scenes.
- AXE Apollo 2013 Superbowl Ad - Lifeguard beats up a shark and rescues the girl only to be beaten out by a nerd in a space suit!
- Homemade Wave Pool - Great backyard pool!
- Ken Jeong’s Hands-Only CPR PSA (American Heart Association) - Hilarious! Not really a lifeguard short, but it is relatable. And he is a real MD! Here is his explanation and Making of the PSA. Great job, Mr. Jeong!
The Effects of Pop Culture and Media on Lifesaving
The following links present articles, news reports, etc. about understanding real drowning, real first aid/CPR, real lifesaving.
- What Drowning Really Looks Like (NewsObserver)
- Study Finds TV Portrayals of CPR Are Misleading (DukeHealth)
- CPR on TV - Miracles and Misinformation (NEJM)
I hope lifeguards, former, current, and up-coming, and the public under our protection will draw from this page a laugh, a tear, and above all respect and a desire to support community lifeguards: their protectors, their teammates and colleagues, and their friends.
To take a Lifeguard, First Aid/CPR, or WSI course, go to Classes & Training or contact one of the training agencies found in the Important First Aid/CPR Links and Pool Operation/Lifesaving links sections.