Black Ariel: Casting a New Mermaid


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As I was browsing through social media this morning, I stumbled into a series of “Disney-Inspired” mock posters, no doubt designed to make fun of, or criticize, Disney’s casting choice for The Little Mermaid. While in the first Disney film Ariel was drawn as a white, blue-eyed redhead, the casting for the live-action adaptation that we have all been expected since Disney began dabbling in the creation of a “Disney Cinematic Universe” was Halle Bailey, a young R&B singer and one half of the Chloe X Halle duo. She also happens to have black skin.

Predictably, this set the Internet ablaze, with many saying that they would boycott the film and others calling Disney racist while others still praised the company for its forward-thinking casting and sense of inclusiveness. These mock posters I stumbled into were part of this reactionary movement, and while they might *seem* at first as a “funny” jab from the anti-Halle camp towards Disney, these posters actually say a lot more about the mindset of those who created them and how they see media and media representation than they say about Disney. These posters fail to take into consideration everything that makes the characters who and what they are, and everything that makes Ariel who and what she is. In his/her haste to hunt for lulz, the creators of the posters show a deep misunderstanding of identity, character design, storytelling, and narrative development.

Let’s consider: if we absolutely had to keep three things that make Ariel Ariel, what would they be? The first one would probably be the fact that she’s a mermaid. The second one that she can sing. The third one would likely be her personality – a mixture of curiosity, naivete, and innocence. These three things are what drive Ariel’s development as a character and what move the film’s narrative forward. In casting a black actress for the role, none of these things have been changed. There might be setting or narrative-based concerns that could be raised about a black Ariel (and I may address those, and how to fix them, at a latter date) but changing how Ariel looks does not fundamentally change who she is or how she behaves.

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Now let’s consider the posters. The first poster, Albino Pocahontas, uses an albino model as Pocahontas. Although I would have gone with a different model – ideally an albino Native American – of all the posters this is the one that works to some extent as a parallel for the Little Mermaid casting. Pocahontas’ traits are that she was a Native American princess (or so some historians argue) who was in tune with nature, the music thing, and her personality (curious, adventurous, etc). The key question here is – can there be albino Native American women? Absolutely. Although they were not in Pocahonta’s tribe (the Pamukey), there have been records, although admittedly rare, of white Native American people in the Zuni and Hopi tribes. This means that an albino Pocahontas is absolutely possible, just like under the right narrative circumstances a black Ariel would work. I know that my sister (who happens to have Native American heritage), whose kid is albino, would love to see her daughter represented as a Disney princess.

65792129_702335043523940_1442676010033086464_nNow, while this first poster hits the mark, the others don’t. What makes Mulan Mulan is her Chinese heritage and her strong personality. The fact that she’s a woman trying to survive in the military world of men is what drives the story forward. Turning Mulan into a man (regardless of race) would simply make it Not-Mulan. This is not an aesthetic change, as it is to cast a black Ariel or as it would be to cast an albino Pocahontas. This is a change that fundamentally alters the core of the character and would simply take away all reasons for there to be a story. Mulan’s story, again, is about a woman struggling to survive in a world of men’s military fighting in China circa 500 A.D. This is not a commentary on Mulan’s skin color – they could cast a dark-skinned Chinese actress to play Mulan. There are records of dark-skinned Chinese people in the literature (see: The Blacks of Premodern China), and to make Mulan have this kind of heritage would be no trouble at all. Making her a man, however, would take away all reason for there to be a movie in the first place.

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Rapunzel’s and Peter Pan’s posters are just ridiculous. Peter Pan’s whole thing is that he can’t grow old, while Rapunzel’s thing is that she has really long magical hair. Taking away either of these things would take away any point to making the story. Disney could change Peter Pan’s race easily. There have been black people and Muslims living in London since well before the early 20th century when Peter Pan takes place. There are plenty of records of Victorian Muslims, Black Victorians, Afro-Caribbean Victorians, East Asian Victorians, and Chinese Victorians in 19th century London. Indeed, changing Peter’s race would be super easy. Barely an inconvenience. The same is true with 19th century East Germany, where Rapunzel was published. There were afro-Germans, Muslim Germans, Turkish Germans, etc. Having a Turkish Muslim Rapunzel would not be an issue. Having a bald one, however, would.

And that takes us to the crux of the issue. To many of those reactionaries speaking out against a black Ariel, specially those like whoever made these fake posters, Disney characters are not characters. They’re just stereotypes. The mindset of this kind of person is one where when they see Ariel they don’t see a rich character who has to overcome adversity for the sake of love. They see “White Woman.” They don’t see Moana as an entity who faces the death of a loved one and has to overcome adversity by fighting literal gods and who comes out stronger for it on the other side. They see “Brown Woman.” It’s the same kind of uncritical mindset that reduces both the world’s foremost cute dogfighting simulator (Pokemon) and a piece of interactive high art that harshly criticizes discrimination while raising red flags about an AI apocalypse (Detroit: Become Human) into “it’s just a game bro” – and it’s why we need more media literacy.

So, what’s the TL:DR?

A black Ariel is ok. Y’all need to chill.

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Oh and hey, I will say this: I’m not opposed to changing the Aristocats into the Aristodogs. Dogs are the best.

About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on July 4, 2019, in Film Commentary, Media Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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