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.