Disney’s recent announcement casted actress Halle Bailey as Ariel in their live-action adaptation of the The Little Mermaid. It sparked something of a controversy when people realized the noticeable differences between Halle and the beloved cartoon — mainly her skin tone. A lot of people were excited about it, to be fair, but a lot weren’t as well.
Their disappointment was guised with a front of childhood nostalgia and calls for accuracy, but how fair are those complaints and how important are they at the end of the day? Let’s consider each.
A primary protest from the many people who tweeted out #NotMyAriel was that based on the source material, any iteration of the mermaid should be Danish. This is, of course, based on the fact that the source author, Hans Christian Andersen, hails from Denmark. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Ariel is — or needs to be — Danish. There is no mention of race or skin tone in the actual short story, leaving the mermaid’s ethnicity up to reader’s imagination.
Moreover, it’s difficult to try and defend the need for any mermaid in the tale to be Danish when these mystical creatures have appeared in tales from cultures all over the world. Denmark has no specific claim to the story insofar as its author lived and died there, yet even that does not necessarily point towards the story having a particular setting. Ultimately, Ariel is a mermaid and a mermaid can be white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or a mix of all.
Even the Disney version acknowledged that the world under the sea need not be as boxed into ethnic limitations as the world above is. The original cartoon was able to integrate elements of Jamaican culture with their vaguely Western world. They have characters of strikingly different accents all coming together in one locale. Can anyone really say that the Little Mermaid belongs to any singular culture?
If it’s not about where the story is set, the other main complaint is what the characters will look like. There are those concerned that such an iconic character would be different from what we know from our childhood. The resident redheaded mermaid admittedly cuts a recognizable figure in both pop culture and our memories. But, convincing hair dye jobs or even CGI at the most extreme are very achievable nowadays. So if we can make her into a redhead, and get her contacts, the only difference left would be her skin tone.
This begs the question: Is it really imperative that she be white? And if so — why? The idea of a white character taking on a different ethnicity being uncomfortable is simply rooted in our conditioned preference of Western standards. There is no logical reason to say that just because an actress is a few shades darker than the cartoon that your childhood will automatically be ruined. The performance ultimately depends on the skill, talent, and abilities of the actress — all qualities Disney believes to have found in Halle Bailey.
Representation matters, especially in Disney and Fantasy films which have had a bad track record in this area. Opportunities for Persons of Color (POCs) in media are rare, and even rarer is the awarding of a traditionally white role to a POC. Moments like this show that there is a changing tide, but it is one that still needs support. Embracing this casting, and getting others to embrace it, could be very significant in the ways media will continue to treat representation.
What do you think of Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey?