Why Casting an African American Actress as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid" is Indispensable
A Step in the Right Direction
Disney's live-action adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" is set to release on May 26th this year, and while many people are excited about the casting of Halle Bailey, some are not having the same reactions. In September of 2022, the first official teaser trailer of the movie was released. Videos of Black children watching the teaser for the first time went viral, showing just how positive of an impact the casting of an African American actress as a Disney princess really made. In these videos, children were shown watching the trailer. Some children laughed while jumping up and down, some danced joyfully, and some even cried happy tears at the sight of seeing the new and improved, real-life Ariel.
While endearing videos of excited children spread like wild fire, other reactions did as well. Many took to Facebook and Twitter to share opinions, some negative, while others displayed hate speech toward the film and blatant racism directed at the actress, Halle Bailey. Racist memes were made, Facebook groups devoted to trashing the new film were created, and one person even took to twitter to announce the use of AI to edit the entire movie, making Halle Bailey appear as a White woman with ginger hair. These types of reactions to the film are not only extremely disheartening, but should also be a wake up call to the fact that racism is still a critical issue that Black people face every single day.
An Invalid Excuse
Not only are there many negative reactions regarding race, but the people making these comments are also trying to excuse their racism, saying that Ariel should've been cast as a White woman because that's how she was "originally." While this argument is valid in certain areas of cinema, like the fact that a Black actress should play a Black historical figure, it doesn't exactly make sense here. Ariel is a fictional character, based on the original danish fairy-tale called "Den lille havfrue," written by Hans Christian Anderson. To say that a mermaid, a mystical, make-believe being, must be played by a White woman is absolutely absurd.
Not to mention, Hans Christian Anderson's story was originally about his queer experiences. His version of the mermaid was a self-insertion character, metaphorically depicting his experiences in wanting to be in a gay relationship with another man. At the end, the mermaid dies.
"At the end of the day, this is simply racism at its core, and a continuation of the exclusion that people of color have experienced in the industry since its inception."
The matter of fact is, the longing for preservation of the original tale is not the reason for the negative backlash that the film and actress are receiving. At the end of the day, this is simply racism at its core, and a continuation of the exclusion that people of color have experienced in the industry since its inception. It also just isn't an argument that should be happening. As a film made primarily for children, it seems to be making a lot more adults mad than it is children. This is because children aren't the ones that have an issue with whether or not their mermaid princess is Black or White, blue eyed or brown eyed, dark haired or ginger haired; they just want to see a princess, and that's exactly what Disney is giving them.
It's crucial that Black children and other children of color have representation in media. It's extremely empowering for children, no matter what their race may be, to see heroes, princesses, and other forms of main characters that look like them. It's also extremely beneficial for White children to see main characters as people of color. When there is representation in media, it aids in fostering empathy, inclusion, and understanding. When children are exposed to diversity in their media, they start to learn that there are a multitude of different races, ethnicities, and cultures that differ from their own, and that all people, no matter their identities, deserve acceptance and respect. It also helps eliminate racial stigmas, unlearn racism, reduce prejudice, and create an all around more inclusive society as children grow and develop alongside people of different backgrounds.
Did you know?
Only 22 black actors and actresses have taken home an academy award.
Only 6 Asian actors and actresses have taken home an academy award.
Only 5 Latino actors and actresses have taken home an academy award.
The truth is, we need more representation in the entertainment industry in general.
For decades, the movie and TV industry has cast White people in the majority of roles, even roles that should've been played by people of color.
In 2007, Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl, a character of Afro-Cuban descent, in "A Mighty Heart."
In 2016, Joseph Fiennes played Michael Jackson in the film "Elizabeth, Michael, and Marlon."
The three main characters of "The Last Airbender" were all played by white actors, even though the characters are influenced by the Inuit people and their culture.
Johnny Depp played the lead of Tonto in "The Lone Ranger." Tonto is a Native American warrior.
In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra, Egypt's last independent Pharaoh, in the film titled "Cleopatra."
In "The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," Jake Gyllenhall plays the Prince of Persia. Persia is what most people know today as modern day Iran.
These are just a few examples of times that White actors played POC characters. When this happens, it reaffirms a harmful cycle of underrepresentation and erasure. Throughout decades, opportunities for authentic representation in media for people of color have been thrown out the window time and time again, because people of color have been historically marginalized and excluded from mainstream media. When we cast White actors in roles that have the soul purpose of depicting identities and experiences of people of color, it reinforces the stigma that White actors are more capable of embodying diverse narratives. This disruptive practice overshadows the groups of marginalized actors that are actually more valuable than White actors in the essence of telling stories of culture, identity, and experience. Authentic representation is the only way to properly incorporate DEI into the entertainment industry.
The bottom line is that by casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action adaptation of "The Little Mermaid," we not only step in the right direction for eliminating racial oppression in the film and TV industry, but we also broaden the diversity that we see in mainstream media in a significant way.