Okay, I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone when I say that I love Disney movies. I grew up with them and still frequently watch them as an adult. But as an adult, I am now very much aware that Disney movies are by no means an unproblematic source of afternoon entertainment for the kiddos (or the grownups). Disney and Disney’s storytelling is sometimes very problematic and I believe that should be reflected on when watching these movies in order that we can learn from those issues which arise.
Disney (like the majority of media) has a resounding problem with under representing people of colour and other marginalised groups. In general, Disney characters are only not white when it matters to the plot, like Jasmin, Pocahontas or Mulan for example whose ethnicities are intrinsic in their stories. It took until 2009 for Disney to create their first black princess, Tiana in Princess and the Frog, who is based on a real woman of colour and whose ethnicity again matters to the story.
That said, around came last Friday when the announcement was made of who would play protagonist Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid who, in the 1989 original was white with bright red hair. The casting choice fell to Halle Bailey who is a woman of colour. What followed was an outcry on Twitter and the trending of the hashtag #NotMyAriel.
Since then, many people have added their opinion to the mix, some calling it confusing for children to know who that black lady on the screen is, others trying to argue that mermaids who live underwater where it is dark could not possibly produce enough pigment to be black in the first place (oh hello fake science used to back up the discrimination of ethnic groups, it’s you again.).
It is interesting to see how people are reaching for a scientific explanation to rule out the existence of black mermaids. You know, that completely fictitious species that is half person, half fish.
But science wasn’t the only concern for the unhappy #NotMyAriel people. Representation was another big one. The original story of The Little Mermaid was written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and therefore it is assumed that Ariel herself is Danish. And Danish people deserve their representation. White, red-haired Danish, apparently. What about the representation of Danish WoC?
The original story by Andersen has been, like many materials that Disney movies are based on, drastically changed for the 1989 adaptation. Yet, the fact that in Andersen’s description, Ariel was fair skinned with red hair is the basis to the argument that someone who looks like the 1989 Ariel should actually have been cast. But Ariel wasn’t the first iteration of a fictional character who looked different on screen than in the source material. That happens a lot. And what is even more interesting is that it happens a lot to non-white characters in the source material who are then portrayed by caucasians in the movie adaptations. A phenomenon that is called white-washing.
White-washing, a lot like racism, has to do with power as well as with structural and institutionalised hierarchy. As much as I, personally, do not believe in reversed racism (I do believe that People of Colour can discriminate against other PoCs or whites, but I do not believe that is exactly the same as the historically grown, institutionalised racism between the Global North and the Global South, but this is something for a different debate), I also do not believe that what happened with Ariel is reversed white-washing or black-washing as some call it.
White people in comparison to PoCs or other marginalised groups are so over-represented in media; there is such a multitude of stories about them that the few originally white characters that are portrayed by black people don’t change anything about their advantaged position. And this is not because stories by and about PoCs don’t exist. It is because of the limited number of those stories that get told via the very prominent and influential channels.
This is why I think there are more pressing issues to discuss around a woman of colour portraying Ariel. What made Disney go down that route? Is this to score some easy points in the diversity department? Are they going to address other representation issues in their original work from now on or is nothing further going to change? Is this a marketing ploy designed to spark controversy and get SJW, the Twitter community or more PoC into the cinema? Will there be more original content centred around marginalized groups now instead of only giving them what already exists? Is this real change or is this fake change to make them look good? This is a debate that I would like to have much rather than a debate about the skin colour of an anthropomorphic fish.
After all, Ariel is a fictitious creature that resides in a fictitious realm whose phenotype is not essential to her story which already deviates a lot from its original source material that was written in a time period where black representation was even worse than it is today. But this choice matters. This debate matters. Representation matters. Which is why we should all watch closely what Disney does in the future.