Last weekend in Anaheim, California, D23 Expo took place, the biennial exhibition event in which Disney presents its most important innovations. Among them was the expected trailer for the film There Mermaidwhich will be released in 2023 and will be – as has already happened for many others – the live action version (ie with real actors) of the famous 1989 cartoon. With the trailer it was revealed for the first time that Ariel, the mermaid protagonist of the story , will be played by the African American singer and actress Halle Bailey and will therefore be a Little Mermaid with much darker skin than the white one of the animated character.
The reaction from part of the audience was the same as when Senegalese actor Omar Sy starred in the Lupine series in 2021, or when in the TV series. Bridgerton of 2020 Queen Charlotte was played by the Guyanese-born actress Golda Rosheuvel. On social networks, Bailey’s choice was heavily criticized, provoking an online debate that later became a debate in the press, in the United States but also in Italy. This kind of controversy, often animated by racist prejudices, is not a novelty in itself, but in the case of the Little Mermaid the discussion has perhaps reached unprecedented dimensions, so much so that it appears ridiculous – as well as sterile – to many people who do not see any problem. indeed, in the fact that the actress chosen for the role is black.
It is a moment in which film and television remakes are going strong and it happens more and more often that, wanting to re-propose already known stories and characters, “original” cast choices are made, aimed at overcoming the limits of the traditional white representation of American cinema. Just to mention the two most recent examples, the TV series House of Dragoninspired by the imagery of Game of Thronesand the series The rings of powerinspired by the saga of Lord of the Ringshave included several non-white actresses and actors – a big change from the films and series they are derived from (and which aren’t even that old).
Another recent case was the Disney makeover of Pinocchioreleased last week, where the Blue Fairy is played by British actress Cynthia Erivo, who in addition to being black also has very short hair and therefore looks very different from the original fairy in the film.
In all these cases there was no lack of racist criticism, at least on social networks. They usually rely on two main arguments: on the one hand on the perceived break in the nostalgic bond between the spectators and the characters they were fond of as young people, and on the other on the alleged weakness of a film industry that renounces its cornerstones to support culture of the so-called “politically correct”. In an article published on the Everyday occurrence, the actress Francesca Petretto has argued for example that «changing the features of a now historical character, beloved and present in every book, t-shirt or backpack of our children, will not suddenly set you up as a champion of inclusion. It will only serve to ruin a dream ».
The video of the trailer published by Disney on YouTube was filled with controversial or provocative comments, and received a million and a half “thumbs down” (a figure that, unlike “likes”, is only visible with a dedicated extension) . A Twitter user used a computer program to modify Halle Bailey’s image in the trailer and “whiten” her (not only by changing her skin color, but by completely changing her facial features) and reassured her followers that she would did the same with all the scenes in the movie once it came out. Her account was suspended from Twitter and rehabilitated shortly after..
In an argument that more than others has been judged ridiculous and paradoxical, many people have tried to argue that it is not possible for a mermaid to have black skin, using reasoning that implicitly brings mermaids back to reality rather than imagination.CopyAMP code
Some have speculated that mermaids do not need melanin to live at the bottom of the sea, where the sunlight does not reach, and for this reason they certainly have very white skin. Still others have followed a philological approach, arguing that since the original story was written by a Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, then its protagonist must also be Danish and therefore white. Neglecting that Andersen’s original story is very different from Disney’s.
There was also someone who tried to seriously answer the question of melanin or to argue about the geographical origin of the sirens according to legend. More often those who disagreed tried to point out the absurdity of going in search of indisputable reasons why the Little Mermaid can’t be black.
Actress Linda Carter entered the debate by recalling that we are still talking about a woman who is half fish, who lives at the bottom of the sea and whose best friend is a talking crab. On Guardian Stuart Heritage also noted that given the lack of enthusiasm Disney’s live-action films have so far, “there are many compelling reasons not to watch. The little MermaidEven without discussing the choice of the actress.
After days of online debates, the argument that seems to have taken over and perhaps ended the controversy, at least for now, is that of the importance of giving girls and boys characters to identify with. In fact, dozens of videos have started to circulate online – more or less spontaneous, more or less moving – made by African American parents to their daughters, who watching the trailer for the first time. Mermaid they react with astonished enthusiasm to the fact that he is “like me”.