Yes, Ariel is Black. No, you should not be kicking and screaming over it.
When I first heard that Disney was casting Halle Bailey as Ariel for their live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, I was absolutely thrilled. I’ve been a fan of Disney films for as long as I can remember, and The Little Mermaid was one of my all-time favorites. However, my excitement was very short-lived. I knew that with this announcement there would come the racist hate trolls. Sure enough, a few days later there were news headlines describing the controversial opinions of some fans. Their outcry was so vehement that it had lead to a trending hashtag called #NotMyAriel. Seeing such blatant bigotry come out in full force hurt, but I understood that there were unfortunate aspects of being a BIPOC actor, especially in relation to a company rooted in whiteness, as Disney is.
The so-called ‘justification’ that many racist fans had for their behavior was that Black mermaids (and by extension Black actors) disrupted the film. They thought that the mere existence of a Black mermaid was problematic, since all of the mermaids in the Disney film were White. Those same fans feared that a Black mermaid would completely ruin their viewing experience and corrupt other aspects of the animated film that they had enjoyed. This is untrue in many, many ways. For one, The Little Mermaid is set in a fantasy world. In fantasy, anything is possible. Secondly, the story that inspired The Little Mermaid wasn’t at all focused on race. In fact, it had a very unconventional origin. When Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid in the 1830s, he didn’t do it out of a desire to explore a new world as an author. Rather, the story was written as a response to his own experience with unrequited love for—wait for it—another man. Oh, the horror! Think of the children and cover their eyes!
In today’s society, it is easy to forget that the story that inspired the Disney film had such a powerful message. Disney is at fault for this. While the company was adapting The Little Mermaid, many parts of the story were watered down or changed entirely in order to fit the company’s style of storytelling. For example, in the Disney version, Ariel merely needs to adjust to human life after she gets her legs. But in Andersen’s story, the transformation process came with a price. While the mermaid does get her legs, the act of walking is so painful that it feels like knives are stabbing into her feet. And that’s only the beginning of the mermaid’s problems in the fairy tale. Disney’s decision to change the story led to a wildly successful film (it won the Oscar for ‘Best Original Score’ among other things). However, that success also meant that many people were more familiar with the film than the original story. Given that context, it is only natural that some fans would become fiercely attached to the Disney adaptation.
Attachment to Ariel’s race in particular can also be tied back to some of Disney’s past decisions. Even though many people love the films Disney has made, it is impossible not to realize that the stories the company wanted to tell, and the characters they wanted to use, were very white. While there were some exceptions to this unspoken rule, such as the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, the company has not strayed far from that mindset. Movies that focus on eurocentric storylines, such as Frozen and Tangled, are still some of Disney’s most financially successful, and therefore, expected work. Movies that feature storylines outside of that eurocentric perspective, such as Moana and Encanto, are a much more rare and relatively recent occurrence.
However, through use of #NotMyAriel and other comments on social media, there continue to be moments when certain fans take their opinions way too far. When the theatrical trailer for The Little Mermaid was released a few weeks ago, the same cycle of racism and so-called ‘justification’ resumed. But this time, something new happened — the joy and support of BIPOC fans actually drowned out the cries of the haters. Videos of young Black and Brown girls reacting to the trailer with cheerful expressions popped up everywhere. Grown adults were talking about the impact the trailer had on their own self-image, particularly in regards to how they saw themselves in their imaginations. One such person, a woman named Kaliyah Desormeaux, stated that “the struggles that I had as a [young girl], my daughter doesn’t really have.” In regards to the backlash, Desormeaux further expressed that “[m]aking the changes by speaking out and talking about certain things will create changes that will be normalized for them.” Seeing the passion of fans, like Desormeaux, proves that casting choices such as this one were a long overdue decision from Disney.
Surprisingly, fans are not the only ones speaking out. In several recent interviews, Halle Bailey stepped forward to talk about the impact the role had on her. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she talked about how significant it was to incorporate her natural hair into the film. She elaborated on the importance of being surrounded by a creative team who shared the same values as her. Her example was in reference to the director Rob Marshall, “[w]ith Rob, he’s so amazing and just saying, ‘I see you and I want to bring you into the character.’ So it was a beautiful thing. My hair, for example — incorporating my locs into the red hair was something that was really special to me. The outfit, the fins, everything. It’s just amazing. I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to take the essence of me and mix the two”. In an interview with Variety, Bailey talked about how the role has influenced her outlook on the film and her perspective of Ariel. She stated, “I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they’re special, and that they should be a princess in every single way. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t be. That reassurance was something that I needed.” As the interview continued, the spark and passion that Bailey has for this role was evident in her words. One doesn’t need to physically be in the same space as her to see that she has a fierce desire to do the character justice while also adding her own unique style. And when that is taken into account, what could possibly be wrong about it?
Even though Bailey’s casting in such an iconic role is a great thing, it is clear that Disney still has a long way to go in terms of true BIPOC representation. Like it or not, The Little Mermaid is still a very eurocentric story with very eurocentric ideologies. Whether or not this new film will change that perspective remains to be seen. In addition, Disney has only recently started to make space for BIPOC creators and actors. One such example can be found in their new program Launchpad. This program, through the use of short films, “focuses on building a more inclusive entertainment industry.” While the existence of the program is a sign of progress, it is still a small step in a very long journey for Disney. For that same reason, this new adaptation of The Little Mermaid is just the beginning. The film wasn’t the battle cry to end all wars, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
Photo Courtesy of Greg Swales.