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‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’: The Dangers Of Disney’s Attempts at Representation

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“Disney’s Live-Action ‘Little Mermaid’ Casts Halle Bailey as Ariel” read Variety’s front page on July 3, 2019. These words sent waves throughout the expansive and dark waters of Twitter, conjuring up a villainous — arguably Ursula-like — tirade against the casting known as #NotMyAriel. Americans spent their Fourth of July debating whether a natural redhead must play the role of Ariel and raising questions about the hypothetical possibility of Black people realistically being mermaids. Regardless of the details, the clear outpouring of anti-Black rhetoric against Bailey revealed that many Americans want to protect their classic Disney tales and were uncomfortable with attempts to include people of color in the foundational stories of the “most magical place on Earth.”

Of course, this is not to say that this announcement was not a major win for Black girl representation. Halle Bailey is the first African American live-action Disney Princess ever, following in the footsteps of the original animated film “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) which featured actress and singer Anika Noni Rose as Princess Tiana.

Although “The Little Mermaid” presents an opportunity for impactful representation, Disney’s decision to remake white films with characters of color often fosters racism against the actors themselves. Disney must consider making original diverse content and anti-racism a priority not only through their casting but also through their production development. White audiences are sensitive to the traditions of their favorite characters, and without a holistic response from the corporation itself, actors like Bailey are left to deal with backlash by themselves.

In an interview two months after the announcement Bailey said, “I don't pay attention to the negativity; I just feel like this role is something bigger than me.” But perhaps two things can be true simultaneously. She's right –– her casting was monumental for Black women and girls — yet the burden of being a trailblazer requires unimaginable strength to carry on her own. She was only 19 at the time of her casting, with only five past acting credits.

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After the release of a teaser trailer for the film in early September, it is clear that Bailey’s Ariel is of the same merit as Jodi Benson’s original 1992 performance. With red locks and angelic vocals, she represents a new kind of Ariel, one which has already impacted the young girls she represents. Compilations of Black girls’ reactions to the trailer have gone viral online as an example of the power of authenticity and media representation, countering the overwhelming 1.5 million dislikes left on the trailer before dislikes were disabled by the Walt Disney Studios YouTube channel.

It may be easy for supporters of #NotMyAriel to code their anti-Blackness as concern for authenticity, but Disney has historically changed the ethnicity of characters, just rarely from caucasian to African American. The same complaints prompted by Bailey’s casting did not apply to Elizabeth Olsen’s casting as Romani character Wanda Maximoff or Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the Ancient One, a Tibetan character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A part of what guarded Olsen and Swinton from heavy ridicule for their casting was not only their whiteness but also the fact that their work was more or less original content. Instead of remaking movies that audiences have already grown fond of and are eager to defend, they rewrote themselves as the first on-screen iterations of their characters and thus were able to evade the same degree of criticism Bailey faced.

Disney has made advances in the diversity of their content, but remakes with actors of color put these actors under fire and create controversy that limits the success of their projects. Representation cannot be limited to the recycling of white characters and instead should be a top down effort to create accurate, moving, and original stories about people of color, both fantastical and realistic.

Heedless of the negative feedback, ABC announced this week that Afro-Filipina singer Gabriella “H.E.R.” Wilson will play Belle in the 30th Anniversary of “Beauty and Beast” in a blended live and animated special on air this December. The public’s response has been more positive than the one to Bailey’s casting, but the project is still missing the mark on successful representation. Why can’t Wilson play an original Afro-Filipina princess and show children a multicultural narrative? Disney has placed an imaginary barrier on the kind of stories it can tell, creating repercussions not just for audiences, but for the industry itself.

Without initiatives for increased development of diverse content, the opportunity for writers and producers of color to bring their stories into the mainstream becomes increasingly limited.

Remakes may require tweaking of intellectual property but are not transformative, allowing Disney to comfortably virtue signal while maintaining the whiteness of the institution itself. Ultimately, “The Little Mermaid” is still directed by a white man and produced by primarily white executives, meaning the considerations of including Black narratives was limited to the cast only. It is time for a top-down, racially diverse, original Disney movie. Audiences will soon need a new classic.

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