You may have heard that Disney has hired African-American actress Halle Bailey, one half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, to play Ariel in the upcoming live action-CGI remake of The Little Mermaid. If they were trying to create publicity for the film, which is scheduled to start shooting in 2020, they certainly got it.
There were the predictable responses about how wonderful it is to see a Disney princess played by a person of color. It’s about time, the responses said. They added it would be great that young black girls would have someone who looks like them as a Disney princess.
There were others who objected to the choice. They said Ariel was a red-haired white girl in the 1989 animated film, and she should continue to be one. They noted the Scandinavian roots of the story, and said that Ariel should be portrayed as white.
The response to these objections can be summed up like this: “Disney has had only one black princess in over 80 years. You had your turns, now it’s our turn. She’s a fictional character, so you can’t say what race she is. Get over it, and quit crying white tears, you spoiled, racist brats!!”
Maybe the people who are objecting aren’t so much against black characters as they don’t like to see such a major change to a character they know and love.
You have to understand the mindset here. It goes something like this: there have so many white characters in Western culture that’s okay and justified to change a white character to a person of color. However, there have been so few characters who have been people of color that to change one of these characters into a white person is “whitewashing” and a big no-no.
I can understand this mindset. I can also understand people who don’t like see big changes to characters they’ve come to know and care about.
Marvel has become known for changing the races of established characters. In the Fantastic Four film from a few years ago, fans objected when Johnny Storm, the human torch, was played by a black actor. In the more recent Spiderman: Homecoming, a character played by Zendaya, a black actress, was referred to as “M.J.” In the comic books, M.J. is Peter Parker’s love interest, and she’s always been played as a red-haired white woman.
Marvel is far from alone. There were objections when Halle Berry (the other Halle) was cast as Catwoman a while back. Fans seemed to forget that Eartha Kitt, a black actress, played Catwoman in a story in the campy Batman TV series from the 1960s. She was just as purr-fect for the part as Julie Newmar.
Some would argue that such changes are needed as they reflect the changing demographics of our nation. Others would say we need new characters who are people of color. It’s always a tricky thing to go changing characters that have already been established.
Some might ask if Disney will change Snow White’s race if they ever do a remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Actually, someone already did that. In 1943, Warner Bros. produced a now infamous cartoon called Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. It was a parody of Disney’s feature with an urban ghetto setting, an all-black cast, and hot jazz on the soundtrack. It was fast and funny and full of sexual innuendo. It is also considered one of the most racist cartoons ever made, with stereotypes by the dozen. This is one cartoon you won’t see on Saturday morning TV.
I really don’t know what to make of a black actress playing Ariel, as I can understand both sides. Of course, just because you will always think of Ariel as a redhead doesn’t mean you won’t think Bailey will do a fine job in the role. It’s possible to appreciate both. Maybe that’s how we should look at it. There doesn’t need to be “winners” and “losers” here.
The remake of The Little Mermaid could be as good as or better than the 1989 original. That would be going against the track record of Disney’s live action-CGI remakes of their animated classics, but that’s for another editorial.