The backlash over the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel has revealed many problems about fandom, not to mention continuing ignorance of whitewashing in media.
Perhaps the biggest movie news to break this month is the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the forthcoming The Little Mermaid live-action adaptation. It’s news that has been elicited strong reactions on both sides of the coin. While swathes of the internet are rejoicing at the reimagining of a classic Disney character as a person of colour (about time), others – presumably the same others that complain about the female Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven – are complaining about the modification of Ariel (an originally white character, with flame-red cartoon hair) to anybody who is not white. What is the big commotion about? Well, thank God I am here to explain the entire thing to you.
Mark, what? The people complaining about a character being black are racist? You’re a visionary. Seriously, though, we’re talking about a character who is a mermaid. A mythical creature. What’s the big deal if she’s suddenly not white? Is it perhaps because the privileged whites are having a hard time accepting that maybe they don’t need representation on the screen anymore? It’s a shame that what should be a celebration for countless black children out there in the world to be represented as a Disney princess on the screen has instead been turned into complaints. Up until now, the only black princess is Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, though she is not the only non-white princess, also being joined by Mulan and Jasmine. These women are severely outweighed, however, by the white contingent of Disney princesses. Representation is an incredibly important issue, and it’s lovely to see Disney being progressive and ahead in this respect, choosing instead to cast based upon talent instead of fitting a particular look.
It’s also interesting to note the difference between the Twitter reaction in some sections between the announcement of Halle as Ariel compared to Scarlett Johansson playing a traditionally Japanese role, or Emma Stone portraying a quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese fighter pilot. It’s also notable that this isn’t the first time that traditionally white roles have been reinterpreted as black.
For example, Iris West in The Flash, portrayed by Candice Patton, Starfire in Titans, portrayed by Anna Diop and, finally, Zendaya portraying MJ in Spiderman: Homecoming and Spiderman: Far From Home all raised the ire of “fans” on the internet. The simple matter is that race-bending particular roles and creating diversity in material which originally was horrendously whitewashed is not the same as erasing a character’s cultural identity in the way that casting a traditionally POC role with a white actor. Whitewashing in film is a historic practise that serves to erase diversity and inclusivity within publicly consumed media. The power of being seen is not to be underestimated. It creates a false perception to those not being represented that they are not part of the society portrayed on the screen, that their voice is one that is marginalised and less worthy of being heard than those which are seen. Until there is parity on screen or stage, there can be no fair exchange with completely “colour blind” casting as creating a diverse representation upon screen is entirely different from erasing it. It is brilliant that we live within a film community where these steps are being taken, in films such as Annie or TV shows like Riverdale and Charmed.
Furthermore, there is nothing inherently “white” about Ariel. It is not a significant part of her character or heritage in the same way that being Native American is inherent to Pocahontas’ story, or being Chinese is integral to Mulan’s background. Nothing cultural is lost, therefore, by altering her skin colour. If Ariel suddenly ceased being a mermaid, that would be a problem, but they haven’t. She’s still a mermaid, just a black one. Moreover, mermaids are still fictional, so we have bigger fish to fry, I feel.
The controversy around Bailey’s casting also reeks of fan entitlement. Fan entitlement is the concept that fans assume that they have the right to have their specific desires met by the creators, despite having done nothing to deserve it. Lots of fans, incorrectly, assume that a programme or a film is meant specifically for them. In complaining that Ariel is #NotmyAriel because she is black, you are making the assumption that the film was meant to provide you with your conception of Ariel. Moreover, if a black Ariel is not your Ariel, then congratulations because you have multiple other Disney princesses to relate to, and you fail to appreciate who the casting of Bailey as Ariel benefits, as I’ve mentioned above.
Fan entitlement can clearly be seen in modern times all over Twitter. Take, for example, the complaints levelled against the all-female Ghostbusters in 2016. Or the announcement of the Thirteenth Doctor, to be played by Jodie Whittaker as the first female incarnation of this fictional alien race. Angry fans everywhere were complaining that they could no longer see themselves in the Doctor, as if female fans hadn’t had the same experience this entire time. Similarly, the movements and criticisms made against the most recent season of Game of Thrones for not delivering the ending that was anticipated and, for some, was not satisfying. However, the vocalisation of that irritation as movements to remake the final season in a so-called “better” way reeks of fan entitlement; the concept that it was not what you wanted and therefore you should try again. It’s like giving back a Christmas present because it wasn’t on your list. It’s spoiled, and it’s ungrateful, and you need to learn manners. The same can be said for the latest instalment of Star Wars, which did not satisfy because of the portrayal of Luke Skywalker, as well as placing more focus upon female characters. Again, another petition (though less-publicised) was made to remake the film.
Advent of social media
The creation and the popularisation of social media has definitely exacerbated the problem of fan entitlement. The existence of Twitter has created this perception that everybody is entitled to have and to share an opinion, regardless of how hurtful or unproductive this opinion might be. It almost makes you long for the primary school days of “treat others as you would like to be treated”, or letters submitted to a newspaper being the most public way of broadcasting your opinion.
It has also blurred the line between creator and consumer. It has never been easier to broadcast your opinion directly to the person who created it. In a relatively short amount of time, the conversation has changed from one of discussing the plot and the characters to the quality of the writing, as the creators have become incredibly visible and accessible.
Furthermore, fans have been taking an increasing role within TV shows. With streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, audience reaction is a mark of how successful a show is. Some shows, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lucifer and One Day at a Time have been saved from being cancelled purely because of the strong fan reaction to their termination. Such gratitude towards the fans and the function of them within the realms of the show has now been mistakenly interpreted as television programs and franchises “owing” the viewers, therefore giving them an opinion and a right to see their own ideas played out and listened to. The assumption that voicing one’s opinion over the new casting of Ariel is important means that you believe that you are owed a casting that makes you specifically happy. Which is very self-centred, frankly.
It bothers me that the main characters where this criticism has been raised over the casting of black actors have been female. It’s intriguing that out of all of the facets of these characters, the one thing that people choose to focus upon is their looks. Despite the fact that Iris West is a fiercely independent and capable woman, the aspect focussed upon by viewers is her appearance, as well as her skin colour. The same can be said for all of these other women in film. Surely it is more important that Bailey captures the essence of Ariel? Her curiosity, her passion, her impulsivity – not the colour of her skin. So perhaps it’s more a reflection upon the perception of women as a whole, for their looks instead of their internal qualities.
Having said all of this, it is so heartening to see such a huge display of positivity towards Bailey’s casting, and so much lovely and stunning fan art demonstrating the sheer excitement and inspiration that so many fans have drawn from the announcement.
Change can be a scary thing, I get that. But it’s also a wonderful, wonderful thing. And sometimes changing just the tiniest detail can open up a huge world of story possibilities. Just think of the change in focus for Jasmine in Aladdin. Such a brilliant adaptation of her storyline that makes her such a positive role model for a whole new generation of young girls. Exactly the same thing is possible here and I, for one, could not be more excited for this film.
To conclude, Halle Bailey could be a wonderful Ariel. She could also be a terrible Ariel. Personally, I am confident that the brilliant Disney team want this film to be as successful as possible, and they would have cast the person who was the best fit for the role. The one thing that I do know for certain, however, is that her success within the part is not going to be determined by the colour of her skin.