Content Warning: mention and examples of racism, child abuse, The Holocaust (and denial of), #MeToo
By now, I am sure that everyone has heard about the absurd “controversy” surrounding the casting of the unbelievably talented and stunningly beautiful Halle Bailey as Ariel in the up-coming live action remake of Disney’s 1989 animated The Little Mermaid. There are a lot of very foolish hills to die on, but, by far, is probably one of the most stupid.
This isn’t the first time racists decided to die on the hill of not wanting Black faces or bodies in their (“their”) Little Mermaid. Back in 2017, I brought this up for the ‘Who Tells Your Story’ piece about whitewashing and representation, because in 2007, people were mad over Norm Lewis being cast of King Triton in the Broadway production. I mean, never mind the fact that Norm Lewis rocked that role. Never mind the fact that he looked and sounded amazing in that role, and none could have done it better.
Never mind the fact that these same people complaining about Halle are (probably) the same ones who really, truly think abysmal Emma Watson was a remotely decent Belle in the Beauty and the Beast soulless CGEyesore unworthy of the original animated film. (I say this as someone who doesn’t care for the animated film, but at least can recognize a masterpiece when they see one-- but that’s a conversation for another time.)
It’s true this new Little Mermaid adaptation, and the 1989 animated feature, detours from the original story, with a much happier ending, and gives vastly more agency than the Hans Christian Andersen original. (Although, in a touching twist, the original seems to be an allegory of Andersen’s own sexuality.) There have been a lot of (sophomoric, lazy, unnuanced) criticisms of the Disney adaptation, claiming that “she only got legs for some guy” (even though Ariel had repeatedly expressed longing to be part of the human world even before Prince Eric arrives in the picture, and saves him multiple times). Truly, there have been many criticisms of Disney adaptations over changes to stories from their source material, claims of sanitization and ‘Disney-fying.” Anyone who has actually seen older Disney films will note that, despite the absence of child murder, torture and canibalism, the Disney adaptations are… still pretty damn scary. I am not adverse on putting positive spins on tales as old as time originally designed to frighten and terrorize children for more modern tastes, and, therefore, relevance. (For the record, I am not a Disney apologist, and, while I enjoy Disney, enjoy both a critical lens and nuanced interpretations of media. Fake Wokeness is tiresome.)
I mean, never mind the fact that Black, and other people of colour, have had to sit through how many decades/ centuries/ eons of being routinely subjected to dehumanizing images of themselves in all forms of media since the Dawn of (Media) Time.
But, sure, pick this hill to die on.
In the Year of Our Lord 2019, there are a lot of more important things to worry about than some beautiful young woman with the voice of an angel who can hit a sustained G#6 being cast as a fictional mermaid, and yet, here the fuck we are.
You really wanna stay mad over a Black person portraying a magical half fish person? Stay mad. But may I, for a moment, direct your attention to the following examples of Black faces and bodies being shut out of their own narratives, both in fiction and real life (you should actually be mad over)?
Take Note of the Following:
Lil Nas X being shut out of the Country charts, and “outrage” over his “presence” in Country music, ignoring both the fact that Black artists are routinely restricted to “Black” music genres, and the awards in those categories routinely are rewarded to non-Black artists imitating Black styles, and real life cowboys predominantly being Black, Native and Mexican (Indio, specifically). People are really trying to get Wrangler to take away his collaboration with them. Hollywood whitewashed the Wild West, and none of these people seem to give a shit about that.
Lest we remind them: The real Lone Ranger was Black.
Elvis, one of the original culture vultures, built his entire career leeching off of Black artists.
Almost all modern pop music owes itself to Black American music, with almost no recognition or credit.
Innumerable ‘Hidden Figures,’ the Black women who literally moved history.
The erasure of the Black presence in the liberation of Dachau (and Buchenwald). What utterly disgraceful perversity that Black men, specifically Black American men, who would find themselves risking their lives while fighting the double war of the fight against the Nazis and segregation at home and abroad, ---only to be deliberately excluded from the narrative. This erasure has not only been challenged by Black veterans who participated, but by camp survivors, who had not only never seen Black people in real life before, but recognized that Black (and Brown) faces were signifiers of liberation.(That was how they were able to determine that they were Americans ---and not another German or European force.) (This was mentioned by Eli Wiesel.) We aren’t talking about “revisionist history,” we are talking about history, backed by eye-witness testimonies and photographic evidence (I’ve chosen not to directly link because of their sensitive nature).
These are only a small handful of examples, some more insidious than others.The inclusion of more serious examples was not done so flippantly, but to show the breadth at which this erasure and removal, and denial of credit and existence, happens--and what lengths people will go to maintain it. Obviously, I couldn’t list every single instance occurred, but hopefully provided enough of a spectrum to give you an idea. #RepresentationMatters has meaning that transcends deeper than the frivolousness of a hashtag. Not only do people need, and deserve, to see themselves appropriately and meaningfully depicted in media, but the world should be able to see them in that way, too.
If you believe that “representation” is flippant, and not intrinsically related to other, more heinous, forms of marginalization, and does not directly inform that marginalization, you are beyond misinformed; you are willfully ignorant. (You’re also probably one of the people having a tantrum over Black Ariel, soooooooooo…)
Hold up a mirror to the absolute and utter absurdity of feeling “erased” by Black Ariel. If you really, truly feel personally victimized by the existence Black Ariel, like the animated feature hasn’t been around for the last 30 years, and has no sign of waning in popularity any time soon, and when you have an entire plethora of other media to choose from to “see yourself,” you can stay mad. I’m sorry for you that almost the entire rest of media and representation caters to you, and it’s still not enough, and you can stay mad.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be over here sending the hopeful waves out into the Universe for Disney to cast Norm Lewis as King Triton in this live action adaptation, so that he can sing “If Only” with Halle Bailey, and I can cry my face off. Now that’s a hill to die on.
Further Reading and Watching:
Does Ariel Get Legs for a Guy? (Video Essay by Sarah/ Scrivener of Princess and the Scrivener)
Lil Nas X and ‘Trap Country’ (Video Essay by Sensei Aishitemasu)
‘Hidden Figures’ video essay playlist by Sensei Aishitemasu highlighting important Black women who have been ignored by history (“history”)
Cheyenne Jaz Wise (Super AMAZING Black cosplayer and pin-up who specializes in bad ass race bends like Princess Leia, Agent Carter and Poison Ivy)