Does Feeling Angry About a Black Little Mermaid Mean You Are Racist?

Does Feeling Angry About a Black Little Mermaid Mean You Are Racist? July 7, 2019
Disney & Wikipedia

The Mouse (Mickey Mouse) made racial waves with the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s Live action film, The Little Mermaid.

On one hand, people across race celebrate increasing diversity in family entertainment. These individuals welcome expanding our perspectives to include a Black mermaid. On the other hand, numerous people express disappointment and anger that Ariel will not feature a White woman with red hair, as in the earlier Disney film.

The majority of opinions about the angry reactions point to racist motives. Is it this simple?

Does feeling angry about the change in casting automatically prove that a person is racist? Let us explore.

When You Are Big(oted) Mad

For a considerable number of people, who are mad—big mad—at Disney’s casting of a Black mermaid, their anger is rooted in racism. As for Black people, it is our internalized racism.

The critiques range from conspiracy theories to the typical “I’m not racist because I have an opinion that happens to be rooted  in racism” arguments. Then there is the blatantly proud bigoted anger.

The reverse racism arguments reflect the typical colorblind racist discourse that sounds logical to mostly people who share these beliefs.

Similarly, the arguments about discrimination against red heads (read: White women with red hair), as if Black women who are gingers are nonexistent, is a strained attempt to appear rational without being seen as racist.

The same applies to rebuttals about literary and historical accuracy in keeping with the Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Are these individuals upset about cultural appropriation from Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC)?

Do they vocalize their outrage at the persistent intellectual and creative theft of BIPOC? Do they have the same urgency when White people of different ages don Blackface?

I am asking for a friend and yours truly. More than likely, we shall hear a Simon & Garfunkel sound of silence with notes of crickets chirping.

Furthermore, biological arguments about the impossibility of a Black person  (or a person with darker skin) being a mermaid due to environmental conditions of limited sunlight and living underwater are a nod to scientific racism. Once upon a time, head sizes were a factor to prove racial superiority and inferiority.

Are these individuals going to return to craniology for casting mythical creatures, too?

Anger=Racist… Not So Fast

It has been a common internet practice to lump everyone who is upset in one category of bigotry without hearing them out because of the sea of  hidden and overt biases informing most of the critiques.

Still, feeling angry about a Black mermaid character is not absolute proof of  bonafide bigotry.

Different people might want Disney to explore more folklore or create new stories with a diverse characters instead of the appearance of substituting White characters with People of Color.

Numbers of people might feel concerned about the casting decision becoming a way to justify racial erasure in the arts.

For example, a common argument questions the acceptability of replacing Black characters with White ones, is a valid argument. For example, if Lin-Manuel Miranda can play Alexander Hamilton in a Broadway play, can a White woman play Frederick Douglass without backlash?

Are the people who are ready for a Black Superman ready for a White Panther from Caukanda?

The troubling logic behind these questions assumes an established even and equitable playing field to justify this one-to-one switch in racial casting. The use of colorblind casting can ignore the racial disparities and anti-African American and anti-Black racism within the arts.

The film and theatre industries have not remedied the racial disparity in casting enough to justify casting White performers in the already fewer roles offered to Black and Nonwhite performers. Hopefully, the film and theatre industries will have/keep this in mind in future projects.

As another reason why anger does not prove racist intentions, it is human for people to prefer keeping things the way they remember them.

Change can be tough, especially when we have emotional and nostalgic connections to stories, places, food, or songs.

For example, I have observed a series of hilarious online discussions and memes about playing Beyoncès “Before I Let Go” and the original Franky Beverly and Maze version at Black family cookouts and reunions. Despite an appreciation of both works, various Black individuals will lovingly “fight to the finish” for the original to have a permanent seat of honor at the music table.

I admit this playful cultural discourse does not have the same weight as disrupting the ways Whiteness occupies the visual imagination within the arts and cinema. To pivot away from a White standards in media challenges the popular media constructions of White as normal, acceptable, beautiful, and worthy.

Therefore, it is important to evaluate or explore why we feel upset, without relying on faux “rational” explanations to shield what might be our racial biases. It will help us to discern if our anger stems from an unacknowledged alignment with the a racist order of things.

The Mythical Reality: Mermaids are Diverse

Masses of people believe that the only mermaid myth involves a character who is part White woman and part fish.

Yet, mermaid mythology predates the Danish fairytale written in the early 1800s by Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Mermaid is not the first and only mermaid tale.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species. Magical female figures first appear in cave paintings in the late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period some 30,000 years ago, when modern humans  gained dominion over the land and, presumably, began to sail the seas. Half-human creatures, called chimeras, also abound in mythology — in addition to mermaids, there were wise centaurs, wild satyrs, and frightful minotaurs, to name but a few.

Is it time for a family-friendly Paleo Mermaid film? Mermaid stories span the globe with intriguing and evolving narratives.

Suvannamacha is a Southeast Asian or Thai mermaid princess. The Cambodian folktale of “Hanuman and Sovann Macha” translates to “The Monkey and The Mermaid.” Various mermaid tales of Matsyāṅganā exist, including ones where she begins as fisherman’s daughter or daughter of a King.

The Yoruba goddess of Yemayá lives in the ocean, while her sister Oshún dwells in her rivers. Mami Wata is a water deity/spirit found and worshipped throughout the continent of Africa.

In Australia, the yawkyawk is an Aboriginal deity with mermaid like forms. In Japanese folklore, the Ningyo is a human half fish entity with mystical powers, who vary in its appearance and interactions with humans.

Nyai Roro Kidul is Spirit Queen of the Indian Ocean with West Javanese roots with contemporary tales of visits and appearances at the Pelabuhan Ratu Resort. In South America, the Amazonian Iara or Yara mermaid myth has roots among the Guaraní people.

