'I was disappointed but not surprised by the racist backlash to Disney’s Little Mermaid reboot’
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Featured Image Credit: Supplied / Disney
When Disney dropped a short trailer for its Little Mermaid live-action remake last month, it promptly blew up the internet.
Within days, the 80-second clip had clocked up 104 million views as little Black girls across the globe expressed their joy and excitement at seeing someone who looked like them take on the role of their favourite character.
You see, Disney has cast Black actress and R&B singer Halle Bailey to put a modern spin on the beloved fairytale, and the trailer showed our first look at her singing 'Part of Your World'.
Bailey, 22, was actually announced as the lead back in 2019. But to finally see her in character, a Black woman with red locs adorning her shoulders, was a moment that sent shivers down my spine.
In the days that followed, parents flooded the internet with videos of their children, eyes fixated on the screen, lighting up as they watched Halle in action.
From the sweet little girl saying, “She looks like me, Mummy!” to the children whooping and cheering at the screen, it was a poignant reminder of why representation is so important.
However, this outpouring of joy was soon cut short. It wasn’t long until internet trolls came out in droves to express their anger at Disney’s casting choice.
With the video amassing almost three million dislikes and 260,000 comments, most of which were far from positive, the dissent grew louder and louder.
Soon, the dark side of Twitter had managed to get #NotMyAriel trending. Alongside it, vitriolic tweets surfaced, listing the aesthetic and ‘scientific’ reasons they believed Bailey wasn’t the right choice for the role – and that’s not to mention the TikTok in blackface.
Let’s just say the racists made their feelings perfectly clear: they felt a Black woman had no place in the revival of this fairytale.
A quick look at the hashtag reveals poorly-veiled prejudice presented as concern about keeping the true ‘essence’ of Ariel. You know – the fictional finned character who lives under the sea.
So, why can’t Black people appear in Disney’s reimagining of the Little Mermaid? Let’s really talk about this.
Firstly, Disney has never been completely faithful to the details of Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish 1836 fairytale – and rightly so, as its themes and tragic ending aren’t suitable for young children.
But a lot of the criticism seems to stem from a comparison to the popular 1989 Disney cartoon, which took a fair bit of artistic license of its own. Scuttle the talking seagull? Not in the original story. Ariel’s red hair? Plucked out of thin air.
Secondly, if we want to talk about the ‘authenticity’ of casting choices, geographically speaking Disney’s Atlantica is more than likely located in tropical waters.
Remember Sebastian? The much-loved Jamaican crab was voiced by Samuel E. Wright, a Black man. In fact, his performance was such a success it inspired two in-character Reggae albums.
So unless Sebastian managed to get his hands on a working visa, Atlantica is more than likely in the Caribbean.
The list of reasons why Bailey’s casting choice makes sense – logistically as well as culturally – is endless. But that apparently isn’t enough for those who don’t want to see Black and Brown people appear on-screen.
While Halle hasn’t directly responded to the backlash, she took to Instagram in the days that followed, writing: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – and later clarified in a Vogue interview that she was focusing firmly on the positives.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen gatekeeping of the make-believe. Earlier this year, there was similar outrage with the announcement of Ncuti Gatwa as the new Doctor Who.
Again, the whole premise of the sci-fi show is that the titular Time Lord can take on any appearance, but heaven-forbid one of those regenerations is a Black man.
We saw it again with the recent release of Lord of the Rings spin-off Rings of Power. Hundreds of fans flocked to Twitter to express their anger at the existence of Black elves and dwarves in Middle Earth.
As with #NotMyAriel, I found this reaction disheartening. As someone who has long appreciated the escapism that Middle Earth, Westeros and the like has to offer, these reactions sent a clear message that a large section of the fan base deemed it implausible and offensively ‘woke’ to see someone who looks me on screen.
Once again, I found myself wondering, why is it that Black people cannot exist in the world of fantasy? Why is it that in the realm of endless possibilities, the only thing beyond comprehension is the presence of Black characters? Why should whiteness be the sole instance of race in the world of make-believe?
The imagination isn’t linear, nor is it monolithic. More than this, it often takes inspiration from our reality. And that reality is diverse, varied with different cultures and races. I, for one, think it would be extremely dull if we only ever expected our realities to look a certain way.
Black characters have every right to occupy space in the world of escapism. Yes because of representation, but also for the simple fact that actors such as Halle Bailey and Ncuti Gatwa are worthy of executing these roles based solely off their own merit and talent.
The irony of Halle Bailey singing 'Part of Your World' in the Little Mermaid trailer wasn’t lost on me. Her question – though not directed at the internet trolls – is one I come to time and time again.
“When is it my turn?” begins the opening line of the final verse. The answer? For me, the time, not just for a Black Ariel but for Black actors, to exist in the world of make-believe is now. Especially at a time where we need all the escapism we can get.