The fight for representation

On Sept. 9, Walt Disney Studios released the trailer for their newest live-action remake, “The Little Mermaid,” garnering some 17 million views on YouTube alone. The teaser and cast announcement, however, brought with it a slew of criticism toward the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel — a backlash that can only be described as markedly racist.

Bailey, who is one half of the singing duo Chloe x Halle, has been the butt of a trending hashtag — #NotMyAriel — denouncing the remake for “changing a beloved character for woke points,” as one Twitter user said.

Comments across various social media platforms have repeated arguments, including that melanin wouldn’t exist under the sea, that a Black woman isn’t true to the “source material,” and the age old, “How would you feel if they made (insert person of color character here) white?”

In truth, this type of discourse is a not-so-veiled attempt to argue that Ariel’s whiteness is essential to her character.

The idea of “staying true to the source material” is one many don’t seem to realize was already thrown by the wayside in Disney’s 1989 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 “Little Mermaid” tale.

If Disney kept with Andersen’s version, Ariel’s main objective would be to win the love of the prince to obtain a human soul of her own, the prince then wouldn’t fall in love with her, and instead of killing the prince to regain her life in the sea, she would fade into seafoam and complete 300 years’ worth of good deeds to ascend to Heaven.

Not exactly like the story we know today.

Even prior to the Dutch tale, according to research by historians at Christopher Newport University, tales of mermaids and mer-people existed across the world in Babylonian, Philistinian, African, Indian and Greek mythologies, among many others.

With all these iterations, it simply cannot be said these wholly fictional creatures are inextricable from whiteness.

Those critiquing Bailey’s casting under a false idea of “accuracy” also have posted images of Black characters in other Disney franchises reimagined as white. These images are typically paired with a question regarding how the new Ariel proponents would feel if Tiana or Black Panther underwent a similar change — going so far as to call Bailey’s casting “Blackwashing.”

In reality, the sheer number of instances in media in which a white person is cast to play a person of color leaves this argument and the concept of Blackwashing with little to stand on.

From Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” to Emma Stone as Allison Ng in “Aloha,” the list of white actors playing nonwhite characters is long and spans throughout film history.

The fact remains that, time and time again, white actors have been chosen over people of color for all kinds of roles and are rarely represented in media — even when it comes a role where the source material calls for a person of color.

Casting a person of color in a role originally written for a white actor does not harm communities that are already underrepresented in media, nor does it take away from the vast amount of white representation already in circulation. Whitewashing, however, keeps people of color from being portrayed in media and in their own stories.

Bailey as Ariel isn’t harming white representation. It’s creating an opportunity for a person of color to be seen as a lead and gives a new generation of young Black women a chance to see themselves in a princess other than Tiana.

The largely white proponents of #NotMyAriel must realize that it doesn’t have to be your Ariel.

You still have the animated Ariel.

You still have the memories and inspiration that movie gave you.

You still have Aurora, Rapunzel, Belle, Merida, Eilonwy, Cinderella, Elsa, Anna and all the other white characters that gave you the chance to see yourself in a hero.

Bailey deserves the role. And all the young women who will watch this movie deserve Bailey.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post More than my race
Next post Having too much free time