Under the sea (of racism).
People upset at mythical creatures not being white
[I’d like to open this article by stating that I am white, and I am writing about racism – something I’ve never personally experienced – so take my words with a grain of salt as I’m writing from observation, not experience.]
If you’ve been on social media at all over the past few weeks, I’m sure you’ve seen the uproar surrounding Disney’s selection of R&B singer and actress Halle Bailey to play Ariel in their new live action version of The Little Mermaid. Forget triple threats: Bailey really seems to have it all. She’s well put together, has the voice of an angel, and somehow embodies “adorable” and “so gorgeous it’s intimidating” all at once. So why the uproar? Halle Bailey of Atlanta, Georgia, is a black woman.
Now to most folks, myself included, this poses no problem. Ariel’s race isn’t mentioned anywhere throughout the story, so it’s hard to argue that it’s integral to the plot. There’s no doubt that Bailey has the talent needed for the role she was elated to receive, stating on her Twitter that this is a “dream come true” for her. The film’s director Rob Marshall has full faith in her, and on July 3 released a statement saying that “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance – plus a glorious singing voice – all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.”
The majority of the uproar is surrounding the fact that Halle Bailey does not match the public’s physical expectations for Ariel – she’s not white, nor does she sport the fire engine red hair signature to Disney’s Ariel of 30 years ago. The individuals complaining (mostly white ladies – shocker) are of the opinion that Disney should stay true to their original story, right down to the character’s physical appearances. Another argument I’ve read is that the story of the little mermaid originated in Denmark, so to be true to the fairy tale Disney should pick Danish-looking characters, “like they did the first time.” The objectors gained such traction on social media that #notmyariel was trending on twitter the same day the casting decision became public.
Let’s just take a second to think about that first comment. The people angry about having a black woman cast to play Ariel are upset because they believe Disney should “stay true” to their original film. As the title of the film suggests, this movie is about a mermaid; now maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but I can’t remember having heard about the discovery of living mermaids willing to be cast in live action Disney films. In fact, I don’t believe there’s been the discovery of living mermaids at all. It almost seems as if this is all some thinly veiled excuse for a bunch of spoiled closet racists to storm social media (cough cough) [ A & C Editor’s Note: You might be onto something there].
The second argument at face value has a little more weight to it. The Little Mermaid originates in Denmark, so some of those complaining state they’d like the characters to be believably Danish in appearance, “as in the original.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen the original so I’m going to ask you to be patient with me once more, but I don’t believe Greek gods are Danish? Yet King Triton, a staple of the film, is Poseidon’s son according to Greek mythology. I don’t remember hearing any uproar about that when the original came out, and you can bet there’d be outrage if his character was altered or excluded. Sebastian, the anthropomorphic crab, also breaks this rule as he heralds from Jamaica – pretty far from Denmark last I checked – yet there was no authenticity-based arguments then. It almost seems as if people are fine with men, and even animals, having separate and unique characters yet will throw a hissy-fit when female characters dare stray from their lane.
While scouring through comment sections (would not recommend unless you want to get riled right up at the aforementioned spoiled racists) there was an overwhelming amount of comments calling out this racist and sexist attitude. Some were more matter-of-fact, stating that mermaids can have varying skin tones. Some were sarcastic, commenting that Ariel’s race is about as integral to the story as Prince Eric’s. Some were eye-opening, pointing out that Bailey will be playing the second black Disney princess in the 70 years Disney has been coming out with their princess movies, and those with the nerve to demand yet another white princess are really showing their self-centred privilege through this thinly-veiled racism. One comment by a @msmorganjarrett on Twitter really stuck out to me, and I’d like to leave you with this glimmer of hope:
“As a white-skinned redhead, I have very strong feelings about #TheLittleMermaid. Ariel changed my ginger world. The mean “jokes” ended. I became envied for my hair. And you know what? I want little black girls to experience that same feeling with new Ariel.”