Walt Disney Pictures and television network FreeForm have found themselves in a defensive posture for what in this day and age should be a fairly innocuous decision — the casting of a black actress as the lead in an upcoming Little Mermaid remake.
Instead of applauding Disney and FreeForm for an enlightening, progressive decision, some fans instead became downright irate. In reality, Disney should be applauded for the choice of R&B singer and Grown-ish actress Halle Bailey, given the lack of diversity in its characters over the years. NBC News has said that Ms. Bailey becomes the first woman of color to play a traditionally white princess in one of Disney’s feature films. (Singer Brandy played Cinderella in a 1997 television production, alongside Whitney Houston, who played her fairy godmother.) Disney only created its first black princess in 2009 for The Princess and the Frog.
We would say Ms. Bailey as the mermaid Ariel is progress long overdue.
Given Disney’s depictions of its heroines over the years, it was easy to think that black women perhaps weren’t worthy of the title of princess and the perfect life that came with it. Even more dangerous, little black girls didn’t see these positive, albeit fantasy, images of themselves. Studies have shown this helps to fuel self-image problems in these youngsters later in life and also impacts how white children perceive African Americans as well. Let’s not forget the well-known doll test, where children of all races favored white dolls more than black dolls. Good for Disney for realizing, even after all these years, that its casting should be more representative of the world, and more importantly, the kids who watch their movies.
It’s too bad some of the world is still caught up on old ideas about race and clings to the notion that life revolves around whiteness. So mad are they that their beloved Ariel would not be a white girl with red hair, but instead a dark-skinned girl with black locks, that they have threatened to boycott the movie. The hashtag #NotMyAriel has gained a steady following on social media. Need we remind people that mermaids are fictional creatures and can be any color we choose? Would they complain about a pink mermaid too?
What exactly is the crisis here? If people really want to complain about Disney movies there is plenty of other fodder. We can start with rampant sexism. You know, the whole idea of the hero prince coming to the rescue of the poor princess that underlies a good many of their movies. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel has to give up her beautiful singing voice to be with a man she barely even knows. What does that teach children? And what about the ethnic stereotypes? The Council on American-Islamic Relations has long complained Disney’s film Aladdin is rooted in racial and religious stereotypes about Arabs.
In an open letter addressing the backlash, FreeForm is correct in saying the real problem is with the critics of the casting decision, whom they call “poor, unfortunate souls.” They remind people that Hans Christian Anderson, the original author of the fairytale, was Danish and that some Danish people are black.
(We would also point out that Disney’s version of the fairly tale bears very, very little resemblance to the original. No singing crabs for Hans Christian Anderson. Or happy endings.)
There are times when the race of a cast might matter, like when you are dealing with historical figures and not fictional or universal ones, or when race or ethnicity is a central part of the story. It probably wouldn’t be wise to cast a white actor to play Martin Luther King Jr.
But there is no lack of examples of white actors portraying minorities in the movies. Angelina Jolie, who is white, played the role of Marianne Pearle, wife of Wall Street Journal Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani soldiers while on assignment. Mrs. Pearl is Afro-Cuban, and having a white actor portray her doesn’t provide the most accurate depiction. Native Americans were routinely portrayed in westerns by white or Latino actors. Most of the Puerto-Rican characters in West Side story were played by white characters, including Natalie Wood, who is of Russian descent and played the role of Maria. Could they not find Latino actors and actresses? At that time, they probably didn’t even try.
Ms. Bailey is not the first nor will she be the last black actress to be looked at for her race and not her talent. Social media freaked out when African actress Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione Granger in the London production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” (Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling would have none of it, tweeting that the books described Hermione as having brown eyes and frizzy hair, not white skin.) Amandla Stenberg was the focus of criticism for her role of Rue in The Hunger Games movie. Some fans were shocked and outraged that the character was black and said so in not so kind words. This seems inexplicable given that Rue is described as dark-skinned in the book.
The Hunger Games movie went on to do gangbusters despite the distraction. We suspect The Little Mermaid will do just fine as well.