Photo credit: The Little Mermaid, auntie rain, Flickr
Over the next week, I will no doubt be pulled into watching the new Little Mermaid remake starring Halle Bailey. I have too many kids, and suffer from too much nostalgia not to watch… and a Black Ariel? Who could resist?! I’m genuinely excited to watch Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse, with Miles being far and away the greatest (and Blackest) Spiderman already. It feels like there is a stampede of remade children’s movies with Black leads, turn on Disney+ and you can even stream a Black Tinkerbell! First, we took over the White House and now we are ruling the ocean floor, the multiverse, and Neverland. Martin can rest knowing that we have overcome!!!
But if there was any danger we would get too carried away in American dreaming these Black versions of the characters have faced some serious (racist) backlash, with #NotMyAriel really becoming a hashtag as people complain it goes against the original. So commonplace was the anger that CNN actually published an article rejecting the arguments made against a Black Ariel. In yet more proof that Whiteness is a psychosis one of the points they dealt with is people believing that Ariel could never have got dark skin because she lived under the sea.
I am sure next they will be questioning the species of fish she is mixed with given the salt-water content of the seas around Denmark. By now we are used to this nonsense, such as the meltdown over the suggestion of a Black James Bond, Dr Who, or Hermione Granger. It is extremely ironic that many people who claim we should stick to the original bow down to a White image of Jesus, who was born in the Middle East. Without color-blind casting, Christianity would be a very different religion.
There is a chronic lack of Black children’s characters in children’s books, which bleeds onto a lack of representation on screen. There has been a year-on-year increase in the number of children’s books published with a lead character who is from a racialized minority in the UK, but the latest figure was that these only accounted for 9 percent of books. But that figure is for new books and doesn’t tell us about the overall diversity of the total children’s books that are read. The truth is that the default is White and until recently it was rare to see a Black lead in either books or on screen. Halle Bailey has not been shy about sharing what she sees as the importance of diversity on the screen for young people. In an interview for Guardian she said “if I would have had a [B]lack mermaid, that would have been insane, that would have changed my whole perspective, my whole life, my confidence, my self-worth. You’re able to see a person who looks like you, when you’re young?… it’s so important.”
This idea has a long history going back to the infamous doll study by Drs Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, which showed that even Black young children (in integrated schools) preferred to play with White dolls. The study has been repeated multiple times, still showing the same results. There is clearly an issue with the messaging that young Black children are receiving. So there is nothing wrong with a Black Ariel, but the real question we need to ask is whether these new characters are addressing the problem.
One of the reasons I’m more excited to watch Miles in the Spider-verse is that he is genuinely different, not just a colored- in Spiderman. His character, story, and even the soundtrack are built around his Blackness (it’s still Marvel, don’t believe I’m falling completely for the hype now). But Black Ariel is the opposite, the original character in Blackface. I haven’t seen the remake yet, but given all the clips it seems like a pretty straightforward re-shoot, with live action and a Black lead. They still couldn’t even find a Caribbean to voice the real star of the movie Sebastian. We need new stories, new characters, and not just sentimental (and deeply hetero-patriarchal) Disney fairy tales with a splash of diversity. The last thing young Black girls need to be buying into is the myth that a great White prince is going to come and save them. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with diversity, but we should never confuse it with representation let alone racial progress. So enjoy the movie for what it is, and not try to make it something it can never be.