Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)
By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.
Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”
“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”
As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.
Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:
“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”
“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”
Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.
In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.
Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.
The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)
Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.
Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.
“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!”
It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.
White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.
“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.
Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.
We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there.
Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.
People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.
So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.