“No. Ariel is a white redhead. Boycotting this disgrace. #notmyariel,” or “All generations raised with WHITE Ariel with Red hair!!! Leave classic Disney movies in peace! #notmyariel.” When Danish author Hans Christian Andersen published The Little Mermaid in 1837, he would not have imagined that almost 200 years later, his main character would be so controversial. In fact, the choice of Halle Bailey to play the Little Mermaid in the upcoming Disney adaptation was far from unanimous on social media. It generated a number of racist and haineous comments. However, the 19-year-old African American singer is perfect for the role. She has a glorious voice, a silhouette reminding that of Disney princesses, a bright future…The only problem for some people? She is black. In the cartoon, Ariel is white, has red hair and a green mermaid tail. The main argument for haters is that she is not sticking to the original and therefore, it destroys the classic of the character and the movie itself. Between you and me, since when do we care about the mermaid’s skin colour? We have to keep in mind that Ariel is a mermaid, a fantastic creature, a fictional character.
Some people are going very far by arguing that “due to living underwater, Ariel’s skin should be white because she has less melanin.” How committed to white supremacy people have to be, to be upset about a fictional character’s skin colour? In addition, to justify themselves and not to appear racists, haters would even argue that: “In the same way, I don’t want a black Mulan or a Mexican Mulan. Or neither a white Pocahontas, an Asian Cinderella or a native American Rapunzel.” But in fact, these kinds of problems happen all the time. White actresses are chosen to play a black, an Asian character (whitewashing), and no controversies are created. However, if the opposite situation happens, haters will cry foul.
We must recall that the choice of Halle Bailey allows above all for diversity. She was chosen because she embodied the values the director was seeking for Ariel’s role. Black people also have the right to be represented on screen. Fortunately, faced with this surge of racist messages, the young singer was able to count on public support from her fans and many celebrities. This controversy shows the limit of what people are ready to accept in terms of roles for black actors.
Relegating Black people to degrading and secondary roles is unfortunately nothing new. The history of Black representation on screen finds its roots in the practices of nineteenth-century American theater. Minstrel shows were extremely popular. They were a form of entertainment that dehumanized people of African descent. The characters were performed by white Americans who would wear a blackface and mock Afrocentric features. Later on, African Americans played their own caricatures. Yet, the depictions were irrelevant, racist and discriminatory.
When Hollywood directors started to cast Black people in their movies, they would assign them minor roles (as if they were not capable of playing major roles!) And obviously, these were not particularly flattering. White Americans would play charismatic and powerful characters, whereas Black Americans would be pushed aside with meaningless roles. African Americans would either portray a slave, a domestic or a criminal. In any case, the character they played did not have strong intellectual abilities. It seems that even a century later, things have not changed that much. The movie industry still continues to play on stereotypical representations of African Americans. The decision to keep representing Black people as such shows that racism is still anchored in American society. When we compare old movies or TV series to more recent ones, we can notice that the narrative is not really different.
In The Help (2011), Viola Davis plays the role of a maid, reminding that of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, released 70 years earlier. Although Davis’s is one of the main roles, it still shows the inferior status of the Black woman. Later, Viola Davis confessed that she regretted her role in The Help, explaining that maids’ voices were not actually heard. When the Black woman is not a servant, she is often caricatured as being angry and sassy (Amber Riley as Mercedes in Glee, Chandra Wilson as Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy). As for Black men, most of the time they are criminals, thugs or drug dealers (Kevin Hart as Darnell in Get Hard (2015), Snoop Dogg as Blue in Training Day (2001). The Black best friend is also part of the stereotyped roles, as shown in Clueless (1995), High School Musical (2006), Sex Education (2019) or the latest Netflix series, Dash and Lily (2020)…And you can bet there is more. But enough with caricatures. Black people are more than just background characters. This is 2020. It is time to move forward.
The film industry does not have any excuses to keep Black people away from the front of the screen. Arguments that once kept Black people from playing important and complex roles are no longer relevant. For example there was this assumption that films with a Black lead would not work because people tend to want to see a hero they can easily identify with. The audience of cinemas being historically mainly White, that meant casting a White person as the lead character. But the success of movies such as Black Panther (2018) by Ryan Coogler, or Get out (2017) by Jordan Peele, has shown that having a non-white lead is actually far from being synonymous with an unsuccessful movie.
Black panther (2018) ©allociné – Get Out (2017) ©wikipedia
And if people indeed want to see a lead character that looks like them, then Black people should have that opportunity. We live in a diverse world where there is not a limited number of ways to be Black. The movie industry should reflect that. Representation on screen is not something benign. Perpetuating all these stereotypes has consequences. They reproduce and maintain power relations rooted in racism, which slows the process of moving towards a fairer and more inclusive society. It can lead, Black and White people alike to believe those stereotypes are rooted in reality. It is especially dangerous for young people who are in the process of building their own identity. What kind of message do these stereotypes send to Black children? That they cannot be the princes and princesses of the stories? That they can never be the most important and complex characters? That they are inferior? That their lives are worth less than White lives? Representation on screen can have a drastic impact on people’s perception of themselves and others, and the movie industry should take this responsibility more seriously. Black children, and Black people in general, should not have to be over the moon when they see a main character that looks like them and with whom they can identify. It should not feel like something special: it should feel normal. And for this to happen, the movie industry needs to normalize having Black lead characters. An endless number of roles are written for people without their skin colour being one of their defining characteristics. Why not simply choose to cast a Black actor? But the fact directors still struggle to do so in 2020 shows that there is still a long way to go before people get the proper Black representation they deserve.
We will still have to wait a little longer to see the final reactions to the live action movie of The Little Mermaid, as filming was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We can only hope that having a Black Ariel will have a positive outcome, moving us one step further towards a more inclusive and egalitarian society. With the wave of hatred Disney’s decision generated, the whole movie industry should realize how harmful and dangerous the continuous use of stereotypical representations of Black people was/is. Enough is enough. It is time to represent the change society needs.
Alexia Lam, Anne-Claire Lemarchand & Zoya Pasquinet
- Paquette, Danielle. “Africa celebrated black mermaids long before Disney and #NotMyAriel.” The Washington Post, 9 July 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/notmyariel-african-mermaids-existed-long-before-disney/2019/07/09/25efe4b6-a23f-11e9-b7b4-95e30869bd15_story.html. Accessed 6 December 2020.
- Zatat, Narjas. “Racists are trying to use “science” to prove mermaids can’t be black. Yes, really.” Indy 100, 4 July 2019 https://www.indy100.com/news/racists-use-science-proof-disney-little-mermaid-ariel-not-black-898857. Accessed 6 December 2020.
- Tual, Morgane. “Disney choisit une actrice noire pour interpréter Ariel la Petite Sirène, et provoque des remous”. Le Monde, 5 July 2019 https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2019/07/05/disney-choisit-une-actrice-noire-pour-interpreter-ariel-la-petite-sirene-et-provoque-des-remous_5485919_4408996. Accessed 6 December 2020
- Desta, Yohana. “Violet Davis Regrets Making Making The Help: ‘It Wasn’t the Voices of the Maids That Were Heard’”, Vanity Fair, 12 September 2018. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/09/viola-davis-the-help-regret. Accessed 6 December 2020.
Picture on the cover: A White and a Black version of Ariel. ©boredpanda