I know that I am not alone in being tired of Disney making live-action remakes of its classic animated movies. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. The issue is that Disney reliably butchers every single one of them. When I, along with many other people, deem a movie “butchered,” I mean that they are butchered along the lines of plot, dialogue, pacing, set design, and (if it is a musical) music. As you might have noticed, none of the criteria I have listed above is “race-appropriate casting.” For fairytales, that is rarely a relevant factor. Of course, I am referring to the outrage in response to Halle Bailey, a black woman, playing Ariel in the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” I will begin my analysis of this outrage by reiterating two facts that I used to believe were fairly self-evident.
- Mermaids are not real.
- Mermaids are not human.
This article will be operating based on these facts. If you are not in accord with them, please delay reading the rest of this article until you have convinced yourself that both are true.
These facts are also why I will not be going into the specifics of the original story, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. All you need to know is that Danish culture is not relevant to the story. “The Little Mermaid” is not the same kind of story as “Mulan,” for example, who is a fictional Chinese person from a culturally significant legend that has existed for more than a thousand years.
I have heard many arguments against Bailey playing the protagonist, all of which disregard one or both of the two truths listed above. I have yet to find an argument that does not, and I am confident that I never will. Thus, I will not belabor the point that Halle Bailey is just as qualified for the role of the Little Mermaid as anyone else. Instead, I will write about the intersection between racism and fiction, which I believe the backlash truly stems from.
We humans are very protective of our different legends and fairytales, and understandably so. From the time humans first appeared, stories were what we used to transmit culturally specific values, structure society and government, facilitate our transition from childhood to adulthood, and give us a sense of certainty in a very uncertain world. However, as mentioned above, the foundation of “The Little Mermaid” is not Danish culture and society. Instead, the titular mermaid hails from a fictional underwater kingdom. So what culture are the people opposed to Bailey’s casting claiming warrants protection?
In short, the answer is a mythical unified “white” (often medieval) European culture. We can see this glorification of this myth everywhere. Just think of the unwanted ads you may have skipped when trying to watch a Youtube video, or have had to hastily close out of when pirating a movie on an illegal website. The hook is almost always big-breasted, curvaceous white maidens, scantily clad in tight dresses or, more accurately, rags. White society portrays these women as a cultural staple, a pinnacle of femininity that everyone is expected to idolize. Never mind the fact that medieval Europe was a cesspool of disease, poverty, and violence, and also the fact that “white” did not exist in those days, as race is an extremely recent human construct. Clearly, “The Little Mermaid” casting objectors don’t really care about history or culture. They just don’t like black people.
Fantasy has become a way for white American society to create worlds in which black people do not exist. In these places, white conservatives want to find solace from “woke” media, so they do not have to change their beliefs and behaviors in order to accommodate others. So, when the titular character of a popular fairytale happens to be portrayed by a black person, these people don’t see it as an actor, who happens to be black, playing a role. They see it as an invasion. The racist memes being circulated in right wing/conservative online spaces are emotionally charged reactions to what they view as an attack on their families’ generations-old tradition of doing and saying whatever vile things they want without repercussion. Black people have begun haunting them in their waking lives, which scares them.
So, why is Bailey’s casting significant to black people? Why are we seeing viral videos circulating of little black girls excitedly exclaiming, “Wow, she’s black!”? The answer is simple: after growing up rarely seeing yourself represented (well) in popular media, it makes you happy to see yourself in such an iconic character. When all the media you consume does not contain people that look remotely like you, you don’t have the tools to imagine yourself in various positions and situations. Because of this, it becomes difficult to see yourself in your own imagination; when you cannot see yourself represented in your own mind, it’s easy to believe you are as invisible as people treat you. It fosters low self esteem, and in extreme cases, self-hatred. This is why fantasy is important. The mind is everything; all reality and perception starts in the mind. When you exist in your mind and the minds of others, you can start to be treated as if you are an individual. These little girls’ happiness has everything to do with visibility, and nothing to do with weird identity politics.
Objectors do not want their children to have to use just a fraction of the imagination black children have had to use to relate to characters who don’t look like themselves in any way. They don’t want their children to see that femininity comes in all skin colors. To them, the singing crab can be black, but not a beautiful mythical creature who grapples with issues of agency and independence, basic human characteristics that have systematically been denied to black people. They simply refuse to venture to think that such a reality exists.
This worldview ultimately hurts white consumers of media the most. Imagine not being able to enjoy a remake of a childhood favorite of yours because the character is played by an actor or actress is visibly of sub-Saharan African descent. It must be a miserable life. Whether you like it or not, black people have been on this Earth for millions of years and will continue to be here until the end of the human species. This is our world too, and we are a part of it.
Let’s get back to critiquing movies on the basis of the acting and dialogue, not over some fairytale identity that never existed.