Disney’s recent announcement that they’ve chosen Halle Bailey, an African American actress and R&B singer, to play the role of the traditionally white princess in the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid has caused an uproar.

Singers Mariah Carey,  Janelle Moane, and thousands of Bailey’s fans applauded the news and strongly supported Disney’s casting decision. This casting marked a breakthrough for black actors and a milestone in colorblind casting, or casting without consideration of ethnicity, age, skin color, etc. 

However, the decision was also criticized quite harshly. Ariel, the heroine in the original animated Disney film, had a very distinctive look with long, flowing red hair, big blue eyes, pale skin and a glowing green mermaid tail. Critics oppose the deviation from the animated character’s image, arguing that a black woman can’t accurately represent Ariel. Some of the opponents contend that this casting was Disney’s blackwashing, a practice in the United States film industry where black actors are cast in non-black roles. These protests launched hashtags like #NotMyMermaid and #NotMyAriel on social media sites. 

Interestingly, there’s rarely if ever an uproar when white actors and actresses are cast in roles typically played by people of color. For example, in A Beautiful Mind, Jennifer Connelly, who is of mixed-European descent, played Alicia Nash, who was Salvadorian. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney, and American actor of Scottish descent, played the role of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese warlord. In Elizabeth, Micheal, and Marlon, Joseph Fiennes, a white actor from London, played the role of Micheal Jackson, the African American legendary King of pop. In Disney’s film Aladdin, the protagonist is a middle eastern man, Aladin, who is voiced by a white man, Scott Weinger. For The list goes on and on. The casting of these movies did not cause the same backlash against colorblind casting that the recent casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel caused. This raises the question, if it’s acceptable for a white person to play a character traditionally represented by a person of color, why has it launched a protest when the roles are simply reversed?

What the critics of Disney’s decision fail to realize is that the story of The Little Mermaid has a history of dramatic change. The story dates back to 1837, when it focused on a mermaid determined to obtain the eternal soul that humans possess and who was motivated by her attraction to a prince. In the original story, she trades her voice for legs and attempts to seduce the prince by dancing, even though she feels as if she’s stepping on knives each time she takes a step. The prince goes on to marry her, and the mermaid in the end is given the option to murder the prince if she desires to once again become a mermaid. At the end of the tale, she loses the prince and dissolves into sea foam. In 1989, Disney drastically changed the disturbing fairy tale into a children’s movie about a rebellious 16 year old mermaid fascinated by life on land, who falls for a human prince. There was no resistance when Disney made this massive change to the story back in 1989.

The truth is, Halle Bailey was cast because of her ability, not because of an attempt by Disney to blackwash or increase diversity. In a statement to NBC News, Director Rob Marshall said “It was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role,”. Disney wants to maintain the essence of the wide-eyed, curious mermaid, and Halle Bailey was the perfect fit

References

Chiu, Allyson. “’Ariel…is a Mermaid’: Disney Network Defends Casting Black Actress in Live-Action Remake of Classic Film.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 July 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/07/09/ariel-little-mermaid-halle-bailey-disney-backlash/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e3b4eea4729c.

Duca, Lauren. “How Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid’ Turned A Disturbing Fairy Tale Into A Kids’ Movie.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-little-mermaid-fairy-tale_n_6096200.

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