Mermaids or water goddesses are not fixed stories or characters. They symbolize of fluidity of people, spirituality, places, and identities.

If we wanted to, we can spend our entire lives discovering and learning about mermaid folklore.

The arts and media are powerful forces for shaping, guiding, challenging, and reinforcing sociocultural ideas across local and global contexts.

We have another moment where we can expand imaginations and emotional capacity about representation in media, film, theatre, and the creative arts through folklore.

What are your thoughts about Disney casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid?

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  • John Beasley

    I’m not any more upset about black Ariel than I am about any of these live action/CG animated Disney remakes. My wife and I detest all these cheap remakes that are both a way for Disney to score some quick bucks and re-write their artistic past so that they can be more ‘woke.’ The CG animation, while more detailed, can’t compare with the expressiveness and artistry that went into even the b-grade Disney films. It’s a tour-de-force in the demonstration that Disney has no new ideas, and can only serve up soul-less corrupted versions of formerly good franchises, whether it’s Star Wars, Marvel, or Princesses.

    In this particular case, doesn’t it rub you the wrong way that they made the princess of the primitive kingdom black? Are we going to get a whole movie about a black woman who wants to be with a white guy so badly that she’s willing to give up her voice and her family for him? To avoid that unfortunate implication, Prince Eric will have to be black, too, in which case it won’t make sense to set the film in Denmark, but rather in Ethiopia or Morocco or somewhere similar, which is fine – but it won’t bear any more than a passing resemblance to the original, and anyone expecting to get that experience will be disappointed.

    I’m sure the actress herself is just fine. She doesn’t stand a chance of matching Glen Keane’s loving impression of his daughter brought to life by a team of master animators, but neither have any of these other leads come close to their animated counterparts. I like Emma Watson, but she’s a relatively charmless Belle, and Will Smith is funny but his Genie is dull compared to the original.

    I certainly have no intention of showing this film to my pale, red-headed daughters, or buying any merchandise. We’ll keep hoarding our second-hand DVDs of the real versions and weather this second animation dark age.

  • Kate Johnson

    Your “real version” actually bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the original story. In fact, virtually the only thing they took from the original story was the title. The original is a beautiful story about sacrificial love. The Disney version is nothing but mundane, mindless, fantasy drivel with no meaning or message. They made it pablum. It breaks my heart to see what they did to the story. Especially when they could have done it properly instead of betraying everyone who grew up loving that story and it’s deep message. So do I care if the actress is black? No, I think making a live action version of Disney’s absolutely abysmal interpretation of The Little Mermaid is a bad idea altogether. It was garbage the first time.

  • John Beasley

    Fair enough. In our house we like the Lets Pretend radio version of the Little Mermaid. I’m partial to traditional animation as a medium, though, and once I understood that Triton was the main character of the Disney version (Ariel is only the one whose perspective we see), I began to like their version, too. If you haven’t seen it in a few years, give it a fresh go with an open mind. Now that I have a fresh reason to revisit the classics (kids of my own), I have found that several of them are much better than I remembered. Cinderella, for instance, is a more meaningful tale than I remembered – and the things I didn’t like about it weren’t even part of the film itself, only the cultural dialogue around the film.

  • Kate Johnson

    The message of The Little Mermaid story is entirely absent from the Disney version. It’s what I liked best about the story. It was about real things, like suffering, disappointment and sacrificial love. Not just another shallow princess fantasy where everything works out in the end, The original version isn’t like that, at all. I’ve seen the Disney version a few times, involuntarily, and I don’t think I will ever change my mind about it. I loved the “real” story too much.

  • jkcmsal

    “White Panther from Caukanda”.

    Caukanda should be Wakanda.
    Unless there is something of which I am unaware?

  • CarlosV F

    Your argument shows bias. Lin-Manuel Miranda is white. His ethnicity is Puerto Rican and his culture is Caribbean Hispanic, His Nationality is American. Alexander Hamilton was also born in the Caribbean out of wedlock to a mother of mixed race. So to call one “white” but not the other shows racial bias on your part. But to paraphrase George Orwell some people are “whiter” than others in today’s world. Lin-Manuel felt a connection to Hamilton while reading his biography which lead him to write the musical. But I agree, Can mermaids be black? Fish come in all colors, and White people do not have a monopoly on mythological creatures. So why not? What if on judgement day when we finally see the face of God the Father we all find out He’s been black this whole time? And if the mere thought of that triggers some, maybe we need to check our hearts.

  • CarlosV F

    If race is not essential to the story, the actor playing the character can be of any race.

  • Cecilia Bacca

    as I always say: I used to be white until I moved to the United States (I am from Argentina) so yes, some people are whiter in the US…

  • Cecilia Bacca

    I take it as a word play, as in “Caucasic”…

  • jkcmsal

    Aha. Thank you.

  • jkcmsal

    In general, I agree. Any gender, too. Good to broaden our horizons.

  • Daddy Sockdragger

    I did not care for the animated movie when it came out in 199?-something. So why should I care about the live action one. My only gripe about the choice of Halle Berry is that it is supposed to be the LITTLE Mermaid. Berry is how old? Anyway, she has been making movies for at least 25 years now. Even Willow Smith would have been a better choice.

  • Rowe Donna

    You’re confusing Halle Berry with Halle Bailey. Don’t feel bad, though. So did I initially. Halle Bailey, who will be playing The Little Mermaid, is 21.

  • emncaity

    [biggest eye-roll in history]

    And here I thought I couldn’t be driven to leave this site.

  • kristian Smith

    The casting of a black Ariel is racist, I think. It’s the denial of race as an important aspect of a person’s identity. Christians need to stop pretending that God didn’t create race just like he created everything else: