At the beginning of July, Disney revealed that the character of “Ariel” in the live action adaptation of The Little Mermaid would be played by Halle Bailey, half of the sister R&B duo Chloe x Halle. The casting of Bailey, an African-American actress, was met with a strong response. Fans were quick to take to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to vehemently express either criticism or praise for the casting. While many were pleased with the announcement, others argued Ariel should keep her distinctive look, which included wide blue eyes, bright red hair, and a pale skin tone. The hashtag #NotMyAriel generated response from both ends of the spectrum, with proponents of the casting suggesting that Ariel’s character is first and foremost a mermaid, therefore not exclusionary to any race or ethnicity.
Just a few days after the casting announcement, the teaser trailer for Disney’s upcoming live action of Mulan was released. While people were genuinely pleased by the Asian cast, comments continued to stream in. Why would it be wrong to cast someone of a different identity for Mulan, but okay to cast someone that doesn’t look like the classic cartoon version of Ariel? Freeform, an American cable television channel owned by The Walt Disney Company, addressed this issue with an Instagram post. While discussing the Danish background of Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the original fairy tale version of “The Little Mermaid”, Freeform noted that “Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black.” As such, Halle Barry’s talent, youth, and personality made her the exceptional choice for the part of Ariel, regardless of appearance.
The controversy over The Little Mermaid casting is an example of how attempts to diversify classic characters can be momentous. Ariel’s case is arguably different than that of characters such as Mulan, Tiana, or Moana, whose ethnicities and racial identities are integral to their characters and storylines. Along those lines, there is something to be said on the topic of representation.
In my childhood, Mulan was my favorite Disney princess. She was a strong, smart, beautiful female character that got the guy but also knew how to take care of herself (and save all of China). Growing up as a Disney and Mulan lover, I cherished the 1999 VHS of Mulan, dressed up as the title character for Halloween, and constantly sang “Reflection” in a squeaky, childlike high-pitched voice. There’s another reason I took a liking to Mulan, however. As someone who identities as an Asian-American, Mulan was the Disney princess that looked like me. The only Disney princess that looked like me.
For those that grew up watching Disney movies, it’s notable that diversity hasn’t always been a strong suit (as much as we adore all the princesses and other characters). Having a character you can identify with is important; the way that characters who resemble us are portrayed can affect how we think about ourselves. For a child watching a Disney movie, representation can enable them to see themselves in their heroes, which can be incredibly empowering. To some degree, I understand those who long for the cartoon version of Ariel – perhaps they have bright red hair just like their favorite princess. But it’s also worth noting that casting Halle Bailey as Ariel could be incredibly empowering, especially since it wasn’t until 2009 that the first Black Disney princess, Tiana, debuted in The Princess and the Frog.
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Link to more information on Freeform’s response