When I heard on July 3that Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel in Disney’s new The Little Mermaid reboot, the news shook me, to say the least. Bailey’s personality, look, singing voice, and acting ability all immediately clicked as a perfect match for what Disney should bring to this version. But the most prominent change is the fact that Halle Bailey is a black girl playing a fictional character formerly portrayed as white, which is huge. Finally, young black girls and grown black women like myself can see ourselves in such an iconic role on the big screen — and that kind of representation in The Little Mermaid is so important.
The response to Bailey’s casting has included both praise and negativity, the latter crossing the line into racist territory. In the days after the casting was announced, the hashtag #NotMyAriel trended on Twitter, and a number of Facebook groups circulated harmful memes. Non-POC (specifically, white people) were apparently very offended that Disney would ever think to cast a black girl as Ariel, even despite Jodi Benson (the actress who voiced her in the original animation) backing Bailey’s fit for the role. Many people claimed Bailey looked nothing like the character based on her skin color and locs, suggested that Disney should keep Ariel Danish, or argued that if they changed Princess Tiana's race, black people would be in an uproar.
To see yourself reflected with all your unique features, quirks, wishes and dreams, is deeply moving.
But for a generation that grew up watching Disney movies, inclusive representation is something many have wanted for a long time. To resemble a character that you've looked up to for so long, and to see yourself reflected with all your unique features, quirks, wishes and dreams, is deeply moving. For me, it's through representation and seeing myself in these heroes that I can truly grasp the messages of perseverance, self-confidence and self-love that shape my outlook on life.
I’ve seen firsthand what it can mean when you get to see yourself in your heroes.
When I was little, I watched The Little Mermaid almost every night. Ariel was a character I loved and related to; I loved to swim, and obviously I wished I was a mermaid. My best friend at the time was a redhead like Ariel, and I remember being jealous that her hair could blow in the wind, while mine, typically in braids, didn’t get the same effect. We would re-enact scenes from the movie in her pool, and she would always get that straight-out-of-water hair flip perfect, while my hair just didn't move the same way. We would both be mermaids, but she was always Ariel, and I was one of her friends. Nevertheless, I lived for all the Disney movies. I loved seeing the representation of princesses of color like Pocahontas, Mulan, and Princess Jasmine. Seeing skin tones on screen that were more similar to mine let me connect more with the storyline, so I truly felt like I was a part of the movie — like I was included. It was always easier to imagine myself as Princess Jasmine or Pocahontas than Ariel, especially when I never got to play her, even in make-believe.
Since then, I’ve seen firsthand what it can mean when you get to see yourself in your heroes. When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a doctor because my doctor was also black and it gave me the green light that it was OK if I did that, too. When I was 13, I wanted to be a track star after obsessing over Flo Jo. But most of all, I wanted to be a princess that found her prince and lived happily ever after. When Brandy played the lead in Cinderella in 1997, I was finally able to see a black girl get her happy ending — and that changed everything for me. I saw myself in the movie wholeheartedly. She had braids! She was black! She wore pretty dresses! She got her prince! I was now fully Cinderella and she was me, even more so than when I would wear my mermaid tail or put on my Princess Jasmine pajamas. Seeing myself represented both on and off screen in any capacity affected my ability to dream big.
For what it’s worth, Bailey’s casting isn’t the first time Ariel has been played by an actor of color, giving non-white children a chance to see themselves in the character. Diana Huey, who is of Japanese-American decent, played Ariel on Broadway from 2016 to 2017. Huey's introduction to playing a character formerly portrayed as white was similar to Bailey's, with people saying Disney should "keep it classic" — which many read to mean “white.”In an interview with The Wrap on July 5, Huey encouraged Bailey to keep her head up despite the attacks. "Stay positive and just remember, there’s more support than there is hatred. It’s an important battle to fight and she’s not alone,” she said. “I never had one kid in 300-something shows over the course of a year say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like Ariel.’”
Up until the early 1970s, the only black characters featured in cartoons were usually background characters or servants.
The evolution of racial inclusion in media has come a long way, but let's not forget it was a pretty low bar to begin with. Up until the early 1970s, black characters featured in cartoons were usually background characters or servants. The 1970s saw Valerie of Josie & the Pussycats as the first African-American female cartoon character on regular Saturday morning television. According to IMDB, out of the 57 animated films Disney put out between 1937 and 2009, zero had black female leads. When the first ever black Disney Princess, Tiana, came to life in 2009, it was a huge deal. The movie was so black — from the cast, to the location of New Orleans, to the Southern themed food and decor of the restaurant she owns by the end of the movie, fulfilling her and father's lifetime dream — that it inspired me: If Tiana could achieve her dreams, so could I.
Ten years after Tiana’s debut and 30 years after Ariel’s, representation in media has given us characters that reflect more kinds of communities and stories. It has a huge impact on kids and adults to finally see someone who looks like them on screen, whether they have dark skin, light skin, natural 4C hair, locs, weave or braids — think of Susie Carmichael of Rugrats, Doc McStuffins, Penny Proud of The Proud Family, Storm of the X-Men franchise, and Jodie Landon of Daria, to name a few. However, there’s still work to be done. Although per 2018 U.S. Census data only about 60% of Americans identify as non-Hispanic white, a full 86% of lead roles in major movies between 2011 and 2016 were white, per a 2018 report from UCLA’s College of Social Sciences.
I am beyond stoked to see The Little Mermaid when it hits theaters in 2021, and best believe my friends and I will be rolling deep to the movie theater. It's definitely the continued representation people of color need in the entertainment industry and beyond, especially for the younger generation to fall in love with. Bailey is going to send chills through the theatre when she sings "Part of Your World," and I'll be singing right along with her on opening night. See you there.