Monday, March 30

Second Take: Black lead in ‘Little Mermaid’ remake brings welcome tide of representation

Actress Halle Bailey was recently cast as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of the 1989 animated film, "The Little Mermaid." (Courtesy of Dylan Bonner)

Looks like dreads are the new red.

“Grown-ish” actress Halle Bailey and her signature locks have been cast as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of the 1989 classic, “The Little Mermaid.”

The news of Bailey’s casting ran like wildfire across the internet after director Rob Marshall announced that Bailey, one half of the R&B sister duo Chloe x Halle, would star as the titular character. Though Bailey doesn’t have the fair skin, blue eyes or red hair traditionally associated with the role, Marshall said in a statement that she embodied all the character traits Ariel represents. He also added that her stellar singing voice, which has been honed by Beyoncé’s tutelage, made her casting an obvious choice.

However, not everyone shared Marshall’s enthusiasm. Social media became a podium for users to debate whether Ariel’s appearance is a necessary trait for her real-life counterpart. Many believe that changing Ariel’s appearance damages how viewers remember the original film – if Ariel is reimagined as a black woman, all of the memories made with her original likeness will become dissonant.

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Across the divide, many support the casting, as it promotes diversity in the franchise without hindering the story. Unlike “Mulan” and “Moana” – movies about princesses whose cultures are deeply integral to the plot – Ariel’s story is simply a romance between star-crossed lovers. In the eyes of Bailey’s supporters, being a black girl with dreads or a redheaded Dane has no effect on the story and its message.

Both sides have vocalized their own desires for the film, whether that be the preservation of a classic tale or the progression into a whole new, diverse world. While the argument regarding how Bailey’s casting could disrupt Ariel’s legacy is relatable, it is also irrelevant.

Ariel’s signature look and vocals might have captivated American audiences back in 1989, but today’s media – much like today’s Ariel – looks vastly different than that of the late ’80s. Disney has already made great strides to produce stories for today’s more diverse, forward-thinking audience by introducing the first Polynesian princess, LeFou’s homosexual innuendos in the 2017 remake of “Beauty and the Beast” and the first black lead to a Disney-produced Marvel film.

Choosing Bailey as the new Ariel is simply another effort on Disney’s part to cater to the fans who have been notoriously underrepresented in nearly a century’s worth of films.

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For those who feel as though their childhood will be ruined by seeing Bailey as the underwater princess instead of Madelaine Petsch or Holland Roden – two actresses that #NotMyAriel Twitter has called for – it is important to remember that there are several other white mermaids to reminisce upon. The teens of “H2O: Just Add Water” and “Aquamarine” instantly come to mind. Mera (Amber Heard) from “Aquaman” is even a redhead, if the hair is a must for their ideal version of a mermaid.

White children have clearly been able to relate to a number of mermaids growing up, so an underwater adventure featuring people of color is more than overdue.

It all boils down to this: Those who feel as though their nostalgic memories are being torn apart fail to contemplate whether little girls of color had the opportunity to make those memories in the first place. How many mermaids of color can be quickly brought to mind? For most, the answer is few to none. Diversity isn’t accomplished by simply putting more minorities on screen. It is accomplished by putting them in roles they are not traditionally seen in.

Bailey’s casting may seem unusual, but her voice and demeanor are gracefully Ariel in every way. Fans of Ariel should hold the character close to their hearts because of her sweetness and endearing curiosity – not just her pale skin. So, before claiming that she is “not your Ariel,” fans should decide whether their love for Ariel stems from her kindness and generosity, or if it is only skin deep.

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  • Katherina

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  • Christopher Hull

    Oh… Because Mulan and Moana are “foreign” to you and therefore have to be cast with race identity in mind, a Dutch story, written by a Dutch person, that is an important part of Dutch literature is open to retelling? I agree 100% that Disney, as a corporation, has been guilty of racism and white supremacist story telling. But it is also racist to imply that Western European stories, that reflect that particular world view are fair game for reimagining simply because a racist company wants to clean up its historical image. This is actually more blatantly racist. She’s a talented artist and a beautiful young girl but she isn’t the representation of that character that film calls for. For a stage play you can get away with color blind casting. Film, however, is less forgiving and, in order to be legitimate, casting is important. I’m sure Disney’s movie will be beautiful and I’m sure she will be good in it. But the theft of someone else’s cultural history is wrong.

  • Richard C

    And let’s not forget that a significant segment of social media keyboard cops initially confused Halle Berry with Halle Bailey.