Halle Bailey, an African-American singer and actress, is starring as Ariel in Disney’s live action remake of the timeless classic “The Little Mermaid.” Previous animations portrayed the mermaid as white with fire engine red hair, but this time, the “real-life” Ariel — still with the iconic red hair — is Black. Young Black girls and boys have taken over social media reacting to the new Ariel, overjoyed to see themselves in her and feel represented. Prior to Halle’s performance as Ariel, Disney had only one prominent Black princess, from “The Princess and the Frog,” which came out 13 years ago. In the animation, Princess Tiana is a Black princess. Throughout most of the film, however, she is transformed into an animal. This makes her the only princess to not remain in human form in any Disney movie. With Princess Tiana being the first Black Disney princess, more attention should have been drawn to her human form. Disney occasionally places people of color (POC) in main character roles, but still fails to really represent any of their communities. Disney also frequently portrays Black characters as monoliths, and there is usually more media circulation and statements about Black characters’ race than talent or fair cultural representation.
A recent animation, “Soul,” follows a similar pattern. The male protagonist is Black, but he dies in the beginning of the film, coming back as a “soul,” or “glowing green blob.” Sony Pictures’ award-winning short film “Hair Love” is proof that there can be much better, culturally-competent representation in media for children, and that it can be successful. “The Little Mermaid” remake starring Halle Bailey is creating the same sort of buzz and excitement for children, and Ariel is bound to be a character that will be influential for years to come.
People young and old took social media by storm at the release of the new “The Little Mermaid” teaser, with many parents filming their children’s reactions to Halle’s highly anticipated performance. Many teared up and many couldn’t keep their excitement in — TikToks showed young Black girls exclaiming, “She’s Black … Yay!” The excited responses of Black youth show how crucial representation in the media is.
Many people have criticized Bailey, claiming Ariel is meant to be white. The teaser on YouTube received over two million dislikes and many derogatory comments toward both Bailey and her supporters. However, these critics are forgetting that Ariel is not a real person, but a character, so she never had a defined race. The racism here becomes extremely obvious and tiring. Many are not accustomed to seeing anyone other than white actresses and white animated characters in Disney films, or do not know how it feels to not be represented in general. Halle’s performance has already shaken this ideal instilled in our minds of who should play what roles.
The reaction to Halle Bailey’s casting reveals a larger issue. Since Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” there have been 54 Disney animations with only 11 non-white characters, as of 2017. Because of the lack of POC in Disney animations and films, the uproar over Bailey’s casting comes from a lack of both awareness and familiarity. If Disney continues to diversify their casts in these films, the media and public may be more accustomed and accepting. All classics could use a more progressive shake-up. After all, what’s the point of a remake if nothing were to change? Unfortunately, it seems to be a culture shock in America to see a Black person play a role that has been famously white for decades. This is why the representation in “The Little Mermaid,” a film targeted toward children, is extremely important. It’s time for a generational change in which, one day, instead of the casting of a Black actress in a Disney film causing gossip, hate and controversy, representation will just be normal.
I think Disney’s remake of “The Little Mermaid” and the main role casting of Halle Bailey has the potential to spark change. There’s no doubt that her performance will be impressive, but it is unclear how the media will respond to her breakout performance. The remake can either be a major change in media for children and adults or just another version of “The Princess and the Frog” and “Soul.”
Madison Stolarski is a senior double-majoring in English and theatre.