I, as an adult, am now very much aware that Disney movies are by no means unproblematic afternoon entertainment for the kiddos (or the grownups) that you can just turn on for them and that’s that. Disney and Disney’s storytelling is sometimes very problematic and I believe that should be reflected on when watching these movies. To learn from it.
Disney (like the majority of media) has the very striking problematic of underrepresenting PoC and other marginalized groups in their work. In general, Disney characters are only not white when it matters for the story that they are not (like Jasmin, Pocahontas or Mulan) and it took until 2009 before Disney created the first black princess Tiana in Princess and the frog (who is based on a real woman of colour and who’s ethnicity again matters for the story).
With all that said, around came last Friday and the announcement who would play Ariel in the live-action remake of the little mermaid. The casting choice fell onto Halle Bailey, who is a Woman of Colour. In the Disney cartoon movie from 1989, the little mermaid was white with bright red hair. What followed was an outcry on Twitter and a trending hashtag called #NotMyAriel.
Since then, many people have added their opinion to the mix, some calling it confusing for children to know who that Black lady on the screen is, others trying to argue that mermaids who live underwater where it is dark could not possibly produce enough pigment to be black in the first place (oh hello fake science used to back up the discrimination of ethnic groups, it’s you again.).
Interesting how people are reaching for a scientific explanation to rule out the existence of Black mermaids. You know, that completely fictitious specious that is half person, half fish.
But science wasn’t the only concern for the unhappy #NotMyAriel people. Representation was another big one. The original story of the little mermaid was written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and therefore it is assumed that Ariel herself is Danish. And Danish people deserve their representation. White, red-haired Danish, apparently. What about the representation of Danish WoC?
The original story by Andersen has been, like many materials that Disney movies are based on, drastically changed for the 1989 adaptation. Yet, the fact that in Andersen’s description Ariel was fair skinned with red hair is the basis to the argument that someone who looks like 1989 Ariel should have been cast. But Ariel wasn’t the first iteration of a fictional character who looked different on screen than in the source material. That happens a lot. And what is even more interesting is that it happens a lot to non-white characters in the source material who are then portrayed by Caucasians in the movie adaptations. A phenomenon that is called white-washing.
White-washing, a lot like racism, has to do with power as well as with structural and institutionalised hierarchy. As much as I, personally, do not believe in reversed racism (I do believe that People of Colour can discriminate against other PoCs or whites, but I do not believe that is exactly the same as the historically grown, institutionalised racism between the Global North and the Global South, but this is something for a different debate), I also do not believe that what happened with Ariel is reversed white-washing or black-washing as some call it.
White people in comparison to PoCs or other marginalized groups are so over-represented in media, there is such a multitude of stories about them that the few originally white characters that are portrayed by Black people don’t change anything about their advantaged position. And this is not because stories by and about PoCs don’t exist. More so about what stories get told via the very prominent and influential channels and which ones do not.
This is why I think there are more pressing issues to discuss around a Woman of Colour portraying Ariel. What made Disney go down that route? Is this to score some easy points in the diversity department? Are they going to address other representation issues in their original work from now on or is nothing going to change? Is this a marketing ploy designed to spark controversy and get SJW, the Twitter community or more PoC into the cinema? Will there be more original content centred around marginalized groups now instead of only giving them what already exists? Is this real change or is this fake change to make them look good? This is a debate that I would like to have much rather than a debate about the skin colour of an anthropomorphic fish.
After all, Ariel is a fictitious creature that resides in a fictitious realm whose phenotype is not essential to her story that deviates a lot from its original source material from a time period where Black representation was even worse than today. But this choice matters. This debate matters. Representation matters. Which is why we should all watch closely what Disney does in the future.