ATLANTA — I had no idea mermaids couldn’t possibly be African-American. I had no idea mermaids were white either, but apparently they are. Apparently, mermaids are exclusively white.
No one knew this, of course, except those nitwits who expressed their outrage over Disney’s recent decision to cast Ariel — the Little Mermaid we all know and love — as well, a Black instead. #NotMyAriel, they said. #NotMyMermaid.
Thirty years ago, when Ariel first splashed onto movie screens nationwide, she was a redhead with big blue eyes. For the record, there are a few Black people with blue eyes and red hair. And for the record, Ariel was a fish. Yes she sported a purple bra made of seashells, but the fact remains she had no legs. She sported a light green fish tail. Ariel was an animation.
Even in the newest Disney version, she’s a fish. She’s just obviously a Black one, played by Halle Bailey. Bailey is half of the singing duo Chloe x Halle — talented enough to open for Beyoncé and Jay-Z on their tour last year and perform “America the Beautiful” at this year’s Super Bowl.
Albeit this is the first time Disney has cast a woman of color in one of its live-action adaptations to play what heretofore has been a white princess, these are the facts. Why is that problematic? Cona Marshall, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and former professor of African studies at Lebanon Valley College, said the focus is all wrong. If we truly stood on the concept of equity, she said, we would first congratulate Halle Bailey on her artistry, Marshall said.
“Representation matters as evidenced by the past three presidential campaigns,” she said. “What is the uproar? Might a Black actor not be able to capture and transcend a story about a teenager wanting desperately to assimilate to land culture at the expense of her voice?”
Marshall said she would encourage all African-American actors to be bold enough to take on characters they’ve been told they cannot portray. “I’m not surprised at the polarized coverage of casting a Black woman as a fictional folklore character,” she said. “As a religion scholar, we’ve seen the laments over Santa Claus not being white. These sentiments fuel ‘minority takeover’ crisis rhetoric by white supremacists, which only affirms America’s poor treatment of minorities.”
It didn’t take long for the Twittersphere to light up. “You are the worst choice that Disney has ever made,” one person tweeted. Tweeted another: “You will never be Ariel.”
“It was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role,” Director Rob Marshall said. Some likened Bailey’s casting to singer Brandy portraying the role of Cinderella in the 1997 TV film that also starred Whitney Houston.
Susan Peppers-Bates, director of the Africana Studies Program at Stetson University, said America should be celebrating cracking the white glass ceiling of beauty imagery, albeit still within a narrative focused on traditional gender roles.
Cona Marshall agreed. She said the white Ariel will not cease to exist from our cultural memory and wondered what’s the fear in having a Black Ariel. Whatever the answer, Marshall said it’s next to impossible to disentangle the negative reactions from racism.
“I welcome Disney’s second African-American visual representation of a princess,” she said. “Perhaps, in the future, the uproar would consist of not centering these princesses’ lives on men. One day Black women will be ‘part of your world.’”