I remember the first round of #NotMyAriel backlash. In 2019, Disney announced that singer and actor Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel in the live-action recreation of its beloved classic, The Little Mermaid. In response, racists took to Twitter to declare that a Black mermaid would ruin the movie and traumatize their children. As a Black woman and a big fan of Chloe x Halle, my initial reaction to the casting choice was pure joy. My excitement was interrupted — not entirely stolen, but still affected — by the way #NotMyAriel went viral, but I’m happy to report that when the long-awaited teaser trailer for The Little Mermaid was released on Sept. 9, something else took over the internet. Of course, seeing a Black mermaid upset the haters, but more importantly, it created the biggest influx of Black girl joy I’ve seen on social media in a long time.
The teaser trailer features a snippet of Bailey as Ariel, floating serenely in her secret treasure grotto. Her soft ginger-colored locs move through the water and frame her face as she sings a portion of the iconic “Part of Your World.” Even though folks have known a Black mermaid was hitting the big screen for over three years, seeing Bailey in the role was powerful. Black parents across the country began posting videos of their daughters’ elated reactions to seeing themselves represented as an IRL version of one of Disney’s most beloved princesses.
Aja Johnson, a 32-year-old mom in San Antonio, Texas, is one such parent. On Sept. 10, Johnson shared a TikTok video with her 250,000 followers of her youngest daughter’s elated reaction to seeing Halle Bailey as Ariel. Upon seeing the red-haired, Black mermaid, three-year-old Airess exclaims, “She’s brown like me!” The little girl lights up and it’s a beautiful moment.
“She had been toting this Ariel doll around for a while,” Johnson tells me, “so she's been obsessed with The Little Mermaid. When I showed her the trailer, you saw her reaction, [but] she was just so excited to see somebody that looked like her.”
Black women weren’t represented in the media when Johnson was growing up, and she hopes her children will have more opportunities to see actors that look like them. “I want my girls to know that whatever they want to be in life they can be [and that] there's there's no limit,” she shares.
Johnson recorded the video because she knew the trailer would delight her daughter and she wanted to capture the excited reaction, but decided to post it on TikTok as a means of spreading the joy and highlighting the importance of representation in real-time. “Representation really does matter for a child, even at the age of three. I wanted more of the world to see how much of an impact [this has on] a little brown girl,” says Johson.
Like Johnson, Dariana Fleming, a mom and founder of skincare brand Natural by Dari in Atlanta, Georgia, says she wanted her daughters Rylie, 2, and McKenzie, 4, to finally be able to see themselves represented through Black Disney characters. She says seeing Bailey as Ariel helped her daughters learn that race shouldn’t be something they think of as limiting.
“Anything is possible,” says Fleming. “[Bailey] got discovered singing on YouTube with her sister. Now she’s playing [Ariel in] the Little Mermaid, one of the biggest Disney movies of all time. She is making a huge impact for this generation.” Fleming also hopes critics will have a change of heart and see the importance of Bailey playing this part.
“Having [the] Little Mermaid reimagined [as] a Black woman can throw people off,” says Fleming. “However, all the positive reactions [Bailey] is getting from all of these young little Black and brown girls is an example of how diversity matters.”
Some of the viral videos of reactions, like the one posted by TikTok user @armlina, show that it isn’t just mothers and young children getting a serotonin boost from this teaser trailer. It mattered to me like it mattered to Angel Davis, a Gen Z model and student at New York University. Davis felt the same happiness I experienced when watching the viral videos of Black girls seeing an Ariel that looks like them for the first time. “It was just so beautiful,” says Davis. “Their smiles are so genuine.”
It made her reflect on how this kind of representation would’ve impacted the way she saw herself amongst white peers. “If I saw what I [looked] like in the mirror on TV, more than once in a blue moon... I think I would have understood that being a Black girl is normal,” says Davis, “instead of wanting to change my hair texture or wishing I was lighter.”
Despite the haters, The Little Mermaid teaser is a cause for celebration. The outpouring of Black girl joy on social media struck a chord with me because the lack of Black representation in children’s movies and TV shows shaped one of my first experiences with racism.
Growing up, my favorite television character was Hannah Montana. One year I, of course, wanted to be her for Halloween. Several other girls at my primarily white elementary school had also decided to be the pop star, but instead of bonding over our shared obsession with the singer, one of my fellow Hannah Montana lovers told me that I couldn’t be the character because I was Black. That moment has stuck with me forever and cements why race should never be any character’s defining trait, especially for children.
Hopefully, Bailey’s role as Ariel in The Little Mermaid will show the next generation of Black girls that they are worthy of being princesses. If nothing else, the viral response of hundreds of Black children literally overwhelmed with happiness was a beautiful way to start September. When Black actors are cast in roles that all children love and look up to, it makes a difference. When kids see that they can be part of the worlds they see in movies, it makes magic happen.