Stop Hating on Black Ariel, Representation Matters in the Casting of Fantasy Characters Too
Representation matters. The need for diversity in entertainment has been a rally cry for a while. And while most of the global majority echoes that sentiment, it seems like there are still some people who couldn't care less about whether people of color are depicted on film. Despite the baby steps of progress in Hollywood, there is still a major opportunity. The anger over Halle Bailey's casting as The Little Mermaid is indicative of that.
When the trailer was released for Disney's live action remake of The Little Mermaid, the feedback was instant. It was also very telling. The under-two-minute teaser shows the tail of a mermaid swimming through various coves under the ocean and not until the last few seconds do we see the face of the main character. As I scrolled through the online comments, there were so many people who admitted they were in tears watching it. They were so happy to finally see something they had been hoping for. But among all of this joy, the ugly started to reveal itself. In the form of complaints about the face of the character, better yet, her skin color.
This version of Ariel is Black.
It wasn't surprising to me that Ariel would be a woman who looked like me this time (Disney announced that last year). The star, Halle Bailey, had been posting pictures of herself on social media practicing song lyrics and being hooked up to several sensors for the technical elements of the film. She even was invited to perform “Can You Feel the Love Tonight", in the televised event, “The Most Magical Story on Earth: 50 Years of Walt Disney World”. Disney didn't hide it. The turquoise-tailed, purple clamshell wearing mermaid we grew to love in the 1980s, was definitely going to be played by a Black woman.
So, where did the shock come from?
Upon reading deeper into the feedback on the snippet, responses ranged from disappointment to actual anger. There were the folks expressing distaste in Disney's desire to change the classics. Then there were those who pulled no punches in attacking Disney for their possible brainwashing by "woke culture", with the common reference to Walt Disney turning over in his grave because of it.
Walt Disney, the animation pioneer and creator of Mickey Mouse, has been dead for over 55 years.
The racial divide in praise versus criticism was clear. The ecstatic voices belonged to people of color, whereas the negative commentary would almost always be coming from white people. I could surmise that it wasn’t just the surprise I was witnessing, it was hate.
The animated version of Disney's Little Mermaid was released in 1989, with the only sign of diverse representation being her voice-of-reason crab sidekick who had a botched Caribbean accent. She was depicted as a red-headed white teenager, who had a penchant for rebelling against her father's rules. However she was endearing because she could sing like an angel and just wanted a pair of legs to be able to navigate the world out of the sea.
My dad actually took my sister and I to the movies to see the animated version of The Little Mermaid when it was released. I'm sure my eyes lit up to see a girl character (not wearing a dress) with modern sensibilities who broke the rules to feed her curiosity. When she gave up her voice for a pair of legs, I was let down. Swimming with dolphins seemed much cooler than being voiceless up here on land. But her being white was expected. Because up until that point, all of the Disney princesses were. Disney does not have a reputation of creating Black main characters. Especially not for their animated projects. And before people even mention the Lion King, let's reflect. There were no humans in that film.
When it was announced that there would be a live action remake, I honestly was neutral. First because I'm not the biggest fan of CGI, but also because the whole idea of most of the movies we see now being remakes of something done before, lacks imagination. To me, movies are supposed to be just that. But I surrendered to the notion that young people now need more than just the flat 2-D animation that I grew up with. And so do their parents who have to relive their childhoods over and over again through these contemporary iterations of our old-time favorites. When I saw the casting choice though, I was overjoyed. Yes, because Halle Bailey is a Black woman, but also because she can truly sing. Finally, little Black girls would be able to see themselves in a fairytale. Having two nieces makes that important to me.
Up until this project, the only Black girl representation we'd had in a major Disney release was in The Princess and the Frog. Ask any Black person who saw the film and the responses will be pretty similar. We loved the music. We loved the setting being in New Orleans, although it did make the theme a bit dark at times. While we appreciated the skin tone of Tiana, the main character, we were generally disappointed that she only lasted as a human on screen for mere minutes, while for the bulk of the film she was a green frog with a Southern twang.
The uproar in response to this new version of The Little Mermaid is ridiculous but also nothing new. It's simultaneously happening with Sophia Nomvete and Ismael Cruz Cordova who both star in the Amazon Prime series “Rings of Power”. We saw it with the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in “The Hunger Games” film. And again in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy when John Boyega was cast as Finn. These actors received venomous racist messages and threats. Not for their inability to act, but for what they look like out of costumes, hair and makeup. What do all of these people have in common? They are Black. But you know what else? They are all playing fictional roles. There are no mermaids under the sea or elves in the middle world. And we haven't gotten far enough into the future for an apocalypse that leaves us fighting for survival or living in space. Ariel, Arondir, Princess Disa, Rue and Finn are not real.
Halle, Sophia, Ismael, Amandla and John are. So are the fans who gasped, cheered, and cried, in celebration of seeing themselves in these depictions. These parts, while make believe, are important. Because their existence demonstrates that you (the viewer) were imagined in the inspiration of the dreamer. That you were so valuable, someone thought that you should be present not only in the time capsule of their mind, but on screen for posterity. That in the midst of intricate storylines and wonderful songs, you matter.
Erasure of people of color in roles that are otherwise ambiguous, mirrors the attempted erasure of people of color in the broader scope of the world. The hateful visceral responses of white people to any casting that involves a member of the BIPOC community is hurtful and dismissive. It's as if they don't want to see color because it conflicts with the all white world they have imagined. That is a problem. Because the real world isn't a one dimensional expression of whiteness. There are Asian people, Latinx people, Indigenous people, and yes, even Black people, in various hues with different hair textures, eye shapes and colors. We all should be able to turn on the TV or go to the movies and see people on the screen who look like us. It does wonders for the psyche—to see that you aren't some irrelevant entity who was once again, forgotten.
Perhaps the issue isn't in the casting, but in peoples’ limited vision. Even though we live in a diverse world, some people just want to see themselves. They want to imagine swimming under the sea, kissing the prince or princess, slaying the villain and yes, perhaps even saving the planet. But if that's the case, shouldn't little Black girls (and older ones) be able to have those fantasies too?
Originally published on Medium.com
© Sep 13, 2022, 6:28pm