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While growing up in the 90s my favorite Disney movie was undoubtedly The Little Mermaid. It was released in 1989, and it was the first movie I saw in the theater. The Little Mermaid was my life. I knew all the songs. I had an Ariel doll and birthday cake. I wanted to be Ariel. I dreamed of being a mermaid when I went to the beach with my cousins, talked about Ariel nonstop, I even named my little brother Erick after the Prince. My brother is still sore over this, and he is in his 20s. Get the point? I was obsessed.
However, I look nothing like Ariel. Ariel is fair-skinned, red hair, petite build. I look nothing like the dear Disney princesses that were popular. I am tall, with broad shoulders, dark brown skin, and hair. I have a broad nose and almond eyes. As a multiracial Black and Indigenous kid, I grew up with little in the ways of positive representation in family and children’s media. Here we are, 30 years later, and we are just starting to see the diversity we need in media. However, when we get it, we have to deal with the racist backlash.
On July 3rd, 2019, Disney shook the whole Disney princess fan base by announcing that they cast Halle Bailey, a wonderfully talented young black actress, as Ariel in the live-action remake of the 1989 animated film. White fans (mostly white men who I seriously doubt even care) spoke out against the casting decision. The reaction is typical of when white fictional characters are then cast as Black or Brown in remakes or live-action adaptations. Prime example: when Anna Diop was cast as Starfire for the DC streaming show Titans or when they cast Candice Patton as Iris West in CW's The Flash. Overly violent reactions to black and brown actors have become typical. This aggressive type of toxic fandom has driven actors and actresses off of social media platforms and has detoured BIPOC folks from pursuing these critical roles.
So what's going on? Why are white folks mad about this casting and what is precisely their reasoning? In detail, let's look at them, let’s unpack all of their “reasons” not to like Halle Bailey as our Little Mermaid.
1. “Ariel can’t be Black. Hans Christian Anderson was Danish and the story takes place in Europe.”
Okay, so first off, Hans Christian Anderson didn’t invent Mermaid stories. Mermaid stories traditionally exist all over the world. My people (Chinook and Haida) possess countless stories of Mermaids, that are undoubtedly thousands of years older than Hans Christian Anderson’s rendering of a Mermaid tale. Also, at no point in the 1989 The Little Mermaid, film do they talk about the country they are in, Prince Eric never names his kingdom. Ariel, however, is undoubtedly from the mythical kingdom of Atlantica, not Denmark. Ariel herself isn’t Danish. Also, scholars believe that Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid as a metaphor for his own queerness. Again, has nothing to do with being Danish.
2. “Ariel can’t be black because of Science.”
Well, by this if you are saying that Ariel lived in the deep ocean she would naturally have pale skin, you're incorrect. She would either have clear skin or be bioluminescent (which would be flipping sweet as hell). Could you imagine a clear-skinned mermaid with death fangs and bioluminescent lights on her fins? Like that would be the best thing ever. I think this is the most absurd and racist of all of their “reasons.”
3. “You people already have Pocahontas and Tiana.”
Ariel is a fictional character that is not based on a real-life person or is about a real-life person. Her character, her story everything about her isn’t tied to a distinct culture. Her character isn’t tied to real-world history or real-world trauma. First let's address, Pocahontas. “Pocahontas,” whose proper name was Matoaka. Matoaka was the daughter of Cheif Wahunsenacawh she was born in Werowocomoco (a village located in what is now called Virginia.) Her people were apart of a confederacy of Algonquian nations. She was only 12 to 13 years of age when she was stolen from her people and taken to England, where she was raped and “married” to a wealthy White settler named John Rolfe and then died. Sick, away from her homeland, away from her people, and was treated as an object. Matoaka’s brief life was not filled with the love, magic, or adventure that the fictional representation of her by Disney. She was a victim of settler colonialism. As a kid, I didn’t enjoy Disney's Pocahontas mostly because of my cousins and I getting called “Pocahontas” not as a term of endearment, it was more like they were mocking us for being Native. There was this influx of people telling us about their “great Indian Princess Grandmothers.” When I got older my mother took the time to tell us the what really happened to Matoaka. It was heartbreaking to learn about her true life, what she and so many Indigenous women had to go through and the violence and fetishization we still have to deal with today. Ariel is nothing like Matoaka. Ariel is not a real person, Ariel didn’t get kidnapped, raped, and had to die in her captors land. Ariel’s descendants are not still fighting to been seen as real human beings.
