Mermaids can be Black


Tribune News Service

The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s live action “The Little Mermaid” has garnered backlash from online communities implying that Ariel cannot be Black.


Disney’s decision to cast a Black actress as Ariel has sparked online outrage following the release of the live-action trailer

Ariel is one of my favorite Disney princesses. I admire her curiosity and the lengths she would go to satiate it. She’s young, free-spirited and free-minded. She took a calculated risk for a love that had been in the making since she first saved her prince’s life. She helped defeat Ursula, the witch who took her voice. She united the land and the sea by reconciling with her father and being proud of who she is and who she wants to be. She really resonated with a lot of young kids—kids of all colors, not just white redheads. Now, this mermaid princess, who’s literally from a different world and doesn’t (hopefully) express the same racism that has existed in our country for centuries and still exists today, shouldn’t be played by a Black actress. Is Disney playing the diversity game? Yes. Have we been seeing a recent trend of recasting white-cast characters with people of color? Yes. Has the racism our country claims to have passed stopped? No. Case in point: online racism is being disguised as genuine criticism for the upcoming movie “The Little Mermaid.” 

The iconic redhead mermaid will be played by Halle Bailey. Bailey is arguably one of the most talented vocalists of Generation Z. She’s half of the R&B group Chole x Halle. The sister duo has been doing cover songs on their YouTube channel, Chloe x Halle, since the 2010s. They were recurring characters on ABC’s “Grownish,” and their ethnic vocals on the albums “Ungodly Hour” (2020) and “The Kids Are Alright” (2018) have been killing the music industry. She’s also a Black woman. 

From the #notmyariel page on, Director Rob Marshall states, “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that [Bailey] 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.” She was chosen as Ariel for a reason. Her being Black is what it is. This isn’t “affirmative action” or just a diversity check needing to be filled out for Disney’s yearly quota. They are signed and mentored by Beyonce herself! She truly has the voice. Bailey’s acting is another matter, but the main qualification for being Ariel is having that voice that even Ursula can’t resist stealing. She’s the real deal and the director for the film certainly agrees. 

People felt so righteous in their need to correct the wrongs against them that there’s a Twitter post of someone using artificial intelligence on the teaser trailer to make her look like the 1989 Ariel. They made Bailey white. A real Black woman was reimagined as white. It’s like putting bleach cream to strip off all the Blackness down to her nose structure too. Might as well make her have blue eyes too. If they did this all with a blank background, that’d be no problem. The issue is that Bailey, who is Black, was literally whitewashed. Instead of just getting rid of her all together, they erased her blackness and used it as a template for their ideal Ariel. In 2019 the #notmyariel went around from older people who just can’t relate to a 16-year-old love-stricken mermaid unless she’s white. Bailey can be #notyourariel but she’s not playing this role just for older generations to feel nostalgic. It’s for the newer generation and Disney recycling the classics. 

“The Little Mermaid” teaser trailer that was released earlier this fall received over 1.5 million dislikes on the Disney YouTube channel. Even though the dislike count for all YouTube videos is hidden, people went out of their way to make their hatred visible. Remember, this is all for a 1 minute and 24 second clip with 10–20 seconds of singing near the end, and she only appears on screen for about 30 seconds. The mere presence of her blackness in the first second of the trailer was enough for haters. 

There are some criticisms that I do agree with. Hollywood is not more diverse because of a change of heart. They want more people of color to watch their media, and in order to do that, one must cast more people of color. Inauthentic representation, which means that Disney is recycling stories with casts that are more representative of our times today.

Mermaids exist in all types of cultures around the globe. Contrary to popular belief, many Black cultures have mermaid lore. “The Little Mermaid,” for example, could use stories from Haiti and their mermaids known as Mami Wata’s. Matt Walsh, a popular and outspoken conservative, argued that, scientifically, mermaids live deep under the sea, where they get little sun, so they’d be pale and therefore couldn’t be Black. Scientifically, we’ve yet to prove mermaids’ existence. And Black people can have albinism, be pale or have light skin while remaining Black. Realistically, a mermaid can be anything since they’re not real. 

