Back in July 2019, Disney sent the world went into mass hysteria when it was announced that actress and singer of R&B duo Chloe x Halle, Halle Bailey would be playing Ariel in the live action remake of the 1989 classic, The Little Mermaid.
The mere thought of an African American talented and very much capable artist portraying a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, and red-haired princess with a light green fish tail triggered the laughable ‘#NotMyAriel’ and #NotMyMermaid Twitter crusades. Enraged by not only Halle Bailey, but also Disney itself for essentially humiliating the origins of the story and misrepresenting the free-spirited and rebellious mermaid, Twitter trolls sure made their voices heard. Of course, this comes as no surprise that people were appalled by a woman of colour playing a dainty, lily-white princess in a world drowning in a sea of racism.
What these Twitter trolls highlighted was a sense of white entitlement; in that whiteness is believed to be the default and whiteness has become the norm to the point that any changes of white protagonists being portrayed by non-white actors has become a very controversial and heated issue. Never mind the fact that Ariel is a mystical creature, a fantasy and fictional character, ‘there is just no way an African American actress can play her’. They were not being racist though, the trolls, Ariel’s origins are that of Dutch folklore after all. She surely must stay true to her history and culture.
Personally, when I found out that Ariel was going to be played by Halle Bailey, I found it hard to be excited and I thought something was wrong with me. After all, is this not the diversity and representation I, as a black woman, have been craving from Disney since Moana and all her for non-white predecessors. Should have I started singing ‘Under the Sea’ or ‘Kiss the Girl’ with joy and fulfilment because Ariel will finally have the same skin tone as me? I was surprised at my own hostile reaction to this news. Was I being complicit to the absurd racist discourse created over a fairy-tale, that stripped to its core is just about a mermaid on the pursuit of happiness and most importantly, true love? I guess I was sort of excited at the thought of Idris Elba being James Bond himself, so why couldn’t I just be happy with a black Ariel?
Perhaps my hostility was it was stemming from the fact that Disney was disregarding centuries of Caribbean and African folklore featuring array of black mermaids. For example, in both Caribbean and African folklore lays the mystery of ancient water goddess Mami Wata, a deity who vowed fertility and lust to her followers. She also seduced travellers into her under-the-sea-world to feast on them. The goddess is depicted, at times as a fully developed woman, sometimes as a woman with a fish tail and sometimes with two fish tails. Still powerful and magical in her own right and authenticity, water goddesses and mermaids like Mama Wata have always been prevalent in African and Caribbean folklore diaspora and stories. Though black mermaids have always existed, long before The Little Mermaid; and most certainly long before Disney, the focus on Eurocentric storylines only continues to disservice and disregard minorities. By simply leaving most the fact that mermaid stories have been told throughout different cultures for decades and has most likely influenced the story of Ariel herself, albeit through a Western gaze. Mermaids are not just part of the fantasy world, or just a creative vision, but rather a part of many cultures which Disney ignores.
My hostility had lied in the larger problem; that of Disney’s seemingly colour-blind casting of characters with stories and folklore that focus on white traditions, cultures and replacing them with non-white actors. Though having a black Ariel is somewhat a step in the right direction in showing little black girls and women that they are just as visible and worthy of a story much like their white counterparts, this decision undoability avoids the problem at hand and the roots of this problem. The problem is that stories based on white and Eurocentric culture and history continue to be at the forefront of mainstream cinema, which further marginalises groups already facing discrimination based on qualities they are unable to control. The lack of visibility of a variety of cultures leads to the avoidance of creating new stories rooted in those different cultures and their beliefs.
In this sense of mentality, these ‘non-white’ groups and protagonists in Hollywood narratives carry on being side-lined and neglected; their history in folklore, traditions and fairy tales become erased from popular media because Hollywood simply has not taken an interest to take a deep dive into those stories. Though we have films like Mulan, Pocahontas and Princess and the Frog (all respectively based on different cultures) to not only enjoy but to relate to by showing children that role models, princesses and superheroes can come from all over the world and can look just like them. There was still this itchy feeling that I was not able to shake off. It felt almost insulting to me that Ariel was going to be black.
Right, hear me out! Despite the pre-existing stories depicting native brown and black mermaids, Disney has treated this casting choice as though minorities are just to be copied and pasted into pre-existing Eurocentric and white stories. As if we do not deserve to have our own stories be heard and seen on the big screen, narratives with agency and that are authentic to us; the forgotten cultures that make up most of the world. It is almost as though the thought of representation had become a secondary factor. Something to fill a quota that the audiences are demanding and crying out for, which is when diversity in mainstream cinema becomes forced and inauthentic.
This is not to say I agreed with the blatant racism of ‘#NotMyAriel’ and ‘#NotMyMermaid’, but I suppose to a certain extent, I did. This Ariel is not my Ariel, she is not my mermaid because she is an afterthought of what diversity really means. Rather than just replacing existing Eurocentric stories with one new apparent component masqueraded as an updated symbol of representation, i.e. a new skin tone, why not just make new stories rich in cultural history and tradition?
It is not that stories of minorities do not exist; it is that the representation of non-white cultures and characters are not as visible because Hollywood is just not as invested in it as we would like to think.