By Joyce Abbey-Ikeafor
“They made Ariel into a Black girl!”
“She looks like me!”
“Oh, she got locs?!”
That’s how Black and brown children reacted to the trailer for Rob Marshall’s live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid" released earlier this September. “How wholesome”, you may say — that’s what I thought to myself, too —until I made the mistake of scrolling through the comment sections.
It’s only a snippet of Disney’s much-anticipated fantasy film reboot; a minute-and-a-half-long video, enough to display the movie’s impressive visuals and actress Halle Bailey’s prodigious vocal abilities.
It was also enough to trigger a wave of criticism on social media, with the main argument being that a Black woman should not have been cast as the iconic red-haired mermaid.
The fact that a children’s movie prompted such a controversy among grown adults is quite telling of our society’s shortcomings when it comes to acknowledging how covert racism is still at work in this day and age.
The tenacious attempts by “eternal nostalgics” (as they like to call themselves) to rationalize their thinly disguised racism by conjuring up mere pretenses such as historical accuracy, tradition and faithfulness to the original text,appear as one more desperate effort to undermine the ability for POC to thrive in spaces they were distinctlyexcluded from until then.
Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that we’re discussing the historical accuracy of mermaids — imaginary creatures that do not exist. As it happens, the original "Little Mermaid" tale written in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen only gives so much detail about the character’s appearance: “diaphanous skin”, “long hair” and “blue eyes”. Hence, race and ethnicity do not bear any contextual weight here.
Out of the various assessments that can be made from this story, two stick out to me.
First, how performative the support and ‘rooting’ for Black people and their representation in the media has been. The amount of support B.L.M. receive online and the alleged predominance of ‘woke culture’ in media outlets seems disproportionate to the backlash that movie and TV producers face when they cast Black actors in ‘white’ roles, so to speak.
It shows how much needs to be done before the world can let Black people, especially Black women, flourish in all spaces, notably those that were not designed to welcome them, as well as allow them to detach themselves from the negative stereotypes and reappropriate their own narratives.
Photo by People magazine
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