If they were to remake more live-action movies, I wouldn’t cast anyone who doesn’t look like Merida, Mulan or Princess Tiana if they kept their settings and cultures the same. Merida is Scottish, Mulan is Chinese and Tiana is a Black woman who’s experiencing unjust racism, though she has what it takes to buy her dream restaurant. All of these cultures are central to their stories. It would be dishonorable to simply change all of their races while keeping them in the same story because their cultures and how they were raised in them will be different for someone who isn’t a part of them. 

However, the themes of discrimination, wanting to find your own destiny and fight for your own hand in marriage, and learning to work hard but also relax and be open to change are themes that exist outside of race. You can make stories that are similar in theme and nature to the original, even in the same setting, but still make sure that the new characters are true to themselves. Even though Disney’s Ariel is loosely based on a Danish story, it is not about Danish culture or people. If Disney had wanted to, they could have made the original film rich in culture just like “Frozen” is rich with Norwegian and Sami culture. 

Racist criticism directed at non-white actors is not a new phenomenon in the mainstream. Often times, non-white actors are labeled as “woke” simply when this kind of casting happens. It’s ironic that they’re labeled as “woke” for being non-white and playing a White character. Wokeness is now attributed to one’s skin instead of what they actually believe. Zendaya, who is a biracial Black woman, received lots of hate for playing the famous “MJ,” also known as Mary Jane Watson, in the new “Spiderman” movies in 2016. Idris Elba got hate for playing Heimdall in the “Thor” film franchise. It’s nothing new. It seems like it only gets worse every year. The racist derogatory memes and stereotypes only increase in frequency. 

Race-switching is a two-edged sword, and I understand people’s concerns when they see people they’ve always known to be white played by non-white actors. We are not a colorblind society, nor are we anywhere close to a post-racial society. I don’t believe that Blackwashing is the same as whitewashing since that deals with the anti-Blackness aspect of Blackness on the street. The race-switching isn’t a true representation because no new stories will be told. It’s recycling old material that will work since their original animated movies are an easy formula for success. 

The people making these racist critiques also forget that non-white actors have played many White characters in musicals and on Broadway outside of the mainstream entertainment media. In 1997’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s film “Cinderella,” Brandy Norwood played Cinderella alongside Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. The prince was played by the Asian actor Paolo Montalban, who had a white father and Black mother. 

This type of casting doesn’t need to make “scientific” sense in its setting because the world that the characters were in is diverse and race wasn’t an issue. It’s fantasy – an escape from the real world problems we face. In 2019, the actress for “Moana,” Auli’i Cravalho, played Ariel in “The Little Mermaid Musical.” Even Keke Palmer, whose name is now seeing mainstream love with her role in Jordan Peele’s movie “Nope,” is sending love. She played, in her words, the Black Cinderella on broadway. The interesting thing about Ariel, Cinderella and characters like them is that their whiteness is not a big part of their story. 

I believe in Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equity. A dream that we will one day live in a nation where we will judge not by the color of our skin but by the content of our characters. The times we are in now reflecwt the nightmare. The overwhelming outrage and racism occur before the film is released; the hatred is directed at the skin color rather than the quality of the film or what actually occurred. We must do better; we can be critical while still being open to seeing the film, and then decide if a childhood was ruined. I truly know that a lot of the backlash would go away, even with all the diverse skin colors of the supporting cast present, if Ariel were white. 

Personally, I can rock with Ariel having whatever skin color she wants because she’s a mermaid. If it doesn’t matter to her, it won’t matter to me. The same goes for every other Disney character because of who they are and not just what they look like. All these Disney characters, whether white or not, were the best parts of my childhood. Instead of teaching your kids to hate a movie because the main character doesn’t look like them, if they want to see it, let them.  The fact that this reiteration of “The Little Mermaid” will be played by a Black woman with a beautiful voice doesn’t take away at all from the original mermaid Ariel. They can both exist!