Last week, Disney began to reveal some information on its upcoming The Little Mermaid live-action remake. Along with some rumored casting choices, the house of mouse confirmed that Halle Bailey would be playing the role of protagonist Ariel for the film. While I initially confused the name with Halle Berry and was puzzled that a 50-year-old might be playing a teenager, I re-read the name and got to looking up the young actress. Turns out she is quite the accomplished singer and has been starring in the Black-ish spin-off Grown-ish since last year. So with that pedigree, why does the internet suddenly hate her?
I’m not sure I could put this softly or not, but here is the honest truth: the vocal minority of fans crying online and starting the ridiculous #NotMyAriel hashtag on Twitter are a bunch of racists. There’s no real way around that conclusion, either. You can try to spin it as people fighting back against perceived PC culture or fans being upset that their childhood is somehow being ruined, but that simply isn’t the case. Instead of looking up what this actress has done in her relatively short career, the first bit of discussion centered on her skin color.
I can’t believe we’re still stuck on this nonsense in 2019, but let me confirm my thesis for this article. Nowhere in any iteration of The Little Mermaid does it say that Ariel is a white girl. Her race is not important to the story of a dreamer wishing for something more and sacrificing what makes her special to achieve it. Her skin color is never commented on by any of the characters and no types of racial politics crop up in the story. While Ariel has a personality and desires of her own, her design is that of a mythological creature that can be up for multiple interpretations. If Disney really wanted to be nuts, they’d make Ariel some horrific fish monster, but they instead decided upon casting a promising actress and singer to lead the remake of the film that saved them from bankruptcy.
Why is that such a problem? It’d be one thing if Halle Bailey had a track record of awful films and couldn’t sing to save her life, but that isn’t the case. Her career is too short to really make a claim of her legitimacy and her singing prowess can be attested to. If anything, this remake will likely be her big break to start going on to much larger roles, so shouldn’t we be celebrating? Just because her look is different from the original animated film doesn’t mean this is somehow a lesser interpretation.
What a lot of people seem to fail to understand is that remakes of films are meant to provide a different take on an old classic. What Disney has put out over the last six or so years with its remakes are soulless cash grabs that piggyback off the popularity of its franchises and barely tweak anything in them. There are subtle changes that end up having damaging ripple effects on characterization, but the main gist is that of a film playing it so safe that they end up looping back around to being boring. Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Cinderella, The Jungle Book: they all suffer from this to varying degrees. Even the upcoming Lion King remake looks so devoid of life that I’m surprised anyone gave it a green light.
Obviously, the box office take for these films paints a different picture (Aladdin is rounding near $1 billion overall gross), but I’m sure Disney has been listening to the legitimate criticism out there for these remakes. That’s probably why the casting choices, both rumored and confirmed, for The Little Mermaid are different from what you’d expect. I won’t deny the idea that Disney is likely casting a black actress as an attempt to appear culturally diverse, but… so what? Being an actress in Hollywood is hard enough, but being a black actress is next to impossible. If this remake can change that perception, then it’s only a net positive.
Most people don’t seem to be seeing that, though. Instead of wanting something new and fresh, they want the same garbage they’ve seen a thousand times before. People want everything to remain safe and “old-fashioned,” which includes denying people of color the chance to star in a film. Instead of just admitting they are racists, though, they hide behind the idea that this new take is doing a disservice to the original.
In fact, as I was writing this whole thing, Disney unveiled a teaser for next year’s Mulan remake and a similar reaction is happening. While everyone is happy the cast is entirely Asian, comments on the official Twitter account can be found stating, “At least they got her skin color right.” What the hell? What does Ariel have to do with Mulan?
Mulan is the story of a Chinese woman in ancient China fighting against the Huns. During that time, women were forbidden from going to war, a decision that Mulan fought against. Altering those aspects would be ignoring the social and cultural depth that the story has. Conversely, The Little Mermaid does not take place in a specific time period or location. The era it was written in plays no part in that discussion, nor does the color of any character in it.
I can play devil’s advocate and say that maybe people just really wanted to see their vision of the film on the big screen. A lot of people grew up seeing Ariel as a red-headed, fair-skinned lady and cannot accept anything else. That still doesn’t really make for a compelling argument about why Ariel can’t be black, though. Ariel could be whatever damn color a creator wanted her to be and the story would be the same.
I may still have my reservations about how The Little Mermaid ends up, but the casting of Halle Bailey in the starring role is not one of them. She will likely give the film something incredible, which would certainly be nice after how samey and bland Disney’s remakes have been. Twitter just needs to get over the fact that this isn’t the same exact film like the one we grew up with. Everything is going to be okay, I promise. The world won’t start imploding on itself and your strange little bubble of isolation isn’t going to rupture because of Halle Bailey’s casting.
But seriously, you’re all a bunch of fucking racists.