When you think Disney you probably think of their animated princess films or the Marvel heroes recently added to their rosters. Disney’s cultural impact is undeniable many of our first idea of love and beauty. Disney has been making headlines as they move into the pre-production stages of their next Live-action adaptation. Most recently Aladdin was released earlier this summer, with Mulan being in production currently. The Little Mermaid has been announced, and Disney made waves with their castings.
The internet has exploded due to the live-action cast of Halle Bailey ( 1 half of sister duo Chloe x Halle) as the Lead protagonist Ariel. Many bigots galvanized on the internet to state that The Little Mermaid would be inaccurate because Halle Bailey was cast. The biggest complaint against Halle’s casting is that it is racially inaccurate, not just to the animated version of the movie, but the literary version. So, let’s talk about it.
The original Hans Christian Anderson book describes the little mermaid as “her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all the others, she had no feet, and her body ended in a fish’s tail.”
It goes on to tell us about how mermaids were soulless creatures that lived for 300 years and turned to sea foam when they died. That after hearing a story about how mermaids could gain a piece of a human’s immortal soul by making one fall in love with them, the Little Mermaid left her home and traded her voices for a chance to try and steal a piece of the Prince’s soul.
But, when she arrived on land every step on her new feet felt like walking on blades. Her beloved Prince treated her as subhuman, no matter how devoted she was to him. He never recognized her, and eventually, he married another. She was so heartbroken by the marriage that she tried to kill the Prince and his bride, but she couldn’t get herself to commit the heinous act. Dying of her broken heart, she flung herself over the bow, returned to the sea, turning into seafoam with her last few breaths and died.
While that would make for a fantastic remake, it shows that Disney took considerable creative liberties with the animated version. The only descriptors that The Little Mermaid needs to adhere to were being beautiful, which Halle is. Having clear skin, which Halle Bailey has (drop the routine queen). Eyes as blue as the bluest seas, thankfully contacts exist. No mention of white skin or red hair at all. So, that means that a Black woman can be cast to play the Little Mermaid, and story Purists have no legs to stand on for their argument.
Beyond that, the fact of the matter is it’s 2019, and while many companies have released mostly white content before, the new content needs to appeal to People of Colour. We have the money and influence to damage their profits if we choose too. This realization as spurred companies to work diligently to create more representation, to ensure that companies can maintain profitability.
While the increase in the representation comes from a place of selfishness, its importance cannot be understated. Representation in media is essential, just as important as education. Its such an integral part of our lives that many of us have been programmed by it. The issue with this representation arises as there is a history of it coming from sources that have been cisnormative/colorist/and caricatures of cultures that exclude the Native stories from Non-Western Countries. This creates a lot of inaccuracies, so let’s debunk them.
Myth: Ariel can’t be Black.
Even though Mermaids of Colour have graced the big and small screens for a while now (Gabriella from The Little Mermaid Show, and the show Siren on Freeform). People can’t fathom a Black actress as an Ariel because Black girls aren’t supposed to be ingenues. The ingénue is a stock character in literature, film and a role type in the theatre; generally, a girl or a young woman who is endearingly innocent, aka White. Ingénues are the typecast for most of the earlier Disney princesses pre-Mulan and her successors. After the release of the original Mulan, there was a noticeable change in how Disney heroines being more outspoken, formidable, etc.
When it comes to typecasting in Hollywood Ingenues are reserved for the likes of Emma Watson, Young Natalie Portman, and other white actresses. Young Black actresses are not afforded that opportunity. However, that’s a more significant issue of being Hypersexualized in media. Black women have historically been framed as the opposite of white femininity. White women are supposed to be dainty, worth protecting, and docile by nature. That’s a lie from the patriarchy that is pervasive but is packaged continuously and sold.
As mentioned before that in the original Little Mermaid published in 1837, it has many of the characteristics of the 1989 adaptation, yet it’s starkly different. So, it shouldn’t be an issue that the live-action remake and the animated adaptation would also be starkly different.
Myth: Mermaids are European
The idea that The Little Mermaid has European origins plays into the West’s hyper focuses on Eurocentric Imagery of fantasy. The Harry Potter Franchise, the Tolkien series, and or the countless fantasy medieval sagas that have mythic creatures and no People of Color, many of us have only seen white fantasy characters, and Hollywood is to blame here. Hollywood perpetuates the erasure of ethnic folklore to tell stories that only exist to enforce narratives that fit the colonial view of the world.
Around the globe, there are many beautiful mermaid folklore and even more water oceanic deities that have mermaid-like attributes. Originally a lot of mermaid myths featured goddess/women, with serpent tails. But, through colonialism, the serpent tail was replaced with a fishtail as Serpents were the symbol of the Divine Feminine and associated with the earthly powers of rebirth and fertility.
(Pictures and Info taken from @sacha_coward)
Myth: Changing a white character’s race is racist
When Halle Bailey was announced as Ariel, twitter edgelords took to Twitter to argue that if Tiana (the only animated Black Princess) were turned white, they would be outraged. Technically they are not wrong. The Princess and The Frog is set in 1940s New Orleans. Tiana is based on critically acclaimed chef Leah Chase in the 1940s where she and her husband owned a famous restaurant. Leah Chase was known for her demeanour and culinary skills. While the Princess and the Frog features the Princess in her frog form the duration of the film her race was an essential plot point in the movie, this can be most easily seen in the scene where Tiana tries to get a loan for a restaurant after having saved up for it, and the Ferner brothers tell her
“Exactly! Which is why a
little woman of your background … woulda had a hands full, trying to run
a big business like that. You better off where you’re at, yeah!”
Whereas Ariel, a mermaid based on a fictional story where race has no importance to the plot, does not have to be white.
There’s also the matter of casting and culture. Often times People of Colour are only explicitly written into scripts if their race/ethnicity has importance to the story, whereas white characters are seen as the default. This is partially due to the history of media in the West. Since People of Colour weren’t allowed to act and be on camera, it set the precedent that having an all-white cast was the norm, and PoC only came on to add some exotic touches to the content. That’s why, when a white role is racebent, and a PoC is cast for the role, it isn’t racist. It’s just a step towards the equitable representation of race.
But, when a white actor takes a role that was explicitly written to be ethnic, they take away the few existing opportunities actors of colour have to find gainful employment and grow in the industry.
A great example of this would be the rich lore of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar the Last Airbender borrowed several elements from the Asian diaspora, Inuit culture in the fantasy saga, which has been cited source from the creators. So when the time came for a live-action to be made, fans eagerly awaited a diverse display of Asian, Pacifika and Indigenous actors. But what did we get? A mostly white cast as the good guys and the villains were all darker skin South Asian actors. Not did the movie blatantly whitewash the story, and play into colourism, it also replaced the Chinese calligraphy from the opening scene to gibberish. By doing so, the film continued the racist villainization of People of Colour, painted white people as the liberators of the world from oppressive savages.
Having discussed the source material of The Little Mermaid, and the ways that Halle’s casting does this mean there should be no whites cast in fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction? No, of course not. We don’t want a repeat of the erasure that happened to us. We want white people to remember there’s no shortage of white characters in our favourite franchises. We, as fans, consumers, and artists, just ask to see ourselves and versions of the lore from our culture to be seen as much and white narratives are. We’ve been told that Whiteness/white people can be anything which is a privilege not afforded to POC. So yes, to more lore of colour being seen in media and books. Yes, to actors of colour getting all the roles that are a not problematic representation. Yes, to Halle Bailey, our Ariel.
Co-Written By Atari Gem & Keshav Kant
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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.
From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.