Don’t you just love Twitter? That magical place on the internet where people have a platform to voice their thoughts that no one needs to hear in person. The home of viral memes, official celebrity cancellations and Chrissy Teigen, the platform is an eclectic melange of controversy and change. Only in a place like Twitter can something like #NotMyAriel be born.
For those out of the loop, Disney recently announced that it has cast actress-singer Halle Bailey — best known for being one-half of R&B duo Chloe x Halle and for her recurring role on “Grown-ish” — as the titular role in its upcoming live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” And of course, because this is Twitter, online backlash ensued. Surprisingly, people are not outraged at the fact that Disney is making another unnecessary live-action remake rather than developing a sequel to the criminally forgotten “Big Hero 6” (which is what I am upset about). Nope, they’re upset over a different matter: Bailey is Black and Ariel is not. And since we now use trendy catchphrases to represent entire movements, #NotMyAriel was created to sum up the excruciation of these people.
If I could somehow insert a heavy sigh here, I would, because it amazes me how intolerant we still are — it is 2019 and we can’t seem to accept a Black Ariel without it being controversial. But before I devolve into a semi-coherent rant about bigotry and prejudice, I want to address the rhetoric that has been used to justify the outrage, because that is what is particularly grinding my gears.
One of the biggest objections raised to the casting choice has been a hypothetical question: What if a white person were cast as Princess Tiana? Because surely, by turning the tables, we can understand why these tweeters are upset at the idea that the live-action Ariel will not be portrayed as the pale, blue-eyed redhead so many of us grew up with. After all, if one of the Haim sisters were set to portray a live-action Tiana, the internet would be in an uproar.
But equating “blackwashing” to “whitewashing” reflects a logical fallacy, and it frustrates me every time I see it tossed around online. Yes, it is true that if Tiana, the first Black Disney princess, were not played by a Black actress (in this hypothetical world where Disney remakes “The Princess and the Frog”), everyone would be wielding digital pitchforks and torches in protest. And yet, the outrage behind the casting of Rue in “The Hunger Games,” Nick Fury and MJ in the Marvel films, Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and now Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” is not the same type of outrage that’s behind “Ghost in the Shell” or “Prince of Persia.”
Casting a white actor for a traditionally ethnic minority role removes another chance for a minority culture to have representation on-screen and decreases the already minimal opportunities actors of color have. The same does not apply when the tables are turned. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When an actor of color is cast for a traditionally white role, while it may be upsetting to some, it ultimately means there is a little more diversity out there on-screen. And this means that more kids of color can see their historically marginalized cultures represented. (And no, Ariel does not count as representing Danish culture because the original author of “The Little Mermaid” is from Denmark. She lives in a fictional underwater world and is half fish.)
The reason that people would be offended by a Haim playing Tiana is because Tiana is not just the first Black Disney princess — she is the only one. Disney princesses have been an iconic staple of American culture and beauty since Snow White sang to birds and made poor dietary decisions in 1937. It took more than 70 years after that for Tiana to become one of them; were she suddenly blonde-haired and blue-eyed, there would be no other Black princess in Disney’s canon to represent an entire ethnicity. But with Ariel being played by Bailey, there are still Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna and Elsa. It’s simply not the same fight.
And for those upset that this iconic ginger character will now be played by a Black girl, guess what? She can still be ginger! Don’t jump to conclusions because this Ariel does not immediately look like the ‘90s cartoon! And you can still identify with a character even if they don’t look like you — millions of people of color, including myself, have been doing so for decades. And for those still personally affronted that Ariel will not be played by a white girl, as if a white actress has more of a right to portray her, let me just say this: It is privilege at its finest to insist a Black actress can’t play a traditionally white character because this fictional character suddenly doesn’t resemble you.
I’ll step off my soapbox for now and remind everyone to calm down, stay in their lane and remember that there is a “Big Hero 7” out there waiting in movie development hell — so if you need to direct your Disney anger, direct it that way.
Julie Lim writes the Thursday column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected].