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'The Little Mermaid': Here's Why the Halle Bailey-Starrer Is a Victim of Racism

Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

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Walt Disney Studios' latest release, The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey, has been courting controversy since the release of its trailer in September 2022.

Directed by Rob Marshall, the film is Disney's first live-action remake of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated musical The Little Mermaid. However, Marshall's portrayal of Ariel, a completely fictional underwater fish woman, as being black has enraged the critics of the internet.

So, what is the controversy surrounding Marshall's film exactly about? What was the origin of Ariel? And is it different from Disney's adaptation? Here's all you need to know:

'The Little Mermaid': Here's Why the Halle Bailey-Starrer Is a Victim of Racism

  1. 1. The Origin of Ariel

    The origin of Ariel comes from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 short tale titled Den Lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid). But Disney's adaptation of both the character and the story significantly differs from the original.

    • In the original tale, where the characters aren't particularly named, the little mermaid (Ariel) is the youngest of the Sea King's six daughters.

    • She falls under the spell of a human whom she had saved from drowning, unlike Disney’s adaptation, where Ariel wishes for legs out of curiosity about life on earth or her love for the prince.

    • The biggest difference lies in the treatment of Ariel's story — while Anderson's tale focuses on her life ambition, Disney makes it all about her 'happily ever after' with prince charming.

    • However, the one thing that remains common between the two is Ariel's physical appearance.

    Anderson describes the character in his tale as, "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."
    Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

    A still of Princess Ariel from 1989 Disney movie.

    (Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney)

    Expand
  2. 2. A Little More About Marshall's Film

    Marshall's live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is loosely based on Anderson's Danish tale. In addition to Bailey, the film boasts a stellar cast featuring Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Noma Dumezweni, and Javier Bardem, among others.

    • The Little Mermaid is Disney's second live-action remake of 2023, after Peter Pan & Wendy, which was released earlier in April.

    • Coincidentally, both films feature mermaids.

    • Marshall's film also marks the sixth Disney Princess remake, after Cinderella, Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and Aladdin.

    • The film was initially slated for a 2020 release; however, it was delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

    Halle Bailey in and as The Little Mermaid.

    (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

    Expand
  3. 3. The Racist Backlash Over Ariel's Casting

    This isn't the first time the on-screen representation of an otherwise white-skinned character as being black has triggered a certain section of the audience.

    Marshall's live-action musical drama is just another addition to the list, as it casts a 23-year-old, biracial Bailey as Ariel.

    • Soon after the news of Bailey starring as Ariel made the headlines in July 2019, the film started to receive a lot of online hate.

    • The Little Mermaid's official trailer on YouTube was bombarded with thousands of racist comments and received more than 1.5 million dislikes.

    • Consequently, YouTube hid the dislike counter on the trailer video.

    • In addition to the hate comments, an online campaign started bouncing around on social media using the hashtag: #NotMyAriel.

    More so, the audience disapproval reached a ridiculous height when a group of critics released a digitally altered version of the trailer featuring a white woman in Bailey's place.
    Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

    An image shared by a Twitter user of a still from the AI-altered trailer of The Little Mermaid.

    (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

    Expand
  4. 4. Claims Against Ariel's Skin Colour

    Yes, several people on the internet came up with innumerable self-proclaimed factual explanations of how Ariel (emphasis on her being a fictional character) is supposed to be a white-skinned mermaid.

    • One of the claims was that mermaids are European mythological figures, and therefore, Ariel's skin colour should be white.

    • However, humanoid creatures that dwell in the water have been part of diverse mythologies around the world, including Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Oceanic folklore.

    As per Zimbabwe's Shona mythology, the 'njuzu', or mermaids, are water spirits who often come across as beautiful women residing in the lakes or rivers.
    Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

    Mami Wata, or Mother Water, is the most celebrated mermaid-like deity, popular among the tribes of south-east Nigeria.

    (Photo Courtesy: National Museum of African Art)

    • Another claim that was largely circulating on the internet was that since mermaids live under the sea and are not exposed to the sun, they cannot have dark skin.

    • While the above claim lacks factual evidence, it needs no proof that most sea creatures are not just pale, but they come in all sorts of colours — sometimes even as translucent.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Reaction of the Makers

    While it wasn't really surprising for the makers to anticipate such racist backlash over Bailey's casting in the show, they addressed the controversy several times to both the media and the fans.

    Director Marshall told Deadline, "I didn't think that it was a big deal, casting a woman of colour. I thought, 'That's an archaic way to see the world.' When that controversy arose from narrow-minded people, I thought, 'Wow, that really feels like it's coming from another century.' Are we really still there?"

