The Little Mermaid is Black, so what?

By Jane Roussel
Posted on Tuesday, 4 October 2022 10:54

Disney has unveiled a teaser for The Little Mermaid, featuring a Black Ariel played by Halle Bailey ©Walt Disney

Since Disney unveiled the teaser for 'The Little Mermaid', featuring a Black Ariel played by Halle Bailey, social networks have been abuzz with racist comments. An unfortunately recurring phenomenon.

“She is a Black girl! They made Ariel into a Black girl!” On 15 September, Brut gathered video reactions of little American girls, filmed by their parents watching promotional excerpts from the new Disney film about the Little Mermaid character. The children seemed amazed to discover that their heroine was Black, just like them.

First, the video went viral on social networks and drew a few tears of emotion from the million viewers who had clicked “play”. But then the story changed tack: Ariel as a Black woman, played by Halle Bailey (The Color Purple, Let It Shine), had not won unanimous approval. The phenomenon has a name, “blackwashing”, which refers to the practice of choosing a Black actor to play a character not described as such in the original story.

On Twitter, the hashtag #NotMyAriel has been growing in protest against the move, along with many racist comments. This kind of backlash is certainly not new: it first appeared in the summer of 2019, when the film’s casting was announced, introducing Halle Bailey as the future mermaid. At the time, the young actress said she was “not paying attention to the negativity” of the controversy and was “very excited about the project”.

Nasty remarks

Three years later, the official teaser was released, on 10 September, and has already registered almost 23 million views. Some see the choice of casting as a betrayal of author Hans Christian Andersen’s original work, with text describing Ariel as having “diaphanous” skin, according to one internet user, who believes that “replacing Ariel’s identity with another is an expression of pure racial hatred”.

While mocking images of the Little Mermaid with Michael Jackson’s face are making the rounds, some internet users haven’t stopped short of tampering with screenshots to show a fictitious number of “dislikes” under the official video of the teaser (which would appear to be more numerous than the “likes” received), even though YouTube has blocked this feature since November 2021. Some have even said Disney is offering “charity” to Black people by deciding to “repaint” its characters…

As is often the case, Twitter has been the scene of a war of “pros” and “cons”, allowing the hate to flow freely. Some deny their outrage is racist, finding legitimacy in not wanting to see their red-haired, blue-eyed icon change her appearance; in response, others have recalled all the time’s cinema has denied a character’s true origin in order to represent him or her as white, aka “whitewashing”.

Numerous precedents

This step by Disney in the representation of minorities is noteworthy, because in the company’s range of heroines, up until now, there has only been one Black princess – Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog – and very few characters from diverse backgrounds. And unfortunately, this is not the first time that such an approach has triggered torrents of hatred.

Back in  2017, the search for an “ethnic minority” actress to play Ciri in The Witcher caused a scandal (the actress finally chosen was a blonde with light skin). When The Bridgerton Chronicle (another Netflix series) was released, some internet users raged against the fact that it showed dark-skinned lords and ladies in London high society of 1813. Even though many historians believe that Queen Charlotte, Queen Victoria’s grandmother, was Afro-descendant…

When The Rings of Power was released on Amazon Prime in early September, many fans felt that Tolkien had been “betrayed” by a cast that included “people of colour”. As violent as they were, these comments are sadly becoming classic… but some internet users decided to retaliate with an artistic snub, depicting the Black and white Ariels holding hands.

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