‘The Little Mermaid’ Casting: Progress or Pandering?
“I think the spirit of a character is what really matters. What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts.”
The casting of an African-American actress as the lead role in the live-action remake of Disney’s classic The Little Mermaid set off a media firestorm this past week, with passionate arguments on both sides.
19-year old Halle Bailey was little known to the general public before last week, literally starting out as a Youtube star with her sister Chloe at age 11, going viral and getting a record deal via Beyonce—then being cast on the ABC series “Grown-ish”.
Now, she’s set to appear in her first feature as the title character of Ariel, based on the 1989 blockbuster animated feature.
Given how iconic the character is, fans were divided in their response to having a “black mermaid” that doesn’t resemble the fair-skinned redheaded underwater princess they’ve known and loved.
The hashtag #NotMyAriel has trended on Twitter, with users making arguments such as: “This is NOT about racism, we just want an Ariel that looks like the Ariel we love. Disney, stop being lazy and create new stories if you want more black representation.”
Indeed, it sounds reasonable that studios such as Disney could simply create new stories with black characters, rather than shoehorning them into existing source material.
Hollywood’s open secret though, is that it’s notoriously risk-averse to new material that isn’t a proven financial draw. This explains the rampant, shameless, cannibalistic outpouring of sequels, prequels, and remakes that has hypnotized movie studios for the past decade or so.
A prime example of Hollywood taking baby steps in the name of “diversity”, are remakes that simply switch the gender of characters such as 2016’s Ghostbusters, which was met with mixed responses from audiences and critics.
Disney did create their first black princess, Tiana, ten years ago in the animated feature The Princess and the Frog. The film was well-received by critics but a moderate success at the box office. In a typical Hollywood move, Disney seemingly redirected their resources elsewhere—creating only one more princess of a different ethnic background, with the 2016 blockbuster Moana.
There has also been very vocal support for the new casting of the Mermaid remake. The original voice of Ariel in the 1989 feature, Jodi Benson, publicly stated that “I think the spirit of a character is what really matters. What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts.”
Other celebrities such as music superstar Mariah Carey and actress Zendaya have also voiced support along with movie fans who simply argue that the famous fairy tale is pure fantasy and that mermaids have no ethnic background. Supporters also tout the importance of representation for historically underrepresented ethnicities.
Most recently, the Disney-owned television network Freeform issued a statement in defense of the casting—going so far as to say that although the original fairy tale was set in Denmark, “Danish mermaids can be black because Danish people can be black”.
Perhaps the repercussions of the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid, set to go into production in early 2020, won’t be as significant as moviegoers think—if the recent slew of live action remakes of Disney animated classics are any indication. Although 2017’s Beauty and the Beast remake was a financial success, it was no instant classic. This year’s live-action remakes Dumbo and Aladdin were panned and met with mixed reviews, respectively.
Fans on either side of the argument can take heart that a live remake has little bearing on the original animated classic, or revel in its status as an offshoot or alternative.