Two days ago, Walt Disney Pictures unleashed the apocalypse by announcing they were making a live-action movie of their hit, animated film, ‘The Little Mermaid.’
The public backlash began with slight grumblings against the casting of Melissa McCarthy as the larger-than-life, evil villain, Ursula. Scores of ‘Mermaid’ fans took to Twitter with their impassioned cries of bad casting. Whereas most agreed that McCarthy is a terrific actress, some people found her way too likable to play the conniving Ursula. The late drag superstar Divine had been the real inspiration for the animated depiction of Ursula, so naturally, some of today’s boldest drag personalities, and even Tiduss Burgess, made the online fan’s lists of potential casting choices.
As if that ‘controversy’ were not enough, the casting of a black girl as ‘Ariel’ – the porcelain-skinned, fiery red-haired, title character, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, it killed the camel and buried it in the backyard. This literally made people lose their sh*t.
In a reimagined physicality of its lead character, Disney chose to cast the stunning, black actress, and operatically-trained, young singer, Halle Bailey (not Halle Berry), as the lead in the new, “The Little Mermaid.”
Twitter ignited immediately at the announcement with countless people (racists) declaring it to be an outrage that their, or their child’s favorite, white, red-haired character was now going to be black. It was clear from their reactions; life as they knew it, was over.
In one of my exchanges with a woman on Facebook, who was nearing a nervous breakdown, she exclaimed, “How am I going to explain a black Ariel to my daughter?”
I suggested she do what black people have had to do with a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, surfer boy Jesus, which is to completely ignore any factual geographic or logical context and just accept it.
That is easier said than done in this situation, however, because at least Jesus was historically a real person, so there is a case to be made about his possible characteristics. In the upcoming Disney flick, we are dealing with a fictional mermaid (wait, are there any other kind?), created by Hans Christian Andersen. This character is half fish, half woman, and lives under the sea. If you accept that premise to start, then surely accepting that same half fish, half woman, just a little browner, should be of no consequence.
Twitter’s rampant racists didn’t see it that way though:
On the flip side of all the racially incendiary responses to Bailey as Ariel, there were some poignant conversations that I took part in. For example, I had a debate with someone who raised a concern that while this is a triumph for racial inclusion in Hollywood, Hans Christian Andersen’s original story does not present Ursula as a “gluttonous, evil fat girl.” Is there a purposeful negative stereotype about overweight people being perpetuated in Disney’s depiction? Is that even relevant to the matter of racial inclusion? Are these examples synonymous or not?
There is a very unique irony to what I now refer to as ‘Ariel-gate.’ When the original Disney animated film was released in 1989, a dear friend of mine who has two children with bright red hair, shared with me that ‘The Little Mermaid’ suddenly made their red hair cool.
Her kids went from being self-conscious, and teased at school about their looks, to seeing positive representations of themselves on the movie screen. The impact was significant, and it was amplified by a multi-million dollar Disney franchise of red-haired Ariel merchandise, from books, dolls, and apparel, to toys, furnishings and more.
Suddenly, little kids everywhere wanted that beautiful red hair, and my friend’s two kids inadvertently gained more confidence. That is how powerful, diverse representation can be in films. So imagine now, what it will mean for little black girls to see themselves represented as this beloved Disney character.
At the end of the day, the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel is nothing short of magnificent. She is deserving, talented, and has the voice and beauty of an angel. For anyone out there thinking that this casting choice is unacceptable, just keep in mind, we’ve had to deal with two big-budget Hollywood films about the life of Cleopatra; the first, in 1934, and then the second, in 1963.
Whereas many debates argue if Cleopatra was African or not, I feel confident that she damn sure did not look like Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor.
Trust me white America, if Chinese people survived, Micky Rooney’s grotesque, depiction of a buck-toothed Chinaman in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany,’ and Japanese people survived Tom Cruise as ‘The Last Samurai,’ – then surely, you will survive a black Ariel in the upcoming live-action version of ‘The Little Mermaid.’
Check out BET online’s story on the Twitter backlash against Disney’s casting choice.
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.