Actively disliking Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid is a racist act
July 4th this year felt like a big day. Stranger Things was on everyone’s television sets, Americans were celebrating their Independence and Disney announced Halle Bailey was set to play Ariel in the new Little Mermaid live action film. The latter felt like the cherry on top for the day. Bailey is a great singer (half of the sister duo Halle x Chloe), looks like a mermaid and has fantastic hair. So it is no surprise when people outwardly express their dislike for the casting choice, their sentences mostly start with “I’m not racist, but-.” Let us explore why this is most likely racist, and even if not, actively voicing their disagreement with Disney turns into a racist act in itself.
Possibly the most used argument on the internet right now under the hashtag #NotMyAriel is that a black Little Mermaid is not faithful to the original Hans Cristian Andersen story. Well, neither is the beloved cartoon. The true tale has no happy ending and definitely does not include the Jamaican crab Sebastian, but that is not bothering the literary purists too much. In fact, the only thing that seems to be an unacceptable deviation from the original is the mermaid’s skin colour. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the cartoon film does somehow take place in Denmark – and somehow Sebastian found his way swimming from the Caribbean to Denmark, mermaids could be black because people living there can be black. Let alone mermaids who sing Jamaican songs!
“How would you like it if Moana was played by someone white, then?” is heard as an echo at the back of twitter. Well, that would be called whitewashing and it has been done before many times. Aloha (2015), The Last Airbender (2010), Argo (2012), Prince of Persia (2010) and The Lone Ranger (2013) are just a few examples. The reason it is different is actually quite simple. In all of these examples, the race of the characters is important to the story. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s skin colour is of no actual consequence to anything within the storyline. What people are implying by using this argument is that the default should be white people; any other race is there when it is absolutely essential (and sometimes not even then).
The third argument is how it is ruining people’s childhoods. I find it strange to go into this one, because if you truly believe that watching someone black play a beloved character ruins it for you – boy, do you see how that sounds? First, they can always watch the cartoon again if they want redhead representation so badly; it’s the magic of film! Secondly, don’t black little girls deserve the chance to have someone like them to look up to just as they did?
Dear reader, I want us to try something. Do this right now: think of 10 white characters off the top of your head. Got it? Now do it with characters of colour. Which one was harder? In my opinion, it is obvious that there is still something seriously wrong with representation in film.
Whether or not the people disagreeing with the casting believe themselves be racist, openly disapproving of Disney’s enlightened choice turns into a racist act itself. When making the choice, Disney knew they would get complaints. They also knew most -if not all- would come from a place of racism. An individual small complaint will not make a difference, rather it becomes a part of a sea of racism that reaches both Disney and Halle Bailey. Let’s make something clear: if you have to add “I’m not a racist, but-“ to the front of your sentence, maybe you should think long and hard before you say it.
Fanart by @lady_nefertitii on Instagram.