Disney recently announced that Halle Bailey, 19 years old and who is black, has been tapped to play Ariel in the 2020 live-action remake. Since the announcement, there have been numerous hot takes that abounded the interwebs. So, why not, here’s my contribution to the cacophony:
I disagree with it.
Bailey is one half of the singing sister duo, “Chloe x Halle”, and there’s absolutely no doubt she can sing. She has a positively marvelous voice. But Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid cartoon from 1989 just isn’t black. In the original source material by the Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, Ariel (who wasn’t called that, but the mermaid, I mean) wasn’t black either. But more to the point, in the Disney cartoon version, Ariel is a white redhead. Hundreds of millions of children have identified with that as Ariel’s image. Yes, I totally understand we’re talking about fiction and mermaids don’t exist, but that’s all beside the point. The point is people possess a preference (or a prejudice, you could call it) for nostalgia. Especially if that nostalgic symbol is an important part of their childhood.
The Little Mermaid was never in the pantheon for me but Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1991 was a huge part of my childhood. There was one summer when my family was traveling abroad visiting Grandma’s house and B&B was only one of two VHS tapes that my sister and I had access to. (The Wizard was the other one. Yes, the 100-minute long Nintendo Power Glove commercial.) I must’ve watched B&B something close to seven hundred times that summer. It got to the point where I could sing along to all of the songs and knew much of the dialog by heart.
If Disney had remade B&B‘s live action remake in 2017 with a Belle that wasn’t a white brunette, I probably would have exploded into a puddle of sadness. And some degree of anger/resentment would’ve then likely followed, despite my full knowing that such emotions are unproductive. I mean, that’s how feelings work– they’re not always logical. They just happen.
This has nothing to do with racism or being “against diversity or representation.” I’m all for diversity and better representation in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians, which I saw with Bagel last year, was fantastic. And of course mermaids can be black! They’re imaginary; they can be any color of the rainbow. They could fly. I mean, whatever. It’s all make-believe.
But here, we’re specifically talking about Ariel. We’re also talking about a children’s cartoon that is beloved by hundreds of millions of people. That signifier has already been taken! Its signification has already been set! In the public consciousness, “Ariel” is a reserved word now! Would black people like it if Hollywood casted some white actor in the role of the Black Panther superhero in the MCU? If someone like Miles Teller portrayed T’Challa? Good God, the very internet would probably combust into flames if that ever happened.
For anyone who disagrees me, consider this example: Say you love apple pie. It’s your favorite dessert in the whole world. And diabetes be damned, you are perfectly content with eating apple pie every single day of the week, fifty-two weeks a year. Now lets say, one day, you buy your apple pie at the bakery as you normally do, return home to eat it, but find out it suddenly tastes like lemon meringue pie. The bakery had sold it to you under the auspices of it being apple pie, and it has the same name of “apple pie,” but it suddenly looks, smells, and tastes like lemon meringue. It’s still delicious but it’s not apple pie. Despite being sold to you with that name, it’s just not the same. Wouldn’t this upset or irk you at least somewhat? On a more serious note, this is what cultural appropriation looks like. Not cool.
In summary: Color-washing, in general, is bad. And I am totally not okay with Disney blackwashing a character just for more box office dollars (which is the only way I can make sense of this
creative business choice in my head; a cynical marketing ploy to attract more eyeballs —via fanning the flames of controversy— in an increasingly crowded entertainment market). I fully welcome people making a movie about African or Hispanic or Asian mermaids. Go for it! Please just don’t call it The Little Mermaid. Disney, when you do stuff like this, you’re just building your “monument to progress” on the broken dreams of millions of children.