    "But the bonus that came with that casting, and I wasn't aware of it at the time, is seeing these young girls of color and young boys of color looking at her and thinking, 'Wow, I'm represented', it was very, very moving to me."
    Marshall told Deadline

    In 2019, Disney also released an open letter to the audience on Freeform defending Bailey's casting for The Little Mermaid. Take a look at their letter here:

    The film's lead actor and singer, Bailey, also expressed her opinion on the controversy. Entertainment Weekly quoted the actor saying, "As a Black person, you just expect it and it's not really a shock anymore. 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."

    The Little Mermaid is running in cinemas now.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

The Origin of Ariel

The origin of Ariel comes from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 short tale titled Den Lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid). But Disney's adaptation of both the character and the story significantly differs from the original.

  • In the original tale, where the characters aren't particularly named, the little mermaid (Ariel) is the youngest of the Sea King's six daughters.

  • She falls under the spell of a human whom she had saved from drowning, unlike Disney’s adaptation, where Ariel wishes for legs out of curiosity about life on earth or her love for the prince.

  • The biggest difference lies in the treatment of Ariel's story — while Anderson's tale focuses on her life ambition, Disney makes it all about her 'happily ever after' with prince charming.

  • However, the one thing that remains common between the two is Ariel's physical appearance.

Anderson describes the character in his tale as, "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."
Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

A still of Princess Ariel from 1989 Disney movie.

(Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

A Little More About Marshall's Film

Marshall's live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is loosely based on Anderson's Danish tale. In addition to Bailey, the film boasts a stellar cast featuring Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Noma Dumezweni, and Javier Bardem, among others.

  • The Little Mermaid is Disney's second live-action remake of 2023, after Peter Pan & Wendy, which was released earlier in April.

  • Coincidentally, both films feature mermaids.

  • Marshall's film also marks the sixth Disney Princess remake, after Cinderella, Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and Aladdin.

  • The film was initially slated for a 2020 release; however, it was delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

Halle Bailey in and as The Little Mermaid.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

0

The Racist Backlash Over Ariel's Casting

This isn't the first time the on-screen representation of an otherwise white-skinned character as being black has triggered a certain section of the audience.

Marshall's live-action musical drama is just another addition to the list, as it casts a 23-year-old, biracial Bailey as Ariel.

  • Soon after the news of Bailey starring as Ariel made the headlines in July 2019, the film started to receive a lot of online hate.

  • The Little Mermaid's official trailer on YouTube was bombarded with thousands of racist comments and received more than 1.5 million dislikes.

  • Consequently, YouTube hid the dislike counter on the trailer video.

  • In addition to the hate comments, an online campaign started bouncing around on social media using the hashtag: #NotMyAriel.

More so, the audience disapproval reached a ridiculous height when a group of critics released a digitally altered version of the trailer featuring a white woman in Bailey's place.
Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

An image shared by a Twitter user of a still from the AI-altered trailer of The Little Mermaid.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Claims Against Ariel's Skin Colour

Yes, several people on the internet came up with innumerable self-proclaimed factual explanations of how Ariel (emphasis on her being a fictional character) is supposed to be a white-skinned mermaid.

  • One of the claims was that mermaids are European mythological figures, and therefore, Ariel's skin colour should be white.

  • However, humanoid creatures that dwell in the water have been part of diverse mythologies around the world, including Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Oceanic folklore.

As per Zimbabwe's Shona mythology, the 'njuzu', or mermaids, are water spirits who often come across as beautiful women residing in the lakes or rivers.
Rob Marshall's 'The Little Mermaid' starring Halle Bailey is currently running in cinemas.

Mami Wata, or Mother Water, is the most celebrated mermaid-like deity, popular among the tribes of south-east Nigeria.

(Photo Courtesy: National Museum of African Art)

  • Another claim that was largely circulating on the internet was that since mermaids live under the sea and are not exposed to the sun, they cannot have dark skin.

  • While the above claim lacks factual evidence, it needs no proof that most sea creatures are not just pale, but they come in all sorts of colours — sometimes even as translucent.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The Reaction of the Makers

While it wasn't really surprising for the makers to anticipate such racist backlash over Bailey's casting in the show, they addressed the controversy several times to both the media and the fans.

Director Marshall told Deadline, "I didn't think that it was a big deal, casting a woman of colour. I thought, 'That's an archaic way to see the world.' When that controversy arose from narrow-minded people, I thought, 'Wow, that really feels like it's coming from another century.' Are we really still there?"

"But the bonus that came with that casting, and I wasn't aware of it at the time, is seeing these young girls of color and young boys of color looking at her and thinking, 'Wow, I'm represented', it was very, very moving to me."
Marshall told Deadline

In 2019, Disney also released an open letter to the audience on Freeform defending Bailey's casting for The Little Mermaid. Take a look at their letter here:

The film's lead actor and singer, Bailey, also expressed her opinion on the controversy. Entertainment Weekly quoted the actor saying, "As a Black person, you just expect it and it's not really a shock anymore. 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."

The Little Mermaid is running in cinemas now.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Disney   Ariel 

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