Let’s talk about Tiana. Tiana is one of my favorite of the Disney Princesses. Everything About Tiana’s story is rooted in her identity and her experiences as a Black woman. She grew up in Jim Crow New Orleans. She lost her father to the first world war, her mother has to work for her rich white best friend as her seamstress. She is a Princess born into a world of racism and poverty. Tiana has to work not one, but multiple jobs to reach her goals, she is the only Disney Princess born in Poverty. Even Bell, she wasn’t wealthy, and she didn’t have to help her inventor father make money, they had a nice house. Bell pretty much just helped out and read books all day. Cinderella was born rich and then she was mentally and physically abused before becoming a princess. Even then, she didn’t have to combat the systemic racism that Tiana was faced with. The magic used in Tiana's story is based in voodoo/Hoodoo practices that have roots in African Indigenous Spiritual practices. The food that Tiana cooks is food born from class struggle and slavery, deeply rooted in her family's personal story. Part of the inspiration for Princess Tiana was the real-life chef Leah Chase; Leah Chase was known as the Queen of Creole cuisine. Tiana also spent the majority of her movie as a Frog. The Princess and the Frog has a run time of one hour and 38 mins, and Tiana spends over 80 mins of the movie as a frog. And at the end, she has to reform a broke Brown racially ambiguous Prince from a fictional kingdom, and they still have to "work" for their dreams. Like even Tiana's Prince Naveen gets the perks of just being a "Prince" plus he is all kind of problematic. For Tiana to become a Princess she had to realize she worked too much and that she needed was the love of a Prince she had to first reform. But I digress
Everything about Tiana is deeply rooted in her being a Black woman. Ariel struggle isn’t rooted in Jim Crow racism or the legacy of slavery. Ariel doesn’t have to fight against sexist/racist bank workers telling her she can’t have her lifelong dreams. Ariel identity isn’t connected with anything other than being a mermaid that desperately wants to know what humans are like, her only struggle is that her dad is overprotective.
4. “There's plenty of POC princesses. Having a Black girl as Ariel is unnecessary.”
In the established Disney canon, there are exactly 12 “official” Disney Princess. Now if we add Characters to this list that should be counted like Anna, Elsa, Sofia, Elena, Kida, Eilonwy and few others we get a total of 11 extras that could be considered “Princesses.” With the grand total of *23 characters that are either princess or are considered princess. Out of the 23, 14 of these are white, eight of them are non-white and one is not human. So out of the eight princesses that are BIPOC, we have Mulan, who isn’t a princess she a badass warrior and hero she saves her whole country. To me, calling Mulan a Princess is disrespectful. We have Tiana, which we already talked about how she spends most of her time as a frog. We have *Kida who isn’t even considered a Disney Princess (I’m honestly upset Kida is left out, she’s amazing), and she is a princess of *Atlantis, which depending on who you talk to is either a real place or a fictional one. There is Pochantas, which is historical fanfiction that is harmful to Native women. Princess Elena Of Avalor the Latinx princess, but she is not “offical.” Jasmine in the animated Aladin movie doesn’t get to do much and is treated like an object the whole movie. So that leaves us with Moana who is Indigenous Pacific islander, and instead of coming from one culture she is a combination of Indigenous Pacific islander cultures. But is considered, even with its flaws, to be one of the best representations of Indigenous Pacific Islanders in Media. And Last but not least Princess Shiri of Waconda, the smartest character in the Marvel universe. She is incredible and she was written with love and respect for the character and what she represents for young Black girls. So out of eight we really only have two. We have Moana and Shiri, and I personally count *Brandy in the 90s TV movie of Cinderella, so that makes three. We have three, three Princesses with no, to minimum negative aspects about them or their stories. That is our representation, that is not even proportionate to the other Disney characters.
In closing, people will invent any flimsy excuse to be horrible and racist, and that gaining diverse representation in the media is growing and becoming more of an accepted thing, we can see that, even when people are the dominant narrative in society, they are still fragile and it’s going to take a while for these behaviors to radically change. The good news is that people that grew up in the 80s and 90s that didn’t see themselves represented in the media are now the ones creating new stories and reimagining family and children's media. I predict that this new adaptation of The Little Mermaid will be amazing and will awaken a new generation of Mermaids. I can’t wait for the first trailer to be released, I will be writing more about this movie as more information becomes available.
*23 is a rough estimate of "Princess Like characters." I did not include characters like Star Butterfly in this count. Nor did I count all the side "Princesses" in "Sofia the First" because they were side characters that were often just plot devices for Sofia's character to save.
*Princess Kida is amazing and she deserves more recognition.
*I do not have any scientific proof to disprove or prove the existence of Atlantis. Believe what you want about that.
*The 90s adaptation of Cinderella is one of the best things to have ever graced our TV's and I'm sure if social media we around we would have seen a similar backlash.