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The New Ariel: Black Representation in Film

Original illustration by Ananya Parekh '24, an Illustration major at RISD

Red hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. These are the features that people tend to associate with Ariel from Disney’s 1989 classic The Little Mermaid. The casting of Black actress Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming new live-action version of the film, slated for release on May 26, has faced critical backlash in the media. Ever since the film’s trailer was released, it has garnered mixed reactions. While many supported the Black representation in a Disney film, others were infuriated by the “race swapping” of the main character in the remake. With hashtags such as #NotMyAriel and accusations of “blackwashing,” enraged viewers have been fighting for their “original” Ariel. An online Twitter user even photoshopped Bailey’s face into a white ginger mermaid and promised to “fix the whole movie” once it is released. 

Though a lot of the responses and arguments against Bailey as the “New Ariel” are racially charged, some fans claim that their frustration does not stem from racism but from the desire for the film to stay true to the “original.” Many of the voices backing this argument claim that because Bailey’s Ariel does not resemble the “original” Ariel, they will no longer be able to experience childhood nostalgia when watching the new film. Regardless, the criticism levied against the casting of Bailey is misguided when one takes into account the long history of adaptations and re-adaptations that characterizes Disney filmmaking. In this context, the new “Black Ariel” is an important step toward increasing minority representation in film—an area that still requires a lot of improvement.

In midst of this critique, what is often neglected is that the “original” Ariel that fans passionately long for was also an adaptation and recreation of The Little Mermaid, written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. While Disney’s version of the tale features Ariel, who exchanges her voice for legs to explore the world outside the sea and eventually wins the prince’s heart, the original version of the tale takes a darker turn. In Andersen’s tale, the nameless mermaid exchanges not only her voice for legs but also risks her life, as she will die if she fails to win the prince’s heart. Even after the mermaid endures the severe pain that comes with living on land, she is unsuccessful in earning the love of the prince, who marries another girl he mistakes for the mermaid who saved his life. She is given a chance to live by stabbing the prince’s heart with a knife, but she instead sacrifices herself, turning to seafoam. Instead of staying true to the “original,” Disney decided to give the story a much happier ending, altering the story into a classic children’s film that went on to inspire millions of young film viewers.

Myths and fables that feature mythical creatures have long-inspired recreations and new inventions of stories. Films are always adapting to the underlying social landscape, and there is no reason why Ariel should not continue to evolve. Disney initially modified Andersen’s tale to bring the story to its younger audiences in a more child-friendly and appropriate way. With the increasing population of people of color in the United States and more voices demanding greater racial diversity on-screen, Disney is once again modifying its Ariel to make the film appealing for a wider range of audiences.

Literature and media play a big role in a child’s development, as they learn about the world and moral values through stories. Representation of children’s own ethnic or racial group is important because it helps them form a perspective not only of their own race, but of others too. A lack of such representation can lead to negative psychological outcomes such as lower self-esteem and feelings of isolation. Ultimately, The Little Mermaid is fiction, and, as an imaginary character, Ariel can have skin of any color. Given that the cartoon versions of the princesses are dominantly white, Black and brown children will benefit greatly from being able to view more Disney princesses who look like them.

Despite the clear need for greater representation, Hollywood still struggles to increase diversity on-screen. According to a UCLA Hollywood report published in 2021, the share of film leads by race is still dominantly white, with white leads cast in 61.1 percent of films, Black leads in 15.5 percent, Latino leads in 7.1 percent, and Asian leads in 5.6 percent. Among the 15.5 percent Black leads, there were more than twice the number of Black male leads than that of Black female leads, showing a disparity in gender representation among the minority race. Black talent is even more underrepresented off-screen, with only 6 percent of directors being Black.

In a recent interview with The Face, Bailey spoke about the controversy of her casting, stating, “As a Black person, you just expect it, and it’s not really a shock anymore.” Instead of focusing on the negativity in the media, Bailey explained the importance of racial diversity in film casting. She said, “I know people are like: ‘​It’s not about race.’ But now that I’m her…People don’t understand that when you’re Black, there’s this whole other community. It’s so important for us to see ourselves.” Indeed, when children in minority communities are able to see people like them in various media, it demonstrates to them that they belong and that their stories matter. As such, Disney’s remake of the film will help children of color feel represented meaningfully and “reaffirm their identities as points of pride.” 

But even though this change represents an important initial step, whether it is the best way to increase representation in the long run is still up for debate. Viewers are cynical about Disney’s intentions, claiming that the whole controversy was anticipated, if not intended by Disney, as a commercial tool to direct media attention to the new film. 

Indeed, if Disney’s intent in casting Bailey was to increase Black representation, it could have better achieved the goal by creating new films that are not only centered around a Black lead, but also highlight Black culture. For instance, Black Panther (2018) celebrated African American culture on top of including a Black hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Academy Award-winning film Moonlight (2016) does an excellent job in portraying the struggles of a young Black man exploring his identity, while the Disney film Soul (2020) introduces Black culture through the tumultuous journey of a jazz musician. Although these films are focused on Black culture, they deliver messages and themes that people of all races can relate to and appreciate. Such films are not only less likely to subject controversy, but also an effective way to reach a wider audience.

Viewing film and TV characters in mainstream media as intrinsically white is problematic in an America that is increasingly becoming more racially diverse. “I’m not interested in giving them any oxygen because I know the lives that are going to be changed. Halle is perfect for the part,” stated Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning composer who wrote four songs in the upcoming remake, in defense of Bailey’s casting. Although there have been positive steps made toward racial diversity in films, such as the Academy setting representation and inclusion standards for films to qualify in the 2024 awards, more efforts need to be made. More films must achieve greater representation and accurately depict the minority population to help children of color reaffirm their identities.