The global backlash against The Little Mermaid proves why we needed a Black Ariel

<span>Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The Little Mermaid drama continues, as racist backlash about the movie seems to have led to abysmal box office numbers in China and South Korea.

Just like the hate campaign against the movie in the US (which included the infamous #notmyariel hashtag), Chinese and South Korean social media were inundated with bad, unverified reviews and outcry over the casting of a Black Ariel.

Overall, the reaction wasn’t a surprise – Halle Bailey herself told the Face that “as a Black person, you just expect it and it’s not really a shock any more”.

Related: The Little Mermaid subjected to ‘review bombing’ with mass negative reactions posted by bots

Why, though? Why was the fallout from this specific film so predictable? Yes, anti-Blackness is a common feature of American public life, but the fury about a Black Ariel is about much more than disagreeable recasting of a beloved cartoon character.

Audiences are possessive of cultural properties like Disney classics because they serve, in many ways, to reinforce the US national narrative: that in white worlds, all heroes are white. (And when the heroes aren’t white, they exist in their own worlds, where the extent of their influence is limited to characters who look like them.)

More than just fodder for nostalgia, these classic stories are part of US myth-building about itself. Making a Black woman the central figure in that myth disrupts the well-established hierarchies that have been embedded in that national narrative.

That the fallout reached China and South Korea shows not only the global reach of anti-Blackness, but just how much the US’s own racial discourse permeates all of its cultural products, no matter where they are in the world. Disney films are uniquely American, yet Chinese audiences were unhappy because “the image of the mermaid princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales has long been rooted in their hearts and it takes a leap of imagination to accept the new cast.”

For some white American parents, having a young Black woman at the helm of a story about identity and self-discovery is simply unacceptable

And for white American parents who are so committed to avoiding the work of anti-racism that they’ve simply opted to erase all references to Blackness from their lives altogether, having a young Black woman at the helm of a story about identity and self-discovery is simply unacceptable. Because God forbid a viewing of the film might lead to questions about Bailey’s race, or her locs or why she looks “different” than them.

The reaction to the film is crucial to understanding both why it’s gotten so much hate and why it’s so important that it was made. Much of the white supremacist pushback against the film is tied to the rightwing war against wokeness.

Ironically, though, the fact that some people can only imagine a Black girl playing Ariel as the end result of some nefarious plot to force children to see more Black people on screen is precisely why I’m glad that this Ariel is Black. White society is clinging on to these cultural staples for dear life because they’re an easy way to reinforce their ideals around what society should look like, and colorblind casting of these iconic characters is a necessary subversion of that.

Even if we get nothing else out of these remakes, being racially nimble with how they are cast helps both old and young audiences reimagine what our cultural icons look like. Representation is important, but we also need to separate canon from whiteness and decolonize society’s sense of who children should look up to.

As a piece of American film history, The Little Mermaid has always been subversive – its release and success single-handedly helped save the Disney corporation from collapse, and it also offered fresh commentary on topics like gender fluidity and patriarchal society. Casting a Black Ariel (though not an intentionally political move) is a continuation of that tradition, and audiences who don’t get it have clearly been missing the point all along.

  • Tayo Bero is a freelance writer

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