The Black “Little Mermaid”: When Skin Tones Precede Innocent Fantasies
Sophie Anabelle Somé
Picture from IMDB COREY NICKOLS/GETTY IMAGES FOR IMDB
Surprisingly enough, or not, commotion against Black women playing lead roles in movies is not an issue born today. It is an ongoing and perpetual battle that Black actresses must face. It is only as of September 9th, the release of the Little Mermaid trailer, that Disney counts two Black princesses out of 12 characters. The Princess and the Frog aired in 2009; Princess Tiana being the first Black princess presented on screen. At the time, Disney received backlash and multiple negative criticisms partly because of blatant racism toward Black women. Some individuals did not like the idea of a Black princess in Disney. Others within the Black Community criticized the company because a Black princess’s first appearance would involve her transformation into a frog. Other people thought that her Prince should be Black and that their love story should do due diligence to Black love.
Above all the criticisms and intolerance from the public, portraying a Black princess was about time for Disney. Representation of minorities matters since children who admire film fantasies want to be seen and represented as they grow alongside their role models. It is also important for adults or teenagers to see such representation on television. I, a West African woman, did not grow up with much infatuation for Disney princesses. First, I wasn’t being represented in those characters as much as I would have liked to be, and I couldn’t find a princess that deeply inspired me. Again, each story is different, and each person has a different experience to tell. However, seeing the trailer of the Little Mermaid on my Instagram feed filled me with warmth and comfort for all the little girls that would have another Black princess to look up to. Providing children with role models in the media that look like them can impact their self-perception as well as their world perception. So, the representation of minorities offers a new vision of beauty standards.
The second wonderful Black Disney princess is the Little Mermaid, played by Halle Bailey. Again and again, and sadly to no one’s surprise, negative criticism and controversy emerged after the movie trailer’s release. Many wondered, “Why is the Little Mermaid Black?” “Why isn’t her hair bright red?” Point given, I would have liked for Ariel to have long and bright red hair because I’ve always seen her in books that way. The real issue, however, is; Why does her appearance matter? Why should Ariel’s physical characteristics be permanently set in stone? She remains a mermaid, and no alteration of her hair could make her less uncanny or imaginary. Now, it seems like Halle Bailey’s skin color might be the problem. There is no other way to address people’s disfavor of her character than to point out intolerance and racism on their part. There is a clear line between dismissing someone for their acting skills as opposed to their skin color.
David Dennis Jr. beautifully said in a commentary on Andscape, “This is about white people who detest the notion of Black women centered in any story, let alone those that they’ve enjoyed as symbols of white pride”. Going from a character presented 33 years ago as white to a black character is a large step regarding representation. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Halle Bailey says about the movie, “it’s not just a story about her, you know, falling in love and loving a boy and wanting the above world. It's more about what she sees in herself and what she wants for her future.” The main effect of the diverging controversy around the Little Mermaid is the effacement of the movie’s message of courage and passion.
Let’s ask ourselves, why Halle Bailey, a prolific and Grammy-nominated actress, is second-guessed in her ability to play the lead role of the Little Mermaid. Critiques towards the scenery, the costumes, the actors, or the visuals of the movies are welcomed and beyond appreciated. However, criticisms about the validity of the Little Mermaid or labeling her as “unrealistic” are blatant acts of racism. There should be no such thing as unrealism when it comes to imagination and fairy tales.
David Dennis Jr. “The attacks on ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Woman King’ are unified by a disdain for Black women.” Andscape. September 20, 2022, https://andscape.com/features/little-mermaid-woman-king-backlash/.
Entertainment Weekly. “Halle Bailey on ‘The Little Mermaid’. Youtube, 20 Sept. 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AfBlczOiMg