Disney, little mermaids, and fish that don’t know racism

Boy, was it a scandal when Disney announced that the new Ariel for the remake of the Disney classic The Little Mermaid would be singer and actor Halle Bailey. Because we have a little time on our hands, just a little, let’s talk about the new hot topic. So go get a coffee, a tea, a lemonade or whatever beverage you like, sit on a comfortable chair and, keeping it cool, keeping it nice, let’s talk about the problem with the new little mermaid.

(Spoiler: the problem is not the little mermaid).

From what I’ve seen on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, people’s complaints about the casting boil down to four points that come up over and over again.

#1 The Little Mermaid is Danish

The Little Mermaid, or in the original Danish, Den lille Havfrue, is a fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen and published in 1837 in Copenhagen. Andersen was Danish, he was born in Odensen, and he died in Copenhagen.

The titular character, the little mermaid, on the other hand, was not born in Denmark. Sadly, we don’t have the exact date or place of birth, but our most reliable sources tell us that she was born “far out at sea” where “the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower and as clear as the purest glass, but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor cable can reach, many church towers would have to be placed on top of each other to stretch from the sea-bed to the surface.” This would correspond to what we humans call “international waters.”

Disney Studios were not concerned with the question of the mermaid’s birthplace, back in 1989, when they made the movie. In fact, the movie doesn’t even name the underwater kingdom, though some later books, video games, and the animated series did call it Atlantica. The mermaid was also named Ariel by Disney. But Disney forgot to mention where exactly Atlantica is. After all, the ocean is a big place, and the linguistic variations of the characters do not help us at all: Ariel has an American accent, while Sebastian the crab has a Jamaican one (Cuban, if you watch the Latin American version!). Another possible clue is that all fish seem to enjoy calypso music, which is very popular in the Caribbean.

But none of this matters, since we humans have no way of knowing the political and cultural divisions of the underwater world. As far as we know, mermaids don’t exist and fish don’t understand the concept of nationality.

And what does her possible nationality have to do with her skin color? Nothing, really. Whenever we think about Europe, we think of a bunch of white people and, while it’s true that the majority does count as white, it’s simply wrong to assume that there were no people of color in Europe before the 20th century. Cultural and ethnic diversity in Europe go back as far as the Roman Empire.

#2 It’s as if they made a white Pocahontas or a white Mulan

So this point shouldn’t even exist, but I’ve seen so many comments and memes about it, that I’m just gonna go ahead and state the obvious:

Fun fact: in 1616, Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark to tell her about Pocahontas

Pocahontas, also called Matoaka, was probably born in 1595 and definitely died in 1617. She’s best known for her important role during the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, and she’s commonly associated with John Smith, one of the first colonizers in the area.

Pocahontas, a real historical figure, was a member of the Powathan tribe, which in turn was part of the Algonquin peoples. Her position as daughter of the Powathan chief, her relationship with John Smith, and her marriage to John Rolfe were key in the relation between the Powathan and the English, particularly during the Anglo-Powathan wars.

Hua Mulan is the protagonist of the poem Ballad of Mulan, composed in China in the 6th century. In the poem, Mulan dresses up as a soldier and goes to war in place of her father. She returns home 12 years later and only then reveals herself as a woman to her fellow soldiers.

We don’t know whether Mulan was a real person or not, but she’s one of the most important figures in Chinese folklore.

 Mulan, from  Gathering Gems of Beauty  (畫麗珠萃秀), located in Taipei
Mulan, from Gathering Gems of Beauty (畫麗珠萃秀), located in Taipei

Just to make this absolutely clear: their ethnicity is crucial to their stories.

And how we’d love to say that Ariel’s story has been a source of inspiration to all young Atlantean out there! But we can’t. We can’t for two simple reasons: as far as we know, mermaids don’t exist and fish can’t read.

#3 This is forced Diversity and was only done to pander to the Social Justice Warriors

We’ll get to this forced diversity issue in a second. But first, let’s talk about fairy tales.

What is a fairy tale?

Simply put, a fairy tale is a short story with fantastic elements such as gnomes, fairies, goblins, trolls, witches, and talking animals. Whenever we think about fairy tales, we think about the Grimm brothers: Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel; we think about Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling; maybe we think about Charles Dickens or maybe we think about One Thousand and One Nights.

They’re stories that we know, that we love, that we associate with clear images. For those of us who grew up watching Disney movies, the images are the same: Belle has a yellow dress and brown hair, Aurora wears a dress that switches from pink to blue (depending on which fairy is around), and the Little Mermaid is a redhead. They’re all white, thin, blue-eyed, they have a sweet voice and a lovely personality, though some of them are more proactive than others. What do they all have in common? They all reflect the image of the culture in which they were created. The culture that did not think about minorities that much. (Enough to make a movie about Pocahontas, but not enough to not sexualize her and turn her into this “exotic princess”.)

Written fairy tales have just been around for a couple of centuries. Before that, they were transmitted orally. They were stories that were passed down from generation to generation, and each generation added or omitted details. The Beauty and the Beast, for example, has been around for at least four thousand years.

A reason why fairy tales are still around is their capacity to change. A good story doesn’t remain intact; it evolves, it changes, and it takes the form of the culture in which it’s being told. You can see it just by comparing Disney princesses. Take Snow White, Belle and Moana: they all have completely different personalities and their stories have a totally different focus.

So no, this is not forced diversity. This is just the reflection of the ongoing social changes. Maybe it’s a good idea to bring in more characters of color and not turn them into exotic objects, maybe there’s another layer of storytelling to be discovered. If some people feel it’s forced, it’s because “white” has always been the Hollywood norm, and art has paid a price for it. Besides, a money-making factory like Disney would never risk profits just to pander to a group of people.

This leads us directly to the last point.

#4 Ariel has always been white, and we’re used to her being white

Art is a result of the culture and society in which is created. This much is clear.

It’s not that there weren’t people of color in the 30s, 50s and 90s. It’s that the norm was “white is beautiful and the rest doesn’t really matter all that much.” In a society where only white women were considered beautiful, having only white princesses was the logical, albeit terrible, consequence. If we’re used to seeing only white people in media, it’s because it’s the only thing that has been presented to us.

And it has taken us a lot to shake off those colonial prejudices about “white is the only thing that matters”. One needs just one look at the social media reaction to the new casting to realize that we still have a long way to go. But we’re getting there, we’re changing as a society. And, as the old Rafiki says, change is good.

It would be incredibly naive of me to think that no one who has repeated the previous points has done it with malice and from a place of racism. The world is not like that and there are racists everywhere. But this post is not for those people.

Now it is the studio’s job to take that character and expand on it, make it come to life, make it new and exciting, make it a well-rounded character. You know, to avoid the fiasco that happened with the characters of color in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Have you ever noticed that every time someone from a marginalized group is chosen for an important and/or well-known position, people say things like “they should pick the best person for the job without looking at skin color or gender”? It happens every time! And it only happens if the person being chosen is not white! I wonder why that is…

Well, here you have it then. Halle Bailey auditioned like everybody else and Disney decided that she was the best one for the job. So now it’s up to us to check our prejudices and judge the movie like we would judge any other, but aware of the fact that this casting represents (or should represent) a change for the better.

And what do they think about all this, down there, under the sea? Nobody can say. As far as we know, mermaids don’t exist and fish don’t go to the movies.

Edited on 29th September 2020.

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