In 1989, the world was introduced to a playful, adventurous, and brave mermaid named Ariel, and her colorful world of wonder under the sea. We watched as she followed her heart which led her on the path of being human and eventually marrying the handsome Prince Eric. While Disney brought worldwide fame to The Little Mermaid, they weren’t the original creators of the beloved character we all know and love. That honor belongs to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
Now, Disney hopes to reinvent their version of The Little Mermaid with a live-action film set to be released in movie theaters in May 2023. However, instead of maintaining the image of their original, red-haired, fair-skin 1989 mermaid, Disney has decided to bring diversity by casting the dark-skinned singer and actress Halle Bailey in the titular role. This decision has sparked a lot of controversy and heated conversations around the topic of whitewashing, or rather, “blackwashing” the character (a term explained and analyzed by the College of Wooster). In fact, the trailer on YouTube has received a groundbreaking number of dislikes, 1.5 million in just its first two days. What’s going on?
The Little Mermaid’s Origin Story
Before we take a deep dive to further explore this fish tale (pun intended), it’s important to first understand the original The Little Mermaid story by Hans Christian Andersen. A Dutch author in the 1800s, Andersen was known for many beloved children’s stories such as Thumbelina, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Ugly Duckling.
However, if people are complaining that the new casting of The Little Mermaid doesn’t reflect the original story, then they should re-read it again; the original is something very different, as is the case with most of Disney’s fairy tale stories. That’s because, in his fish tale, the little mermaid (and not Ariel, as Disney created that name) fails to win the prince’s love and dies as a result, turning into sea foam, and is then tasked with the job of serving humanity for 300 years before she will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. Like many children’s stories of the time, it was an artful to way to warn kids of bad behavior, with the final line being, “But if we see a naughty, mischievous child we must shed tears of sorrow, and each tear adds a day to the time of our trial.”
Another important thing to note is the mermaid’s appearance. You can check out the illustration below to see Vilhelm Pedersen’s drawing of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid; his original 1849 illustrations were the very first images of the character:
There was no color to the illustrations (if anything, she probably would have been entirely greenish based on the description, which we’ll get into). Disney was the one who actually gave her red hair and pale skin. In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “They were six beautiful children; but the youngest was the prettiest of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all the others, she had no feet, and her body ended in a fish’s tail.” From the story, we know that she has blue eyes, which is more common among light-skinned people, but it is certainly not unheard of for people with dark skin. In addition, her skin is compared to a rose leaf, which is green, so we could assume that her skin might be a similar color.
Disney’s Reinvention of Ariel
Now we know that the image of Ariel with red hair and fair skin is actually a Disney invention. Therefore, all that Disney’s new live-action film is doing is reinventing the image that they initially created, something they certainly have a right to. However, instead of staying true to the branded version of their little mermaid, some are saying that Disney has decided to take a political direction and “go woke,” as some are calling it, by taking a previously white character and simply making her black in a remake.
In all honesty, there have been countless times when actors from all ethnic backgrounds have played characters outside their races. Look at the popular musical Hamilton, which is about the white founding fathers of America. This musical’s original cast consisted of mostly people of color who portray characters who held discussions on slavery, freedom, and liberty. If anything, Hamilton’s original cast should have raised some eyes, but it didn’t because people appreciated it as art that was meant purely for entertainment purposes with a subversive twist.
On the flip side, you have Angelina Jolie who played the role of Mariane Pearl, who is a French freelance journalist of Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent, in A Mighty Heart, and Ben Affleck as Antonio J. Mendez, a decorated American technical operations officer who was of Mexican descent, in Argo. Plus, we can’t forget about Johnny Depp playing the fictional Indigenous character of Tonto in the Disney movie The Lone Ranger. There have been some questionable casting decisions on both sides of the argument, but people generally get over them. Finally, a wonderful example of the possibilities of diverse casting would have to be Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the MCU — that was a white character in the comics for nearly four decades, but practically everyone has loved Jackson’s portrayal.
Gabriella, the Non-White Mermaid From the ’90s
Some people say that a dark-skinned mermaid isn’t accurate (whatever ‘accuracy’ means in myths and folk tales), since mermaids come from European folklore and Europeans are historically white. In going along with that, mermaids traditionally spend most of their time underwater and would see very little sun. Therefore, it makes sense that a mermaid would be fair-skinned and pale. On the other hand, there are also the stories that say that mermaids are sirens, dangerous creatures who lure sailors to their deaths and spend most of their time above water, singing to men. It’s important to remember that mermaids are fictional and have different origin stories for different people.
It’s worth noting that Disney’s new mermaid isn’t their first darker-skinned mermaid character. In the 1990s, we got to meet Gabriella the mermaid, a deaf character who appeared in The Little Mermaid TV series and communicated by lipreading and American Sign Language, which was translated into words by her octopus friend Ollie. Gabriella was loved and accepted. There was no negative backlash over her addition to the animated show, and her inclusion meant something very important to many people — Gabriella was a tribute to a real two-year old girl who died of leukemia.
Gabriella Angelina Bommino was a huge fan of mermaids, and the Make-A-Wish foundation threw her a Little Mermaid-themed party for her final birthday. After she died, the makers of The Little Mermaid TV series asked her family if they could include her in a grown-up form. Her mother told The Los Angeles Times that it was the “way the Lord is showing us what she would look like.” Gabriella the mermaid wasn’t some political, liberal gesture; she meant something very real and very moving to many people, not just the little girl’s family but all little girls who were deaf or BIPOC. This is something everyone should consider before more clicks of the dislike button.
Is Disney’s New Mermaid Accurate?
Everyone’s going to have their own opinion on Disney’s The Little Mermaid casting decision. One of the reasons for disagreement is nostalgia. People love to feel nostalgic and fondly remember the past. By recreating its own creation, Disney has altered the feeling of nostalgia that is built in to their other live-action movie remakes.
Disney is not duplicating the past (which probably wouldn’t be a good thing; Ariel is 16-years-old in The Little Mermaid, which might be a little inappropriate for a scantily clad love story). Then again, they aren’t straying too far from the path, especially when it comes to appearances: long flowing hair, traditionally beautiful, half fish (the bottom half), etc. Additionally, both versions of Ariel are played by women in their feature film debuts (Jodi Benson as the voice in 1989, and Halle Bailey in 2023). Really, the only main difference is race.
Whether you agree or disagree with Disney, Ariel is entirely fictional, and when you have money like Disney does, you can cast anyone you’d like. Movies are made up of subjective opinions (both financial and artistic), and the people behind The Little Mermaid are simply expressing their opinions and creativity through their decisions. The great thing about living in certain countries is having freedom and options, like the decision of whether to go see The Little Mermaid in theaters when it’s released next year or making the choice to sit it out.